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my heart was filled with gold

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Shadows chase me far from home

I remember when my heart was filled with gold

And you know I've been burned

I've been burned I've been burned

You've seen me lose control

It's not worth it's not worth it's not worth

My soul

 


 

The last thing he remembers before his death is the old god swirling with flames—or rather it’s scalding hands he knows belong to the old god, perpetually entrenched in fire and sparks, hurting him. So his last memory before death is actually his father, throwing him away, his voice a thunderclap.

Learn to fight.

He falls from heat and the knowledge that tonight, in some distant wing of the house, his mother might weep and his siblings might sigh, and his father will wait for the rift to bring him a new son.

In fire, Shouto dies.

In blood and ice, he learns to survive.

 


 

Shouto doesn’t have the luxury of passing out. He’s awake every second, from the moment he’s thrown into the rift, to colliding with hard uneven earth, to rolling over and seeing the gaping maw of the breach melt away. He blinks, and there’s no waking up.

This isn’t a nightmare, it’s his death—and he comes to terms with it the same moment he thinks it.

It’s slightly more difficult to accept the colour of the sky, and the shapes of the clouds. The colour is blue, that he’s sure of, but not the same blue. It’s dimmer, somehow, as if the sun is less bright—oh, that’s a big thing. Shouto turns his head to face the sun, but there’s only a black hole in the sky. The longer he looks at it, the more he feels as if it’s pulling him in. Unease tears his gaze away.

He sits up, palms sliding across rough stone. That’s not right either , he thinks as he looks down. It looks like sand, but it’s less ruddy than at home, and it isn’t sand. It’s stone.

It’s stone , Shouto tries to convince his eyes, but all he sees is sand.

On his feet, the sensation of being slowly sucked into the black hole is stronger than ever. Gravity is wrong. The tilt of the land is wrong. He’s in the middle of the same dunes as where the rift opened, but it’s wrong. Drabber, dimmer, shaped as if everything is sliding towards that thing in the sky.

That isn’t the sun . Where’s the light coming from? What happens when the things being pulled in reach it?

Shouto’s stomach churns. Even that feels wrong, as if his usual anxiety is swirling the wrong way within his gut. He isn’t meant to exist here. He needs to get back.

Frost gathers in shimmering crystals over his fingers. He reaches for the air, for the fabric of either dimension, for a fold or a snag. There’s nothing. The longer he keeps trying, the more he exhales clouds of white. With an uncomfortable swallow that’s half ice, Shouto reaches for the other half of him.

Fire, he thinks, is appropriate for this hellscape. In the end, not even the tongues of flame licking about his hand can open a rift. All it does is increase the unease settling at the back of his neck, tugging like a hook in his gut, prickling goosebumps over his arms and sliding down his spine.

He should have seen it coming.

All around him are dunes; shallow, slanted things made of false sand with oddly long shadows that seem to be facing the slightly wrong direction. In theory, Shouto is used to dunes, even if these are inherently, intrinsically, wrong . He’s grown up surrounded by some twice as tall as their house, a hundred times as long, a thousand times more unpredictable.

When the sandstorms hit, half the house could vanish beneath the grains, but the halls spread so far out in every direction that they were guaranteed to have at least one way in or out. The barriers of glass and ice erected by his parents during particularly threatening storms helped.

So, in theory, Shouto knows sand and he knows dunes and he knows the threats of the rifts. He just never put two and two together.

When the demon strikes, it takes his right arm. Shouto watches the limb fall, disconnected, and roll into the shadow of the false dune. Then he’s on his back and staring into a yawning throat full of saliva like the trembling strings of a harp. The thing’s eyeless face dips to bite his throat, but it never reaches.

Flames consume the demon, his arm, and turn the dunes to glass.

 


 

Shouto takes a burnt sliver of bone, encased in glass, and keeps it in his pocket. Only when he rubs it between the fingers of his remaining hand can he convince himself that his right arm isn’t perpetually on fire. It’s gone, and it feels as if it’s burning, but that’s only because he pressed his white-hot hand right above where the elbow should be, and seared his flesh.

Terrible idea , he says before he does it, as he does it, after he does it. Worst idea yet .

But it stopped him from bleeding out, so he can’t complain. Well, he can , but he chooses not to. There’s too much shit going on without his own brain whining about the details.

Such details include: losing his right arm (the one that can direct his ice summoning), the sensation of a bonfire in the remaining portion of his bicep, the black hole sun, the demons following traces of his magic.

The big picture is the fact he’s stranded in the demon realm with no food or water or other supplies. Forget demons and losing arms and being in pain, he lacks the most basic of necessities. All he has are the thin draping clothes on his back, now ripped and bloody and singed. He thinks about this with growing anger, feeling the simmer in his chest and his head turning into a rolling boil even before he hears the clack of a demon’s teeth behind the next dune over.

The fire at his fingertips flickers and sputters out before Shouto makes the final call to attack. If he wants to make it out of this place, if he wants to get home and face his father—no, the old god, that’s all he will ever be to Shouto—then he won’t use his fire. Giving him life through pain will be the last gift Shouto will allow the old god to give him.

Shouto’s attack is messy and uncultured—he apologizes wordlessly to his mother a dimension away—when he stomps on false sand and crucifies the demon in ice. His phantom limb twitches with the desire to aid in the attack, to guide as it always has, but it can’t.

Rubbing the shard of bone and glass in his pocket, Shouto walks away.

 


 

Shouto learns that despite being in a veritable desert, the air is humid enough that he can form ice and melt it as he pleases for water. By the third day, he’s starving, but alive. By the sixth, he’s weak, but can still hold his own in a fight. By the tenth, he knows he’s dying.

On the eleventh, he doesn’t leave the bodies of the demons he kills alone.

 


 

He loses track of the days, so he doesn’t know how long he’s been walking when desert becomes grassland. He follows the river that runs through it, heading north—or as close to north as he can logic. Fruits make their appearance, though they all seem to be rotten. The trees become taller and their trunks wider, and Shouto learns to hide in their canopies when the demons come to call. They eventually give up trying to cross the slick ice he covers the surrounding ground in, and Shouto begins to find peace at night. Sometimes he wakes to their skirmishes. He’s willingly walking into a habitat with a higher density of demons, and there’s only so much space for the beasts to wander before they meet another of their own kind.

Shouto learns there’s no other living creatures besides the demons, and none of them are herbivores.

It becomes both harder and easier to avoid them when he reaches the rolling hills and forests. More of them have taken to the trees, forcing Shouto to ice them out before settling in. The ones on the ground are as predictable as ever. Shouto finds himself laying traps.

