There was a rumor in Edo Castle, that the ghost of the previous shogun could be seen over the western turrets.
Descriptions of her appearance varied. Some said she was clad in the armor she died in, blood still streaming from her wounds and steadily dripping onto the roof tiles. Others said she wore a resplendent kimono, dyed with gold, indigo, and scarlet, as terrifying and awe-inspiring as the sun-goddess Amaterasu herself. But everyone agreed that it was indeed the yuurei of Shimura Nana that came every twilight.
The castle inhabitants, already on edge from the turmoil to the south, whispered that she had come to watch over the inevitable war between her heir and her grandson. After all, just last week, news had come that Lord Shiragaki had decimated Chisaki's forces in the southern Chugoku province. He had slaughtered the entire clan inside the castle walls. It was said that not even children had been spared.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind that Shiragaki intended to take all of Japan by force.
In his white walled castle, Lord Yagi Toshinori, the heir to the shogunate, had called on his allies in preparation for war. Daimyos from across the island sent representatives. Some longed for war, for the chance to expand their territories and secure power in the next shogunate. Others feared Shiragaki's chaotic violence, his burnt earth tactics that left the countryside and cities in tatters. Still others came to scope out both sides, intending to choose their alliances based on the strength of each successor. Great lords and warriors of renown poured into Edo to come under Lord Yagi's banner. The country was racing towards a boiling point and no one was sure what would remain afterwards.
Midoriya Izuku was neither a great lord or a famed warrior.
He had been born in the waning years of the Shimura Shogunate, to a family of poor samurai. Midoriya spent more of his youth learning to clerk than to wield a sword. Despite his family’s low standing, however, he would scrape up his allowances to attend the local dojo, where the other children of samurai laughed at his lanky form and weak swings.
“You shouldn’t even be called samurai!” Bakugo Katsuki would snarl, before knocking Midoriya black and blue with his bokken. But Midoriya would only grimace and rub away his tears before staggering back onto his feet for his penalty swings.
“One, two, three…”
His sensei would sigh and interrupt. “Start over, Midoriya. You’re sloppy.”
“Yes, sensei. One, two, three-”
When Midoriya had been fifteen, his father had passed away from a summer fever. The visits to the dojo slowed and then stopped. Both he and his mother went to work to put food on the table. Midoriya’s inheritance was whittled down to a single short sword and a set of Portuguese medical books no one wanted to buy.
“I’m sorry, Izuku. I didn’t want this life for you.” His mother had cried to him at night. Midoriya had swallowed his own bitterness and gently assured her he didn’t mind. Even now, at eighteen, he still believed there was something else in the world beyond writing legal notices and stock inventories.
“Crazy Midoriya’s scribbling in his books again.” The samurai whispered amongst themselves. When Midoriya tried to show up to the barracks with a practice sword, they had laughed him right out the gates.
“He’ll help you with anything like a fool.” The servants gossiped. In the middle of winter, Midoriya could be seen drawing water for his neighbors, shivering without an overcoat.
“I like his spirit. Bring him to me.” Lord Yagi had said, when Midoriya had emerged from the river, slathered in mud. In his arms was a quivering, dirty mutt. Blood ran down his arms from where the dog had bitten him in a panic. But Midoriya had smiled, murmuring soft reassurances to the worn out dog.
Lord Yagi’s entire retinue, from his samurai to his servants, had gaped as their lord asked the young man, covered in filth, to accompany him to the castle. Then they had tittered when the young man promptly burst into tears.
Lord Yagi, heir to the Shogunate, had laughed.
That had been three years ago.
Midoriya was late.
He sprinted through the servant corridors of Edo Castle, apologizing whenever a maid or a groomsman had to leap out of his way. His sweaty hair kept falling into his eyes as he cursed under his breath.
It was rare for Lord Yagi to speak to him personally, let alone to set aside time. The fact that Midoriya had no idea what his lord wished to speak with him about only made him nervous.
He had tried to work off some nerves in the barracks, but Bakugo had stormed in and demanded a bout. One duel turned into five and now the only thing more sore than Midoriya’s ass was his ego. Nor did winning seem to curb Bakugo’s ire against Midoriya nowadays, as each match was swiftly followed by another demand for a challenge.
Being both the youngest retainers in Yagi-dono’s retinue after not seeing each other for years had soured things between them. Not that Midoriya particularly understood why, considering Bakugo had long ago outstripped him in birth rank, money, and swordsmanship. The only thing Midoriya definitively knew he was better at was not being an asshole.
But it was thanks to Bakugo that he was now running late and he skidded to a halt in front of Lord Yagi’s doors, uncomfortably aware of how disheveled he was. He paused to catch his breath when he heard stern voices on the other side of the door.
