Chapter 1: First Year of High School
After the debacle that was his first go at the provisional license exam, Inasa devoted a half hour of each day to self-reflection. True! that Todoroki Shouto was as narrow in his vision as Endeavour. But this could be called a singular focus, and thus admirable! True, too, that Inasa had acted out of poor and petty spirit.
A fine hero, the sort of hero that blazed hotter than any other hero, would cast aside such un-heroic feelings and strive to make amends.
Perhaps some smallest scrap of pettiness also said to Inasa that he could by offering a hand first prove to Todoroki that he, Yoarashi Inasa, had the superior and most generous mindset. Inasa did not dwell long on such thoughts, for he was a hero.
So, he set a task for improvement of the self to follow upon his reflection. Each morning, he would think one (1) charitable thought about Todoroki Shouto. He approached this task as he did all unpleasant chores: square shoulders! feet set wide! hands crossed at his back! at the top of his lungs!
"Who's this Todoroki Shouto?" asked his mother with interest over breakfast. "You must really like them."
Inasa laughed and sprayed white rice into his soup. The laughing set off the twins, two years old and strong of lung.
"No, he's a--" Inasa caught himself making a righteous fist. 'A selfish, snot-mouthed dog' sat on his tongue. He said, "A rival, from another school."
"Ahh," said Mom. "I had a rival like that once. Then I married her." And she, too, laughed.
Inasa's second mother wandered in from the bathroom and said, "Look at all the rice on this table. Swallow before you tell jokes!"
"Inasa started it!" Mom protested to Mama.
He didn't defend his honor. He was too distracted by the thought of marrying Todoroki Shouto of the cool, lidded eyes and sharp mouth. What could be more horrible than waking up to that every morning?
Inasa bolted the rest of his miso and his rice, then the fried egg, and said, "I'm going!"
"What about your natto?"
"Don't forget your lunch!"
"A hero can burn with confidence even on an empty stomach!" he shouted as he slammed through the front door.
Natto! He supposed at least one thing was worse than Todoroki Shouto. Inasa resolved to remind himself of this the next morning.
"Todoroki!" he shouted across the USJ's central hub. The U.A. students, whose campus abutted the USJ, were always present first.
Todoroki, stood apart from the rest, as he ever stood, looked to Inasa on the stairs above the other students. The calm, remote look of him remained unchanging.
Inasa waved furiously. "Pair up with me today!"
The explosively styled, explosively tempered U.A. student nearest said something to Todoroki and then stalked away. Jogging down the steps to Todoroki, Inasa watched the boy leave. The corners of Todoroki's mouth had tightened.
"What'd he say?" Bakugou, that was the guy's name. He'd won the U.A. sports festival. Inasa thought Todoroki ought have won, and he frowned at Bakugou's hunching back. "Anything I oughtta get heated up over?"
Inasa smacked a fist to his palm and glanced at Todoroki. Todoroki blinked. He did this languidly, as if he were sleepy, or more likely as if he were judging Inasa in some way. The droop of his eyelashes, half light and half dark, made the skin at the back of Inasa's neck clench.
"Your mouth's doing..."
Inasa twirled a finger around his own mouth, and a vague look of surprise flitted across Todoroki's finely made features. He touched his lips.
"You look constipated!" declared Inasa. "Did you skip eating natto this morning? You know, we future heroes must always eat a nutritionally fulfilling breakfast!"
Todoroki nodded. "Well, I like natto. And it has a lot of health benefits. So I try to eat it most mornings."
Despicable! Inasa grieved that he had ever thought he would understand Todoroki's mind!
Some of his emotion must have showed on his face. Mama always said Inasa couldn't disguise a thing.
Todoroki blinked again then his eyes dropped and he sighed.
"Don't be bothered by it," he told Inasa.
"Of course I'm bothered by it! Who wouldn't be!" Damned natto lovers!
The red strands of Todoroki's hair brushed across his blue eye, his scar, as he tipped his head very slightly.
"That's very ... considerate of you," he said. "But that's just the way Bakugou is."
Huh? thought Inasa.
"Huh?" said Inasa.
Todoroki's mismatched eyebrows furled together. "He has a backwards facing personality."
"That's not what I--" Inasa broke off. "He's your own classmate. You should stand beside him! The bonds of your burning high school experience should persevere!"
"But you asked to pair up."
"I was mistaken!"
"Ah," said Todoroki.
The day's supervising teacher, Hands Up of Shiketsu, approached. "Have ya picked your partners yet?"
"No," said Todoroki.
"Yes!" said Inasa. "Me and Todoroki!"
"All right," said Hands Up. "Try'n not kill each other, kids."
Inasa huffed noisily. The wind stirred up at his feet. "What?" he demanded of Todoroki, who was staring in that weird, half-lidded way he had of staring.
"You're unnecessarily confusing," said Todoroki.
"Me!" said Inasa, in outrage. "You're the one who confuses people!"
That was how it went most days.
Chapter 2: Third Year
U.A. held its sports festival later than Shiketsu and Ketsubutsu, the other hero high school. That year, Inasa's third year, some months after the explosive end to the League of Villains, U.A. reached out to the other schools.
"It's all about ratings," said Mom.
Mama said, "Don't be so cynical, Machiko-mama, it's about building trust between the school."
Whatever the reason, that year U.A. introduced a new element to their festival: an inter-school battle tournament featuring the top four students (placement determined by each school's regular tournament) from each of the three hero schools.
Inasa had laughed uproariously when his home room teacher made the announcement.
"Please don't go overboard, Yoarashi," she said, pained. "Remember that you're representing Shiketsu."
"Hell yeah!" He stood violently, knocking over both desk and chair. "We'll finally show U.A. who's the hottest high school of 'em all!"
"Yoarashi, you're disturbing the other students."
The night before the Shiketsu students were to bus to the U.A. campus, Inasa rewatched the U.A. third year tournament semi-finals. He'd watched them that afternoon with his mothers and the twins, who had lost interest and wandered away partway through.
Inasa would have chided them for their lack of fighting spirit but Todoroki fought next, against the curly-haired shrimp, Deku.
"Oh, is that him?" said Mom with interest.
Mama looked up from her sewing. The twins were as hard on the knees of their trousers as Inasa.
"That boy from the remedial classes. You remember!"
Mama clucked her tongue. "That was two years ago."
"Inasa's mama!" Mom clucked her tongue right back in teasing. "Don't you pay attention to your son?"
Inasa shushed them both loudly. He hadn't wanted to miss a single gesture from Todoroki; he crowded the TV.
"We can't see, Inasa."
"He has a special interest," Mom told Mama.
Without looking away Inasa said, "If I'm gonna face off against him tomorrow, then I gotta know all his moves!"
That was why he rewatched the fight that night, headphones in so the twins wouldn't wake in their room across the hall. Raptly he traced Todoroki's sleight of hand: the quick-moving tricks he pulled to distract from one side or the other. A weaker hero might have fallen into a rhythm. Todoroki, frosted and yet wreathed in flame, moved with a purposeful lack of symmetry. Here he struck with ice. Here with fire, but that a feint to cover up for an ice slick laid across the field.
How would Inasa counter? Deku, already beloved for his role in defeating the League of Villains, couldn't interest him. He fell asleep too late and woke too early, excitement already bleeding hotly through him.
The rest of the third years shunned him that morning.
"How are you so energized?" "Go away, Inasa..." "I'll kill you," suggested Reina of Class 3-B. As her quirk manipulated cellular growth, Inasa chose to sit as far from her as possible and to direct his commentary to the supervising staff.
Then: U.A.! He burst out of the bus into the late morning sunlight and heaved a colossal breath. Ah, Shiketsu was his school, but to stand again on the mighty, well-laid sidewalks of U.A. was unlike anything else! Truly Cementoss was among the most notable heroes!
A light lunch, a meeting, a brief tour hosted by a U.A. teacher. A speech from Shiketsu staff about the honor of the day and the school's pride in sponsoring these four students; what the staff meant was, kick U.A.'s ass.
Inasa vibrated throughout all of it. Soon, he would test his mettle. Soon, he could go all out against Todoroki.
Another speech. Reina muttered, "Yoarashi, if you don't stop bouncing your leg," and Inasa stood.
Then, at last, the speeches done, they entered into the stadium in their gym uniforms, the brilliant white shirts, the red-striped sweatpants. They marched to their numbered spots on the stone floor, to the right of the U.A. students, in blue. Ketsubutsu wore green and stood to the left.
Inasa, jaw set, grin unstoppable, made a fist at his side and bounced it very lightly at Todoroki, who looked sidelong at him and did nothing. Cocky jerk! thought Inasa with pleasure. He couldn't wait to cream 'im.
The first few fights were swift. Inasa squared off against a Ketsubutsu student whose quirk was land-based. Even without his equipment, all of it designed to channel the winds Inasa could control, Inasa stayed airborne long enough to call a whirlwind around the student, a whirlwind that knocked the guy off his feet and broke his quirk's concentration. After that it was an easy K.O.
Todoroki eliminated Hattori of Ketsubutsu; the floating girl from U.A. took out Reina, who staggered out of the ring to throw up.
Closer, closer. In the second set of matches, Todoroki and Inasa faced each other. Perhaps it was a disappointment; Inasa had fantasized that he and Todoroki would duke it out in the final round for champion, winner takes all, the whole of it at stake between them.
"Kinda let down we don't get to kick each other in the ass in the finals!" he shouted to Todoroki.
Todoroki was cool as ever, even with sweat lining his throat. He'd gone heavy on the fire against Hattori, who was vulnerable to drying out.
"It's only a sports festival," he said. Sweat stuck his dual-toned hair to his brow. "In the end, what does the title really mean?"
Inasa bristled. "You saying that kind of thing with that kind of face is just why I want to beat you down!"
"What kind of face is that?" asked Todoroki politely.
The bell rung. The announcer, that hopped-up radio personality, shouted, "Are you ready!"
Todoroki moved with devastating speed toward Inasa; he propelled himself forward with a powerful jet of flame. Inasa stepped rapidly to his own right. The straight-down-the-middle splitting of Todoroki's quirk meant his fire step veered to the opponent's left.
"Besides," Inasa shouted over the burgeoning wind, "ain't nothing I hate more than a liar!"
A block of ice at a sharp angle allowed Todoroki to straighten his path.
"When did I lie?"
"Like hell you don't want to win! Not with that look in your eyes!"
Todoroki glanced up at Inasa. His eyes were narrowed, flashing, bright, brighter even when Inasa struck out with his arm in a loose and curving arc, to spin the wind around Todoroki. His hair fluttered and began to rise in a whipping mess.
"C'mon," Inasa cajoled Todoroki. "You really mean to tell me you don't want to knock my face in the dirt?"
"No," said Todoroki. "I guess I don't."
That was the last of the talking. While the Ketsubutsu student had been simple to fight, too singularly focused in how he used his quirk, Todoroki was very nearly frightening.
Without equipment to channel and redirect wind currents, Inasa had only strong, brute force attacks at his disposal. Todoroki had the advantage of speed and rearranging the field as needed, including granting himself shielding or elevation with ice, while Inasa, six foot six and a solid block of muscle, could manage only brief and low spurts of flight.
Inasa turned to basic school ground tactics, wielding his fists like cannons to punch out hard, concentrated spirals of wind that cracked the cement staging where they impacted. Again and again, Todoroki darted out of the way or threw up ice walls. Gradually the thickness of the ice narrowed; the height shortened. He began to rely more heavily on the less refined fire of his left side.
Watching Todoroki fight, as he had watched Todoroki fight over their high school years, on television and then in person against the League of Villains, Inasa had learned that just as he depended on equipment to manage his quirk so too did Todoroki. Where they differed was in the how and the why: Todoroki needed his equipment to maintain equilibrium.
For Inasa it could have been a game of outlasting Todoroki. He knew that he could do it. He was larger, heavier, with a non-emitting quirk. Todoroki created the ice and the fire that he used, while Inasa only manipulated existing currents of air.
"Hey, Todoroki!" he bellowed. "You gonna hit me or you just wanna keep dancing?"
Todoroki blasted fire at Inasa, but it was the ice slick that tripped Inasa up. Inasa fell, laughing and angry, too; he'd seen Todoroki use the same trick the day before on Midoriya.
Another broad tongue of fire, one that distorted the wave-swell of wind Inasa called between them. Flames twisted through the air, sparks flickering. Inasa slid beneath and kicked out; his foot caught Todoroki in the knee and they went sprawling.
The tenor of the fight changed again. In the closer quarters that Todoroki had wanted, Inasa had even fewer moves to pull, but he also had his bulk and his height. Todoroki injected distance with a solid lance of ice shoved at Inasa's chest. Grunting, his breath knocked loose, Inasa took advantage of his staggering to swing his arms together before him, hauling another forward swell of wind that staggered Todoroki in turn.
"Ten minutes now and they're still hammering at each other, what a show! Even I don't know who I wanna win, whaddaya say, Aizawa?!"
Inasa's breath panted. He used that, too. Todoroki was side-stepping before him, a wary clockwise pacing they both maintained before Todoroki made to close the distance again.
"Fifteen minutes, geez! Hey, you want to order some take-out, 'cause I'm starving!"
"Focus." Then, plaintive, barely heard over the pounding of Inasa's heart, the thrill in his blood as it shoved through his veins: "Why am I even here."
