— ❀ —
Tsuna only rarely remembers his dreams, but there is one that is always the same.
It usually begins with Tsuna himself, dressed in a weird, princelike, pink outfit. He would be standing in the middle of a deserted street, a street that would be just as cutesy as his outfit: flowers, strange fantasy font, pastel colors... It all seems to have jumped out of a princess story.
There would be a slight breeze, ruffling his hair and the long coat of his outfit, and making him notice the jiggling earrings he wore.
Then would come a voice. "Shouldn't you hurry? You're running late," the voice would say. He would turn to find the owner of said voice, only to find his mother trying to wake him up.
That's how it always goes.
Most of the time, he doesn't think about it, but at the moment, he can't help but think about it.
"You're not very polite, are you? I thought most humans answered when you talked to them," the little creature says, peering up at him with beady red eyes.
Tsuna honestly can't tell how this happened, or how this is even possible, but there is an alien creature in front of him. It's small, pink, and has the voice he hears in his dream. He knows it's the exact same, because he doesn't think any creature on Earth would ever be able to reproduce the tiny squeaks in its voice.
"I, um," he says. "What?"
"I said," the creature with the human yet inhuman voice says, "I am here to help you accomplish your part of the Contract."
Tsuna can physically notice the capital letter on Contract, and it feels like a punch to the gut. Oh, what has he done now? He doesn't remember signing any contract, nuh huh, his mom took care of that, not him!
"I'm not sure I follow," he says feebly.
"The Contract," the creature repeats patiently, "the one you signed."
"Pretty sure I didn't," he mutters. "I'm sorry, is this a— a joke? A prank? 'Cause, I'm sorry but it's not very funny."
"Earth's destruction would not be a funny prank," the creature allows. "And if you were to fail to complete your part of the Contract— well."
"Oh no," Tsuna, an eleven year old boy with a newly acquired magical choker around his neck, says. "I fell into a magical girl manga."
— ❀ —
The creature, who is named Momo (a cute name for such a terrifyingly human yet inhuman creature), informs him that this isn't, in fact, a magical girl manga, but that it indeed is still real life.
"It would be a lot easier if it indeed were just a manga," Momo tells him, almost jokingly, if such a creature were able of human emotions. "We would be able to use the tropes in our favor."
"You're not refuting it's magical girl related."
"Well," Momo says. "Technically, you are male, so it does not fit. However, if you wish to be referred to as a girl, I have no objection."
"That's not the problem here," Tsuna says, unsure why he is so calm in the first place. His hands are shaking, and he has collapsed on the floor by now, but he's not getting close to anything like a panic attack. In all, he feels almost frustratingly calm. "The problem is that modern magical girl mangas are all full of misery and tears— I mean, just look at Madoka Magica! People are still crying over it!—, and I really just want to play video games and whine about homework with my non-existent friends— not risk my life by fighting— by fighting what, exactly?"
"If it's just a matter of your heart straying, then can't people just— I don't know, get them back?"
"Tell that to a suicidal person."
Tsuna pulls a face, but Momo has got him on that one. He's still wondering why he's so calm.
"If it were this easy, we would not need your help. Magic has made things a whole lot harder."
"Magic?" he repeats, incredulous, but really, he should have foreseen it. Magical girls, after all. "And who is that 'we' you're talking about? The secret organization that wants to kill all the kids gullible enough to become magical girls and magical boys?"
"The world," Momo says, having absolutely no time for his bullshit. Good on you, Momo. Good on you. "To be more precise, your world. Most other worlds have no need for magical kids."
Is that what they're calling them, now? Magical kids? He hugs his knees to his chest, leaning back against his bed.
"And what— what am I even supposed to do?"
"Your purpose," Momo says, insisting heavily on the word, "is to defeat all the Stray Hearts. Once you defeat them, they will drop Heart Jewels, that you will collect. Those Heart Jewels will eventually be restored to their owners, once their core have been purified by staying your presence."
"In short," he says, laying a hand on the carpet, and using the other hand gesture around wildly, "you're telling me I'm gonna fight monsters who are I-don't-even-want-to-know strong, myself having never had any training at all and being able to trip over thin air. Then I'm gonna collect some pretty jewels, and keep them somewhere around me until they become, what, pure? Where does the bad stuff go, then? To me? Then, when all the jewels have been purified and I've given them back to their owners— and how am I even going to know whose jewel belong to who?—, everything will end, and I won't have to go around fighting monsters. Is that it?"
Momo doesn't hesitate to nod. "That's it." What a cruel creature.
"Ah," he shakes his head. "There's gotta be something hidden within it all. In Madoka Magica—"
"Madoka Magica's Kyuubei offered the young girls what they wished for," Momo counters. "I will give you nothing but— suffering, you seem to think."
"Seems pretty obvious to me that I'm gonna suffer," he says, a hint of hysterical laughter in his voice. "I mean, fighting monsters— pff, yeah, no, that's gotta be the easiest thing in the world, right?"
"Have no fear, Tsunayoshi," Momo reassures, but Tsuna's sure he has never told it his name, so it's more freaky than reassuring. "Once you transform, you will gain in vitality, endurance, strength, and agility."
"Oh, because there's a transformation, too?" Tsuna laughs, this time clearly hysterical. "Right, awesome. I guess during the transformation, I'm gonna get all cosmos-stars naked like in Sailor Moon and everyone on Earth is just gonna see my naked body. Oh, that's just great—"
"And your mind will be appeased," Momo continues on, undisturbed. "In order to fight the most efficiently possible, you will need to analyze your enemy to know how to hit where it hurts." The creature pauses. "If you do not wish for people to see your naked body, then transform behind closed doors. You would not normally change in front of people, would you? Treat it as the same thing."
Tsuna groans, and sinks his head into his knees.
"There's no way I'm gonna do any of that, you know?" he eventually says, voice muffled.
Momo is silent.
"Why would I risk my life? Can't adults do it?"
"They cannot. You have been chosen."
"Don't I have a say in any of this?"