For practice , he reasons, as he sits in his tree and watches half a dozen nightmares converge on one whose leg is trapped in ice.

For practice , he echoes, as he watches them tear each other apart.

For practice , he whispers in his dreams, where there are no other demons but the old god.

 


 

He remembers his mother telling him of this forest— Godswood , she called it, a large swath of land owned by emerald canopies and viridian grass, with trunks mightier than any construct made by man. He supposes it looks rather different in the other realm.

Here, the shadows aren’t deep, but they turn everything grey. The only brightness is the droplets of scarlet that tremble on blades of grass, like morning dew but far stickier. Shouto comes upon the carcass of a demon eaten by its kin. The only thing that perplexes him are the horrific blisters on the flesh that remains. Shouto is familiar with burns, and he’s never seen a demon capable of giving them.

Over the next several days, he stays in the vicinity of the body until scavengers have erased the last of it. No extraordinary demon passes through during this time. Shouto doesn’t linger when there’s no lead. Since arriving in the wood, he’s begun to feel heavier, as if something in the air is weakening him. Maybe it’s what he’s been eating. It’s not like there are proper recipes for preparing demon meat.

Shouto climbs down the same way he got up: using ice as picks for his feet. He leaps down onto the first rising hump of a root and follows it until it dives underground. Just as he’s about to jump onto grass that slithers together like paper, he hears it. Gasping.

Demons don’t gasp, they pant, and when they pant, it comes out rough and deep as if the air is scraping through their throats. This isn’t like that. It’s faint and fluttering as a butterfly’s wings. Too delicate. Too human .

It isn’t surprising that Shouto is frozen by shock when he sees the owner of such human breathing sprint out of the cover of ferns because—well, because that is a human. Another human.

Being chased by several reptilian demons with rows of crooked teeth. More appear to be gathering in the ferns beyond.

Shouto’s feet touch ground, and ice erupts. The demon in front dies with a spear through its throat; the second and third stop short, legs encased. The human stumbles in shock, but wisely keeps running, dark green eyes wide and following Shouto as he rushes past him. With a sharp flick of his thumb, Shouto opens up a cut on his shoulder. A single bead will do, really, so he skids to a stop in front of the surviving two demons, and flips a droplet of his blood at their snapping jaws.

They go wild. Shouto spins around and runs to where the other human has deigned it necessary to hesitate. With a sizzle, the blood rising to the surface of Shouto’s wound crisps and blocks any further bleeding. The human watches this in abject horror, which frankly Shouto thinks is an overreaction. Especially since they’re both presently in the realm of horrors.

When he runs past the human, he follows, while the hoard of demons behind them converge on the pungent scent of fresh magical blood currently sitting on the nose of their writhing brethren. The sounds that follow still bother Shouto, but it’s fine—it’s not him that’s screaming. At least it’s not him.

They don’t stop until Shouto deems it safe enough. He allows himself to quickly assess the human then, who has dropped to his knees, heaving for breath and coughing up phlegm. Shouto doesn’t see any serious wounds—just the usual bruises and scrapes one can expect running around this place—and when he rises to face Shouto, wiping his mouth and the tears from his eyes, his gaze is still...oddly sharp.

The rest of him, however—the freckles, the unruly mass of dark hair, the shock—shouts young and naive, though they can’t be more than a year apart in age.

“You’re...human,” says the boy breathlessly.

Shouto cocks an eyebrow. “As—”

He cuts off when the air snags on its way from his lungs. His voice is rough from disuse. Hastily he clears his throat—several times—before trying again.

“As are you.”

“W-why are you here?” the stranger asks, as if he himself isn’t occupying the same space, seeing the same wrongness.

“I was thrown in,” says Shouto bluntly.

The boy’s expression twists into another brand of mortification. Shouto has never seen someone use their facial muscles so liberally.

“Wh-what is wrong with people?” he gasps with an edge of hysteria. “Is this some new festival? Happy toss kids into the rift day!”

Shouto blinks at him. “You were thrown in too?”

“No! I mean. I-I came in after someone who was.”

He looks uncomfortable, gaze darting towards the greyness behind them. Shouto narrows his eyes. A human willing to enter a rift by themself? Unheard of—or so Shouto thought.

“You’ve been tracking them?”

The boy looks back at Shouto. “Yes—but the trail ends.”

“Where? Show me.”

For a moment, the boy just gives him a long look, judging him, and Shouto expects him to say no. He must find what he’s looking for, however, because he nods and turns back the way they’d come. It’s that moment alone that Shouto unconsciously switches from considering him a boy to a man.

 


 

“My name is Midoriya.”

They’ve taken the long way around, avoiding the feast going on by the ferns. The black sun never sets, but it sucks the light from the world for what might roughly be considered night. It’s dimming now, and the man beside Shouto hadn’t bothered to speak until then.

“Todoroki,” says Shouto.

“How long have you been here?”

“Awhile.”

“Your...arm?”

Shouto tries not to sigh. “Yeah, demon got me.”

“Okay, well.” A pause. “Well, i-it’s infected.”

“What?”

Shouto looks down at his stump, but doesn’t stop walking until Midoriya does.

“Your veins are streaking, can’t you see that? Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Ah.” Shit . What remains of his bicep really is streaking a violent red, even for this place. It happened so gradually he didn’t even notice anything out of the ordinary. It’s not like he’s seen a cauterized wound before. What in all hells was he supposed to do? Not to mention when he really looks, there’s a fine crust of frost where he’d been unconsciously numbing it.

“Are you...okay?”

Shouto doesn’t think he is at all, but he looks at Midoriya and shrugs. He finds the man’s gaze locked on his own—ah, the scar. He supposes it’s not wholly visible by the lank draping of his hair combined with the world’s desaturation. Midoriya seems to recognize it isn’t a new wound, however, and he doesn’t ask about it. Shouto feels a flicker of something—gratitude maybe.

“You’ll have to get that treated,” Midoriya says with a nod at the arm.

“I’ll get right on that.”

Midoriya flushes with embarrassment. “I don’t...suppose you know any plant medicine?”

Shouto thinks back on days spent out in the desert, being forced to draw water from high in the air for his ice and finding some sort of nontoxic plant for when that didn’t work.

“Can’t say I do,” admits Shouto.

“Me neither.” The other man sighs, then turns and gestures with a hand. “Well, this is where I lost the trail.”