Stone rattled. He'd forgotten the audience. Inasa wished he had his equipment; he wished Todoroki had his equipment, too. He wanted all of their power between them. Across the battered stage, Todoroki was panting, sweat-slicked, frost white as it crept along his lips. The shiny-tight outline of his scar illuminated with fire that billowed off him in clean, smokeless waves.
Heat coiled in Inasa's gut. The wind was howling.
"--keeps up much longer we'll have to evacuate the stadium, but looks like our staff is coming up now--"
Snowflakes darted between Todoroki's fingers; they spun in fat, wet, lazy circles and condensed in his palm like a ball. Inasa sucked in a breath, a deep breath that stretched out his bruised lungs till they ached with it.
He exhaled. Todoroki threw the snowball. The gust of wind, so loud it drowned out the approaching staff, the crowd in the stadium, even the presenter, punched through the snowball. The snowball erupted; it split, and snow, driven on shrieking winds, encompassed the stage.
Inasa was knocked from his feet. A miniature blizzard engulfed the stage. His back hit on grass. His head thumped so the world rattled.
Oh, fuck, he thought.
Pandemonium. Someone dragged him away from the stage. Someone else began shouting for Eraserhead. And over even the wind he heard the announcer screaming, so loudly that Inasa rattled again:
Uravity, who'd made Reina barf up her catered lunch, won. Everyone applauded her; she was outrageously popular, even considering the home team advantage. Midoriya looked lovesick and even that asshole, Bakugou, clapped.
"Please quitcha sulking," said Hands On as they boarded the bus. "It's giving me hives."
Inasa plopped into a seat midway to the back and glowered at the back of the seat before him. Reina, who was green-faced, laid down on a bench at the front of the bus.
"It's pretty weird, yeah," said Ayame, who sat on the bench opposite of Reina.
"I let all of Shiketsu down!" he burst. "And it's all 'cause of my own arrogance!"
"You know," said Reina sharply, "we were all fighting, too."
He colored and grumbled an apology, perhaps in poorer spirit than he ought have apologized. The truth of it was he was mad on his own behalf, and he felt a gnawing in his gut to know that Todoroki had ended up in as inglorious a position as Inasa.
Sure, in the nurse's office Todoroki had said no harm, no foul, but that was just Todoroki being the bigger man. Inasa could have chosen to read it as Todoroki rubbing it in but he knew now that that wasn't the kind of hero that Todoroki was: not the sort of person.
After all the lectures the U.A. staff gave him, then the Shiketsu staff, then the Hero Oversight Board, then Recovery Girl, Inasa dreaded the worst lecture, the doubled scolding his mothers would give him for losing control like he had. What example had he set for the twins, kicking off a storm like that in the stadium, around all those thousands of civilians?
Mama picked him up at the school in the old battered car that was Uncle Seiji's. Her black brows beetled as she looked at Inasa. He popped the door and dropped heavily into the passenger seat.
Inasa said gruffly, "It was my fault. I got too caught up in the heat of it and stopped thinkin' about all the other people. But a hero's always gotta remember the people around him, and I didn't!"
"Fasten your seatbelt, Inasa," said Mama.
He jerked it to its fullest extent around his chest. The click of it sounded over-loud in the cramped space. Outside it was night, black and late. Mama started the engine and pulled out of the parking spot.
City lights rolled by. After a few miles, Mama turned on the radio to an oldies station. She tapped her fingers off rhythm against the steering wheel. Slowly he stopped hunching.
"It's late, you know," she said, cutting into a sad ballad about a fisherman lost at sea. "We can save the scolding for tomorrow."
"I'm sorry," he said.
Mama reached out without looking to touch his forearm. She squeezed it warmly.
"You're just too strong sometimes," she said. "That's all you have to remember, is to pull it back. You don't have to be number one to stand out to the people who love you."
At home, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheeks, the left and then the right. "There's dinner covered up on the table. Your mother--" meaning Mom-- "made a custard for you. That's in the fridge."
He swallowed and nodded and hugged Mama, who laughed softly and said to his ear, "Fuuko thought it was very cool that you made it snow."
"What? Aw, that was all Todoroki. I just made it into a storm, is all..."
"Well," said Mama, "she thought her big brother was very cool anyway," and she rubbed at his ear then patted his shoulder and directed him to the kitchen.
He ate wolfishly; nothing had ever managed to quell his appetite. The custard had a little notecard beside it that read in Mom's angular handwriting, Reflect on your actions!! Eat slowly so you don't get a brain freeze!!!!! Inasa grinned at it.
In the bathroom as he changed after a bath, he found a spattering of bruises that marked his ribs, his side. A dark circle of a bruise purpled the center of his chest. Wincing as he did so, Inasa touched it lightly with his fingertips. That was where Todoroki had lanced him with ice. This black-violet stretch, that was when he'd slipped on the ice and smashed his hip to the cement.
It occurred to Inasa, as he traced the lip of a mean dark bruise across his biceps, pain a hot pleasure under the touch, that Todoroki might be examining bruises too.
Inasa pulled on a shirt with haste. His shoulders twinged.
Down the hall, a beep. Then another beep. His phone, left in his room. He trotted to his room. A few scattered drops of water followed him.
His phone had dimmed. He turned it on and typed in his passcode. The screen illuminated, too bright, and he had to squint as he looked down to the earliest message.
this is todoroki shouto.
Inasa had given his phone number to Todoroki in the nurse's office. He hadn't intended to do it. Midoriya had stood by Todoroki and looked at Inasa, gloomy where he sat, then elbowed Todoroki and said, "Ah! Did you remember your phone?"
Inasa had glanced at Midoriya. What had confused him most was the very faint flush to Todoroki's cheeks. Probably, Inasa thought, Todoroki was mortified that he had lost so uselessly and all because of Inasa. Some grand showdown!
Todoroki had looked blankly at Midoriya then Inasa then Midoriya again.
"Ah," he said, as if struck. "Yes. I forgot it."
Midoriya made a strange, hurried gesture with his hands. Todoroki nodded and stood from the cot.
"Yoarashi," said Todoroki.
"Yes!" said Inasa loudly. He'd stood, too, though Recovery Girl snapped at him to sit, please, your head! "It is all my doing! That we could not as men--"
Todoroki had stuck his hand out. Inasa stared at it.
Todoroki said, "Give me your phone number."
Recovery Girl said, "Sit down," and she pulled on the seat of Inasa's sweats. He sat hastily to avoid being pantsed before Todoroki and the mighty, exasperated-looking Midoriya.
"Why do you--"
He was cut off again, as Recovery Girl dragged his head down by the ear and planted a moist, sucking kiss to his temple. Inasa's vision swam. He saw bursts of snow in his vision. Inasa blinked and shook his head.
Todoroki still had his hand out. He glanced at Midoriya, who smiled anxiously and made another odd gesture.
"Ah," said Todoroki. "Please."
"You sit down too," said Recovery Girl.
Inasa had written his phone number on Todoroki's hand in something of a daze and mostly out of a desire to get out of the nurse's office before Recovery Girl bussed him again. As if Todoroki would ever call Inasa! Ha! It was some sort of joke, he thought; and somewhere in the confusion of his fast-healing concussion he'd forgotten all about it, forgotten until now, near to one in the morning, as he looked in surprise down at his phone.
The words did not change. He closed the message application. He opened it again. The messages were still there.
It was on account of how tired he was that Inasa was smiling.
Chapter 3: Debut Year
The thrill of graduation was nothing to the nonstop action of establishing Gale Force as a true, professional hero. Many up and coming young heroes had no choice but to work as sidekicks after graduation. Inasa had through discipline and the flashy strength of his quirk made enough of an impression in his third year to secure an investment and an image licensing. Even the embarrassment of the U.A. sports festival had worked in his favor; the media dubbed him a powerhouse, A Debut To Watch.
Yet strength and a sponsor could not make a hero! He worked ten times, no, twenty times harder than the next hero! By the end of the year, he would be the kind of pro that a kid would look up to and say, "I too wish to be a burnin' hot hero like Typhoon Hero: Gale Force!"
"That's not how kids talk," Mama said. The twins, five years old and devoted to chaos, were running around the house and screaming. "Well. Kids who aren't you don't talk like that."
"I think it's a nice sentiment," said Mom, "even if it's developmentally improbable. Oh, there goes Fuuko, grab her, grab her!"
"Fuuko!" thundered Inasa as he snatched her off the ground. "Do you want to be a burnin' hot hero like Typhoon Hero: Gale Force?"
"I wanna burn on fire!" she shrieked in his face, and her twin brother tripped into the wall and wailed, "I'm on fire!"
Inasa loved his much younger siblings. He believed with all his heart that they would become mighty heroes beyond compare! Greater even than their older brother!
"But sometimes I worry about them," he confessed that night after work at the izakaya. "Fuuko only uses her quirk to make her farts spread faster! And Haruto, well. His heart just isn't in it."
Todoroki hailed the waitress and asked for another round of light beers.
Inasa looked furtively about them. They were, after all, underage; but no one at the izakaya had asked for ID or looked concerned. It felt almost villainous, but he supposed technically it was the izakaya that committed the crime.
"Don't look so suspicious."
Todoroki, as expected, was unruffleable. Despite his resolve, Inasa admired Todoroki. He hadn't made a morning pledge since second year but if he still did he would have proclaimed to the sun that Todoroki was above minor moral concerns.
He continued, changing topic: "Why do you expect them to be heroes?"
Inasa puffed. "How could they not be, when I'm their big brother?"
After a few years of pleasant high school rivalry, Todoroki had grown somewhat familiar to Inasa. This meant that Todoroki would go so far as to raise an eyebrow or make a movement suggestive of a smile. Why, once, he had even made a noise at a joke Inasa told! A man might have called it a chuckle!
Now, Todoroki frowned and took a sip of his water. He never drank properly. A glass of water for every glass of beer.
"I don't know why you're making that face," said Inasa, "but it's really burning me up when you make it. You wanna start something?"
"They're only four," said Todoroki.
"They're five!" said Inasa. "I bought drinks that night! Five drinks each, for every precious year they have blessed my life!"
"Ah. Sorry," said Todoroki, not sounding sorry.
The waitress returned with two fresh glasses of beer, golden-brown and lightly lipped with foam. Todoroki nodded to her. Her cheeks pinked. Inasa boomed a thanks. She winced and left the table.
And only because Todoroki had sweet lips, and long, stark eyelashes that dripped low over his eyes, and a dashingly handsome scar! Inasa seethed. He grabbed his beer glass. His knuckles ached.
"Cheers," said Todoroki.
They knocked glasses together. Why did they even meet up as often as they did? thought Inasa as he drank deeply of his new beer. They had their own friends, their own peers and professional commitments.
Abruptly Inasa said, "I saw that you landed an endorsement deal with Salonpas."
"Mm." Todoroki set his own beer glass down. His fingers lingered on it. The beads of condensation frosted as he tapped each drop in turn.
Inasa forged on. "And so! I owe you congratulations. Cheers!"
Another quiet clink, as Todoroki offered his glass. A number of businessmen entered into the izakaya, dragging in the late summer heat with them. Without speaking, Todoroki brushed two fingers to Inasa's glass, and frost crawled along the inside, chilling the beer in his hand.
"Let them choose their paths," said Todoroki. "Your brother and sister."
Inasa ruffled, but in the slow slope of Todoroki's shoulders, the delicate arch of his finger as he traced patterns of frost across his beer, the fine strokes of his eyelashes across his eyes, there was something of loneliness. Or perhaps Todoroki was only tired.
Every now and then Inasa would see Todoroki, as Celsius, in the news. The striking Cold-and-Hot Hero: Celsius, in his simple black bodysuit, so handsome and so powerful and so blue-blooded. As near to quirk royalty as one might hope to see. Cool in every aspect, from demeanour to popular perception.
At the Shiketsu graduates get together of the last month, Shishikura had said something smart about Celsius and Inasa had reacted, well, passionately. Perhaps too passionately. Inasa had wondered if such a low thought might lurk in his own heart.
What Inasa said was:
"But hey!" and he slapped his palm on the table.
Todoroki, startled, looked up quickly from his beer. Inasa jabbed a finger at him.
"Would it have damaged your rankings if you tried cracking a smile for those Salonpas posters? Bad enough I have to see your face every time I ride the train! But that scowling too! Like someone stuck a bug up your butt!"
Todoroki said, "That--" and his nose wrinkled and he said, "A what," and then his left eye squinted and his cheek rumpled and he smiled in a bewildered way at Inasa. "Are you saying that--" The rest of his face got in on it. "Do I look like I have a bug up my butt?"
Inasa's finger hung between them. Too late he realized he was staring. He'd never seen Todoroki smile before. Not anything anyone else would call a smile, at least. Something like a fever heated Inasa's throat. In the strange and violent silence that burned inside Inasa, he heard his own heart drum three flickering beats.
"You haven't drunk enough water," said Todoroki. He hadn't noticed the sudden onset of fever. "That's four glasses of beer."
"I-- Thank you but I'm not thirsty at all!" said Inasa. He downed the rest of his beer and shouted for another.
Todoroki rested his cheek on his palm. His eyebrow arched.
"And a pitcher of water," added Todoroki in his calmer voice. "Thank you."