"You do," Momo says, and Tsuna hears little tapping sounds as it approaches him. "You have signed the Contract. You have agreed to complete it."
Tsuna's head snaps up so fast it gives him whiplash. "I don't even know what contract you're talking about! I've never signed a single contract in my entire life!"
Momo falls silent.
"This is unfair," he sulks. "I've never— what did I do to deserve this? Please just leave me alone."
"I cannot. You signed the Contract."
"I did not!"
Momo remains stoic. "You did. A long time ago. You might not remember."
"As if I'm gonna believe you," he snarks back. "You're acting all sure of yourself, but you have no proof. And even if you did, I'm— I'm a kid! You can't make me do anything!"
Momo is silent.
"...please leave me alone."
He squeezes his eyes shut, and hides his face in his arms again. But even like that, he can still hear the tell-tale sound of Momo's tail, swishing around.
The horror of this situation has finally hit him. He has read enough magical girl manga to know how this ends, especially with horrifying yet cute creatures like Momo. Kyuubei's cruelty will forever be etched into his mind.
He does not want to fight. He does not want to die.
"If I were to leave you alone," Momo's voice picks up. "Then I would be dooming the rest of humanity. It does not amuse me to make you suffer, nor does it amuse me to send a child to what will most assuredly make him suffer, but I have no choice. No one other than you is suitable for the job, and no matter how harsh it sounds, one child suffering is better than every child on Earth dying in terrible pain.
"Even with you being sent to fight the Stray Hearts, there is no guarantee that our plan will succeed, no guarantee that you will make it to the end of the journey."
Tsuna peeks at Momo through his closed arms. The beady red eyes tell no tales, but the tail swishing has slowed down.
"However," Momo continues, voice going stronger. "I have faith in you, Tsunayoshi. I know that you will succeed in the task assigned to you, and you will do so without ever endangering yourself to the point of death." A pause, as Momo's eyes blink. "Tsunayoshi, if you cannot do it for me, for the Stray Hearts, or for yourself... then please do it for the children, the innocents. Do it for your mother."
His heart skips a beat.
Mom, who's cooking dinner downstairs. Mom, who had seemed so worried when he had rushed home with a bag that moved on its own. Mom, who had still greeted him with a blinding smile, even if he's Dame-Tsuna and the worst son on Earth.
"My apologies for using her against you." It does not sound truly apologetic. "I do not mean to guilt-trip you; rather, I would like to ensure you know all the risks."
Tsuna presses his eyes against his forearm.
"If... If I don't do it... what will happen?"
"Humans will not be able to defend themselves, only magic being able to defeat Stray Hearts. The Stray Hearts will multiply, destroying cities, continents, and killing thousands. The grief will augment the number of Stray Hearts. Humanity will slowly disappear, and will be replaced by Stray Hearts."
"Your mother would die, too."
It's not a thought that occurs to him often— his mother dying, that is. It has, in the past, and he has shed a fair lot of tears over it. Sometimes he's reminded of his mother's mortality, but... It's never been a certainty, just a vague possibility. His imagination running wild, sometimes, or hearing a horrible story about the neighbor's mother or his classmate's aunt. It's never been so— so...
"I don't want to do it," he admits wetly.
"I don't want to."
"I don't want to die."
"Cheer up," the human yet inhuman creature says.
His sleeves are wet now. He sniffles one more time, then looks up. "How can I do it? I don't know how to fight."
"You will learn to with time. Have no worry, the first Stray Hearts are always the weakest."
"No exactly reassuring," Tsuna laughs. Momo doesn't. "And how do I transform anyway?"
— ❀ —
The transformation comes with a bright flash and some weird melody that fills the room for just a few seconds. The neighbors are going to complain about him again, and Mom—
"Tsu-kun?" Mom calls through the closed door. "I heard some noise. Is everything alright?"
—is already here?!
"Um," Tsuna says, eloquently, standing there in that princelike outfit. "I— um."
"Tsu-kun?" Mom calls again, sounding worried now. "I'm coming in now!"
"What? No! Wait!"
But it's too late, the door is already opening, and Tsuna has no time to either transform back (without flashing his mom—and wouldn't that be the worst possible event) or hide Momo under the bed.
In the end, caught in his indecisiveness, Mom is able to see Tsuna standing in the middle of his room, dressed in this stupid pink outfit, arms outstretched as if he wanted to slam the door closed, and (possibly) the most panicked expression on his face.
Mom blinks at him.
He blinks at her.
Momo calmly hides under the bed.
"Aah! Tsu-kun! You're so cute!" Mom gushes, rushing to him to embrace him in her arms. She hugs him to her chest, rocking him, and leaving a multitude of kisses on his forehead. "My cutest little boy, dressing up! You look like a prince!"
"M-Mom!" he whines loudly, half-heartedly trying to wiggle out of her grip. "Stop!"
She laughs, delighted.
"Don't take it off," she says, detaching herself from him. "I'm gonna go get the camera!"
"We'll have to choose a different outfit, then," Momo says, without leaving its hiding spot under the bed, as soon as Mom's footsteps begin down the stairs. "Otherwise she will recognize you once you go out to fight."
"Huh?" Tsuna sits down on the bed. "You mean she can't know it's me?"
Momo is silent for a moment, letting them hear Mom's muttering, as she no doubt rummages through the drawer full of Dad's (usually) unused presents for Tsuna— he... he doesn't like to think about them.
"She can, I suppose," Momo says. "However, your father..."
Tsuna makes a face. "If he's not gonna bother knowing about how I'm doing, then he's not gonna know about this," he says firmly.
"Good." Momo sounds almost— pleased? Weird. It never really output any feeling before.
Mom's victorious cry echoes from downstairs. It sounds almost like one of those video-game victory jingle.
"So you're sure I can tell her?" Tsuna asks, for confirmation. He suddenly feels nervous about it all... should he really tell her? Maybe they could both pretend he didn't really go out fighting monsters... or maybe he should let her learn about it by herself? It sounded cruel but... How could he tell her?
Tsuna huffs a breath, shakes his arms, hoping to get some nerves back into himself. It's never worked before, and it certainly doesn't work now.