Shouto looks around them; they’re at the base of a small hill, nothing else extraordinary about the place, except for…

Midoriya doesn’t say anything about the scorch marks, but Shouto knows that’s what he’s been following. Here and there are holes in the dirt as if something burst, blackening the surrounding grass. Shouto kneels by one and finds no evidence of gunpowder. Magic, probably. Shouto looks over his shoulder to where Midoriya is pacing, head bowed and mumbling under his breath in presumable contemplation.

Suddenly Midoriya halts and whips around to face Shouto. “I was wondering.”

“...Yeah?” Shouto rises to his feet slowly.

“You have magic.”

“We can assume.”

“That makes you a god, right?”

He doesn’t flinch, though his gut does. The only god that exists to Shouto is the old god, and he roams his dreams like a lion—lazy and proud and certain in his indomitable power. Shouto doesn’t want to connect himself to that sort of being, but he’s not a liar.

“A new god, yes.”

“Then you’ll know more about the rifts than I do.” Midoriya’s eyes are wide, focused, fixated on Shouto. “Where and when they might open? Because if Kacchan’s trail ends here, then he might have found one and passed back through!”

“Or he’s dead.”

Midoriya doesn’t blink. “No, he wouldn’t die.”

And he says it with such conviction that Shouto believes him.

Pursing his lips, Shouto considers their options. “I haven’t seen a rift open yet. I can’t open one myself from this side, and I can’t feel them out like I usually would.”

“I see.” Midoriya’s gaze drops to the ground, a hand rising to cup his chin as he murmurs, “Maybe you can’t, but what about the demons? If they went wild for your blood, then it must be they have some desire for it either because it’s human or has magical properties. So if there’s a rift opening, perhaps the demons would be drawn to it, because there’s a god closing it from the other side. Of course, if that were true, the time window would be rather short, and the effect of attraction muted with no blood present. Unless the demons can sense the rift before it actually opens. If they’re intelligent, they’ll know to wait for the rift and the potential for a meal on the other side…”

Shouto resumes studying the burns, recreating the fight in his mind, while listening to Midoriya’s rambling. It all made sense. Some of it was certain—the demons craved magic more than they craved even flesh. Shouto only survived because he was ruthless and liberal when doling out punishment. By the time other demons came looking for the source of their salivating, all they would find were the corpses of other demons. That’s usually enough to get them off his trail.

When Midoriya speaks next, it’s at a volume intended for Shouto’s ears, prompting him to face the other man. “It’ll take time, but I think if we can watch the demons from the trees, it’s possible we might be able to determine whether they’re moving in one general direction.”

It’s the only plan they’ve got, and it’s a plausible one. Shouto agrees to get started the next morning.

 


 

That evening, for the first time, Shouto doesn’t sleep alone. They take to the trees—Midoriya doesn’t offer how he’d rested before then, and Shouto doesn’t ask. On a branch barricaded with ice, they make their camp. Midoriya occasionally tries to start conversation, but Shouto gives him monosyllabic responses or less, until eventually he gives up and Shouto starts a fire with his magic.

Midoriya doesn’t question where the meat came from. He simply accepts it with murmured thanks and eats it without hesitation. Shouto takes one bland bite before pausing. He watches Midoriya over his dinner; how the man is clearly ravenous but holding himself back, his fingers digging into the hot meat. He doesn’t look happy. Shouto understands, though he’s long since gotten used to it. This is his life now.

 


 

The first day yields nothing. The second, more of the same. Midoriya gives up trying to chat on the third. By the fourth, Shouto is losing patience, but so too is Midoriya, by the way his anxious muttering only increases when he thinks Shouto is asleep on the other side of the wall of ice he puts up between them.

On the fifth, they strike figurative gold, and it’s utterly by accident.

Midoriya spots it hovering low to the ground, a smudge of mist twinkling like a thousand tiny gems. From their vantage point in the trees, Shouto can see the way it pops, as if something is agitating it. Any moment now, it could blow wide open. He tastes the cold on his teeth when he summons a sloppy ramp of ice to bring them to the ground, but Midoriya is grabbing for him.

“Todoroki, wait,” he hisses, and points before Shouto can snap.

Demons are beginning to gather—or rather, they have been for some time. Shouto sees several that had been fighting in the ferns drawing near, while another that had been heading south but apparently doubled back. There are more he recognizes by the incoherent jumble of accessory limbs and ill-textured hides.

“They’re familiar, aren’t they?” murmurs Midoriya, frowning and chewing the stub of his thumbnail. “That one I’m certain was moving away from here. Unless...it’s a circle? Or a spiral. With the rift at its center, maybe. If they wander too far, they follow the edge of its influence like a fence. If the fence shrinks…”

“I’m going down there,” says Shouto.

Midoriya snaps to attention. “The demons—”

“Neither of us are getting out of here otherwise.”

He can’t argue that, but he still looks uncomfortable. That’s something Shouto can only understand in theory. He grew up with power, and it’s a part of him in a way that no weapon could possibly be for Midoriya. For a brief moment, Shouto pities him for his powerlessness, but he remembers that Midoriya is alive . That must count for something.

“I’ll draw the demons away.”

Shouto nearly loses his footing. “Pardon?”

“If I can keep the demons occupied, you can get through the rift.” Midoriya looks at him determinedly. “Then either keep it open—or open a new one...right here.”

Struck speechless, Shouto can only gape at him. To his dismay, when he finds his voice again, it’s wavering in shock.

“You trust me not to just leave you here?”

Midoriya raises his eyebrows. “Would you?”

Shouto doesn’t reply; Midoriya grins.

“I don’t think you’re that kind of person.”

He looks away before Shouto can formulate a response. Maybe it’s for his benefit. Regardless, the pop and glitter of the rift is calling them to attention.

“It’s closing,” says Shouto the second he realizes. The demons are milling about, snarling at each other when they drift too close. There could be a full out brawl soon.

“I’m going.” Midoriya turns back to the icy ramp and before Shouto can say anything, he’s launching himself down.

Shouto looks back at the rift. It’s definitely sputtering out. The sparkling jewels are dimming, as if the surrounding dimension is finally sucking the colour from them. He opens his mouth to—do what? Yell at it to stay open?

It doesn’t matter whatever his intentions are. Shouto sees the moment the tear seals.

He swivels around, lifting his right arm—oh. The swell of his power aborts halfway to its peak, but he manages to redirect Midoriya’s descent. The man yelps as he flies around a loop to come to a slippery stop, several meters from the ground. Below, the demons take notice.

When Midoriya returns to the branch with the help of some roughened ice, there’s a battle erupting beneath them.