Inasa drained the next beer, too, and then another, and at some point he wound up in a taxi with Todoroki, and Todoroki's arm was around his shoulders, and Inasa was saying, "Hey, you're right, sorry 'bout all that, Fuuko and Haruto, they'll figure it out. You figured it out," and Todoroki's fingers were cool on Inasa's jaw and he said:
Inasa forgot what Todoroki said. When he woke up in the early morning, he woke up to a glass of water on the bedside table and, beside it, a single persimmon.
Shishikura had spent his debut years as a sidekick. Two years of this. Understandably he had complained for much of the dinner, and Inasa had borne it as good kouhai should until someone said, "Oh, but isn't Celsius so cool?"
Shishikura sneered into his beer. "Probably his daddy Endeavour funds everything," he said. "Brat's lucky he doesn't have to get off his pretty little ass."
Chopsticks clattered to the table. The beef Inasa tended fell half-cooked with them. He'd lunged across the table at his senpai.
"Get off me, brat!"
"Take it back!"
"Yoarashi!" Mora, another student who had graduated the year before Yoarashi. "What do you think you're doing?"
Some screaming, the clatter of dishes. Inasa didn't need his quirk to bust Shishikura's nose. Mom liked to say he'd come out half-grown, and Mama always made a face of pain after that.
Blood drenched Shishikura's face. Inasa, breathing heavily, grinned at the sight. He pulled his fist back again. On the far side of the room Reina said, "Finally it's interesting."
Shishikura said, sloshy from the blood pooling in his sinuses, "Fuck you, hope you like being a meatball," and made to grab Inasa's face.
A sudden torrent of hair rushed between them. Inasa staggered away, twitching tiny eddies of air around his face to disperse that horrid tickling sensation. Mora, his hair a cavalcade separating Shishikura and Inasa from each other, said, "There are reporters in the room right next to us."
"Fine! Rat him out!" Shishikura spat a wad of snot and blood to the floor. It splatted in Mora's hair.
Mora said, very pained, "Shishikura, please. It takes me three hours to shampoo. Yoarashi, I know that Shishikura went too far, but--"
"I'm not apologizing!" said Inasa. He jutted his chin. "Shishikura stooped to a low no hero should ever go! Shittin' out his mouth instead of his butthole!"
"What the hell, Yoarashi," Shishikura spluttered. "Like you never said worse in school. I thought you hated that guy."
"Hate's got nothing to do with it!" Inasa bared his teeth. "Maybe I don't like Todoroki much but he's making his own name out there as Celsius. And you gotta respect that!"
"I don't have to do anything when it comes to some kid who had his hero career laid out for him," said Shishikura. "And hey, the way I've heard it, you're drinking with Celsius. Maybe he's paying for you, too."
For what Inasa did then, he earned a two month ban from the Shiketsu get togethers. Shishikura got a month. As it so happened, Inasa did not like being a meatball, and the restaurant did not like extensive wind damage to one of their largest dining rooms, and Shishikura did not like having his bloodied face (posted online by an enterprising gossip columnist an hour after the police arrived) popularized as a meme.
Inasa didn't apologize. He had nothing to apologize for.
Chapter 4: Four Years Out
Three years, then four. Midway through the fourth year, Inasa joined the Breakwall Hero Committee, a hero alliance with the Coast Guard. He spoke with Todoroki about it before he did anyone else. The conversation involved a headlock and concluded with Todoroki calling him an idiot. Life proceeded. Mom and Mama agreed to allow each twin a room of their own, now that Inasa had purchased a home in a nice building.
Stoked fires! Has this young heroine stirred Celsius' cold heart?! the gossip columnists asked. Whatever heroine they attached to Celsius, they replaced her with another in a few months. Personally, Inasa suspected that Todoroki liked the company of women but didn't like the company of women. He'd never seen Todoroki look at a woman in that particular way.
Well, the laws had changed, but the media, Mama said, that hadn't changed much. Inasa looked in passing at the tabloid sheets, their grainy photos of Todoroki and a pretty young woman. It made his stomach hurt.
"Ahh, I'm envious," said Inasa. "I wish I had time for dating. Not that a hero should ever replace the fires for justice burnin' in his heart!"
They were eating at the game, folded so closely together on the bleachers that Todoroki's knee brushed at Inasa's thigh and his elbow, too. Stadium seating wasn't built for men as large as Inasa. The game was going poorly, the Mustafah Strikers whiffing it at bat through the first two innings.
"You read too many online celebrity tabloids."
"I have never read an online celebrity tabloid," Inasa lied. "You just hear these things from people! Maybe if you socialized then you would understand."
Todoroki stole a piece of fried chicken from Inasa's paper box. "I socialize." He offered a generous portion of seaweed in exchange.
Inasa forgave the crime for that and a taste of Todoroki's soba (cold, as ever). "Tch. Who with?"
"'Prove it'?" Todoroki wondered. "Why does every conversation I have with you devolve into something childish?"
"Ha, avoiding the question! Let me take a swing at it." Inasa rubbed his hands together. "Mach One? Meteor? Soul Splitter?"
"Married. I've never met him. She gives me the creeps."
Soul Splitter gave everyone the creeps. Nevertheless! Inasa rallied. "You must never disparage another hero! Even," he allowed, "if their quirk is..."
"Terrifying," said Todoroki.
"A god damned nightmare vision that never ends," said Inasa.
"One time," said Todoroki very gravely, "she made Grape Rush shit his pants."
Inasa had to take a moment to collect himself. He didn't mean to laugh at another's misfortune. It was only that there was so little of Grape Rush to shit. What if he turned inside out? While he rattled the bleachers, and earned a "can you keep it down?" from someone nearer to the railing, Todoroki nicked another bite of chicken.
"Ugh." Inasa wiped at his eyes. "Who else. Creati? She's moved on to, ahhh, where was what--"
He nodded. "And Deku joined that international league. Phew! Of course all your friends are big hitters. Grand slam!"
"I wish," said a kid glumly from the row below.
Todoroki said, "You forgot Ingenium."
"Ahh! Another legacy hero!"
The crowd erupted around them. Someone had managed a good crack off one of those pitches. The kid from the row below was losing his mind, yelling "Grand slam! Grand slam!" First base if they were lucky.
Inasa hadn't understood why Todoroki chose to stay in Japan. Certainly Inasa knew why Gale Force had thanked the Pan-Pacific Hero League for their offer but turned it down. He had his sister and his brother, his mothers, pride and a debt to repay to his home. Maybe other heroes could see a bigger picture. Inasa thought he had seen it.
Now he saw the salt-chapped faces of fishermen and the flooded houses along the coasts, and his own ranking at an unremarkable eleven (of the top twenty) when he had once aspired to number one. His aspirations had humbled.
Inasa squinted into his beer. He suspected the alcohol had made him morose. Ah, well. He took a swig of it.
"I socialize with you," said Todoroki. "Maybe they should write you up in those tabloids."
Inasa choked on the beer. At last he managed to draw a breath, only to lapse into hacking laughter. He looked at Todoroki, who gazed impassively back, and laughed harder.
"Was it that funny?" said Todoroki.
Very early in their professional careers, the media had popularized the notion of a rivalry between Gale Force and Celsius. Inasa had encouraged it. He'd liked the idea of being seen as the equal to Endeavour's son, a true competitor.
"Doesn't it bother you," Todoroki had asked, "having your name linked to mine?"
He'd scoffed. "What d'you take me for? As a matter of fact, I dig it! Now everyone knows to keep their eyes on us."
The attention had faded over time. The rivalry between Deku and that Bakugou guy, Fire Wild, people loved that. Going out for dinner every week or so with Todoroki got a lot easier after the cameras moved on to the next big trend. Nobody much cared for a rivalry that involved sharing drinks.
Inasa still considered Todoroki his rival. Maybe not as he once had. He knew things about Todoroki now that he hadn't before. Most of them sounded boring, but they were interesting, too, because they were about Todoroki.
Todoroki disliked riddles that were puns. He complained about the physics in science fiction movies. He read literature, especially classical literature, particularly of the Heian era. For a guy who had grown up in luxury, he sure liked cheap beer. He owned a house, a proper, traditional house, and his mother lived with him.
Sometimes Todoroki would look at you and that's all he would do. Inasa might look up from arrest reports and Todoroki would be watching him. "What?" Inasa would say, and Todoroki would lid his eyes and say nothing. It made Inasa mad as hell.
Only a few years ago Inasa thought that Todoroki didn't smile but the truth was you'd miss Todoroki's smile if you didn't know how to see it. The outside corner of his unscarred eye would bunch. His lashes would dip and rise. The right eyebrow, crooking like so.
"Anyway," said Todoroki. "The columnists are wrong. I'm not seeing anyone."
Like this, the gloom fell from Inasa. He slung an arm around Todoroki's shoulder and tapped their beer cups together.
"Me and you, the two loneliest bastards in Mustafah," he cheered.
Todoroki's eye creased. And what did you know, the Strikers put a score up on the board. Inasa bullied Todoroki into taking a celebratory selfie with him. In it, Inasa posed with a triumphant fist and a dashing, toothy grin. Todoroki's mouth had crooked at one end, and the lidding of his eyes was nearly soft. A natural consequence of the sun setting opposite them.
The Strikers lost in the end but Inasa, ah, his heart was light. Who knew where they might go from here?
A rough year for storms. Typhoon season swept the coasts. Most years Japan saw three or four typhoons hit land; that year they saw seven. August proved uniquely devastating, with Typhoons 9 and 12 making land in the first and third weeks.
The media flooded the recovery area for Typhoon 12. Inasa learned later from Haruto and Fuuko that mobile phone footage of Gale Force combating and redirecting storm winds from Typhoon 9 had gone viral.
"They're here for you," Asui-call-me-Tsuyu ribbited. She flicked her tongue toward the news vans parked along the stone breakwall.
The two of them, Inasa and Tsuyu, sat exhausted on the Coast Guard boat towing in a lame and leaning crabbing vessel. The crabbing ship cast a long shadow, even in the grey light. Rain pattered unkindly.
"Bleh," said Inasa.
He rubbed a hand tiredly across his face. His cheeks stung, his lips too. Saltwater had caked the fur lining of his coat, and he'd shed it and his armored support gear as soon as the Coast Guard had rendezvoused at the retrieval point. At least the wetsuit kept the rest of him mostly dry.
"That's it?" asked Tsuyu. "Hm. Usually you have something loud to say. Ribbit."
For her, he rallied. "Storm-chasers!" he bellowed. "I got to admire your courage! But it's a hero's job to run into the blaze!"
Tsuyu nodded. "Yes. Like that."
Sighing, he straightened upright on the bench and set his shoulders in a firm line. He hadn't realized as a student how little he would like the media part of the job.
"Celsius doesn't like the cameras either."
"Ah, right! You were classmates at U.A." Gale Force brightened. "I bet he was just as dour in school with you guys!"
"Pretty much," she said. "He really only gets excited around you."
Gale Force squinted at her. The rain was driving sidelong between them. Her hair, long and oily slick and black, was thickly knotted at her nape.
"Oh. You haven't noticed."
"The most worked up I ever see 'im is when he's giving me a scolding for something nobody else cares about."
Froppy laughed, a hiccuping huh-huh. "That's how he expresses his affection."
He scoffed. Affection! From Todoroki! The guy stared at Inasa like he was an entomologist and Inasa was some kind of fucked-up beetle that sat up on its ass and said hello.
"That's okay," Froppy told him as she stood and clambered up to the railing. She patted Gale Force on the shoulder. Her sticky hand lingered, a by-product of the mucus she secreted. "It takes a while. You go look heroic for the cameras. I'll help secure the ship."
She dove off the railing into the choppy waters before Gale Force could shout at her for abandoning him to the ravening media. Selfish! Unheroic! Froppy, a secret villain!
"Gale Force!" "Over here, Gale Force!" Breathlessly, as in hunger: Gale Force, Gale Force, look this way, talk to me.
Tired, salt-rough, his left shoulder aching from the pull and weight of his armored glove, Inasa wished he could duck away to a little bar and pull up a stool and order a beer, one for him and one for Todoroki.
He stood tall, instead, and set his foot on the railing and shouted up at the breakwall, "Gratefully, we return these proud fishermen! Their hearts so hot they went out even into the mightiest storm to fill their nets and feed their waiting families!"
To her credit, Tsuyu did buy the evening's drinks.
"Sorry for leaving you. Cheers."
Inasa grumbled but he accepted it.
"Oh," said Tsuyu, "by the way. Hero's Hearts thinks I'm cheating on Alien Queen with you. Ribbit."
"What!" A pure fury swelled in Inasa's breast. "As if I would ever encourage such a low-down betrayal! Of your precious love!"
"It's a funny header. Look."
Some reporter had taken a grainy photo of Tsuyu patting Inasa's shoulder and overlaid it with spinning hearts and frog emoji. Regrettably, it was pretty funny. Inasa spurted.
Tsuyu withdrew her phone. "I'm texting Mina."
Idly he checked his own phone. He'd picked it off his hotel dresser without looking at it.
From Mom: Hahahaha, look at your hair! It's white with salt!!! You look older than me!!!!!!! From Mama, well done We love you Haruto says you looked really cool your mom is still laughing. Now Fuuko's started so Bye
He paused, scrolling. Three messages from Todoroki. Inasa took a sip of beer for spiritual strength and clicked on the notification.