"Tsu-kun!" Mom cheers, appearing in the doorway, sly smirk on her face. She already has the camera up to her face, and her finger on the shutter. "Strike a pose!"
— ❀ —
In the end, he doesn't tell her.
"Ah, Iemitsu-dear will be so proud of you, Tsu-kun!" Mom says, looking at the photos she has captured fondly. She's already told him that she plans on hanging them in her album photos.
"Ah, um, about that, Mom."
"Hmm?" She doesn't look up from the camera. He's sure she's looking at his gobsmacked face in the first photo she took. Or maybe it's the one where she asked him to act suave, and he ended up blushing so much he matched the pink of the outfit.
"I don't want you to tell Dad."
"Why not?" She looks and sounds genuinely confused.
So far, no matter how he felt about his father, Tsuna has never opposed to her sending him pictures of him, or informing him about his grades (his slipping grades). He has never wanted to get in the way of her or his Dad's happiness, but...
"I," he says, lost for words. "I just..." He tries to stammer out some excuse, but nothing comes out.
Mom smiles gently, though. "I get it. You want to show him yourself, hm?"
Not exactly it, but yeah. If Dad were here, maybe Tsuna would show him. If Dad cared enough to come back home... "Yeah," he says, trying to put as much conviction behind the word as possible. "I just thought— well. It's just."
He looks down at his princelike outfit, all pink and cute, and finally decides on his excuse. "It's just, Dad is this big, strong construction worker, and I don't know how he'd feel about— I mean... I'm not—" he's not ashamed, per say, but pink and cute has always been associated with girls, and while there's nothing wrong with being a girl (or with pink and cuteness— he likes cute things: those massive balls of fluff called cats, the birds that sometimes perch themselves on his window, Kyoko-chan... the list goes on), but he isn't a girl. He isn't a girl, and as such, he knows how some people would react to him dressing up like that, and his father fits the type.
"Your father isn't like that," Mom says, eyes sad.
Tsuna is silent.
"But for the sake of your peace of mind," Mom continues, smiling gently. "I won't tell him."
"Mom..." Tsuna smiles back, and doesn't even protest when she hugs him again. "Thanks."
There's a moment of silence, with only the ruffling of clothes. Tsuna suddenly realizes that he can still hear the swishing sound of Momo's tail.
"Now," Mom says, after he reluctantly pulls away. "Would my little prince like some Hamburger Steak for dinner?"
— ❀ —
For a few days, things are calm— or as calm as they can be, when you have an alien creature following you around everywhere. Tsuna has lost count of how many times his maths teacher has accused him of bring his cat to school.
The only reprieve is the look on said teacher's face when he opens Tsuna's bag, only to see that there is absolutely nothing but schoolbooks inside. Tsuna has no idea how Momo is able to just disappear like that, but it only makes him like Momo more.
He's almost able to forget about just what he has agreed to do.
It's still hard to wrap his head around it.
He's probably gonna die soon from fighting magical monsters, and yet his classmates still call him Dame-Tsuna, his grades continue to drop, and the chihuahua of his neighborhood still continues to chase him around. Tsuna feels as if the world is about to end, and only he knows.
Life continues on as usual.
It's almost enough to give him hope.
Because Momo is still here, a constant presence at his side, unforgettable even in its silence. Often times, during class, or even in the evening when he's trying to sleep, he can feel its heavy gaze on him. He never knows how to react to that, and Momo never even mentions it.
Because Momo is still here, and the world is still so deformed. Nothing makes sense: everything he's learned until now, it's all put into perspective now. Magic exists, somewhere out there, it exists, in the form of a tightly curled mass of fur in his schoolbag, in the form of a choker around his neck.
He has some hope, that things will turn out alright, that both he and his mother (and maybe the rest of the world too) will continue to live on peacefully, one day, once this whole mess has been dealt with, but— this whole mess has to be dealt with by him: him, who's eleven and can't go down the stairs without tripping twice, him, who has the world on his shoulders.
The hope is almost fully submerged by the crushing anxiety.
If anyone notices that there's anything wrong with Tsuna, then they don't say it.
After all, why would they? His classmates and teachers hold no love for him, and his mother, well— she loves him, and he loves her back, but she tends to be a bit oblivious to how people really feel. She seems to think that Tsuna's recent behavior comes from a lack of calcium.
Yeah. Thanks, Mom.
He wishes it were a lack of calcium.
"Stop whining," Momo tells him, one Sunday afternoon. "It won't help you."
"Yeah, well," Tsuna stammers. "Not whining won't help me either."
Momo has no answers to that. Instead, it says: "I believe that the first Stray Heart may arrive very soon. You may wish to prepare yourself."
"What?!" Tsuna yelps, rolling off the bed with a loud thud in his haste to sit up. He scrambles up. "Why didn't you tell me? What do I do? Oh no, am I gonna have to fight so soon? I still don't have any weapons, do I have to fight with my fists? And, and— you know, when I transformed that one time, I didn't really feel stronger or anything, so are you sure it really—"
Tsuna stops talking.
"If you transform here, someone may eventually link you with the persona associated with your transformed self — we may need to find a name for that persona, too — so I suggest transforming in a remote location, one people would not be able to track back to you. As for your fighting style, you may need to figure it out yourself. I suggest experimenting a bit in the beginning. However, my predictions indicate that you would be more suitable for hand-to-hand fighting. Of course, you might need to adapt your fighting style to the situation at hand."
Tsuna bites his lip, crossing his arms to hide his trembling hands. There's no real reason to do that, since Momo has obviously noticed already.
"So," he says after a moment. "I need to find some place to transform, and then, then— stumble my way into a fight, and fight for my life while also trying to figure out how to fight." He laughs. "I'm gonna die."
"You will if you go with that mindset," Momo says, somewhat jokingly. "Do not worry, Tsunayoshi. Fighting instincts and that terrific intuition of yours will no doubt allow you to fight and defeat your enemy." It then smiles, and, get this, this has got to be the most horrifying sight ever known to mankind. Momo's cuteness has no par on its horror. "Furthermore, if you were to be on the brink of death, your — as they say — Dying Will would allow you to defeat your enemy in one strike."