Midoriya gives Shouto a wordless smile—good-natured reassurance. Next time , it says. But the price of their failure is heavy, pressing in and around Shouto’s head. He hadn’t realized the little bud of hope that had taken root before it was ripped out.

 


 

At least we have something to work with is what Midoriya says that spurs them into action. They choose a lone demon more likely to risk confrontation for its curiosity and tail it. Shouto finds it particularly disgusting: four-legged, tusks coated in old gore, three eyes with zero symmetry that all move independently of each other, and a pair of extra limbs sprouting from its ribcage with no other purpose than to rip at plants it passes over. Midoriya, on the other hand, takes great interest in it, mumbling into his hand as if dedicating the beast to memory.

“What are you doing?” Shouto finally asks one afternoon. They’re tailing it from the ground to minimize use of magic and Midoriya is taking a moment to examine its excrement.

Midoriya looks up at him with a sheepish smile. “Research?”

“On demon shit?”

With an unattractive snort that he muffles with his hand, Midoriya shakes his head. “Demons in general,” he says. “We know nothing about them—or at least, the common people don’t. Just that they’re dangerous and the gods keep the scourge at bay.”

“Dangerous sums them up pretty good.”

“But they have habits and instinct just like animals in our world. I want to know how they overlap, what drives them, how they exist surrounded by constant violence.”

Shouto leans against a gnarled root as their demon dozes far enough away that they can whisk up a tree at the first sign of trouble. “They’re hungry, they’re angry, they’re jealous. I’m sure they’re the embodiment of every possible sin.”

“Well, it’s true they’re forever hungry,” says Midoriya thoughtfully. “It’s almost as if they never stop hunting except to rest, and even then it’s short-lived.”

“I’ve seen one eat until it couldn’t move,” says Shouto. “Then it got eaten in turn.”

“That’s...disgusting, Todoroki.”

“Mm.”

“I wish I had paper to write this all down.”

Shouto raises an eyebrow at him. “Do you keep notes on everything?”

“Just things I find interesting,” says Midoriya with a shrug, “but this place especially I could fill a hundred pages. There must not be a lot of information at all. How often do people end up here?”

“Considering we’ve confirmed three in the past month?”

Midoriya’s face falls. “You’re right.”

Shouto instantly feels foolish; obviously he shouldn’t have said that. Licking frost from his lips, he tries to inject nonchalance into his voice.

“It’ll definitely be a story to tell, when we get out of here.”

“Yeah.” Midoriya forces a smile. “Yeah, that’s for sure. I doubt my mom will even believe half the stuff that’s happened. She’d just be too afraid. Oh gods, I probably shouldn’t say anything—what if I give her nightmares? The others would find it cool, though. Kacchan would probably want to—”

He cuts himself off, eyes fixed on the demon. Shouto follows his gaze, but the beast is still. He vaguely recalls that name.

“Kacchan...is your friend?” asks Shouto. “The one that was thrown into the rift.”

“...Yeah. They—some people from our village—think he’s dangerous. Which, okay, he is , but he’s not a threat.” Shouto glances over to see Midoriya frowning at his hands. “He’s strong and proud and he’s got a terrible temper, so you can imagine that doesn’t mix well. Paired with his...power, folks think he’s part demon.”

“Your people thought he was a demon because of his magic?” Shouto can’t help but bark a mirthless laugh. “So they chucked him into another damned dimension? That’s—gods, that’s sick.”

Midoriya looks at Shouto wide-eyed. “Magic?”

“You don’t honestly think your friend is a demon, do you?”

“No! Of course not, it’s just...the gods—”

“Gods are gods by closing rifts and slaying demons,” says Shouto flatly. “They’re chosen because of their magic, not the other way around.”

“Oh.” Midoriya swallows, looking back out at their demon. “Then it’s because of our ignorance that he was thrown away.”

“But you came after him.”

“Yeah. If—maybe if they’d done it when he was a child, I would have understood. He was ruthless, and treated me like scum, but we grew up.” Midoriya’s expression twists with frustration. “I don’t understand why they did what they did when he was getting better, as a person. He could control his power just fine. He could use it.”

“Fear drives people to do terrible things,” says Shouto softly.

Midoriya shakes his head. “I’m a fool.”

“No, you’re brave.” Midoriya looks up in shock; Shouto doesn’t have the guts to maintain eye contact. “You leapt into the unknown for someone whom you owe nothing. You’re risking your life. I envy that quality. Perhaps if I had more of it, I could’ve protected my family.”

“What...what happened?” asks Midoriya quietly. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Shouto lifts a hand to his forehead—it scalds him. Nothing like the cool touch of his missing limb. Shouto exhales a cloud of crystals that melt on contact with his palm.

“Gods aren’t usually blood-related,” he begins. “You know this, right?”

Midoriya nods, tense.

“The old god where I’m from made an exception for himself. He didn’t want to give up what he had. So when he found what should have been the new god in a village, he didn’t take her as his apprentice. Instead he married her—if you can even call it that.” Deep-seated resentment churns like fire in his chest. “None of his children were born with magic. Until me.”

“Todoroki…”

“I shared their magic. Fire from him, ice from my mother. He was never a kind man. As soon as he got me, he didn’t need her for anything else but to teach me how to use my ice. I—I guess I started to resemble him, and she broke.”

Shouto pauses.

“I didn’t become the god he wanted, so I guess this was his last ditch effort.”

“I’m sorry.”

Shouto tips his head back to look sidelong at Midoriya. “If I had your guts, I would have left on my own, taking my mother and my siblings with me.”

“You’re not weak, Todoroki.”

Shouto wants to say that isn’t what he meant, but meeting the solemnity in Midoriya’s expression, he finds that he can’t. Instead, he swallows frost, nods, and reaches into his pocket to thumb a shard of bone and glass.

 


 

As the days pass, their demon begins attracting attention. Or more accurately, it starts going out of its way to attack nearby demons. Midoriya is tired from all their running around, but Shouto is exhausted. They have to move fast to avoid fallout from the fights, and at night the beast seems to forego sleeping in favour of preemptive attacks on all else. Shouto’s breath is rough in his lungs by the time they find out their demon is also being stalked.

It’s evening, and knowing it’ll only end in a fight that could very well cut into their hours of rest moves Shouto to interfere. He has Midoriya go on ahead of him, and then turns to face the beast as it comes creeping over a thick tangle of roots—all seven legs of it.