The third, most recent: tsuyu is involved. please don't interfere.
The second: a good interview. you were very charismatic. the reporter was faint with shock. probably because you shouted everything at her.
The first: did you forget chap balm? your face looks sore. don't forget to wash and moisturize.
Inasa pulled a face at his phone.
"What is it?"
"Todoroki scolding me again. He believes that gossip crap!"
"That's interesting." She ribbited. "Todoroki doesn't read hero gossip."
"I know!" said Inasa. "So why would he believe this!"
Tsuyu sipped her own beer. "Why don't you text him."
"Oh, I'm gonna! I'm gonna do it right now!"
He wrote, over a series of texts, I didn't forget my balm it just fell out of my pocket i was flying and it fell in the sea I'M NOT DATING TSUYU!!!!!!!!! she's gay and married and i'm gay too so shut up also thank you I hate interviews but it felt good you should give more interviews so your fanclub will stop asking me questions about you
An hour passed in good company and good spirits, with good spirits as other heroes joined them and they moved on from the cheap beer Inasa usually drank.
When Inasa looked at his phone again he had two new texts from Todoroki. The oldest one read do you know how to use punctuation? and the newest read only i see.
See what! thought Inasa; then he put his phone face-down on the bar and tossed back a shot.
Chapter 5: Five Years
The blow punched Gale Force through the wall of windows facing out on the street and halfway through the evacuated office building before he slowed. A metal chair had crumpled around him. He kicked it off and struggled out from the chunk of ceiling leaning over him.
His back twinged. Bracing his foot against the mostly standing wall, he channeled air through the armoured piping. Wind blasted out the knee pads, and he shot forward along the track he'd made. He snatched his hat up as he rocketed by it.
More glass, shattered. He grabbed for the bridge cutting across the street, joining opposing buildings, and tried to re-assess.
Chaos littered the street below. Two more heroes had joined the effort to contain the villain, some gigantic loud-mouth who fired power beams out his mouth and fingers. At least the police had managed to chase the media back to a safer distance. The steady drone of a helicopter lapped around the impacted area.
Gale Force slapped his hat back on and adjusted the brim. Grit filled the air; every blast the villain unleashed sent asphalt and cement ricocheting. Where, he thought, was Celsius?
"Maybe don't charge him head on again."
"Ah, you punk!"
Celsius dropped on to the bridge's railing. A line of fast-melting ice demarcated where he'd skated along the unbroken glass of the far building. Gale Force adjusted his hat again.
"Shut up. If you've got any bright ideas, I'm ready to hear 'em."
"I thought you wanted me to shut up."
"You want to do this now?"
Celsius looked him over with those hooded eyes. Frost clung to his right set of eyelashes. His breath gusted white.
"You obviously aren't taking the situation seriously," he said. "Every time you've charged him, he's knocked you aside."
"Well, what the hell do you want me to do?" He gestured powerfully, encompassing the tight quarters enforced by the tall buildings, the narrow street. "We need to push this guy back to the four-way intersection so I got room to maneuver. I can't get enough wind velocity going--"
Celsius cut in coolly. "You could withdraw. It's clear your quirk isn't suited for this."
"What's your problem?" Gale Force shouted. He could've crumpled his hat and thrown in Celsius' face. He could've knocked the damn bridge in two with his armoured fist. His left hand half-clenched at the thought. "Maybe if you'd stop grading everyone else and start thinking of something, we--"
Celsius' brow furrowed. "I'm not--"
A high whine filled the air, followed shortly by a deafening, deep bass thwoom that rattled inside Gale Force's skull. He smacked Celsius away with his left hand and power-jumped into the air. Beneath them, the bridge exploded.
Shit, Gale Force thought. There: Celsius, shoved ungenerously off the bridge, had thrown an ice wall up before himself and the two lately come heroes, cutting off the villain. Gale Force exhaled and forced more air through the pumps. Up higher he had more of a visual read on the villain.
"He's going to blast the ice!" he bellowed through cupped hands. Below, Celsius kicked off the wall and began throwing up sheets of ice.
Ice, again! Gale Force had reported second to the crime scene, and by that point Celsius had wasted two of his most powerful attacks on the villain. The villain's quirk allowed him to simply brute force his way through the icebergs.
"Use your--" He cut off, frustrated. "Bah!"
Gale Force pulled at the air around him. The stronger currents available near to the roofs of the buildings came easily to him, and he drew them into circular motions. The low sighing of the wind began to scream.
He leveled his armoured hand, made a pointillist square of his fingers, and fired four high-velocity wind bursts. One to the villain's left, one to his right, three and four before and behind so he was pinned in.
Celsius darted in as if he'd known precisely what Gale Force meant to do. That high whine sounded. Celsius' right arm flashed. Something like an unformed snowball, massive and leeching out the moisture from the air.
Gale Force fired off a fifth blast to catch the ball and spin it violently into a blizzard.
At the same moment, his skull rattled. The villain's mouth had opened. His head was tipped back; he was looking at Gale Force.
Inasa plummeted. Noise, a dreadful thrumming, filled his head. The wind yowled. Glass and grit beat at his face. He'd lost his damn hat again. He hit a snow drift. A white curtain of fast-whipping snow enveloped him.
A hero knelt over him. He didn't know her. She had blue-black hair in a floating tangle and white pearls strung throughout it. They sent a rookie? he thought, insulted.
She was yelling something at him, but he couldn't hear it over the wailing of the blizzard, or the echoing in his head, and so he closed his eyes.
The doctor wanted him to stay overnight for observation. The broken leg and the sprained shoulder didn't trouble her; it was the concussion.
"Bluuuuuuuugh," said Inasa, to little sympathy.
"You have to listen to her, she's the expert," said Mom. "Haruto! Please. This is a hospital. Don't fart in here."
"I didn't!" said Haruto in outrage. "Fuuko did! She's the gross twin!"
"No, I didn't! He's lying!" Fuuko stamped her foot. Her skirts dashed. "I've never farted in my whole life!"
"Now you're lying," said Mom.
Mama alone leaned over Inasa and brushed her hand sweetly across his fevered brow and looked as if she cared that he very well might have died, heroically, doing his duty, as a hero.
"Of course, a little knock on the head could never stop a hero whose flames burn so high as--"
He had to stop there. He'd started to laugh, and it set off small explosions in his head. His stomach lurched. Mama grabbed the waste bin and held it patiently as he vomited. As he spat, she petted his hair and pressed a kiss to his crown.
The twins sat up on the foot of the bed, as Mom and Mama, one to each side of him, helped Inasa recline. The head of the hospital bed had been set at an angle so he was stuck sitting. He would have rather slept but he would also have rather not thrown up in front of his family.
"Are you really okay?" asked Haruto.
"Really, really?" asked Fuuko. "You aren't just pretending?"
"A big brother never lies." He'd closed his eyes. Now he forced them open again, so he might smile at his siblings. "A hero never lies, either! So you should always tell the truth!"
The twins exchanged a look. Haruto sighed and dropped his head.
"I farted," he said.
"I did too," said Fuuko.
Pride and love swelled his heart. He told them so. "There's nothing makes me happier than knowing that the embers of justice and youthful passion are burning up inside you two!"
"Big brother, you're the hottest hero of all!"
Mom said, "No jumping on Inasa!"
He clutched the twins to him, Fuuko to his right shoulder (thought it hurt viciously) and Haruto to his left shoulder, and he hugged them so tightly that Fuuko whispered, "I'm gonna fart again," and Haruto laughed. Even if the doctor had come in and personally told Inasa that laughing at that would mean another night in the hospital, Inasa would have laughed. Even if his head did feel as thought it would fall off.
Flowers, a basket of fruit, even chocolates. He would have liked a prepaid card for the television but Mom and Mama agreed with the doctor that he needed to "rest." Mom and Mama each gave him a hug before they left, and Mom bent to whisper in his ear that she had farted too and he'd laughed so hard he'd nearly thrown up again. Neither Mama nor the doctor were pleased.
Bored in an otherwise empty room, Inasa peeled small orange after small orange, ate wedge after wedge till his tongue stung and he'd strings between his teeth. Then he picked the strings out and ate those too.
A nurse checked on him, once every two hours. He was awake for the first two visits and roused readily for the third, something the nurse noted in his chart along with dosage information.
The fourth time he roused, he assumed it was the nurse back to check, and so he yawned and said, "Yes, I'm still alive, you can go away."
The person beside the bed lingered. Then they stood and said, "Did the fall give you telepathy?"
Inasa opened his eyes. In the dim room, illuminated only by the emergency strips along the floor, Todoroki was a lanky shadow. At the last check-in, the nurse had given Inasa another dose of the painkiller, and so he looked at Todoroki with something of bafflement.
Inasa reached for him. He caught Todoroki's wrist in three fingers. He drew the hand nearer. His skin was warm. The fingers with their polished calluses. Todoroki let Inasa fumble with the fingers, the thumb.
"They gave you codeine."
"Did you kick his ass for me?"
"Yes. Thanks to you." Todoroki lingered by the bed. Then, with a sort of awkward grace, he sat on the very edge of it.
"Share the credit with me?"
Todoroki's mouth flattened. "Deep Sea made the arrest."
"She's a new hero. A sidekick."
Inasa groaned. "Beat out by the rookies."
A sliver of a smile. Todoroki said, "You did well."
"Thought I was chargin' recklessly."
"Couldn't you pretend," he complained. "I already beat myself up."
Todoroki rested his elbow on his knee. His fingers cupped his chin. The hand in Inasa's hand remained warm and loosely held, the knuckles bent.
The churlishness festering in Inasa's throat slipped away. He sighed.
"Whining's no good." Being in the hospital bed had made him restless. He hated to be stuck in a single place. "You're right. Charging straight in wasn't working out. Needed to pull back to get a better perspective."
One of the fingers lined up with Inasa's wrist twitched. Todoroki was weighing his words. Something of pleasure popped in Inasa's chest, to know that he could recognize this.
"You always apologize before I can," said Todoroki. "It's annoying."
"Hm. Thank you."
Todoroki clicked his tongue. Inasa laughed and winced and closed his eyes against the dull pounding.
"I owe you an apology," said Todoroki.
Inasa grunted. He cracked an eye open to find Todoroki looking steadily down at the hand Inasa held.
"You're right. I was focusing too much on ice." He said it calmly, as he said most everything: dispassionately. "My father and I argued today, and I stopped thinking of it as my power but rather as his power."
"The blizzard was a good idea."
"It only worked," said Todoroki, "because you ... know me."
Inasa remembered the sports festival stage, so distant from them now. The sweat on Todoroki's face. The fine eddies stirring his hair. The snow.
Todoroki went on:
"I was taking a gamble, that you'd understand. And you did."
"'Course I did! Nobody let me live that down..." He frowned. "You think I'd ever forget what your moves look like?"
Inasa was ready to list each of Todoroki's ice moves and what they looked like in the wind-up; in fact he was drawing the breath to start, when Todoroki's hand tightened around his hand.
"My father arranged a miai for me and the daughter of the Hasegawa family."
Startled, Inasa breathed out heavily. The wind stirred Todoroki's fine hair. He glanced across at Inasa. He had never before noticed but noticed now, in the dark, with a broken leg and a concussion, that the eyelashes of Todoroki's left eye, his scarred eye: they curled as from heat.
"There's a Hasegawa who lives on the floor below me," said Inasa stupidly. She was ninety-three and lived with her daughter's family.
"They're an old family. They have a strong quirk, Pacification."
Inasa thought. "Everyone Quiet? She's too young to have children."
"Her second cousin," said Todoroki. His hand had relaxed fractionally. "Hasegawa Sumika. She's eighteen years old. My father says it's time I make a beneficial marriage. What he means is that I should marry a young girl who won't question anything I ask of her."
He was talking; he wouldn't stop. It fell out of Todoroki in a swift and frightfully calm stream of words, as if Todoroki were telling Inasa of a financial report he had read in the paper that morning.
"What my father wants is for me to do the same thing that he did to my mother. He told me that he had arranged the miai and while I was speaking with him on the phone, my mother was in the next room. I took her home from the hospital three years ago. The miai is scheduled for tomorrow. He waited until today to tell me because he knew that I wouldn't cancel or not show up, and risk upsetting Hasegawa Sumika, who is probably a very nice young girl who doesn't know that she doesn't want to marry me."
Confused, Inasa said, "Why wouldn't she want to marry you?"
Todoroki said, "Because I wouldn't love her." That was all he had to say. His neck bent. His hair, the reddish side of it turned to Inasa, blanketed his face.
"And your asshole dad doesn't care about that," said Inasa.
"No," said Todoroki. "My asshole dad doesn't care about that."
"Well," said Inasa. "I know he's your dad. And you oughtta respect him. But tell him to fuck off."
Dryly Todoroki said, "I did."
Inasa nodded with satisfaction. "Hell yeah. Bet he's still crapping his pants about it. And hey, if you and Hagesawa--"
"If you and what's her name do get married," said Inasa, "don't invite him."
Todoroki said, "I'll get you some water," and stood. The creak of the handle, the spitting rush of water. Inasa rolled his tongue in his mouth and found that it was dry.
He accepted the glass; it was cold to the touch, and Inasa tipped it toward Todoroki in another, silent thank you. He drank greedily. When he'd done, he made to set the glass on the bedside table.