"On the brink of death," Tsuna whispers, hysterical.
"Let's hope it does not come to that."
Tsuna breaks down, and laughs.
— ❀ —
After some more minutes spent crying over his fate, Tsuna accepts to look around town for a location wherein he would be able to transform freely, without the worry of someone finding him.
"Stray Hearts usually appear in populated areas," Momo says. "Easier to be miserable when there are other people to cause it. I suggest finding a location near the middle of town."
"Maybe a public bathroom?" he mutters, well aware he looks crazy to anyone who catches him talking to his schoolbag. Maybe he should just take his phone out and pretend he's on a call...
"Check for cameras," Momo reminds. "Your other persona's facial and body features are indistinguishable for anyone who doesn't already know who you are, but anyone would be able to link you to your persona if they notice that the one who comes out after you enter is your persona."
And here he was hoping for a simple solution.
"What about some woods?" He thinks for a second, and makes a face. "Why would there be woods in the middle of town? Stupid..."
"Are you able to spot any abandoned buildings?"
Abandoned buildings in the middle of town? Well... Maybe there aren't any abandoned buildings, but there certainly are dark and unsavory back alleys. He can try those. He voices the thought to Momo.
It is silent for a moment, then says: "Perhaps that is a viable temporary solution. I do not recommend using this method for long, however. I also suggest to be especially cautious. Back alleys are not often uninhabited."
"Well," Tsuna mutters sulkily, "If you've got a better solution, just say it."
Momo doesn't answer.
Eventually, Tsuna does find a little corner in between buildings that he think would be suitable. It's in between a coffee shop and a library, but it doesn't seem to be used for anything other than garbage cans, and there are no doors that give on it. There is one or two windows, but going by the spider webs on hanging off, they haven't been used in quite some time.
He puts his bag on the ground, and Momo jumps out. It gives an appraising look at the alley.
"It will do," it says.
Tsuna doesn't even try to hold back his sigh of relief. "So, um, when do you think I will have to transform?"
"In a few hours, at the latest."
He gulps. His hands are trembling again—or maybe they just haven't stopped trembling since Momo first announced this.
"And, and— what do I do?"
Momo looks at him. Its beady, red eyes are unsympathetic. Tsuna really does wonder if it is capable of human emotions.
Yeah, okay, thanks. "But how?"
"Don't worry. It will come naturally. I have made sure of that."
He chokes on a little laugh. "Uh, yeah, and how have you made sure of that, exactly?"
Momo looks at him like he's dumb. "Magic." Huh. Maybe Momo does have a right to look at him like that.
Tsuna's legs are trembling too much. He collapses on the dirty ground. Mom is gonna scold him for staining his pants.
"I'm scared," he says.
Momo, definitely incapable of human emotions, doesn't answer.
"What if I die?"
"You don't know that. Why did I agree to this? Mom is gonna cry so much if I die."
"Your mother will perish, along with the rest of humanity, if you die."
Thanks, you useless vermin.
"You know," he says, tears already spilling over his cheeks. His nose is running. Gross. "I really don't mind school that much, after all."
— ❀ —
It comes much too soon, in his opinion. He's just beginning to wipe his tear-stained cheeks when Momo's head snaps up.
"It's here," the creature tells him.
Tsuna gasps. "Already?!" but even as he says it, he can hear some terrified screams not far away.
"Yes. Transform, now."
He scrambles to his feet, putting a hand over his choker. No time for fear now. He has to save those people, he has to fight those monsters. He has to.
"Tsunayoshi." Momo's voice is a warning. If Tsuna doesn't get his act together now... these people screaming for help...
He takes in a deep breath, and presses the flower in the middle of the choker.
His transformation is 'shadowed' by a flash of light and the faintest notes of a melody. It might look like it takes a second for any outsider, but for Tsuna, it feels like a lifetime. He can feel it, an unknown energy coursing down his veins, gathering in the middle of his chest. It spreads along the rest of his limbs in beat with his heart. The casual clothes he has been wearing until now disintegrate, to go who-knows-where, replaced by the gentle fabric of his— well, he supposes it's his fighting uniform, now.
"Alright," he says when it's finished, the last notes of the melody still hanging in the air. "I've got this."
He don't got this.
"I've got this."
With Momo perched on his shoulder, Tsuna rushes toward where the screams are coming from. There already are people on the streets, some looking around with confused faces, others going toward the screams, and some running away from the screams.
"Jump!" Momo says.
"Jump?!" Tsuna repeats, but then decides that his life is already strange enough, so he better try this already.
He jumps, and screams when he flies above the buildings around him.
"Hiiiiiiiiiie—! What is happeniiiing—?" Tsuna cries.
"Enhanced abilities," Momo reminds him, undisturbed. "Get ready for the landing!"
Tsuna screams, and stumbles onto the top of a building. He slams to a stop, falling to his knees. "What the hell— what was that?"
"Hurry. That Stray Heart won't be waiting for you to recuperate."
"Right." He stumbles to his feet, and begins running again. It must be the adrenaline running through his blood that's helping him do that, because he's 100% sure he would never be able to do it normally.
He runs to the edge of the rooftop, then looks around. He can see some dust flying from where the screams came from, so he guesses the Stray is there.
"Jump," Momo says, again. "Blossom, jump!"
Blossom? Tsuna questions, but takes a deep breath nonetheless. He takes a few steps back, looks at the gap between the two buildings, and reminds himself to the height and length of the jump he just took before.
He underestimates his abilities though, and ends up flying over the buildings once more. His scream of fright must be merged with the other screams, because no one even glances up to see the kid flying through the sky. Tsuna feels like sobbing.
In two more jumps, they arrive to where the cloud of dust has begun to spread. He's just beginning to hear the screams tapper off now, and he's seen more than one group of people run away from the Stray.
He stops on top of a building, and waits until the dust settle to get a glimpse of the Stray he'll have to fight.