Shouto kicks out with his foot, sending forth a thick sheet of ice that grips the demon by three ankles. It keeps trying to move forward regardless, clawing at the ground and snarling. Shouto turns on heavy legs and forces himself to jog on after Midoriya.

The other man says nothing until they have their target back in their sights. After days of endless confrontations, the beast finally seems ready to sleep, and Shouto takes its lead by building another platform for their camp somewhere they can still keep an eye on it.

“Why did you trap it?” asks Midoriya after a long moment of just Shouto searing meat.

Shouto cocks an eyebrow and gestures at their dinner.

“Not that, the demon from earlier. You iced it.”

“Yeah?”

“I mean,” says Midoriya with a frustrated gesture, “you didn’t kill it. Or stun it. You just...left it.”

Shouto shrugs. “It’ll chew its way out eventually, or it won’t.”

“I don’t understand.” Midoriya frowns down at his hands. “You refuse to use fire because it comes from your father, but then isn’t it your mother’s that you’re using to torture? We do what we need to do to survive, I know that, but...this isn’t surviving anymore. This is…”

He trails off, brow furrowed even more deeply, his fingers curling into stiff fists. The flames in Shouto’s hand peter out.

“Do I frighten you?”

It’s not until Shouto says it that he realizes how much Midoriya’s answer means to him. He wonders how he looks in his eyes. Is he proud to the point of vice? Is he vicious? Threatening?

“No,” says Midoriya firmly. “I’m worried for you.”

“What?” Shouto stares at him.

Midoriya smiles slightly. It’s a sad thing. He’s closer than he was before, a hand rising, reaching, until he’s near enough to touch—and he does. Hands—roughened by years of work and weeks of just surviving—touch the crown of Shouto’s head. Red hair glittering with frost slips between his fingers. Shouto forgets to breathe.

“You’re kinder than you realize,” says Midoriya softly. “I don’t want to see that change.”

“Oh,” says Shouto.

He has the privilege of watching Midoriya blush luminescent before they both avert their eyes.

 


 

Shouto finds himself gravitating towards Midoriya, as if he’s the embodiment of the black hole sun. No, maybe its counterpart. Containing actual light, and warmth, just like—ah, the sun. Midoriya really is the sun.

It’s an overbearing thing in the desert, but at dawn, when the sun chases away the night’s brisk chill for those first few moments of the day, Shouto understands the people’s love for it. It’s relief, that the world keeps turning, that the sky changes, the days continue.

The fact that he likens this overwhelming force with freckled, baby-faced, messy-haired Midoriya is concerning. Perhaps it’s just that he hasn’t known a kind touch in so long, but Shouto can’t deny that it’s more than that. It’s things like Midoriya standing on his right, should he stumble and not have a hand to catch himself with. It’s Midoriya going on ahead to scout, because he’s noticed Shouto exhaling clouds more often than not. It’s Midoriya coming back every time, and Shouto expecting him to. It’s the wall of ice between them no longer being necessary.

It’s Shouto trusting him, and that’s a terrifying feeling to have when either of them could be taken at a moment’s notice.

He thinks about it so often that when it does happen, Shouto feels as though he’s summoned the demon himself. One moment they’re walking alongside the ravine, and the next their demon is lunging out of it like a trapdoor spider.

Midoriya doesn’t cry out in fear. Instead, he shouts a warning, “Todoroki!”

Shouto responds with fire—

—and all the ice that had been keeping his body temperature down—the frost at his bicep, on his breath, growing in a crown around his throbbing head—steams away, leaving only a fever that burns more fiercely than the old god.

 


 

He’s burning up.

“I’m sorry—I’m sorry—”

“You’re okay—”

“—I’m so sorry—”

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“—It’s my fault—I’m sorry—”

“It’s going to be okay—Todoroki, you’re going to be okay…”

He doesn’t know what’s hot and what’s cold. Is it ice freezing him until it burns? Is it flames lapping at his core? Is it the fever, or is it fire?

“I’m sorry,” Shouto gasps out, tears and sweat freezing and thawing on his face.

Midoriya’s voice hushes him. “You’re okay.”

I’m not . “I’m sorry—”

Shaking fingers brush through his soaked and steaming hair. He wonders when the old god let his mother free. He wonders if this means she still loves him. He wonders if she forgives him.

“—I’m sorry—”

Was his arm not punishment enough? Repentance for the wrongs done unto his mother? Because of him?

“—I’m so sorry—”

She’s crying—she always is, in his memories.

Don’t leave me , he cries to her, but she does.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Don’t go.

“I won’t.”

He cries himself hoarse, and then he knows the sounds are no longer his own.

 


 

Shouto wakes to an unfamiliar darkness. He tries to move and regrets it immediately when the entire world shifts on its axis. Breathing long and slow to try and temper his sudden vertigo, Shouto props himself up slowly onto his elbow. It takes more effort than he’d care to admit. Everything about him feels like it’s been stuffed full of hot cotton, from his joints to his gut to his mouth. The only thing that doesn’t is his infected bicep— that’s on fire. He slowly lifts it up and upon seeing some foreign fluid ooze from it, tucks it back out of sight. That doesn’t stop his empty stomach from curdling.

He seems to be underground by the looks of it, or at least tucked beneath some roots. Weak beams of light filter through the minute gaps in dirt and tree. The most important part is that he’s alone.

His muscles finally decide to stop supporting him, and he collapses back onto loose dirt. Part of him is convinced Midoriya ditched him, but the more logical part thankfully shouts louder and more insistent that there’s more to caring for a feverish fool than staying stuck below ground with him.

Sure enough, there’s a scuffle by Shouto’s feet, and then Midoriya appears above him, barely visible in the dim lighting. Yet his bright eyes and relieved smile are impossible to miss.

“You’re awake,” he says in a hushed voice. “Thank the gods. I thought—nevermind. Here.”

Midoriya is helping him sit up, an arm around Shouto’s shoulders. He’s got a sack of some sort in his hand that he lifts to Shouto’s lips and urges him to drink. It’s got a distinctly metallic taste that Midoriya winces and apologizes for. Shouto decides not to ask. He hasn’t had the luxury to complain in a long time anyway.

“How do you feel?” asks Midoriya.

“...Bad,” croaks Shouto.

“Well at least you’re not…” He trails off and gestures oddly before accepting the waterskin back. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Midoriya’s hand twitches where it’s gently holding Shouto’s right shoulder. “For not being here when you woke up.”

Shouto looks up; their noses are mere inches apart. He feels hot all over, but he knows how to separate the tingling in his stomach from the rest of it.