Todoroki took it from him and set it down. Inasa studied him. He thought of Todoroki marrying someone, and his head hurt again. Who would marry Todoroki? Nobody understood him. They'd think he was being an asshole when he was just being honest, and that was the Todoroki of now, who had marginal social graces.
"My mothers," said Inasa. "They didn't always like each other. I guess. But then they did. And married each other 'cause they were in love. And they still are! So sometimes it works out. You just gotta find someone who doesn't think you've got a stick shoved up your asshole."
"Of course," said Todoroki. "It's that simple."
"After all," said Inasa, "I don't think you've got a stick shoved up your asshole. And I used to hate you!"
"You did, didn't you," said Todoroki.
"I hated your stinking guts," said Inasa. "I printed out a picture of you from the sports festival, do you remember that? First year? Anyway, I printed it out and I used to practice using my quirk to direct darts at it."
"I burned posters of my father," said Todoroki.
"Hey!" said Inasa. "Me, too!"
And in the dark, Todoroki's smile flashed again, and he reached to brush his hand across Inasa's bruised forehead, his fingers glancing and cool, and he said, "Take care of yourself. It would be strange having to learn how to fight alongside someone else."
Chapter 6: Six Years
Tsuyu knocked on the hotel door. On assignment on Okinawa-hontou, they were stuck in a cheap hotel until the committee deemed the rescue efforts complete. Most of the remaining work was clean-up, and the writing of reports.
Inasa woke to her ribbiting rather than her knocking.
"Turn the TV on," she said. "Oh. And good morning."
He grumbled and shuffled back into the room. Where was the remote? He found it on the TV. He hadn't bothered with the television once. When did they have the time for dramas or variety shows? Watching the news was depressing these days: a highlight reel of all the things they as heroes hadn't accomplished.
He found a news station anyway. Commercials were on.
"What's it about?"
"Mm. Well. Maybe it's better if I tell you."
"Returning to our breaking story," said the news anchor, "Japan's number four hero, Celsius, has announced his provisional retirement."
Inasa stared. His jaw fell.
"Ribbit," said Tsuyu.
"Better move outside," said Tsuyu. "It's only six in the morning."
The person upstairs began banging on their floor. Inasa hadn't stopped shouting.
"Maybe I should have let you sleep in, ribbit."
"How could he do this? Cut tail and-- The coward! He didn't say anything to me about this! Is someone threatening him? Who could possibly be strong enough! They're threatening his mother."
"I made a mistake," said Tsuyu.
Throughout the day Inasa called Todoroki's mobile. "This is Todoroki's mobile. Please leave a message." He left four; then the inbox was full and could accept no more. He tried the Celsius Hero Agency's main line and its back-up line, too. "We're sorry. Due to the high volume of calls being made to this number, we cannot complete the call. Please try calling this party later."
Worry bled into anger at a brief video statement Celsius released in the early afternoon.
"Because of a personal matter, I will be stepping back from my hero's duties. Thank you for your support." He bowed. The light gleamed off his sleek head. His scar looked sallow, but that was only the lighting making tricks.
Inasa banged away at the too-small tablet the committee had lent him for the writing of reports. He sat outside in t-shirt and shorts on a cinderblock he'd turned over to make a chair.
"You'll break the screen if you pound on it like that!" said a young woman cheerily, and he turned a dark look on her. Shinju, the Aquatic Hero: Deep Sea, said "eep!" and clapped her hands over her mouth. Her black-blue hair writhed.
"Scary, scary! Yoarashi is so scary, I think he might be a villain!"
He hunched and pounded harder at the screen. "Shut it, kid! I'm trying to focus on this report!"
"Tsuyu-mama, Yoarashi is being mean to everyone's daughter!"
He'd liked Shinju better before she'd gotten comfortable with him.
"Aren't you picking on him," said Tsuyu, from Inasa's other side; he roared his surprise and slammed the tablet on his knee. They all considered the devastation he'd wrought on it.
"Oh, shit," said Shinju. "Uh, never mind all that, sir!"
"Don't worry," said Tsuyu, patting Inasa's shoulder. "They'll just dock it from your pay."
"I'm very sorry to have interrupted you, sir. Please continue with your work, sir."
He heaved a sigh and covered his face with his hands, only long enough to clear his head. "No," he said, standing from the block, "It is I who must apologize! Please forgive me! I lost my temper in front of my beloved kouhai!"
He pounded his head through the cinder block to demonstrate the depths of his regret.
"Yowza!" yelped Shinju, jumping back with a leg up high. "You could've hit somebody with that! Tsuyu-mama!" She clung dramatically to Tsuyu, who patted her elbow and croaked.
The sunlight, a harsh visitor after so brutal a storm as had swept the coast the week before, burned hotly against his exposed nape. Tsuyu looked down at him with her oil-black eyes.
"Shinju-bo, go see if you can find fresh water for Yoarashi."
"Anything for Tsuyu-mama! Your precious daughter will splash down soon!"
The pearlescent bells at her ankles tink-tinked as she darted away on her quest.
"You don't have to keep standing like that."
Reluctantly Inasa stepped out of the pose. He rubbed at his head, fingers brushing through his hair. Too long: he needed to buzz it again.
"You're really mad about Todoroki. Ribbit."
He folded his arms and jutted his chin. "I don't want to talk about Todoroki!"
"Maybe you should. Not with me," she added at his look. "I'm not good with these kinds of conversations. You know," she went on slower, "conversations of the heart."
"Of the what?"
"Ribbit," said Tsuyu. "You really do need to talk to Todoroki."
"The bastard won't answer his phone!"
"Ah," said Tsuyu. She croaked thoughtfully. Her throat inflated then settled. "Well," she said, "lucky that the committee's okayed breaking down operations. So you can talk to him in a couple days."
She reached up, her strangely-jointed frog's legs straightening, to ruffle his hair. Somehow with Tsuyu, Inasa felt as he thought his own younger siblings must feel: a child, looked after by someone who had gone through the pains before them.
"I'll get another tablet," she said. "Finish your reports."
Inasa smoothed his hair as she left, hopping on fingers and feet through the drying mud the storm had made of the narrow sea town's streets.
Conversations of the heart? He puzzled over it briefly then put the thought away. He was freshly determined to submit the finest and most detailed report! So thoroughly accurate that any pencil-pushing desk jockey who read it would experience the exhilarating, sustained wind speed of 80 knots!
But he thought of Tsuyu's startled expression again, when he checked his phone at the hotel. Nothing from Todoroki. His throat clenched. He tossed his phone to the bed, looked at it splayed on top of the rumpled sheets, and then slapped a pillow on top of it.
There was nothing in Inasa's heart he did not already know. That was a joke everyone liked to say, that he wore everything he felt on his face. How many times had he heard it from his mothers? He was an honest man given to honesty. Naturally he was upset that Todoroki had retired so suddenly! Inasa had thought them to be, if not friends, then two persons who respected and thought well of one another.
Surely a colleague could be expected to tell another colleague when they intended to leave the field. And why would Todoroki have left? Had Inasa faltered in some way? Had he not provided Todoroki with enough of a challenge? Perhaps they were no longer rivals. Still, it was Todoroki's presence that often pushed Inasa to achieve newer and greater heights.
Inasa leapt to his feet, his hands fisting.
Yet he had learned from the news the same as everyone else had learned that Celsius was stepping back. And why! Todoroki couldn't have shown him that smallest measure of respect? Didn't Todoroki approach Inasa first for his phone number? Wasn't it Todoroki with whom Inasa had first spoken about the offer from the Breakwall Hero Committee?
Hadn't Todoroki visited him in the hospital the year before, even outside visiting hours? Hadn't they sung karaoke duets together? Hadn't Inasa argued poetry with him? Hadn't Inasa punched Shishikura in the face, breaking his nose, to defend Todoroki? Hadn't Todoroki once, years ago, kissed Inasa in the back of a taxi?
Inasa stared at the wall. His fists hung in the air above him. What? he thought.
"Why don't I remember that?" he said. Only, he realized, he did remember it.
A persimmon, on his bedside table. He remembered: what did he remember? A night of beer and fried foods. The lanterns outside the izakaya like sunspots, blurring. Hundreds of nights out drinking with Todoroki bled together. He put his arm around Todoroki's shoulders. Or perhaps Todoroki rested a flat hand at the small of Inasa's back.
How many years? Inasa let his hands fall slowly as if through water. A tremendous pounding had started in his head. He could not recall it with clarity.
Todoroki leaned over him and brushed at his short-cropped hair as if to sweep it from his brow: that night, or at the hospital last year? Those steady, lidded eyes.
The twins. They had argued about Inasa's brother and sister. Why had they argued? Wouldn't it be cool if Inasa could pass Gale Force on to Fuuko? Let them choose their own paths. It would be Fuuko, Inasa thought from a dizzied distance: she had the stronger will. Not that he intended to retire. Unlike Todoroki, who had:
Kissed him. He remembered it. They were in the back of the cab. Inasa swayed into him. What had he said to Todoroki? He'd clung, embarrassingly, to Todoroki.
"You're an okay pal, I don't care what anyone else says about you!" "You always say the worst things." "Then you can clock me! Right in the face! 'Cause hell, I gotta say, I like you, Todoroki!"
I like you, Todoroki. Inasa sat heavily on the bed. Something like a grimace contorted his face. Why now? Why now? He thought of Todoroki's sleek head, bowed.
Todoroki stroked Inasa's jaw. Long fingers. Calloused. In the hotel room, Inasa clapped a hand to his jaw as though he might capture the phantom impression of Todoroki's cool touch between his palm and his cheek.
Yoarashi. That was what Todoroki called him. Ever polite. They were the same year but Todoroki was eight months Inasa's elder.
The aircon kicked on. It rattled in the ducts; a wheezing current of air circulated very slowly through the room.
In the cab Todoroki had touched Inasa's face and said, in a voice that had edged peculiarly toward roughness:
That was what he had said. Inasa. Inasa, Inasa, before he leaned in and pressed a tight-lipped, beer-soft kiss to the corner of Inasa's mouth.
"That," said Inasa to the room. "He! That!"
Suddenly he couldn't stop remembering things. He was fifteen and shouting "Today I acknowledge that Todoroki Shouto is worthy of respect!" through gritted teeth.
Or perhaps it was when he was twenty-one and he told Todoroki, "I'm thinkin' about joining the Breakwall Hero Committee," and Todoroki had looked at Inasa and said sincerely, "You would be well-suited to rescue work," and Inasa had grabbed Todoroki in a headlock: why?
"Put me down," said Todoroki, long-suffering.
"You sayin' I'm not suited to be an urban hero?"
"I never said that."
"You tellin' me to get out of your turf?"
Todoroki, wedged to Inasa's chest, had slapped a hand flat to Inasa's belly and struck him with a momentary frost.
"Isn't it a hero's responsibility to go where he's most needed?" Todoroki snapped, looking ruffled, rumpled, unusually pink in the face.
Inasa: Inasa had startled at this Todoroki. A Todoroki that had a flush in his cheeks. His hair disturbed from its usual even, silky fall. The layer of crystalline ice that already melted from his pale hand. Inasa clutched at his gut.
"Ha ha," Inasa had laughed, to cover up how unsettled the ice had made his gut, "guess you're right about that. Maybe you oughtta go into the mountain service." The ice hadn't unsettled him, thought he had told himself that was why. It was how Todoroki had looked at him.
How? he thought. How? He thought again of so many little things. Drinking. Baseball games. How neatly their quirks aligned to devastating purpose. The text messages Todoroki sent when Inasa was out on assignment. The envy that ate Inasa's gut at every tabloid report of Todoroki, spotted out and about with a heroine. The persimmon.
Of course Todoroki's retirement had surprised him. He had prized himself on knowing Todoroki so well but the truth of it was he hadn't understood Todoroki at all. And how could he? Inasa hadn't understood himself.
Inasa sat, stunned by the weight of his own foolishness. He could hear his mothers laughing and sighing at him in turn. How disappointed the twins would be to know that their beloved and righteous older brother was a dummy. Most clearly he could imagine how Todoroki would cover his mouth with one hand and then lower it to say straight-faced, "At least you've finally caught up with me, Yoarashi."
His gut splintered. "Inasa," he heard Todoroki say into his ear. He stood abruptly and began to pace with his fists swinging violently at his sides.
"The facts," he muttered, "what are the facts! Yoarashi Inasa!"
One (1): Inasa was in love with Todoroki. He paused in his pacing to digest this. It did not sting him as he had expected it would. This disturbed Inasa most.
"But how!" he yowled. "Todoroki is insufferable!" He was clever. "A jerk with a stick up his ass!" Someone who adjusted to accommodate Inasa even when Inasa had not deserved it. "A hot- and cold-running bastard!" Only he had found that Todoroki was nothing if not reliable.
Two (2): Todoroki had kissed him.
"And that means," said Inasa. "That means..." His brow furrowed.
Years ago. Todoroki had kissed him years ago. It might mean nothing. It might have meant nothing from the start. Weren't they drunk that night? Perhaps to Todoroki, so popular with the tabloids, it was only a whim to be forgotten. But the tabloids are wrong about him, thought Inasa.
Three (3): Todoroki had retired without speaking with Inasa. Why would he? Inasa wasn't privy to those decisions in Todoroki's life. Inasa wasn't his--well, he wasn't.