When he sees it, Tsuna can't cut off his gasp of surprise.
Standing at an impressive height of ten meters, a massive white cat is swinging at the neighboring buildings with claws red like blood, looming over most if not all the buildings around. It has a cute pink truffle, and is wearing a rather fancy silk pink collar, with a golden bell. Its eyes are pink, and they pinpoint onto Tsuna in one instant.
He'll have to fight that?!
Its mouth opens in a snarl, but another voice comes through."A magician," the voice says, even when the cat's mouth closes again—or rather, it doesn't say... it's more like the voice appears in Tsuna's mind. The Stray's long tail swings, as if it were nothing but an angry cat — but the tail smashes into a few buildings along the way, ruining the illusion.
"I don't remember Stray Hearts being able to take on animal forms," Momo says conversationally.
"You said the first Strays are always the weakest!" Tsuna manages to choke out.
"This is weak?!"
The Stray doesn't wait for Tsuna to gather his wits. It slashes at the building where Tsuna is, and thank magic for those sudden reflexes, because he's able to jump off in time. He fails his landing though, and finds himself facedown on the ground.
The Stray's incorporeal voice laughs. "This is the new magician? Don't make me laugh, this is nothing but a lost kid! Did that damned guardian pick you off the street?"
Tsuna scrambles to his feet, but finds himself pinned under the Stray's paw, head dangerously close to one of those blood-red claws. He stares up at the Stray, trembling and shaking.
"Aww, are you scared?" it taunts, cat face looming over him, big pink eyes staring down at him. He can feel puffs of air coming out of its pink cat nose. "Well, that's too bad! I was scared, too, yet no one—"
"Blossom!" Momo cuts in, though it's nowhere in sight. "I know you're scared, but please remember what is at stake."
"That's not reassuring at all!" Tsuna manages to say, choking over his sobs, but the words hit him.
He's gonna die, sure, but everyone will die with him (at least, according to the pink alien creature that has forced this whole thing on him), and even if there's a chance that it might not be true, he... he doesn't want to risk that.
"Blossom..." Momo says. "Remember your mother."
If he lets this Stray rampage the town as it pleases, then his mother— Mom will— "Mom," Tsuna sobs, the pressure in his chest unfurling. "I don't want to die."
"Do you want her to die?"
"Aah, will you shut up?!" the Stray cuts in, pressing down more heavily with its paw. "I should just kill you and be done with it!"
"Then why don't you do it?" Momo taunts.
"I want to have some fun first," the Stray brags. "I'm the first Stray, yet I was able to capture the magician. It has to mean something, right?"
Tsuna stays silent.
"Hey... answer me. It's no fun if you don't answer," the Stray says.
"I don't want to be hurt... but Mom... if I give up now, Mom will..."
"Huh? What are you muttering about?" Tsuna begins struggling against the hold the Stray has on him. The Stray laughs, undisturbed. "You really think you'll be able to get out like tha—" Tsuna gathers all his strength and—! "gh!"
The Stray jumps away, hissing.
Tsuna's fist, outstretched as it is, glitters with pink sparkles. It would look ridiculous, if that same fist hadn't just punch through the Stray's paw as if it were made of melted butter. There's no blood on his fist, and the hole he just punched through has already reformed, but the Stray still looks surprised.
He takes a moment to catch his breath, then jumps to his feet, positioning himself in what might be a fighting stance—maybe a boxing stance, even.
"So you're not defenseless, after all."
Tsuna doesn't answer. "Momo, how can I defeat the Stray?"
"There should be a mark that indicates where its Heart is," Momo informs, and Tsuna finally notices that it's perched on a pile of rubble. "Hit that place, and the Stray will collapse."
"And what does the mark look like?"
Figures. A heart for a Heart. He's guessing it's pink, too?
"Hey!" the Stray explodes, slashing at Tsuna, who's barely able to jump away in time. "Don't ignore me!" It jumps after Tsuna, forcing him to back away. They continue on this chase for a while.
It's fine for a moment, but while it's quite long, the street isn't endless. If he continues to dodge like that without ever going on the offensive, Tsuna will just back himself into a corner. At the Stray's next jump, he ducks, and runs back toward their starting point. The Stray lets out a frustrated growl.
"Hey!" Tsuna calls over his shoulder, "what's your name?"
The Stray laughs. It's sounding more and more like a child throwing a tantrum, and less and less like a monster out to kill everyone. "I am the great Welcoming Cat!"
"Like the Fortune Cat, you mean?"
"No! I welcome!"
"Yeah," Tsuna says, out of breath, grin on his face, "like the Fortune Cat."
The Welcoming Cat lets out a loud growl, and leaps at Tsuna headfirst. Tsuna jumps over it, and (suddenly gaining acrobatic skills), makes a point of driving his fist down onto the Welcoming Cat's skull.
It yowls, and, unable to slow down, crashes into a building.
Tsuna winces, but better a building than him.
He doesn't move to put in another punch, preferring to catch his breath and scrutinize the Welcoming Cat for any sign of a heart. "Who do you welcome, anyway? 'Cause, I mean, you're not acting very welcoming right now."
It takes a moment for the Welcoming Cat to begin moving again. It whirls around, hissing and growling. "You... pathetic... human..."
"I guess we won't be having any more conversation, huh?" Tsuna laughs sheepishly, shoulders drawing back in preparation for jumping away.
"Oh. No, no," its voice is silky, now, thinly veiled anger in its voice. "Continue." The Cat approaches and Tsuna isn't sure whether he's supposed to flee or not, so he stays rooted to the spot. "We're all friends here anyway, aren't we?"
Without any more warning, the Cat slashes its claws again, and Tsuna doesn't have the time to dodge it completely. His uniform pays the price, and he's quite sure his stomach will be hurting for the next hundred of years, but at least he's alive.
He draws back his fists, jumping away twice, but he's hit again. "Guh...!" He's propelled through something hard — a wall?! — an immense, blinding pain coursing from his shoulder blades to the small of his back. Falling onto his knees, Tsuna pants for breath, hand clutching his chest. The Welcoming Cat has already jumped back, away from him.