“You’re here now,” he says, drawing out another treasured smile.

Then it falls into a tight line, the corners pinched. “There’s something you should know.”

Shouto feels his eyes trying to bob shut. “Rift?”

“One is opening.”

“Where?”

“Not too far, but…”

Shouto fixes his groggy gaze on Midoriya. “Then let’s go.”

 


 

Midoriya insists Shouto drink more foul water—which he does, regrettably—before leading the way out of their shelter. Shouto steps out onto papery grass, Midoriya’s hand on his arm. The forest is loud today. Distant snarls travel through the trees, echoed from all around with intermittent yips and the sound of wood cracking. Even the wind is stronger than usual, pushing against Shouto’s back in the direction of what he can only guess is the black hole sun.

They move as fast as they can while avoiding scuffling demons. Midoriya runs ahead every so often to check around roots and bushes and tree trunks. He comes back with his anxiety growing more and more obvious. Shouto simply keeps along, a human made of sludge with just as much energy.

“There,” says Midoriya after a while, pointing through towering grey fronds that drag against them as they pass.

It’s sparkling, bright and obvious, above the ground near a loop of roots. Midoriya starts on ahead again, eyes peeled for movement around the rift as Shouto clears the leaves.

Suddenly glistening muscle extends in front of Shouto’s eyes; his mouth fills with the scent of sulfur. The ice is too slow to summon, and his fire is as unreliable as his fever. Shouto dives for the ground as the first claw passes over his head. He rolls, instinct and habit drawing him back to leaden feet. A quick glance over his shoulder is a mistake: the demon is in mid-lunge, jaws stretching, its throat already swallowing on air.

Midoriya comes out of nowhere. His fist lands square on the demon’s jaw with a loud crack. Teeth break, the demon stumbles into a tree, and Midoriya is dragging Shouto by the arm.

“You’re bleeding,” gasps Shouto.

“Better than you dead,” grits out Midoriya, the pain evident in his voice. His fist didn’t escape the danger of the beast’s fangs.

With the help of Midoriya, Shouto gains momentum. The rift is right there , beautiful and glittering, hanging in midair. It’s perfect.

It’s too perfect.

A gust of wind buffets them from behind. Shouto hears a shriek and a snarl, the thud of bodies. Neither he nor Midoriya spare a glance. More demons are coming, more are intercepting each other. It’s only a matter of time until they’re the ones tangled in claws and fangs.

Todo— !”

Midoriya cuts himself off, yanking Shouto aside as a pinwheel of limbs and wings and snapping jaws whirls past them. The edge of a tail catches Shouto on the brow and he hisses. Hot liquid dribbles down the bridge of his nose.

Everything seems to go still for a beat.

“Midoriya,” says Shouto as blood drips off the tip of his nose. “Run.”

He shoves the other man in the direction of the rift as it begins to pop. Midoriya hesitates; the demons do not. Ice erupts from the grass in a jagged wall, buckling rapidly under the impact of several bloodthirsty beasts. Shouto fancies he can feel what the demons feel—that is, the delicious pulse of his magic, thrumming in his veins, no longer kept at bay by the thin layer of his skin. A single drop must taste like sweet nectar for these creatures who have nothing but each other.

Shouto starts throwing up barrier after barrier, creating a rough blockade of flimsy ice that looks like it might collapse into slush at any moment. He spins around to see that Midoriya has thankfully run on ahead, and now he stands before the rift, eyes on Shouto running his way. He extends a hand out towards him, taking a half step, as if he could pull Shouto through the air faster.

Until Midoriya’s eyes pop wide. He half turns towards the rift, mouth falling open, and then his feet leave the ground and he’s being pulled up through a thousand tiny jewels.

Todoroki!” is the last thing Shouto hears before Midoriya’s gone and his hand closes on nothing.

The gesture pulls him off balance and Shouto hits the ground hard. Air escapes him. With a heaving gasp, he sucks in oxygen. Something glitters by his head—a shard of glass. He shoves himself to his feet, turning, but the breach is gone. Nothing. There’s nothing.

Claws scrape at crumbling ice. Something big hits the sturdiest of the walls, etching spiderweb cracks into the surface. Another collision, and another, and the ice shatters. Shouto lifts a trembling hand, feeling for something— anything —but it’s just air. Stale, stagnant air.

The only air he’ll ever breathe.

“No,” he croaks.

The demons don’t hear him. Shouto’s legs buckle beneath him and his knees hit the ground. There’s ice crawling down his throat, melting immediately on his exhale, and he’s choking on steam. He looks up, but there’s blood dripping into his eye.

Through blurry crimson, Shouto watches his death approach. Flames lick at his arm. He’s burning.

Shouto stokes the flames, matches the snarl of the demon first to reach him. The beast howls and Shouto unleashes a jet of flame that sears straight down its throat. His bones feel molten, but he forces the fire to heed him. The demon hits the ground dead. It skids to a stop in front of Shouto. The next is right behind, bipedal and frighteningly human in shape. It smiles.

Suddenly Shouto’s collar is pulled taut around his neck. His knees rise from the ground, and then his feet. He watches the demon’s smile slip away into a twisted snarl, its lanky claws reaching, and then—

“Not today, you fuck!”

—an explosion, followed by a kaleidoscope of emerald and viridian and golden sunlight.

 


 

Shouto inhales and nearly chokes on the richness of the air. He can taste the warmth of sun-soaked grass, the aroma of a hundred different flowers, freshly chopped wood and—bacon? Then there’s the musk of fear and sweat and blood, a singular kind of grime that he didn’t realize smelled so acrid but so wonderful.

Because it means he’s alive.

“Todoroki.”

Hands are on his face, tilting it until Shouto found himself gazing into eyes as deep and green as the heart of an emerald, ringed by jade, sparkling opalescent. Grass is soft beneath him; the sky is bright above.

“I’m fine,” says Shouto, “I’m fine.”

“He’s in shock,” says a stranger above Shouto’s head. “He’s—holy fuck, his arm .”

“What the fuck , Deku?” snaps another someone.

Midoriya’s wide eyes flick up to whomever’s speaking. Shouto doesn’t really care. The colourful air is pleasantly cool against his throbbing head, his burning stump, his melting limbs, so nice

“I jumped into the rift to get you back, but you were gone, and I met Todoroki in there, and oh gods, Todoroki—you’ve got to stay awake—Todoroki—!”