And Inasa thought, there in the cooled hotel room, as he stopped short and his fists clenched painfully at his thighs, he thought:
I missed it.
Like a storm that veered back out to sea, Inasa had missed breaking on Todoroki's shores.
His breath caught. His heart thumped heavily thrice. The ragged corners of his nails dug deeply into his palms. He felt as he did when he fell from a great height: punched out and head-sick.
He had missed Todoroki.
He thought: No.
"No," said Inasa. He said it louder; he brayed it. "I'm Yoarashi Inasa!" He shouted it so the aircon ducts rattled. The air currents sputtered. "Hero of the Breakwall! Back down from a challenge? That just ain't in my blood!"
So what if it had taken him a few years to put a name to the roiling fire in his gut? Men like Inasa couldn't hesitate when they knew at last what needed doing. It just wasn't how they were made.
Inasa spread his legs wide and crossed his arms at his back. He lifted his chin high! high! heroically high!
"Todoroki Shouto!" he declared. He envisioned Todoroki before him, the dispassionate look of him, the slight feeling that creased his eye. His heart thumped again. "Please wait for me just a little longer!"
He nodded, pleased; then with little dignity he checked his phone. No new texts or calls. Inasa's shoulders drooped. No! He would not give in to despair. Was he not Inasa, famously blockheaded first son of the Yoarashi family?
Invigorated, he changed his clothes and his shoes. The worm of uncertainty wiggled in his brain. A run, a long run, should clear his head. He would be refreshed, calmed, filled with the energy to set forth a bold plan of attack. Inasa tugged his laces tight and knotted them.
The sun outside had baked the mud. Tsuyu was coming up the walk, toting a white bag from the nearest combini. She hoisted it high.
"Shinju-bo bought ice cream. Ribbit."
Inasa looked squarely ahead. "I am going for a reviving jog!" To demonstrate, he began running in place.
"Okay," said Tsuyu. "Want company?"
"Some things a man must do alone!"
She nodded. "Sure. I'll put it in the freezer. We can eat it when you get back. Ribbit."
"Thank you!" He brushed by her. As he passed, he knew must acknowledge her wisdom. Again he said, "Thank you, Tsuchan. I wasn't ready to face some things. But that wasn't brave or heroic of me!"
"I didn't know Mina was into me until she kissed me," said Tsuyu.
Inasa blushed all through his throat.
Tsuyu croaked thoughtfully. "Well," she said. "I'll ask Shinju-bo to pick up beer."
"No need!" Inasa managed to bellow. "I'm running that way anyway!"
"I don't like exploding beer. Ribbit. And besides," said Tsuyu, "that's what a kouhai is for."
"You're mercenary," said Inasa, "but that's true! Okay! I'll be back in an hour, Tsuchan! Let's not watch the news when I come back!" He couldn't take another segment on Celsius' shocking retirement.
"I'll put on a lovey-dovey movie," said Tsuyu.
"Not a lovey-dovey movie!"
"If you say so," said Tsuyu in that way that meant she would put on the loviest, doviest movie she could find, and she would not relent until Inasa was overcome with heroic, snuffling tears, and then she would show him the gallery of cutesy couples photos she took with Mina on her phone.
He had praised her for this gallery in the past and laughed off the lack of a similar gallery of his own, but: didn't he have a few dear photos of himself and Todoroki saved to his SD card?
Inasa waved to Tsuyu and ran; he ran with the wind at his back, as the wind was ever at his back, until he thought only of the strain in his thighs, the flexion of each bone in his foot. The thin white brushstrokes of clouds in the sky. The half-fantasized drag of Todoroki's fingers along his jaw. How his own heart beat. How Todoroki's heart beat, too.
Inasa returned to a thoroughly cleaned apartment house. Someone had sorted and stacked the mail into labeled plastic baskets. The fern in the corner by the window fluffed with green growth.
"You're so bad at cleaning," Mom protested over the phone.
Cradling it to his ear, Inasa popped the fridge.
"You made food, too?"
"Oh, of course not, when do I ever cook. Well, other than sweets. That was all Mama. Mama, did you remember the natto?"
He pulled the plastic container labeled Natto from the shelf and said, "She remembered it." Heavy was the heart.
"But you don't need to worry about me. I'm a grown man."
A click. Mama had picked up the second house phone. "We always worry!"
"Inasa's mama worries," Mom corrected.
"Heartless Machiko!" said Mama. "They should have written your name with young instead of wisdom."
"Sorry I'm not as mature as you, Yu-ki-ji."
Inasa sighed and his mothers stopped their flirting.
"What is it?"
"Inasa, are you tired? Are we keeping you up?"
"You sound tired, you should eat your natto."
"No," he said. "I apologize sincerely for undervaluing your efforts! Thank you for these delicious meals, and for cleaning my apartment! I am dependent on your support."
"Please don't smash your head into the ground," said Mama, "Haruto spent so long mopping that kitchen."
"Ha ha, but it's so cute!" said Mom. "He gets it from me, you know!"
"I know," said Mama dryly.
Love swelled Inasa's heart to burst. "Thank you as well for shaping me into the man that I am! Though I may be a fool!"
"Who said you were a fool?"
"Inasa, you dummy!" Mom cried, "you shouldn't talk about yourself like that!"
"But a hero cannot lie," he said very firmly. "And I am a fool, to have ignored my own heart as long as I have."
"Oh, my god, you're sick," said Mama. "Oh, my god. Oh, my baby boy."
"He's in love," said Mom, "how could you carry him for nine months and still not understand him. Is it that boy from high school? Shouta?"
Inasa colored. How could his mother remember such a thing?
"Todoroki Shouto," he said, embarrassed.
"Ha ha ha, I should have known! No one ever gets you as heated up. Oh, you know him, Mama, he's that Celsius, the very handsome one."
"I don't know heroes."
"Mama!" said Inasa. "I'm a hero!"
"And you're wonderful," said Mama. "But wouldn't it be nice to have another lawyer in the family?"
"And you never bring anyone home," said Mom, "even though it would make your mother-who-carried-you so happy, so it had to be that boy you said you despised." She sounded tremendously smug. "See, Yukiji? Even Ma-chi-ko can figure things out."
The conversation went on like that for some time. Inasa bore his mothers' love and their scolding with unwavering determination. Let no man say Inasa was not a dutiful son who appreciated the wisdom of his parents, who sacrificed much to provide for him. Though he did wish they hadn't extracted from him a promise to eat all the natto.
Why had Mama filled two (2) containers with it? He brightened as he checked the freezer. Mom had made custard.
The days moved on, first one and then a second. He checked his phone regularly but Todoroki had yet to reply to his last text. Inasa had sent it at the end of his movie night with Tsuyu and, somehow, Shinju. He had been somewhat drunk, and it was Shinju's sober hand that had transcribed it:
Please accept my humblest apologies for the volume of messages I sent to you.
Shinju had said, "How many did you send? Ah! Tsuyu-mama! He sent so many!"
I will await the time when you reach for me.
"Is that what you want to write? Tsuyu-mama," she'd stage whispered, "does he mean for a text or for romantic purposes?"
"Send text!" Inasa bellowed, and Tsuyu had solemnly handed him another ice cream and smacked Shinju with her tongue.
Now, he supposed, he could only wait. It chafed Inasa to do so. He wanted only to stand opposite Todoroki, to stand strong and square and filled with heroic resolve, and to at last bare the truth between them. Inasa knew, or he thought he knew, his own truth. What pricked at him was the thought that he didn't know what truth Todoroki held.
It was as if Inasa had looked up expecting Todoroki to be standing beside him only to find that Todoroki had never stood there, that he stood far across the room from Inasa and the finely worked features of his face were in such shadow that Inasa couldn't say if Todoroki looked at Inasa in return. A gulf existed and Inasa hadn't known it, and with every day that passed without word from Todoroki, the gulf didn't widen, exactly, so much as Inasa began to perceive how long it had dwelt there and how deeply it plunged.
He had thought they were rivals, then he had thought they were friends, and all this time he hadn't understood. He hadn't understood any of it.
A media engagement: an appearance on a popular local game show. Gale Force laughed sunnily for the cameras. The host made faces. Then the bank robbery on Tuesday that escalated into a chase scene.
Celsius, retired to avoid scandal?! Shocking pictures! promised an advertisement on a news article about the anticipated snows for the winter season. Inasa closed the tab with a forceful click of the mouse. He wasn't permitted to write angry letters to gossip columnists, not after the attention he'd received for the last one.
He over-watered the fern. He made too much curry and filled the freezer with bins of it. On Thursday he called Mom on her direct line at the fashion magazine.
"How did you know?" he asked towards the end of the call, as Mom had finished asking one of the junior editors to please bring her the actual mock-ups.
Inasa was sitting alone in the main room of his apartment house, weighing the drooping, brown-curling edges of the fern in one hand.
"That Mama loved you."
Surprised, Mom laughed. The bray of it made Inasa grin, even with the fern's sickness evident.
"Ha ha ha! Well, she let me put a baby in her," said Mom cheerily, referring to her twin Seiji's contributions in the way she always did, by claiming them as her own work. "And you were a big one, too, you came out half-grown. If she didn't still love me after that!"
Inasa sighed. "That doesn't exactly help me out here."
"Oh, you wanted help? Hold on." She covered the mouth of the phone, judging by the muffled sound, to speak to someone else briefly. Then: "Oh, I was in the hospital. That's when they had to pull the appendix out of me! Your mother came by and brought me flowers, and she snuck back in after visiting hours to give me chocolate."
"What? They let you have chocolate!"
"Ha ha, no, I got really sick!" said Mom. "But that's when I knew! Next time you talk to Mama, you remind her of when she gave me chocolate and I threw up and the doctor banned her from the hospital! Oh, she'll hate that, ha ha!"
Mama would hate that, he thought, laughing with Mom. He remembered how very strict Mama could be at hospitals and laughed harder.
"How did you know she loved you, too?"
"Hm? Oh. Well, I just told her I loved her."
"You weren't scared of forcing your feelings on her?"
"When's your mama ever let anyone force anything on her!" said Mom. "Nah. I was honest with her, and I asked her to be honest with me. Is this about Todoroki?"
Inasa squeezed his hand. The frond ripped off in his hand. He looked at it, dangling sadly.
"Yeah," he said. "I reckon it is."
"Well," said Mom, "I'm not your smart parent. But you're asking me so here's what I say. It isn't like you to hesitate. If there's something you want to tell someone, then you have to tell it to them honestly and with your shoulders set."
He rubbed his thumb along the torn frond. Small beaded leaves fell. He exhaled and breathed in again, fit to burst, and exhaled even more noisily and said,
"You're right! I just got to be straight-up about my feelings!"
"And if he doesn't return them anymore then--" Inasa locked his jaw. "Then I just gotta accept that!"
"And I'll kick his ass!" said Mom.
"Mom, that's not the spirit!"
"What's wrong with you!" said Mom, "why wouldn't he return your feelings if you give them to him honestly!"
"You can't beat a guy up just 'cause he doesn't want to date me!" said Inasa hotly. Mom made blah-blah-blah sounds, teasing. The silliness of it comforted him, and he ended the call in steadier spirits.
Even so, now that he had voiced it, the fear lingered. He didn't like to name it. What if Todoroki didn't want him? What if he'd missed the shot? Everything came down to timing. If you see the opening, no matter how slim, no matter how short, you take the shot. You couldn't hesitate. All he'd done for the last six years was hesitate.
That he couldn't shake the thought was the worst of it. Maybe he should try to call Todoroki again. Or he might text him, asking Todoroki to meet up. Inasa opened his phone four times, five times, too many times, intending to text Todoroki then turning the phone face down again.
No. He had promised to wait. He had promised Todoroki this and Inasa kept all his vows, even if Todoroki hadn't acknowledged the promise.
He went to bed that night, a week after Celsius' retirement announcement, and he looked at the ceiling for a time, a long time, aching and unable to do anything to stop it.
"Tomorrow," said Inasa. He didn't like how weakly it came out and so he tensed his throat and said loudly, "Tomorrow! I will text Todoroki and ask him to square up!"
The neighbors who lived upstairs banged on the ceiling above Inasa. Hasegawa who lived downstairs with her daughter's family's daughter banged on the floor below him.
"Sorry!" he bellowed. "Please, everyone, sleep well!"
He woke that morning at six, just shy of the year's late summer dawn. Grey skies, the weird, waking light dimmed. A noise had woken him, a quick one-two buzz. Inasa blinked sleepily at the window. He'd forgotten to draw the blinds. The building across the street filled the frame.
His phone. He rolled over on the futon and fumbled for it. A new message.
please meet with me this afternoon, wrote Todoroki, and he had included an address and a time.
The screen dimmed. Inasa wiped his thumb hastily across it.
yes!!! Please and Thank you, he wrote, I will see you then!!!!
Inasa turned the screen off. He rolled onto his back. He clutched the phone to his chest. His heart beat; it thundered; he couldn't hear over the heavy drumming of his heart.
Now, he thought. Now.
Chapter 7: Now
The cafe sat on the corner of a quiet intersection in Nabooh Ward; a little cafe with tasteful decor, that served to an upscale clientele. Inasa claimed a table by the bank of windows looking out on the north-running street.