"Blossom," Momo cuts in, jumping into view, "you need to activate your weapon!"
"Activate?" he repeats, still panting for breath. Before the Welcoming Cat can leap onto him again, he jumps off to the side. Momo follows his example. "And — guh — how do I do that exactly?"
"Since you're fighting with your fists, you'll have to concentrate your magic into your fists!"
"Thanks for the advice!" Tsuna says, just a tiny bit sarcastic. "How do I—" the Welcoming Cat slaps him aside with a clawed paw, "gah!"
"Stop ignoring me!" the Cat cries, like a child on a tantrum. "And you, guardian," the word is said with spite, "if you don't shut up—"
Momo cuts in. "You should be able to feel it in the choker! Just envision dragging that energy toward your hands!"
Easier said than done.
Still, Tsuna tries. Securing himself on top of a building (hey, he's really getting a hang of this jumping thing!), Tsuna closes his eyes for a second.
He can feel a thrum at the level of his neck, warm and pulsing like a heartbeat. Following Momo's advice, he tries to drag it, down, toward his arms. It follows his lead easily, gliding down his veins and bones as if it were— water, it's not fast enough, it's... just slow and sweet enough to resemble honey. He envisions it coating his fists, enveloping his wrists and fingers thickly.
His eyes snap open just as the Cat looms over him, claws a centimeter away from his face.
The Cat's claws are ripped off from the shock.
There's a thick, bulging metal over his fists now, as if he had taken a giant robot's fists and put them over his hands. He can't feel his fingers inside, it's as if this entire metal fist has become his hand. He tries to unclench his hand, and the metal fist follows.
The Cat yowls as it staggers backwards.
"Congratulations, contractor," Momo says, jumping into view once more. "You have unlocked your first weapon."
Tsuna nods, face grim as he stares down the yowling Cat. "Thank you for the help, Momo." He readies his fists. "I'll be finishing this now."
The Cat hisses, favoring the paws that still have all their claws. The one without claws isn't bleeding, per say, but there's a glittery pink liquid coming out. Is it blood or not? Why would blood be glittery pink? "You are acting sure of yourself, for someone who was sobbing minutes ago," the Cat says.
"You are acting sure of yourself, for someone who was yowling in pain seconds ago," Tsuna retorts, then jumps up, far above the Cat.
"Miscalculated?" it asks, laughingly.
Tsuna drives down, fist first. The Cat jumps away, but it has the intended effect. From the force of both Tsuna's weight and the power he puts behind his punch, the ground folds, and rubble flies.
When he glances up, the Cat is looking at him with wide eyes, tail and fur rising up in fear. "Y-you..."
"Momo," Tsuna calls, readying his fists once more. "Do you know where that mark is?"
"Considering we haven't been able to see it yet, I would say it is under. Perhaps on the belly," Momo informs dutifully, tail waging.
"Got it." With that in mind, Tsuna runs at the Stray, drawing his fist back.
The Cat jumps away, but Tsuna doesn't bother stopping himself in his movements, and instead just slams his fist into the ground. The ground folds, and he drags his fist toward the Cat, the ground following his move. As a result, the ground under the Stray shakes and collapses.
The Stray tries to flee, but Tsuna catches it on the other side, slamming a fist down before it can do anything beside prepare itself for a jump. The Stray looks like it's about to pass out from fear.
They stop moving a moment.
"You really aren't joking around anymore," the Cat attempts. The empty holes where its claws should be is still bleeding out glitter and pink, and now there's some pink staining the white fur.
Tsuna doesn't answer. He still remembers sobbing his heart out while stuck under its paw. The Cat hadn't been joking around either, then. It had been cruel. Tsuna won't be. He just wants to go home.
"Don't worry," he reassures instead, only mildly appreciating the utter horror on the Cat's face. "I will make this quick."
He readies himself for another punch, pulling his hand back, and leaps at the Cat. It's frozen — in fear? — and Tsuna isn't going to look a gift-horse in the mouth. The punch sends the Stray flying, and it slams into the ground, rolling over itself a few times before it stops.
Fallen on its side, the Welcoming Cat looks almost dead. Its eyes are closed, and its pink truffle isn't twitching in anger anymore. The tail isn't waging. There's a pink heart on its belly.
"You need to go inside," Momo says, landing at Tsuna's side — he wonders where it's been this whole time.
"Inside?" Tsuna says, not even blinking at the suggestion. He feels sleepy. "Why?"
"In order to recuperate a Heart that isn't yours, you need to tear it out."
"...I'm not gonna kill anybody."
"I'm not talking about killing whoever this is," Momo says, little paws tapping as it approaches the Welcoming Cat. "You will just borrow this Heart, and place a temporary one until both the human and the Heart have healed."
Tsuna looks at the Welcoming Cat, almost deathly still. He doesn't really feel like helping out someone who almost killed him, but at the same time, he knows that the violence he has been put under was born out of a mix of misery and magic. He can't blame the Welcoming Cat for this. He can't.
"...Let's get this over with."
Without a word, Momo taps the heart-shaped pink fur pattern on the Welcoming Cat's belly, and a door appears just a few steps away from it.
The door is, predictably, pink, and there's a jewel floating above it. It's a translucent white, round ball, with a pink center. It's pretty, to say the least, but still pink. Why is everything pink?
"After you," Momo says, and the door opens.
"Since when can you make doors appear out of nowhere?" Tsuna questions, but enters the door without protest.
The door gives into a traditional Japanese house's garden. Figures. Magic.
There's a girl who must be one or two years younger than him sitting on the porch, with a white cat on her lap. Even though Tsuna's outfit sparkles and is bright pink, she doesn't seem to notice him.
"What do you think, Missy?" she says quietly, as Tsuna gathers the courage to sit down next to her. "I don't know what to do."
"Hello?" Tsuna calls, or at least, he tries to, but his voice comes out airy and floats away. He slams his mouth shut after that.