 


 

Someone ends up carrying him, he knows that much for certain. His body turns until the soles of his feet are flat against the ground. Do they really expect them to hold him up? A very solid and very organic weight pulls his arm over their shoulders. Feathery ferns reach out towards him. He hears the flap of wings above.

Shouto blinks and the ferns are gone; he takes one step and he’s up a hill. The world is liquid around him, and he can’t fight the ebb and flow of it.

When he next returns to consciousness, he discerns the peak of wooden logs forming a ceiling above him. A feather floats through the air among a hundred dust motes. He blinks, and there’s a thousand more. His head throbs. Every inhale is more, more, more . A click, a thump, a twitter that screeches through his eardrums and rattles his bones. His nose is burning, his throat is raw.

Too heavy, he realizes. Everything is too much.

The fever is a damp blanket over his lungs. He feels like he’s melting but it isn’t pleasant anymore.

“This is beyond me.”

Shouto turns watery eyes on the man standing over him. He didn’t even realize someone was swabbing the wound on his head, yet there’s concerned red eyes looking down a sloped nose at him.

“He needs a doctor,” says the man, “since like, last week.”

There’s a rustle and the sound of a door opening. “I’ll go.”

The man at Shouto’s bedside turns with a pinched brow. “Are you sure? If they attack again…”

“I’ll go with him.”

That’s Midoriya’s voice. Shouto blinks blearily and struggles to get a look at him. He’s standing by the door of the small one-room cabin, a smudge of green. Someone with sandy blond hair blocks the way, arms folded.

“Don’t bother,” growls the stranger. “You’re injured and you’ll only slow me down. Stay with him.”

He jerks his head to indicate Shouto, and then he’s whisking out the door. The damp cloth returns to Shouto’s head. He shudders at the cool touch and the sudden, if short, relief it brings.

“Don’t worry,” says the red-haired man. “Bakugou is nothing if not fast, and you’d be surprised what kind of shit gods can heal from.”

Shouto makes a sound that’s supposed to be acknowledgement, but just comes out confused. The man laughs.

“The rough-sounding guy. That’s Bakugou.” He takes the cloth away despite Shouto’s weak protests. “I’m Kirishima, the new god of this forest. Well. Old god, technically, if Bakugou’s the new one. Ah, I don’t know. “

Kirishima smears something with a sharp bitter smell on Shouto’s brow. He looks over his shoulder again.

“If you wanted to—”

“Yes!” Midoriya blurts out. Shouto can practically hear the flush in his voice. “I mean, uh, yes, please.”

Kirishima stands, mouth quirked in an amused grin, and moves off to clatter around in what sounds like a kitchen, while Midoriya takes his seat. Shouto blinks at him slowly, willing him to come into focus. Thankfully he isn’t the same shimmering mosaic of jewels as before. He’s still far more vivid than Shouto is used to, but this Midoriya is comforting to look at.

“Hey,” says Midoriya with a small smile. He takes up the cloth with a hand wrapped in bandages stained green, wringing it out and patting at Shouto’s face and neck and chest.

“Hey,” croaks Shouto.

“How do you feel?”

Shouto tries to muster as much feeling as he can into his expression alone, but it’s a ridiculously difficult task. Nevertheless, Midoriya laughs softly at the sag of his mouth.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Kacchan was always the fastest. He’ll be back with help soon.”

Soon isn’t fast enough, Kirishima decides. He interrupts them with a bowl and a small knife in hand. The look he levels on Shouto doesn’t bode well.

“You’re not going to like this,” he says, “but doctor or no, I can’t let the infection keep.”

Midoriya eyes the knife, the line of his mouth hard. Shouto tries to reach for him but his hand flops weakly back to the cot’s edge. It does draw Midoriya’s attention back to him, however.

Shouto forces a feeble smile. “S’fine.”

With a brisk nod, Midoriya allows Kirishima back in his seat. Together they turn Shouto onto his belly to have clear access to his stump. It throbs like it has a heart of its own.

“There’s only so much herbs can do,” says Kirishima. Shouto doesn’t get the opportunity to ask what he means before the pain begins.

 


 

His fever dreams only grow more vivid. He relives memories with invented twists, from his mother throwing burning sand at his face to his father wreathed in ice. When he wakes, he can never tell if it’s real or not. Sometimes Midoriya’s face hovers there, fearful and trying to contain it; other times it’s a hawk, or an old woman, or a three-eyed demon. He has no energy to react to any of these, but he does sometimes feel words pass his lips.

“Don’t tell father,” he rasps, seeing a desert on fire behind his eyelids.

“I won’t,” says someone.

“Please, don’t tell him…”

“Okay, I’m not telling him. I promise. He won’t know you’re here.”

Shouto’s eyes flutter and he catches a glimpse of red. “I don’t—I don’t want to go back—”

“Nobody here will ever force you to. I promise you that.”

The voice is firm, wavering on the edge of anger. Shouto decides he trusts it and sleep takes him quickly once more.

 


 

Shouto wakes up to the log ceiling—and a beak. He stares. The beak disappears and he feels something running through his hair. Slowly he tips his head back. The owner of the beak stops grooming to bop him between the eyes, then resumes. Shouto decides not to further interrupt the hawk’s ministrations.

“You won’t be able to save anybody with a shitty poultice like that,” Shouto hears Bakugou snap.

He tilts his head to get a look, much to the hawk’s ire. At a small table sit Bakugou and Midoriya, both hunched over bowls and chopping boards. Midoriya is determinedly grinding something with a mortar and pestle while Bakugou gives him increasingly sharp instructions. Pausing to wipe his brow, Midoriya glances in Shouto’s direction. His eyes pop wide when he sees Shouto looking back at him.

“Why the hell—” starts Bakugou before Midoriya is launching himself from the table. He follows Midoriya’s beeline to Shouto’s side and rolls his eyes.

“H-how do you feel?” asks Midoriya, pressing a bare palm to Shouto’s forehead and ignoring the annoyed squawk of his caregiver. “Does it hurt? Did you sleep well? Are you still tired?”

Midoriya doesn’t wait for him to respond, already stumbling back to the kitchen for a cloth, returning to Shouto’s side, then returning for an apple, and again for a cup of water. Bakugou watches him with a facetious quirk of his eyebrows, chin propped up on one hand.

“Midoriya,” says Shouto with a wry grin when he nearly spills the water all over him. “I’m not about to pass out again. I don’t think.”

“Thank fuck for that,” gripes Bakugou. “We were breaking our backs making sure you didn’t die.”

“Thank you.”

Grumbling, Bakugou turns his back on them to continue working at his poultices. Midoriya is beaming, practically on the edge of his seat so his knees press up against the cot.