“-he will never agree to an alliance.”
Midoriya blinked in surprise. He backed away from the door, uncertain. Someone else was already in Yagi-dono’s chambers.
Yagi-dono spoke next, “But with Shiragaki’s recent conquests, does he have a choice? Even Todoroki cannot fight a war on two fronts.”
His curiosity won over his propriety. Midoriya found himself pressing an ear next to a nearby pillar, straining to listen. Everyone in the castle had been talking about Shiragaki for weeks, but he hadn’t heard much from Yagi-dono himself.
"Do you not fear Todoroki and Shiragaki aligning to tear us apart, Yagi-dono? Todoroki's ego would certainly lead him to believe that he is capable to challenge Shiragaki alone.”
Midoriya recognized that voice to be Lord Aizawa of Aizu. Self-possessed and curt, Lord Aizawa had never stood out as a warrior of repute in comparison to his other daimyos. Yet he found himself nodding along to his words.
"Todoroki has two reservations we may exploit. One, he is a traditionalist. Shiragaki's army contains brigands, criminals, pirates, men from all classes. He operates neither on our traditional social structure nor a meritocracy- Todoroki whose family goes back to the time of the gods will not be able to abide that. He barely tolerates my retinue, as it is. As for the second, well..."
Midoriya assumed Yagi-dono made some sort of gesture, because Aizawa let out a snort.
"You think he cares that much for that boy?" Aizawa sounded unconvinced, "From the way he was treated, I doubt father and son will ever be reconciled."
From what he remembered, Lord Todoroki had two sons, both samurai of some repute. His heir had recently won a skirmish in Izumo with only two hundred men against seven hundred, using a clever tactic to burn the enemies’ supply chains. But Midoriya had never heard of there being bad blood in the indomitable Todoroki clan.
"Well, you would know better than I. But Todoroki knows without you, he has no chance of ever reclaiming his son."
Midoriya’s confusion deepened and he leaned forward. What did they mean ‘reclaim’?
Aizawa’s disdain could be heard even in his muffled voice, “He called that boy his greatest creation, but-”
"What do you think you're doing here?"
Startled, Midoriya jerked his head up and hit it on the side of the pillar. Pain shot through his skull and he crashed back down to the floor with a groan. When he managed to crack open an eye, he paled at once.
Lady Shuzenji of Shizuoka looked disapprovingly down at him. Midoriya hastily sank into a bow and he could feel his stomach sink. Although she was small in stature and elderly to the point her hair had gone completely grey, she had lost none of the sharpness in her eyes. The redwood cane clutched in her wrinkled cane was said to have beaten many warrior into submission.
"Back in Shimura's time, eavesdropping could have cost you your ear." She said and Midoriya did not think she was joking.
"I was, um, supposed to be speaking to Yagi-dono, but he was occupied and so I was seeing if he was done-"
Some of the flintiness in her expression faded. She turned around and headed towards the dragon-patterned doors. "Come on then."
Midoriya gaped as he hovered behind her. "Wait, he's with Aizawa-dono..."
"So? And check that your head didn't just split open there. I don't want your brains falling out in front of the future shogun." Then, without any preamble, Lady Shuzenji flung the doors open wide.
"Yagi-dono, I have to speak with you." Lady Shuzenji announced as she strode into the chamber. Scrambling in after her, Midoriya quickly slid the doors shut and tried to make himself unobstructive by ducking into a corner.
He had been in Lord Yagi’s chambers a couple times, but each time it was hard not to stare. Gold glittered from the ceiling as reliefs of phoenixes and dragons twisted around the walls and ceilings. Yagi-dono’s sets of armor and swords stood on a bright red lacquer rack in the corner and Midoriya could name at which battle each set had been donned. Even the seat cushions on the tatami mats had golden thread embroidered into the deep navy cotton. Behind Lord Yagi was an enormous relief of a grinning komainu, a lion-dog, on the cherry wood paneled walls and Midoriya smiled a little at the sight of it.
Lord Yagi of Hojo sat at the front of the room, broad shouldered and handsome in his indigo kimono and golden haori. He was a man reaching the end of his prime, with grey beginning to streak into his golden hair, but he could still command the attention of armies with a single word. What he was known best for, however, was his warmth of character. Even now, when he beamed at Midoriya, Midoriya could feel the guilt of his earlier trespass fade.
Next to him sat Lord Aizawa of Aizu, lanky and pallid in his plain grey and white kimono. He truly did not look his rank, not with his unshaven chin and his ragged topknot. He gave Midoriya an appraising look before losing interest and turning to Lady Shuzenji.