Showered, hair freshly buzzed, in slacks and his nicest button-up, he felt out of place. Out of place, and early: a half hour early, no less. He ordered an over-priced coffee, paid for a pastry too, and sat looking out the windows at the men's fashion shop across the street with his phone like a stone in his trouser pocket.
He ate the pastry slowly. Western baked goods were (in his opinion) too sweet and too rich; it forced him to eat slow. The shirt was too tight across his shoulders. The second button tugged. He remembered why he'd left it in the back of his tiny closet.
Inasa scratched at the back of his nape. He palmed it, checking for stray cut hairs. The barista behind the pastry counter glanced at him. He dropped his hand and sat straighter, and she smiled fleetly before turning away.
Five o'clock. The traffic lights ticked. The clouds that had darked throughout the day at last fulfilled their promise. Rain began to patter against the sidewalks, the black asphalt. Inasa checked his watch. Five minutes. Then ten. The clouds ripped. A shower turned to a storm.
Five-twenty. The barista came by his table. He started: she slid a cup of tea across the table to him.
"You're Gale Force, aren't you?" She blushed, sweetly. Something of the primness of her bob reminded him Fuuko. "Ah-- Last year, Biei. In Hokkaido? During the blizzard. You saved my grandmother. Please, take this." She dipped her head and lowered the brown tray to her lap as she did so.
The proper thing to do would be to politely refuse. That was the kind of hero he liked to be: a classic hero. Todoroki, who accepted all gratuities with the same awkward stoniness even after years of practice, called him old-fashioned for it.
Inasa smiled. He said, "It's only my job. But thank you. The coffee was very nice but--"
He rubbed at his head again, sheepish. "Could you tell?"
She dimpled. "It showed on your face. This tea is bitter but refreshing. Please, enjoy it."
"Thank you, I will."
As she made to turn on her heel she paused to say, "And please, sit as long as you like. I'm sure the rain has slowed them."
A faint and aromatic steam twisted out of the cup. Inasa said, "So!" and laughed. "I'm sure you're right!"
"Would you like a biscuit?" She gestured, as if to take the rest of the pastry.
He still had half the iced cake left. "No, it would be wasteful to--"
The bell over the door dinged. The rushing sound of rainwater in the street suddenly loudened. Todoroki bent to shake the rain from his umbrella. His hair, red faced to Inasa, dampened, curled against his temple.
The barista murmured, "Then if there's anything else, please ask," and left on quick feet.
Inasa stood. Tying the umbrella neatly shut, Todoroki ran three fingers through his hair and straightened. He looked to Inasa.
Nothing of the room changed. The walls did not recede; the rain did not quiet, nor did the clouds part. The cafe's aircon sighed. Inasa felt the stroking of his heart, steady: steady.
The scar showed livid against Todoroki's pale face. His lashes, straight and white, curled and red, masked his eyes. He stood stiffly, straightly, exactingly precise, there in the doorway in a fine coat and a clean, white, pressed shirt, and Inasa thought with jarring finality: I love him.
Like the fool, Inasa went on standing, arms at his sides, his shoulders slightly bent to accommodate the tightness of his shirt. He felt the fool. I like you, he wanted to say. He wanted to shout it. It beat at his teeth; and he knew that he could not shout it at Todoroki here, in the cafe with its light afternoon crowd and two office ladies coming through the door so that Todoroki had no choice but to come forward and the staff.
Todoroki, who kept his own counsel: Todoroki, who only ever gave concise interviews that touched on little: Todoroki, who stood now before Inasa and said,
"Sorry I'm late."
Inasa stirred. "No need to apologize!" he said. "I only just arrived myself!" The barista had taken the emptied coffee cup and the tea still steamed. It was the pastry betrayed him.
Todoroki nodded and took the opposing seat. Inasa sat hurriedly. The chair creaked. He gripped its seat. Stripping from his coat, Todoroki's chin had tipped down. His hair hung lankly. The shell of his ear showed. The knot in Inasa's gut tightened.
He said, "First, allow me to apologize again--"
Todoroki interrupted. "Don't."
"--my pestering you at such a-- Eh?"
"You don't need to apologize again."
"Oh." Inasa forced his hands flat on the table. He tried to remember what else he had wanted to say. Over and over in his head it sounded: I like you. I like you. I like you.
The winds outside had picked up. The rain drove against the glass. Inasa, struggling to find words to say that weren't I like you, I love you, am I too late, tensed as the barista approached again.
She spoke with Todoroki. Todoroki asked for tea, the same as what Inasa had. No sugar. Thank you. His long, thinly callused fingers folded before him. The fine, muscled arch of each wrist in turn. A passing sense memory, of Celsius reaching down and grasping Gale Force by the padded, military shoulder of his costume and hauling him up from the ground.
The barista glanced at Inasa. She winked, so Todoroki wouldn't see, without changing her expression.
"Did you swallow something?"
"What? No!" said Inasa.
Todoroki eyed him and this was so like it ever was between them that some of the hard-pulling tension in his back eased.
"You don't like pastries," said Todoroki. "Or did Tsuyu get you started on them, too?"
"What, this?" He scoffed. "I've always loved pound cake!" To prove it, he broke off a chunk and stuffed it in his mouth.
Todoroki said dryly, "Well. Don't choke now," as Inasa chewed through the sweetness. He reached for the cake and broke off a piece himself. Inasa relented and shoved the plate to Todoroki.
"Geez, it's pouring."
"I didn't check the weather report before I texted."
"Ha! A little rain never bothered me! You're the one who got stuck in it."
"Not everyone can blow the rain away."
"As if! I welcome the rain!"
"Maybe not in a white shirt," said Todoroki.
Like that, the easiness fled. Heat crept up Inasa's throat, and some other thing flickered in his chest. Maybe, he thought. Before he could come up with something clever to say in response, Todoroki went on:
"But I wanted to meet you for a reason."
Inasa said: "Oh, yeah?" and felt that heat moving up to his ears.
Todoroki folded his hands again. He unfolded them. He looked down at them, how the very tips of the fingers of each hand crossed with the other.
He said, "My mother is sick. That's why I announced my resignation," very calmly. "I apologize for not speaking with you sooner." He bowed his head.
Inasa blurted: "Don't bow to me. If it's your mother, then of course! You don't owe it to me to explain yourself," and even as he said it, he knew he should not have said it.
Todoroki lifted his gaze. He said briefly, "Yes. I know."
"That's not-- Ah, what I meant to say is--" Inasa scrubbed at his face with both hands.
"But you did send me several texts," said Todoroki. His gaze, now turned on Inasa, did not shift. "And you left a number of voicemails. Some of them were... loud."
Would he ever not flush? Fumbling, trying still for circumspection, Inasa said, "That was-- I was in the wrong-- You're right, I shouldn't have bothered you like that when you were going through something personal--"
Todoroki was silent. The look of his face was unmoving. Still, quiet. As ever. He looked at Inasa with such coolness that Inasa was certain, then, that it was too late, as certain as he had been a moment ago that he still had time.
"I should've given you more space," Inasa heard himself saying.
At this, Todoroki nodded. Inasa was sinking. He felt it as surely as a solid punch to the gut, or the painful anticipation of a collision with the roiling sea.
"So that's it," said Todoroki, as if to someone else. He reached for the coat he had cast on the back of his chair. More clearly to Inasa Todoroki said, "That's all I wanted to say," as he stood and made to shrug on his coat. "Thank you for meeting with me, Yoarashi. This is for the tea. Please be safe getting home."
He set a small amount of paper money on the table and turned. He left. Inasa watched him leave. At the door, Todoroki undid the tie on his umbrella. The barista, coming out with the tea on a tray, looked startled at him and then at Inasa.
Inasa, who was a fool, and was letting Todoroki leave.
He bolted upright. His knee knocked the table. He kicked the chair away, dropped more money on the table, shouted a "thank you and have a good day!" at the barista, and ran out into the rain. It struck him in the face. Inasa sputtered and turned left then right then left again to take four quick, long steps.
"Todoroki!" he yelled, and he spat water. "Wait! Todoroki! Shouto!"
He turned blindly. The rain cut off: Todoroki held the umbrella high to cover Inasa, too, who hunched to fit beneath it.
"You're getting soaked," said Todoroki.
The rain had plastered Inasa's shirt to his back. The wetness stuck his undershirt, too.
"Todoroki Shouto," he said. "I have something I have to say to you."
Todoroki looked blankly at him only it wasn't blankly at all. Inasa was right; he did know Todoroki. He knew him well enough not to second guess his gut. In the cafe that stillness on Todoroki's face had been resignation, not distance.
Inasa wiped at his face. Water dripped from his nose, his chin. Todoroki sighed through his nose. It was resignation on him now, too.
"I love you," Inasa said.
The rain drummed against the umbrella. It beat against Inasa's wet back. He heard it roaring in his ears. Todoroki looked up at him. He didn't blink. His lashes were high.
"Shouto," said Inasa. "I'm an idiot. I'm the dumbest person in the world not to have ever reflected on my own heart. But I still love you."
The rounded edge of Todoroki's jaw, no longer set. That incredible stillness. His hand, clutching the umbrella's stylized handle, knuckles thick points and white.
"I should've known," Inasa said, "but I guess I thought--" No. No excuses. He straightened his back. His shirt, soaked through and already too small, strained. Todoroki stretched to hold the umbrella higher.
"It doesn't really matter now, does it! The thing is that I love you! And I've loved you for a long time! And that's all I wanted to say, I guess, so if you--"
A hand at his collar. Inasa staggered, pulled suddenly down. He grunted, and then his nose was just shy of Todoroki's nose and the hand at his collar flew to his jaw to grip him firmly and Todoroki was kissing him.
The umbrella tipped away. The rain struck Inasa's head. He ignored it. He stared at Todoroki, who looked back at him. Then Todoroki pressed at Inasa's jaw and he tipped his head just so, and Todoroki rose up on the toe of one foot and turned his own head; and Inasa closed his eyes as, at last, Shouto kissed him.
His lips were slick. They parted. Inasa said, "I--"
"I care, too," said Todoroki. Color was in his cheeks, as much color as ever got up there. A muscle in his cheek fluttered nervously. He said, "Inasa."
"I'm sorry I made you wait," Inasa told him. "If you're mad at me then I get it, I'm mad at me too--"
"Please stop talking," said Todoroki, "it's very annoying when you talk through all the important signals," and he reached again for Inasa,
The umbrella dipped. It fell away. Inasa didn't care. They were in public. He didn't care. He thought Shouto didn't care either. He was in love. He was in love.
Todoroki paid the taxi driver. As Inasa had dripped the most, he protested; but Todoroki insisted, and Inasa thought to avoid an argument. Instead he waited beneath the awning of the building, and when Todoroki had done Inasa led him upstairs to his apartment.
The apartment had seemed a reasonable idea. Inasa had never visited Todoroki's house. True, that Todoroki had never visited Inasa's house either, but Inasa lived alone. Inasa was soaked and Todoroki damp.
Only as he turned on the lights and looked back at Todoroki, toeing off his shoes in the genkan, did Inasa experience something like doubt. Not doubt: alarm.
The fern was drowning. He hadn't cleaned the open kitchen. Had anyone thought to scrub the bathroom? He had guest slippers but they were all fuzzy, pink concoctions with ribbons, a family joke about Mama's junior school taste in home decor.
Todoroki rose, barefoot. His shirt clung to his shoulders. He fixed Inasa with a look, a particular, hooded-eye look reminiscent of a cat. Inasa recognized it, as cousin to the look Todoroki wore before a fight: a look he often directed at Inasa.
Suspicious, Inasa squinted at him. "What, now you wanna fight?"
Todoroki tipped his head. "No," he said. "Why do you think I want to fight?"
"That face you're making at me, it--"
Another epiphanous jolt hit Inasa. That wasn't a come-fight-me look. Had it ever been a come-fight-me look?
He blurted out, "You wanna kiss me."
Todoroki stepped out of the genkan. His toes showed, long and knobby. He reached for the buttons of his shirt.
"Do I," he said in his flat way. Inasa stared, entranced, or horrified, or thrilled, as Todoroki undid each tidy button of his shirt. "I suppose that... maybe... I do want to kiss you."
After everything, that thought now stymied Inasa so thoroughly he couldn't draw breath enough for his head. Or perhaps it was Todoroki peeling out of that shirt, revealing his white undershirt, his leanly muscled arms, the knife scar on his shoulder that did this to Inasa.
"Wait," said Inasa. "Hold on. You want to kiss me."
Hadn't they kissed in the rain? Hadn't Inasa confessed his love? In the downpour this had all seemed dreamlike and inevitable. Now, here, in his apartment, Todoroki half-undressed and his hair pressed wetly to his scalp, Inasa near to shivering from the chill of the aircon against his own wet back, it took on a certain surreality.
A drop of water marked Todoroki's throat. Goosebumps lined Inasa's arms. They needed to dry off. If Todoroki took ill then it would be Inasa's fault. They'd lost the umbrella because he'd so impatiently grabbed Todoroki's face in both his hands and knocked the umbrella aside and--
"Hell yeah, let's do it!" said Inasa.
Todoroki smiled. It creased his eye, rumpled his scar.
"That's what I admire most about you," he said to Inasa. "Nothing ever throws you for very long."
But Inasa, who had never heard such a thing from Todoroki before, was indeed thrown. He flushed comprehensively.