“Apple?” he asks.

Shouto inches himself up into a sitting position with Midoriya’s help. The hawk hops about from perch to perch before swooping out the open window.

“Food would be great,” Shouto sighs. He looks down at his stump. It’s red and raw above its bandages, but there’s no more streaking from what he can tell.

“It’s been four days,” says Midoriya as he hands Shouto slices of apple. “There wasn’t a lot we could feed you that you wouldn’t reject.”

Shouto nibbles the apple and tries not to shiver at the taste, far richer than anything he’s ever had. He eats it slowly.

“How’s your hand?” he asks.

The bandages are wrapped tight around the hand Midoriya lifts for inspection, but they’re no longer smudged with the stains of herbs. He flexes his fingers with a grin.

“It’ll scar,” he says, “but Kirishima says my range of motion will be fine.”

“I’m glad,” says Shouto. “That was a wicked punch.”

Midoriya snorts a laugh. “You think so? Thanks. I am pretty proud of it.”

The door to the cabin opens and Kirishima enters with an armful of kindling. He beams when he sees Todoroki sitting up and goes to dump the wood by the stove.

“Glad to see you’re awake!” he says, planting his hands on his hips. “How’s the arm?”

Shouto gives it a tentative swing. “Aching, but not bad.”

“Perfect. Next time you decide to burn something shut, try washing it out first.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” says Shouto dryly.

“Great! Now go check if your legs are still working.”

 


 

Booted to the outdoors, Shouto finds his body incredibly light. The weight put upon him by his fever has lifted, and even with his muscles protesting from disuse, it’s not an ache caused by sickness. By the time he and Midoriya reach the bottom of the hill, there’s an energy he didn’t think he would ever feel again flooding his body.

Then there’s the forest itself. Shouto feels like he’s seeing it for the first time—well, not counting that first moment sliding out of the rift, it is. He’s seen forests in the south, bordering the edge of the grasslands that bleed out from the desert, but they’re not like this. These trees are magnificent in a way that the weak copies in the other world couldn’t hold a candle to.

Midoriya’s hand brushes his arm when Shouto gets too absorbed with his surroundings. He shoots him a grateful look that’s just as apologetic, receiving an understanding smile in response.

“So that’s Kacchan, huh?” says Shouto as they roam.

Midoriya grins. “That’s him alright. Just as proud and sharp as ever. Now with a few extra scars.”

“Seems like that’s the ticket out.”

“If the rift could’ve just said so from the start, that would’ve been nice.”

A laugh bubbles out of Shouto, startling both of them into further giggles. There’s something more vibrant about Midoriya too, or perhaps it’s not the man himself but Shouto. Every word, every action, is interlaced with relief and safety. They made it, and now Shouto has the luxury of looking upon Midoriya with more than just an inkling of trust and concern.

They come upon a shallow river flowing over smooth stones and sit on the bank. Shouto rolls up the hem of his borrowed clothes and sticks his feet into the water. Beside him, Midoriya does the same. For a moment they’re quiet, revelling in the sounds of water and birdsong, and the breeze filtering through a hundred thousand leaves. There was a chance that Shouto never might have seen this.

Shouto opens his mouth but Midoriya beats him to the punch.

“Thank you,” he says, rounding on him with a trembling smile, “for saving me. Repeatedly. Without you, I wouldn’t have made it. Not for much longer, anyway.”

“I would not have made it without you, either.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.” Shouto turns his smile to the water. “If I’d ever made it out, I would have been a different person. I don’t think...I don’t think I would’ve liked him.”

There’s a beat of silence before Midoriya says, “Maybe. But I do like the person you are now.”

Another beat, and Shouto doesn’t know whether this odd feeling in his throat is because he wants to laugh or cry. Maybe both.

“Thank you,” he whispers instead. “Hearing that from you means a lot more than you might think.”

Midoriya hums thoughtfully. “Really?”

“You’re very precious to me.” Shouto sees Midoriya’s face turn towards him, but he can’t quite bring himself to meet his eyes. “I value your opinion, and your friendship, and I’m grateful to you for having shown up in my life.”

“W-well, I could say the very same thing to you,” Midoriya murmurs.

Shouto’s hand abruptly feels very empty. His fingertips press against the grass before twitching towards Midoriya’s. He pauses, unsure, looking determinedly at the water. There’s motion in the corner of his eyes. Before Shouto can react, he feels the touch of fingers against his own, just as hesitant, just as hopeful. It gives him the courage to lift his hand and entangle calloused fingers. When he feels brave enough, Shouto looks sidelong at Midoriya. He’s treated with a shy smile and freckles dark on rosy cheeks.

His heart is heavy and hot—but not in the way that smothered him before. This is like molten gold. The grass is soft, the stone is cool, their hands are warm, and Shouto’s heart feels full.

Which makes it all the more difficult to remember that his life extends far beyond this forest. There are people expecting him—for better or for worse, he has to meet them. The smile slides from Shouto’s face.

“I have to go back eventually,” says Shouto quietly, as if such words might disrupt this fragile moment. “For my mother. My siblings. I have to face him.”

To his surprise, Midoriya doesn’t immediately try to talk him out of it. “When you’re ready. I’ll be there with you.”

“Really?” Shouto blinks at him.

“Of course! If—” Midoriya suddenly looks uncertain. “If you want me to, obviously. I wouldn’t want to overstep—”

“No,” Shouto blurts out. “No, that...that would be...I would be grateful.”

They stare at each other, each holding their own breath, before exhaling as one. Midoriya’s sounds like a laugh and his hand squeezes Shouto’s.

“I don’t know why I was worried,” admits Midoriya sheepishly. “Sometimes I feel like I’m imposing on you.”

Shouto gapes. “W-why would you—? I would never—“

“It’s fine! I’m sorry!” sputters Midoriya. “I’m trying to get a handle on my self-confidence, that’s all, and...well, you were kind of hard to read in the beginning.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’re like an open book now.”

“Is that a good thing?”

Midoriya grins, and then suddenly he’s leaning in close enough that Shouto feels the brush of his hair against his.

“It’s reassuring,” murmurs Midoriya as all the blood rushes to Shouto’s face.

“...You’re shockingly devious.”

Smiling wickedly, Midoriya rises to his feet, pulling Shouto along with him. The river swells about their shins as they splash in the water. It’s cool and fresh, the air warm with hints of floral. A cloud of brightly coloured birds zips overhead.

Everything is as vibrant and full of life as Shouto finally feels.