“Certainly.” Lord Yagi recovered gracefully and gave her his famous wide smile. He gestured to some cushions to his side. "And Midoriya, my boy, were you waiting long?"
"N-not at all, Oyakata-sama.” Startled, Midoriya stammered. He stopped rubbing his sore knees when everyone in the room turned to look at him and shrunk into his seat cushion.
Lady Shuzenji took the floor with an impatient tap of her cane. “Yagi-dono, earlier today, an entire neighborhood fell ill due to poisons in the well. Yesterday, we saw an infestation of vermin in the granaries. The signs are clear. We are in a state of disorder with the gods.”
Yagi-dono’s brow furrowed. Midoriya could feel his nerves twist.
“You think the gods are to blame? This looks to be the work of enemy agents. Poisoning the well, releasing vermin, those could all be ways for them to weaken us from the inside.” Aizawa spoke up.
“There is a yuurei of the former shogun haunting the castle. Even if some of this has Shiragaki’s doing, we will surely only see misfortune so long as Shimura Nana’s restless spirit is here.” Shuzenji retorted.
“And is there any proof beyond castle gossip?”
“I’ve seen her.” Yagi-dono said and Aizawa looked at him in alarm. Midoriya stared between the lords, wide-eyed. “Shimura-dono’s ghost is indeed here.”
“Have you…” Aizawa dragged out the question, as if he disliked the taste of his own words, “...done something recently to disturb a woman a year in the grave?”
“I should hope not.” Yagi-dono said heavily.
Shuzenji-dono tutted. “Well, we need purification ceremonies in the town center and an exorcism in the castle. We should try to appease her and send her off as soon as possible. By your leave, we could begin tomorrow morning.”
“...Approved. But let’s approach this both ways. Aizawa-dono, could you take a look with your agents about possibile infiltration by Shiragaki?”
“We’ve already started.” Aizawa drawled.
“Thank you. Let me know your findings. You too, Shuzenji-dono.”
As Shuzenji and Aizawa began to leave, Midoriya also started to get to his feet, when Yagi-dono interrupted.
At the sound of his name, he froze in place. Shuzenji paused, giving Yagi-dono a searching look, before she and Aizawa shut the doors behind them.
“Let’s go for a bit of a walk.” Yagi-dono had declared after a period of awkward silence and so now Midoriya jogged after him down the hallways of the castle. For every one of Yagi-dono’s steps, he had to take two. He didn’t recognize these hallways as well, as Lord Yagi led him deeper into his apartments, a section of the castle reserved just for the shogun and his family.
The observation did not help Midoriya’s growing nerves.
His lord stopped in front of a set of doors inset into a circular archway. As he slid the doors open, sunlight briefly blinded Midoriya. Lord Yagi stepped out onto the balcony and gestured for Midoriya to come stand at the railing by his side.
“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it?”
Midoriya nodded, awestruck. They stood on the highest balcony of Edo Castle, looking out towards the setting sun arching towards Mount Fuji. The city of Edo sprawled out below them and from this height, the people and the buildings looked like dolls and figurines. The wind whistled around them and Lord Yagi’s haori flapped behind him.
“I like to come here when I don’t want to be overheard. Not even a shinobi could scale the walls up here.” Yagi-dono said, looking knowingly at Midoriya, who dropped his face into his collar in embarrassment.
“Oyakata-sama, I apologize-”
“Leave the eavesdropping to others, Midoriya. But since you now know, what do you think?”
“A-about the alliance with Todoroki-dono?”
Yagi-dono nodded, still looking out at the city below, but Midoriya could recognize a test when he heard one. If his lord was asking for his judgement, he would do his best. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
“Aizawa-dono is correct in that Oyakata-sama is too trusting of Todoroki-dono. He has long coveted the position of shogun.” Midoriya began cautiously.
Lord Yagi laughed softly, good-natured. “That is true. Enji never approved of me, not even when Shimura-dono was still with us.”
“But it would not be Todoroki-dono that I would worry about. Nor is it Shiragaki, not as he is now.”
“It is as you said. Shiragaki has no structure in his army at the moment. His generals come from those that envy his power, not out of loyalty. His soldiers are a lawless bunch. This makes him an effective raider, but an ineffective lord.” Midoriya said. His hands had begun to sweat and he hid them in the folds of his hakama. Lord Yagi’s stare had a certain intensity to it that made him desperate to prove his worth.
“You do not think he has the influence to maintain the territories he has conquered.”
Midoriya shook his head. His words began to overtake his mouth, spilling out in a frantic mumble, “Winter is coming and he has burned half the countryside in his rampage. What will his troops eat? How will he pay them? He will exhaust his army through continuous conquest. Then infighting will begin and Kyoto will be in the center of chaos. Maybe even others will claim false birthrights like him-”
Lord Yagi cut him off. “No. You are perhaps right about the rest. But Shiragaki is indeed Shimura-dono’s grandson.”