"She cannot hear you," Momo helpfully says. "This is a memory."
Thanks, you useless vermin, Tsuna once again thinks. Maybe you could warn me a little earlier next time.
"Mom says I'm too sick to go to school," the girl says, gently brushing her hand on her cat's head. It purrs comfortably. "But I don't want to stay here. It's so lonely."
I'm here, says another voice. It's the Welcoming Cat's voice — except... it's more calm, content, even. I will always be here for you.
The girl doesn't hear. Her bottom lip is trembling, and she sniffles a few times. "If I wasn't like this..."
Don't cry, Welcoming Cat says. Please don't cry.
"Is this... the Welcoming Cat's memory?" Tsuna questions.
He looks at the cat licking the girl's fingers. "Then... this cat... it's the Welcoming Cat?"
"Yes. It appears its name is Missy."
Tsuna continues to observe the tiny white cat, licking her master's fingers, purring as loud as her little body can. The girl laughs, delighted. "Oh, Missy... what would I do without you?"
They stay silent for a little while longer, listening to the girl's laughter and the cat's purring.
"What do we do?" he eventually asks.
"We need to convince the Cat that it needs to heal."
You won't, Missy cuts in.
"Ah," Tsuna yelps, looking around for where the voice is coming from. "You could hear us?"
I don't want to go back, Missy says, ignoring him. If I become the strongest, then Lizzie won't have to cry anymore. I can protect her.
"Protect her from what?"
From the pain, from the loneliness. That kind of misery that engulfs her, that makes her cry for days on end. From the quiet sobs that come after her parents visit. She's mine, and I love her, but I can't protect her when I'm this weak.
That's why I need to get stronger. I need to get stronger and stronger and stronger, until I'm able to protect her from anything and anyone, until she's able to depend on me.
"This reasoning is so dumb," Tsuna blurts out.
"The kind of strong you're searching for," Tsuna says slowly, as if talking to one of those dumb adults that look down on kids. "It's physical, right? And Lizzie's pain isn't physical."
Both Momo and the Cat look at him, silent.
He falters for a moment, but gathers his courage. "The kind of strength you're talking about, it's the strength that a Stray Heart has, right? But that's physical strength, and no matter how strong and powerful you are, it won't help Lizzie, because Lizzie's pain is... it's located at her heart.
"That's why... that's why what you're trying to do— it won't help her. What Lizzie needs is friends and company, right? And if you become a Stray, then— a Stray Heart, I mean— then you'll have to abandon her, because Stray Hearts hurt humans, don't they? Because Stray Hearts are so miserable and angry, that they are unable of compassion or empathy, and so they hurt others needlessly, without even meaning to."
I WOULD NEVER HURT—
"You already have!" Tsuna cries out, slamming his hands on the porch. The wood dissipates for a split second, and the memory wavers. "What if there was one of Lizzie's friends in that group of people you hurt! What if Lizzie had decided to take a stroll, and had been caught up in your attack! What if Lizzie's parents had been— what if Lizzie has just an ounce of empathy, and the fact—the knowledge that someone was hurt, hurts her in turn?"
Missy doesn't answer.
"What if she's scared?" he continues, on a calmer tone. "How will she react, learning about magic?" He shakes his head: "How would she react, knowing that her beloved companion, that you had hurt someone? If she knew that you had intended to kill someone..."
I... don't want Lizzie to suffer.
"I don't want her to either. I'm sure she's a very nice girl, and is very much deserving of your love and admiration, but... Lizzie's loneliness, it won't be solved by bringing down buildings and destroying the town Lizzie lives in."
...what should I do?
In this memory world, Lizzie is crying. Tsuna used to cry like that, too.
"Stay with her," Tsuna offers. "I can't promise you that she will be completely healed one day, or that she will make a thousand friends, but..."
He thinks about his birthday parties, back then, when his whole class was invited but no one came. He thinks about going to school with anxiety coursing through his veins, and coming back with bruises on his cheeks. He thinks about class projects, about no one wanting him in their teams. He thinks about Dame-Tsuna.
He thinks about Mom.
"I think, as long as she has you by her side, she'll be fine." As long as he has Mom... "Maybe," maybe, "one day, she'll gather her courage, and she'll get up and go outside. She'll make friends, and she'll be happy. Don't you want to be by her side when it happens?"
I... I do.
I want to go home.
The memory wavers once more, before disappearing. The world becomes blank, with only Tsuna, Momo, and Missy staying.
I want to go see Lizzie.
With that last cry, Missy's form wavers too, and shatters. The shards fold themselves into the same Jewel as the one that had been floating above the door, earlier.
To think the magician would be so young, Missy says, so miserable. Your heart is in just as much pain as Lizzie's, isn't it? You are the magician, but you would be fit to be a Stray just as I am.
Tsuna stops to consider it.
"Maybe," he allows, and picks up the Heart Jewel.
Come visit us sometime, is the last thing Missy says, before the Jewel is absorbed into Tsuna's choker.
— ❀ —
They stumble their way out of Missy's memory world, with Tsuna clutching a hand over his chest. He feels tired, and the haze that had allowed him to fight without remorse or a second thought has dissipated. In fact, he wants to sleep for the next century or so.
"Blossom," Momo cuts in, "there appears to be an unknown situation taking place."
"Huh?" Tsuna glances up to see that there is a bunch of people gaping at them. Some have their phones out, filming the whole thing.
"Um, Momo," he calls faintly, gulping when he sights yet another camera pointed at his face. The road and buildings around him are heavily damaged, if not fallen into ruins. "Is that supposed to happen?"
Momo stays silent for a moment. "Blossom, get out of here. There is no protocol in place for this kind of situation."
Tsuna whimpers, but jumps away. He has to find some place to transform back, now.
— ❀ —
When he gets back home, his mother is in the kitchen. Her hands are in the sink, a half-cleaned plate in her hands, but she's not paying attention to it. Instead, she's staring at this old radio, a gift from Iemitsu, that she keeps only for sentimental value and because she likes to listen to music while cooking.
Tsuna pauses in the hallway.