"You! This guy!"
Todoroki reached for him again. He said to Inasa, "You didn't ask me. How long?"
"How long since what?"
"How long have I waited for you," said Todoroki.
Inasa said gruffly, "I already told you, I'm sorry about that. But I'm not the kind of guy who can read between the lines that easily!"
Patiently Todoroki said, "Ask me."
Inasa sputtered. Embarrassment curled his gut. Finally he grumbled, "How long?"
Todoroki's hand smoothed along Inasa's neck. He looked coolly at Inasa through his asymmetrical eyelashes. He was composed, naturally, all the fragments once more pieced together. Inasa had thought it a mask, long ago, but it was simply Todoroki.
"Years," said Todoroki. "Ask me how many."
Inasa squirmed under his hand. Todoroki brought the other hand up to rest in the crook of his shoulder. His palm burned through the wet shirt.
"How many years?"
"Since the remedial classes."
"What?" yelped Inasa. "In remedial classes, I-- Todoroki, I hated your guts!"
"Ask me when."
"Ask me when," he repeated, his hands sliding closer together.
They were moving across his shoulder, his collar, his chest. For the first time in his life Inasa felt the profundity of his own hugeness. He held himself as still as he might.
"When," said Inasa.
"The fourth class," said Todoroki. "You yelled at me to pair up. Bakugou said he'd rather eat dog crap than watch you chase my boots."
"He said WHAT?"
Todoroki continued, unfazed. "You didn't hear him. So you thought he'd insulted me. You were going to fight him. Even though," said Todoroki thoughtfully, "you kept saying you didn't like me."
"'Cause I didn't!" said Inasa. "Did that asshole really say that?"
"You made me furious sometimes," Todoroki added, "but in a way no one else ever did."
"That little grenade-shitting jerk!"
"Focus," said Todoroki.
"I am focusing!" Inasa snapped.
"No," said Todoroki, "focus on me."
Inasa did. His chest stuck. Todoroki was as if illuminated. He looked at Inasa with such emotion, controlled but present even so.
"Tell me again," said Todoroki calmly.
Inasa swallowed. It came readily. The truth always did, to Inasa. He wasn't meant for lying.
"I love you," he said.
"I love you."
Todoroki drew up. Their lips brushed, so very near that the air shifted against Inasa's skin as Todoroki said:
"How many times before you believe me?"
"Say my name."
"Shouto," said Inasa.
Todoroki said, "Inasa," and Inasa cracked.
He wound an arm around Todoroki. Todoroki's hands were already clutching at his head. It wasn't the conversation they needed. They needed, Inasa knew, to talk. He couldn't talk with Todoroki's mouth opening hotly to devour him.
He hadn't known he could want Todoroki like this. He hadn't known that it could be like this between them. Someone else might have slowed, to push for that conversation, but Inasa had always been Inasa.
They pushed at each other. Inasa brought a hand around the back of Todoroki's head to cradle the opposing side of his jaw in one big palm. Todoroki's bared toes, the left foot braced against Inasa's shin, they curled and rucked at the wet cloth of his slacks.
How long, since Todoroki had become one of the weights that held down Inasa's understanding of the world? How long, since Todoroki had taken the place of so many other people Inasa had known in high school? He hadn't talked to Reina in years. He didn't know whether or not Shishikura had ever graduated from the agency where he worked as a sidekick. Hell, he'd broken Shishikura's nose defending Todoroki.
Inasa's legs hit the couch. He sat heavily and Todoroki went with him. They sprawled, half on the couch and half off it, Todoroki looming over Inasa as no one loomed over Inasa. A shadow, spilled over him. Todoroki's eyes, pupils uneven, the light-colored eye made darker than the brown eye.
Todoroki splayed a hand on Inasa's chest, pushing him down. The other hand braced on the back of the couch. He stooped and kissed Inasa softly, longly, his lips pulling at Inasa's lips so that Inasa opened to him.
The rain continued. Gloomy late day shadows filled much of the room. He'd only turned on the light in the entry hall, and so the light stood at Todoroki's back. It haloed his humid-fried hair; it limned the pale and graceful lines of his neck and shoulders even as grey light shadows filled his throat, his scarred and known face so that it was for a moment unknown: but known, still, as Inasa had always known Todoroki.
Todoroki blinked. Slow, steady. Everything of him like the ice but there was more to him than that. Always there had been more to him than this. A flickering heat. The sparsely glimpsed suggestion of fury.
Very deliberately Inasa lifted a hand. He crooked his arm, still clothed, and he set his hand between Todoroki's shoulder blades. A man could be forgiven, thinking Todoroki thin. He dressed with an eye to simple elegance, each impression one of delicacy, or perhaps not delicacy but fineness.
It was not a mistake Inasa had made. Todoroki was leanly muscled, hard-worked. Beneath Inasa's hand the wing-like muscles of the left shoulder blade stretched. Todoroki watched Inasa's face without blinking as Inasa began, with the same deliberation, to smooth his hand down the coiled strength of Todoroki's back. The damp, minusculely ridged fabric of his undershirt ran lines against his worn palm.
Todoroki didn't speak. He didn't need to. Inasa heard all of it as clearly as if Todoroki had said it to his ear. The wetted black hairs of Inasa's arms stood on end.
"Don't look away," Todoroki said, without speaking. He said it as he bent to drop a chaste, searing kiss on Inasa's left cheek. "Don't you look away from me," as he did the same to the right cheek. The air he exhaled through his nose moved as hotly across Inasa's skin.
Every inch of Inasa was as if bit by frost: or as charged by the static front of a storm: or as though he sat too near to a fire. His hand came to rest in the defined small of Todoroki's junglecat back.
Three lingering, close-mouthed kisses placed in a descending line along the jutting bridge of Inasa's nose. Each kiss an assertion not of ownership, but a claimant nonetheless. Inasa closed his eyes and conceded. He rose from the couch, only just so, far enough to touch his lips to Todoroki's lips.
Todoroki, when he breathed out then, shuddered. All those sleek muscles tensed. The movement of his thigh as he drew it along Inasa's own leg pulled a cough-grunt out of Inasa's mouth.
A little smile touched Todoroki. It flitted away. His eyes burned.
Inasa swallowed. Todoroki pressed his knee to the outside of Inasa's thigh. The arm that he used to brace against the back of the couch was set as iron.
"Shouto." He cleared his throat and tried again. "Shouto, this is what you want?" He grit his teeth at how it sounded but shoved on: "Between you and me. Not something you're thinking you want because you used to want it. But something you want now. For real."
Todoroki withdrew slightly. The pressure of his knee eased.
"Did you think I wouldn't want this?" He asked it plainly, without insult.
"If it was something you used to want... What I'm trying to say is that if your heart has moved on, then--"
Todoroki said, "Please shut up," and bent.
Inasa caught him with a hand, palm pressed to Todoroki's mouth. Todoroki blinked again, shock a crease in his brow.
"I ain't shutting up!" said Inasa. He pushed up more firmly, so he could grip Todoroki by those knifeish shoulders. "I'm gonna keep talking and you're gonna listen to me 'cause I finally got something worth saying to you! Look, I--"
The intimacy of his apartment enclosed them. The nearness of Todoroki, the sweetness of his surprise, that both unsettled Inasa and emboldened him.
"I love you," he barged on. "I meant it. I guess I've loved you for a couple years if I have to think about it! But the timing's off. I'm no good at timing outside of a fight!"
"That's not true," said Todoroki.
"We got stuck in remedial classes 'cause of how bad my timing was," said Inasa crossly, and Todoroki said, "Ah. That's true."
His breath heaved. He looked at Todoroki's shadowed throat and then his face, so transcendently dear that it made Inasa want to shout and pick Todoroki up in his arms and kiss him so Todoroki melted away or set him on fire, or both.
"And you got other things to worry about now," Inasa stuttered out. "Your mom, and-- Probably all those contracts you had to end, and sorting out your hero work. And I'm probably going back up to Hokkaido in a few months for the winter season."
Todoroki nodded. The surprise had gone out of him. A certain wrinkling of his left eyebrow gave away his thinking.
Inasa sucked in a deep breath. "So," he said, "I just wanted to tell you. That I love you. But I'm not going to push my feelings on you. My heart's not that weak. If you--"
A hand, then, on Inasa's mouth: a purposeful mirroring of earlier. Todoroki looked, lidded, down at him; but there was such tremendous softness to the look of Todoroki.
Todoroki said, "Thank you. For your consideration. But I'm certain. Let me finish. Now you have to listen to me."
Inasa, Todoroki's fingers cool upon his lips, cool and so lightly callused: Inasa held his tongue. He nodded. He could listen. He would listen. Whatever Todoroki had to say to him, he would hear it.
Todoroki lowered his hand. His fingers brushed at Inasa's chin, the hard corner of his jaw. Then it fell away to rest on his own knee. It struck Inasa how uncomfortable Todoroki must be, to stand like so with one foot braced behind him on the floor and the other drawn up on the couch.
Todoroki spoke before Inasa could tell him to sit normally.
"It isn't easy for me," said Todoroki. He flexed his hand on the back of the couch. "To be the kind of person that... Deku is. That you are. But you have been there. Even when I didn't want you there. You were there.
"Sometimes," he said slowly, "I thought that you had to know. And then I was sure that you didn't. I was maybe afraid to ask you." Matter of fact. "If I asked you and you reacted badly, as loud as you can be... I was afraid."
"Please," he said sharply. "That was wrong of me. I underestimated you. I knew I had underestimated you. Your timing wasn't off. It was always right, for when I needed what I needed from you."
Inasa's heart shuddered from one beat to the next.
Todoroki said, "You stayed. When other friends left." He made a face, as if to say he knew it overly simplified. Inasa had never heard anything to suggest Midoriya and Todoroki's friendship had ever ebbed. "And when I hesitated, you steadied me. And you listened."
He lapsed. The quiet hush of rain against the window enveloped them. Inasa touched his hand to Todoroki's bent leg. He pressed, very carefully, and at last Todoroki crumpled onto the couch. His forehead rested so very fleetingly upon Inasa's shoulder. Then he straightened again.
"I'm not waiting anymore," said Todoroki.
Inasa swallowed. It hurt him to do so. He said, voice rough, "I get that."
"I don't have to wait anymore."
Todoroki met his eyes. He said, with the calm certainty that had first outraged Inasa, so very many years ago, "We're heroes. We would always be in other places. Japan isn't so large that we wouldn't see each other."
Inasa said, "Todoroki."
"Shouto," he corrected.
Strange, that it should enflame him when he had shouted it so loudly in the rain before.
"Shouto," said Inasa.
"Yes," said Shouto.
Inasa cleared his throat again. "You really mean it."
He smiled. It was the kind of smile he gave so rarely, that smile that moved across the whole of his face and made strange rumpled folds of his scar.
"You know," said Shouto, "we have a lot of things in common. Inasa. We both mean what we say."
Inasa shifted on the couch, to better face Shouto. He grabbed both of Shouto's hands, feeling as he did so like a schoolchild.
"Say it again."
Shouto didn't pretend to misunderstand. He was too serious for that.
"Inasa," he said.
Inasa was smiling, hugely. The hugeness of it made his face ache, his nose sting.
"That's my name."
"Yoarashi Inasa," said Shouto, very grave in manner and tone even as he reached to cup Inasa's jaw in his spider-boned hands. The potential cold of the left, the promising burn of the right, and Shouto the balance of the two.
They kissed, irresistibly. Shouto's lips were thin, and his kiss was somehow as unmoving as Shouto, and Inasa knew that he loved him, that he had perhaps always loved Shouto in some strange and foolish way, that it was inevitable as all things were inevitable.
"My moms guessed that I was in love with you when I was in high school," Inasa told Shouto.
Shouto laughed. The sound of it was weird, and Inasa experienced such a wrenching in his chest that for a moment he thought perhaps he was dying.
"I told my mother," said Shouto. "She advised me to ask to meet with you today. When I walked in, I thought--"
"I asked my mom for advice, too!" Inasa marveled at the wonder of mothers. "Moms are the hottest! They know everything!"
"So simple," Shouto said under his breath, and Inasa laughed at this casual insult. Shouto looked Inasa straight on. "She said I should trust our feelings for each other."
"And so you ran out on me?"
Shouto colored. He said, very stiffly, "Would you please come to my house on Friday."
"You always change the subject up on me!" Inasa complained; then he caught up. "Wait, you-- To meet your ma?"
"Yes," said Shouto.
"Isn't that kind of fast?"
Shouto gave him a look and said, "I first confessed to you five years ago."
"I was drunk!" Inasa had the brief pleasure of seeing surprise once again strike Shouto, then he hurried to add: "I only just remembered, though, so don't think I was holding out on you!"
But Shouto said, "You remember that?" rather quiet.
"You," said Inasa helplessly. "You said my name."
In the same quiet voice Shouto said, "I did," and he was half-lit by the glaring lights of the entry and half in shadow, and every part of him was so familiar to Inasa that he itched with it.
"Thank you," said Inasa. "For waiting for me."
A flickering touch of a smile. Shouto said, "Don't ever do it again."
"I might," said Inasa, "but if I do, you gotta tell me straight-up."
"Will you come to my house?"
"Yeah," Inasa said, "if you'll have me," and Shouto--