Midoriya’s mind stuttered to a stop. “What?”
A great exhaustion seemed to fall over his lord as he sighed. Midoriya watched those broad shoulders slump and worry crease his brow.
“I don’t know what influences he fell prey to. I would blame demonic forces if I knew less about the ways of man. But even though his methods are abhorrent, his claim to succession is legitimate. That alone makes him a greater threat than you realize.”
It was the first time he had ever seen Yagi-dono falter. Fear rose up in his stomach and he exclaimed without thinking,
“Even so, Shiragaki isn’t fit to be shogun. He only cares about conquest for himself. But you care about peace and you care about people. Even someone with nothing, like me...”
Lord Yagi turned to look at Midoriya in surprise. A moment of silence passed as Midoriya stood, chest heaving and determination across his face. Then his mind caught up with his mouth and, turning bright red, he sank into a deep bow.
“I spoke out of line, I apologize-”
A deep, booming laughter startled Midoriya out of his furious apologies.
“That was a good analysis. You are improving, although I worry you are, like many good retainers, a touch blind to my faults.”
Midoriya could feel the back of his neck turn red with embarrassment. He dragged a hand through his thick, curly hair and let out a nervous laugh.
The sun had begun to set and Lord Yagi looked away, distracted. Then he brightened and exclaimed, “Look, Midoriya, my boy, can you see her?”
His voice barely carried over the wind, but Midoriya knew at once what he spoke of. He peered out to the parapets, eyes straining in the darkness. Then his lord gently took his wrist and, using Midoriya’s hand, like a father teaching his son the stars, pointed.
Midoriya blinked and all of a sudden, there she was.
A translucent woman in a white yukata floated above a stone dragon. So that was the former shogun, Shimura Nana. She had her broad back towards them as if she too was taking in the view of the city and the mountains.
“I know Shuzenji-dono thinks she’s a bad omen, but I can’t see her as one.” Yagi-dono confessed and Midoriya could hear a rough edge of emotion to his voice. He dropped his hand from Midoriya’s wrist onto the railing, gripping it so tightly that his knuckles paled. “I was like you, poor family standing and little material resources. She was the one that gave me a chance.”
Midoriya’s anxious heart caught into his throat as his lord turned to face him.
“I see that same greatness in you, Midoriya. In fact, I think you worthy of standing here, one day. So don’t apologize for yourself so often.”
In the face of Yagi-dono’s blinding smile, Midoriya could feel tears prick up in his eyes and he hastily turned to the side to scrub at his face. His lord did him a favor and pretended not to notice.
The sun had started to dip behind Mount Fuji and the light cut bright ribbons of color right through Shimura-dono’s form.
“I want to speak to her. To ask her why she’s here, after all this time.” Yagi-dono mused, melancholy thick in his voice, “But Shuzenji-dono would probably skin me alive.”
“Everyone keeps saying it’s like she’s waiting for something.” Midoriya offered. His lord hummed noncommittally.
Even though everything he had ever read or heard had warned him against entanglement with the supernatural, he couldn’t help but agree with his lord. It was not the yuurei of Shimura-dono that made Midoriya uneasy. Something was coming, something that Midoriya had no way to prepare for.
Night fell and, as the witching hour slipped away, Shimura’s spectral form faded out with the twilight.
That night, Midoriya dreamed of spirits and demons, sweating through his sheets. When he snapped awake, gasping for air, he realized his inability to breathe was not just from his nightmares.
Thick black smog billowed in from the hallway and the heat pressed down on Midoriya, smothering him under his futon. His eyes stung from the smoke and when he kicked off his blanket, disoriented and coughing, he saw orange firelight pouring in from behind the paper sliding doors.
To his dawning horror, he realized that Edo Castle is ablaze.
The fire had already spread across the castle, filling the air with ash and smog. Outside Midoriya’s bedroom, the castle inhabitants screamed and fled. Their shadows streaked past the shoji doors, twisted and malformed in the firelight. In the distance, Midoriya heard a thunderous crack and the tatami under his feet shook as something large crashed in the distance.
Terror spurred Midoriya to his feet. Sweat rolled down his back in rivulets as he ran to the back door, not yet bathed with the firelight, and shoved it open. A crowd of people, pushing and running, filled the hallway.
Someone shrieked, "It's gonna collapse!"
As Midoriya tried to elbow his way into the hallway, someone barreled out of an adjacent hallway and knocked him into a pillar. He went down like a rag doll, disoriented and slipping on the floorboards.