"Now," the radio host, a rather charismatic man by the name of Hitoshi, is saying, voice shaking just minutely, "it is a bit hard to believe, but listen for just a moment. Just this afternoon, the inhabitants of Namimori town were stunned to witness what we can effectively call a combat between a magical girl and a monster. No, I am not kidding. Go check it out for yourself if you don't believe me. Just search for the 'Namimori magical girl fight' on the net. Guys, I don't know if it's real, but let me tell you that: if it isn't real, then it's one of the most well-made performance I've ever seen."
He knew, of course he knew, that it would be noticed by people, and he had seen the cameras pointed at his face, but... it just hit him.
People will know.
They'll know that magic exists, and— and Tsuna's gonna get arrested, because this fight caused a lot of damage (mainly destroyed buildings, thank God, no lives were lost, but), he's definitely getting arrested. What if people think he was the one who summoned that monster? What if people decide to bring back witch hunts, and the authorities themselves decide that Tsuna deserves to be burned alive?
No no no no—
What is he going to do?
What is he supposed to do?
He doesn't mind saving the world (he could do without, but), but, but, but— he doesn't want people to know. Of course, a part of him wants to show off, but the other part is so deathly afraid of what will come.
He's placed a target on his back. If someone finds out his identity... if someone manages to track Blossom back to him...
What will happen to them? To him? To Mom?
"Oh, Tsu-kun, you're home already?" Mom says, finally noticing him in the doorway, but Tsuna is already running up to his room.
He almost falls a few times, almost tripping over the steps, and finally does trip when he reaches the top. He doesn't even pause to assess the damage, and just rushes to the bathroom.
His knees hurt, but it's nothing compared to the sick in his throat, the tightness in his chest.
"Tsu-kun?" comes his mother's distant voice.
She sounds worried.
Just how much more worried would she sound, if she knew it was him, right now, who had just killed a monster out of this world, for the sake of a lonely girl and her cat? Just how much more worried would she sound, if she knew he had almost died, twenty minutes ago, and that now people were wondering if it was even real?
His mother, who loves him and who he loves back. His mother, for whom he will accept to fight monsters, for whom he would/will die. His mother, who is and has always been more important than the rest of the world.
His mother, who worried over the scrapes and the bumps on Tsuna's knees, who gave him lion band-aids and kissed his wounds and hurts away.
If she knew that he was supposed to save the world...
"Tsu-kun! Are you alright?"
Tsuna throws up.
— ❀ —
Dinner that evening is quite a sad affair.
Tsuna can't take his eyes off his plate, but he also can't eat more than a single bite, anxiety-induced nausea making his stomach turn and toss endlessly. He can feel Mom's gaze on him.
The radio has been put away, and Tsuna has already asked his mother not to turn on the TV. He doesn't want to think about what happened, about what will happen. What if someone finds out it's him?
He wonders just how panicked people are, to suddenly find out magic exists. He wonders how the governments will react.
He glances up. Mom is frowning, and it's an odd sight, considering she is usually oblivious to his mood changes. She must still remember rubbing her hand on his back as he was puking his guts out. She must still see the bruises on his face, the scratches on his skin.
Maybe she thinks it's bullying.
"Sorry, Mom," he eventually manages to say. "It's just— I, I'm not very hungry, that's all."
"Do you feel sick?" she frets, already standing up to stand next to him. She lays a conforting hand on his shoulder, turning him around to face her. She feels his forehead for a temperature. "You don't seem to have a fever..."
"I just, I think I'm gonna go to bed," Tsuna says, standing up abruptly. It's only 7:30, but he really doesn't feel like doing anything at all.
"Alright," Mom allows. "But if you start to feel worse—"
"I'll warn you."
Mom nods, and it's at this moment that the landline begins ringing. She hurries to catch the call, while Tsuna begins going up the stairs.
Tsuna stops dead in his tracks.
"Huh? Yes, we're alright. Well, Tsu-kun is feeling a bit sick but—" A pause. "What? No, no, I heard about it on the radio, but I didn't see anything myself. It wasn't anywhere close to the house."
Tsuna goes down a few stairs, just enough to be able to glimpse at his mother's expression.
She's frowning. "Iemitsu, dear, what are you—?" Dad says something that makes her glance up, and now she's looking at Tsuna. Her frown deepens. "Tsu-kun," she calls, beckoning him with a hand, "could you come here for a minute? Your father wants to talk to you."
Tsuna's heart skips a beat.
That's right, he forgot but... while Mom is rather oblivious to things and would most likely take some time to figure out that Blossom is Tsuna, his father is nothing of the sort. He tends to act goofy, yes, but he's not oblivious to what happens around them.
He forces himself to gulp down his fear, and walks to the landline. Mom hands him the phone.
"...hello?" he calls timidly.
"Tuna-fishy!" his father's boisterous voice answers. He sounds a bit out of breath. "How are you doing? Are you alright? Were you hurt? They say there weren't any victims, but still... You weren't close to that monster, were you?"
"I, uh—" So... does that mean his father doesn't know, either? "No, I'm alright."
There's a moment of silence. To think his father would call for Blossom, but not for Tsuna... He can understand Iemitsu would worry, but still...
"Tsuna..." his father says once more. "Are you absolutely certain you are alright? Did anything strange happen to you?"
"I— no?" He tries for confused. "I don't understand. You mean the— the creature fight? I mean, I saw it, but... I wasn't really hurt."
"Not at all? Not even a little bit?"
He thinks about the slash marks on his uniform, about being propelled through a wall, about the haze that had taken over him while fighting. He thinks about Lizzie's tears, about puking nothing but stomach acid. "Some rubble hit me," he eventually admits, which isn't a lie, but isn't the complete truth either. "But it's okay, it doesn't really hurt."
His father gives another pregnant pause, then sighs. "Alright. Tsuna, be careful, alright? We don't know what those monsters can do, and their sudden apparition can't say anything good."
Is Blossom included in the 'monsters' lot?
"Yeah," he says, his voice sounding like it's miles away. "Okay."
— ❀ —