Just before Midoriya was trampled, a hand dug into his shoulder and hauled him back onto his feet. When he looked up, he saw Lord Aizawa, covered in soot and coughing heavily into a handkerchief.
"Get to the south balconies if you want to live." He croaked, eyes rimmed with red from the smoke. Before he could turn away, Midoriya grabbed his hand, panic wild in his eyes.
"Where is Oyakata-sama?"
Aizawa-dono shot him a look of disdain over his shoulder as he began to drag Midoriya down the hallway, shoving screaming servants aside, "It's pure chaos right now. You think I know?"
Dread sunk into Midoriya's stomach and he wrenched himself free of Aizawa's grip. Then he darted back up the hall.
"You stupid fool-!" Aizawa's furious voice echoed after Midoriya as he fought through the throngs of people in the direction of his lord's chambers.
"Has anyone seen Oyakata-sama?" Midoriya tried to ask, but retainers and lords alike shrieked and pushed past him. Bodies shoved this way and that and Midoriya’s slight build meant he fought for every inch against the crowd. He kept coughing into his sleeve and the debris dug into the soles of his feet. To his relief, he saw a small alcove ahead and he threw himself into it to escape the press of the crowd.
The alcove had a small peephole and he stuck his face into the grate, lungs screaming for fresh air and straining for a glimpse of the outside. In the darkness with only the lanterns and stars to give light, he could just barely make out the signature dark patterned jackets of the hikeshi , the fire brigade, and their ladders and hooks swinging into action on the southside. Out by the moat, a crowd of barely dressed lords, retainers, and castlefolk had huddled by the stone parapets. Yet no matter where Midoriya looked, he didn’t see his lord's broad shoulders, a head above the crowd. The nervous faces in the lantern light only reaffirmed Midoriya's horrified realization.
No one had seen Yagi-dono yet.
His body moved before he could think and he sprinted in the direction of the heat, even as the floors shook and beams began to crack and splinter under the fire. He weaved past the last terrified stragglers, screaming, "Oyakata-sama!", until his throat was rubbed raw from the smoke. His bare feet pounded heavily on the creaking nightingale floor, and, as he rounded the corner to his lord's chambers, he came face to face with a blazing hallway.
A blast of pure heat rolled over Midoriya and his skin blistered painfully. Half the hallway had already collapsed and the charred pillars looked like blackened ribs.
Without thinking, Midoriya took one step forward and his body recoiled as the soles of his feet burned on the ashen floorboards. He could see that Yagi-dono’s lacquered sliding doors were aflame and askew, but from this angle, he couldn’t see anything but fire inside.
“Yagi-dono!” He screamed, although his voice was swallowed by the roar of the fire and he doubled over coughing. His heart pounded so hard that his chest hurt and he couldn’t think over the white roar of terror choking his mind.
‘He can’t be dead. Do something, Midoriya, you useless, good-for-nothing-!’
As he backed out of the hallway, his eyes caught sight of the wooden wall, only slightly smouldering at the edges. It was decorated with a mother-in-pearl inlay komainu, a lion-dog, now covered in ash. The mouth of the dog was opened with its tongue lolling out playfully, as if inviting Midoriya to play.
Midoriya choked back a bark of hysterical laughter.
“A komainu are loyal guardians, Midoriya. You know, they always comes in pairs. One is called Ah and the other is Un. The beginning and the end.” Yagi-dono had told him once, after he had found Midoriya nursing his wounds under the stone statue of a komainu. He had laid a gentle hand on Midoriya’s shoulder and sighed, “I had hoped you and young Bakugo could have worked together like so, but it seems like it was not meant to be.”
Midoriya’s eyes widened and he dove forward. His fingers scrambled against the lion-dog until his blunt nail caught on a handle inlaid into its claws. A hidden handle popped open and, as the fire roared and spreaded up the hallway, Midoriya yanked open the door to the guard’s hideout in the wall.
The hideout was only about four feet in width, meant just for one or two retainers to wait diligently in the event of an emergency. The dusty and dark space was stifling and Midoriya quickly shoved hard at the opposing wall, where another komaniu was painted, frantically trying to find another latch. As his sweaty and bruised fingers painfully dug into a catch, he chanced a look backwards and saw the beginning licks of flame where he had just stood.
The fact that he might just perish here, burning to death with no route for escape, sank deep into Midoriya’s bones and he couldn't help the tears that now streamed down his face. With his remaining strength, he shoved open the hidden wooden panel.
Fire. Fire so bright that Midoriya’s tear-filled eyes could barely take in anything at all. Yagi-dono’s entire room was aflame and crumpling into black ash, from his ceremonial armor in the corner to the large banners bearing his insignia over the doors. Even the gold on the ceiling had begun to drip onto the tatami and the futon.
The empty futon.
Even amidst the collapsed doors and charred pillars, Midoriya could see the futon looked undisturbed, empty, as if the room hadn’t been in use that night. His knees nearly gave out underneath him in relief.
Yagi-dono could still be alive.
Then, in the distance, another crashing noise, so thunderous that ash rained down on Midoriya’s head, jolted him to his feet. He hauled himself out of the hideout and, as the hallway began to collapse, he bolted in the opposite direction.
He didn’t want to die here.
Midoriya ran through the burning castle, his lungs burning with every breath and his body aching with exhaustion. The heat had become more oppressive as he dashed in the direction of the south-side balconies. In the distance, he could hear the castle rumbling and shaking as sections began to collapse. Whether it was from the fire or the hikeshi frantically trying to pull down the building before the fire spread, Midoriya had no idea.
Twice he had to loop around because the fire had spread further, blocking his original path. He prayed to every god that he wasn’t running towards a dead-end, as he tried to remember which turns he needed to take. The castle around him was nigh unrecognizable now, blackened and broken.
Midoriya rounded a final corner and froze. He had ended up at the westside balcony, the one with the circular archway where he and Yagi-dono had stood but yesterday. The doors had been knocked askew and part of the roof had caved in over the arch.
Collapsed by the arch was a young firefighter, half buried under a pile of roof tiles. Her indigo overcoat was coated in white dust and she was curled up, clutching her head. Midoriya ran to her and began to shove tiles off her legs. She looked up at him, disoriented and in pain.
“What happened?” He coughed.
“I thought I saw a ghost… but, the roof broke apart under my feet...”
He could see a shallow gash near her temple, likely from when she fell off the roof, and blood had started to seep into her matted brown hair and the tied bandana she wore.
“It’s just bleeding a little- can you stand?” Midoriya rasped.
She nodded, head slewing to the side a little, and, with Midoriya’s help, managed to stagger to her feet.
“Are there others still inside?” She coughed.
“I was the only one I saw-” Midoriya said. They hobbled out onto the balcony, out into the ashen and smoke-filled air. When he looked down, his stomach dropped.
Below him, the stone foundations of the castle sloped out and to the front was the moat, about six stories down. There were no ladders to be seen. If they jumped, they were just as likely to hit the water as to be dashed against the rocks.
“There’s people up there!”
Screams from the crowd below barely carried up this high, but Midoriya saw them at the banks of the moat, pointing their fingers and looking horrified. Several of the fire brigade shoved past the crowd, carrying their bamboo ladders and plunging into the moat without second thought, but Midoriya could already see their ladders sink deep into the waters. They would be lucky to get right past the stone foundations.
“You need…” The firefighter spoke up, blinking and grimacing through the pain, but looking more alert, “...to get back onto the roof. The westside are where our ladders are-”
“That’s too far!” Midoriya exclaimed, panicked. He was supporting nearly all her weight and already he could hear in the distance the sound of tiles slewing down and shattering against each other. She coughed again and then staggered out of Midoriya’s hold.
“Leave me behind and go.” She grunted as she leaned heavily against the balcony railing, fumbling with her belt.
“I’m not going to just leave you to die-”
She interrupted Midoriya’s protest by tossing him her grappling hook and a coil of rope. The sudden motion made her wince, but then she straightened up and gave him a broad and shaky smile.
“My name is Uraraka Ochako. Tell my parents what happened to me and that I saved you.”
“N-no, wait-” Midoriya stammered.
The fear in her voice made him turn. There was a sloped, collapsed section of the roof that he could scramble up on, although the fire was mere meters away. The blood in his ears pounded so loudly that he thought he was going to be sick. When he looked back at Uraraka’s hunched form, sprawled against the railing, his eyes caught sight of the ladders waving in the moat.
He ran back to the railing.
“What are you doing?” She cried out as he frantically wrapped the end of the rope around their waists. Securing a knot on one end, he bound them together, and then jammed the grappling hook into one of the load-bearing pillars. His hands shook and sweat poured down his brow.
“I just had… a crazy idea. We might still die. But at least I’m not going to leave you here alone.” Midoriya said frantically. His thoughts were a maelstrom of anxiety, but he knew this was the right decision. Uraraka looked at him with wide, terrified eyes, pale underneath the layer of soot on her face.
“We’re going to jump?”
“A-at an angle. To swing into the ladders. I’m hoping that’ll slow us down so we don’t just hit the water-” Midoriya’s mind was racing until Uraraka gripped his arm, so tightly that it was painful.
Perhaps it was the fact they were running out of time. Perhaps she trusted her instincts. Or perhaps she simply didn’t want to die. But Uraraka Ochako, in that moment, placed her life into the hands of an ash-covered nobody like she did all things: wholeheartedly.
She staggered to her feet and re-tied the knot around them into a more intricate pattern. In her other hand she gripped a dagger, primed to cut them free at the right moment.
Together, they clambered onto the railing, careful as the wood groaned under their weight. Midoriya tugged on the other end to make sure the grappling hook was secure. Uraraka gripped the back of his shoulders and Midoriya wrapped his arms around her middle.
He prayed that this wouldn’t be the last time he embraced another person.
“Last words?” She asked, because she had already given him hers.
“Don’t die.” Midoriya mumbled. Uraraka let out a dry, raspy laugh and a small smile crept onto Midoriya’s face.
They could have been friends, he thought.
Then they jumped.
They swung off the roof, both of them screaming and clinging onto each other. The rope jerked taut and they went flying in a wide arc. The smoke-filled wind whipped into Midoriya’s burning eyes and, when he looked up, he saw in horror how high the flames had climbed onto the once proud white walls of the castle.
They swung terrifyingly fast towards the stone castle foundations. Then a white blur filled his vision and Midoriya choked in shock.
Shimura-dono had shot through the sky.
She was dove in an arc right towards them with smoke rolling through her spectral form. It was like she was trying to intercept their trajectory and the blue flames of hitodama, the souls of the dead, streaked past them like shooting stars. Midoriya could finally see her face and the determination etched across her furrowed brow.
She had one dark mole across her right cheek. Then, she opened her arms and they swung right through her translucent body.
Time seem to slow and everything seemed to fade away.
The sounds of the crumbling castle, the cutting wind at his back, Uraraka’s death grip on his arm, and the fear thrumming through his body all quieted as the former shogun addressed him.
“Midoriya Izuku. Look for the one who stands for all.”
Her voice seemed to echo inside Midoriya’s rib cage and he gasped. It was a warm voice, filled with strength and authority, at odds with her ghostly appearance.
The hitodama blazed higher and encircled them, until all Midoriya could see was blue fire. It did not burn, but rather made Midoriya’s own soul twinge, as if it wished to join the others. He could feel something crackle out to his fingertips and toes, searing through his body.
“You must save him.”
Then, time sped up again and Uraraka cut the rope.
They went flying into a ladder and Midoriya felt his hip bang hard against the bamboo before the ladder snapped. His knees cracked into Uraraka’s ankles. Then they tumbled down and hit the water with an enormous and painful splash.
Disoriented, Midoriya struggled to thrash up to the surface. The icy water made his swollen and reddened skin ache with pain. He clawed upwards until he finally broke the surface and every gasp of air sent sharp stabbing pains into Midoriya’s bruised sides.
“Help-!” Uraraka croaked, spitting water out of her mouth. Her limbs moved sluggishly and she kept dropping back under the surface, fatigue catching up to her.
“Throw us a rope!” Midoriya screamed at the firefighters by the banks. He tilted his head up as much as possible to avoid swallowing water, all the while gripping the back of Uraraka’s jacket to keep her from slipping under.
Someone from the banks threw a rope and it landed with a slap in the water. Midoriya managed to grab onto it and hooked around their waists, coughing and sputtering.
“Stay with me!” Midoriya pleaded as Uraraka began to sink under again.
The crowd began to reel them in, right onto the rough stone embankment. Several of the firefighters dove into the water with them, hauling them onto the shore by their sodden clothes. The two of them collapsed on the embankment, gasping and shivering. The crowd fluttered around them nervously.
The rest of the brigade descended on Uraraka, enveloping her into their ranks. She kept coughing, pallid and chattering, as another woman who looked to be her mother wrapped her in a blanket and kept kissing her forehead. Midoriya could catch a couple whispered words,
“-could have died…”
Someone came over and draped a towel over Midoriya as well, but he was too exhausted to even pull it properly over his shoulders. Instead, he remained sitting on the embankment, just trying to remember how to breathe. His heart kept pounding painfully as he shivered, as if still feeling Shimura-dono’s fingers upon his skin.
Above them, the castle burned and a light dusting of snow mixed with the ash to fill the air.
For an entire day, smoke hung in the skies of Edo as the main keep of the castle smoldered to the ground. The rest of the surrounding buildings had been torn down by the hikeshi, to keep the fire from spreading, and now the remains of the keep was a deep scar in the center of the complex. Snow continued to fall across Edo, creating a muted and grey world.
On the following day, Midoriya Inko received the surviving two dozen samurai of Lord Yagi in her courtyard. Being of lower rank, her lodgings were further in the complex and thus had been spared from the fires. She ran to and from in a nervous frenzy, trying to find places for everyone to sit and asking the servants for hot amazake on such a chilly day.
Lord Aizawa stood in the corner, leaning against a pillar and watching the procedures. He had given up his chair to Sir Nighteye, the head of the retainers, who now sat in a frayed wicker chair, swords across his laps. On the other end of the courtyard, Bakugo Katsuki and his friends paced back and forth, scowling and sour-faced.
Midoriya Izuku crouched in the corner, glassy-eyed and wrapped in a heavy blanket. He had spent the last two days nearly dead to the world, with more bruises and burns on his skin than not. His mother had become nearly sick with worry as he barely spoke more than two words at a time, as if his mind was faraway. Still, color had begun to return to his cheeks and, despite the bags under his eyes, he watched the crowd with a feverish expectation.
Sir Nighteye had thin, golden spectacles that he surveyed the courtyard through. His long legs bent ungainly in the low chair. Yet the grief across his face made the entire gathering solemn and uneasy.
“Our lord, Yagi-dono, is dead.”
The low rumble of despair rolled through the crowd. Aizawa watched Midoriya grit his teeth.
"We have failed, as his samurai and as his retainers, and now Edo Castle lies in ruins. Not one of us are worthy of life." Several reached for their blades, white knuckled and pallid. Aizawa knew they had come to this gathering as farewell. Sir Nighteye paused, struggling as if every word was a lance into his heart, before continuing, "But what we do have left is the possibility of justice.”
"If anyone has knowledge of the arsonist, if they saw anything strange that night, speak now." Lord Aizawa spoke up.The samurai began to mutter among themselves as Aizawa watched them carefully.
Only earlier that morning, his most trusted spies had delivered a terrible report.
"The spread of the fire was unnatural. No single arsonist would have been able to spread such a large fire in such a short amount of time." Jirou had muttered to him. With a wide brimmed hat and a plain kimono, she had sat with her back to him in the tea shop, just like any forgettable lady from town. She sipped her tea. No one would have known she had knives up her sleeves and poisons in her purse.
"There must have been multiple perpetrators and they were well organized. This was no accident then." Aizawa had murmured. He had suspected as much.
"No. It was an assassination filled with the reckless destruction Shiragaki is so fond of." She had said as she put down her now empty cup. Without looking back, she has whispered, "There are traitors in our midst and strange happenings, if you believe the ghost stories. Stay vigilant."
When she had stood to leave, Aizawa fished out a piece of deformed gold from the tea cup she left behind. To his surprise, he saw a fingerprint pressed deep across the surface, as if someone had left their thumbprint during smithing.
“Something we found in the remains of the lord’s chambers.” Jirou had said before disappearing into the shadows.
A harsh shout jolted Aizawa out of his observations of the other samurai. In the corner, Bakugo Katsuki, the youngest of the bunch, with a heavy slant of his brow, had strode over and grabbed Midoriya by the collar.
"What about fuckin' Deku? He was on the balcony with that round-faced girl that night. Yagi-dono’s personal balcony-"
Midoriya wrenched himself out of Bakugo’s grip and nearly tottered back over. He looked horrified and stared back at Sir Nighteye’s cold expression.
“Kacchan, you can’t possibly think-”
“Nonsense. No arsonist would swing by a rope to an almost certain death in order to escape the fire he started.” Aizawa interrupted with a snort. He waved Bakugo away and turned to face Midoriya, “You did, however, run back into the fire that night.”
Midoriya looked pale but determined, straightening up and squared his shoulders. All his peers stared at him - this skinny nobody who had managed to cheat death. Bakugo looked livid, as if he was ready to grab Midoriya by the throat once again. Still, Midoriya managed a small bow. “Y-yes, sir.”
“Did you see anything.” Sir Nighteye spoke up and his words were colder than the frost on the ground. It was said he loved Yagi-dono, Aizawa now remembered.
“Yes. His apartments were aflame, but empty.”
Midoriya swayed on the spot for a moment, as if bracing himself, and then gave Aizawa such a fierce look that the lord was taken aback. For a moment, he could see how this was the boy that dove back into the flames without hesitation. There was something wild and burning in those eyes, unquenchable even in the face of death. Then Midoriya Izuku spoke, voice hoarse but firm,
“I don’t think Yagi-dono is dead.”
Fires in Edo were so common that they were called the flowers of the city. They were particularly devastating thanks to the wood and paper house constructions, tightly packed cities, and lack of access to water. Firefighting techniques often relied on the brigades pulling down the surrounding houses to keep fire from spreading, knocking down walls with hammers and using ladders to climb onto roofs before using hooks to pull down them down. Brigades had their own jackets and organizations, divided by class and regions they served- some were samurai while others were laypeople or professional firefighters.