Here is how the story goes:
They say that Mustafu was the kingdom of dragons, once. That people had lived under tyranny. That they had lived in fear of their overlords.
Dragons are a powerful breed. Swords and arrows glance off their hides. Their teeth are the size of a man’s forearm. Some breathe flame, blistering and hot, scorching villages into ash with a single exhale. Others breathe noxious fumes. Poisonous gas, choking people in their houses, a death so slow and creeping and inescapable that you don’t realize it’s coming until it is already upon you. A single roar is loud enough to make the human ear rupture and bleed.
They provided protection, but in return they demanded tribute. Gold, harvest, human sacrifice.
The weak and elderly were dragged screaming and helpless from their desperate families to be offered up. People starved on the streets while the beasts feasted, gorging themselves on sheep and cattle and family members, curled up in caves piled with gold.
But eventually, the celestials provided humanity with their salvation. To some humans—the best of them, the most powerful, the most deserving , they granted gifts.
Magic. And not just any kind of magic—not hexes or jinxes or even healing potions, but dominion over nature itself.
One bloodline learned to manipulate the air. Another the plants in the ground.
Soil. Stone. Shadows. Water. Fire.
The gifted banded together. Overthrew their tyrants, even though it was at great personal cost. But there was no time to mourn, for the country lay in ruins, devastated by war and conflict. So the leader of the magicians, the strongest of them all, took the throne, and from then on, no ruler of Mustafu breathed flame. Instead it danced in their cupped palms at will. It lit up their bodies and scorched the very earth under their feet.
For a time, the dragons that survived and humans maintained peace. Both feared that another war would lead to mutual destruction, so the kings of Mustafu maintained their tenuous peace and the dragons—always selfish—retreated to their mountains, to their hiding places, to dream of the time that their revenge could be exacted.
But some of the more foolish people, those who had not been so blessed as to receive the gift of magic, were blinded by their jealousy of the royal family and the nobility. And so, they forgot the wrongs done to them and their ancestors, seeking out the very beasts they had once rebelled against, forming bonds and contracts with them.
Abominable connections. Deals between man and monster, so low and base that it sullied the soul of any human who attempted it.
Or at least, that’s how the story goes, and Shouto knows that his father, at least, believes it.
It’s why the first thing Todoroki Enji did upon taking the throne was ban dragon riding, and mandate the slaughter of every dragon within Mustafu’s borders.
“This,” he has always told Shouto, “will be my life’s work. You must be strong enough to complete it.”
Shouto has never seen a living dragon in his lifetime. His father’s reign began long before his own birth, for he is the youngest of his father’s children, and most of the dragons are long slain. So few of them remain that a successful hunt is touted as an event worthy of celebration.
Shouto had been six the last time one had been killed close enough to the city for its body to be brought back.
It had been a silver dragon. Shouto had only seen its head, being dragged around the city by men in carts, like some sort of sick trophy.
It towers above him and was practically blinding under the sun, platinum scales reflecting every ray of light that touched it. Its remaining eye had been wide open, glassy and dead. Shouto remembers staring at it—the pale, almost ghostly, shade of blue, and the bloody, empty space where the other one should have been. The wound was a grisly one, massive and red and raw. The scales around it were dented and torn, some of them dangling by thin strands of skin.
Shouto remembers wondering, briefly, if that had been the killing blow, or if the poor creature had lived past even that. It would have been in agony if it did, but it had probably fought to survive until the last. But it would have been growing increasingly desperate, frantic and distracted by the pain—
Behind him, his mother had made a choked noise. Shouto had turned around to see her pressing a hand to her mouth, shoulders shaking slightly as she took in the sight. She’d gestured Shouto over when she’d seen him watching her, her intricate silver bracelets glinting in the bright light as she did. She had pulled him in close, hugged him tightly to her, making him bury his face in her shoulder.
She hadn’t let him look again.
It’s a strange memory. Shouto’s heart aches with the melancholy of it. Not just because he realizes now, that his mother must have been heartbroken at the sight—she’d always loathed violence—but because it’s a reminder of how kind she had been. How soft and gentle. Yet it had happened only a few days before—
The thought leaves Shouto feeling near-suffocated in all his finery. No, there isn’t time for such thoughts now.
His father has summoned him.
Shouto knows better than to keep him waiting.
Enji looks furious when Shouto enters the room, enough so that it gives Shouto pause. His father’s attention is the last thing Shouto wants when the man is angry.
But Enji’s eyes calm when they settle on his son.
Shouto tries to resist actively sighing in relief at the revelation that he is not the source of the man’s ire.
“Shouto,” Enji says, voice booming and deep. “You certainly kept me waiting long enough! I was starting to get irritated.”
A hand on his shoulder, blisteringly hot. Pain his ribs, blood in his mouth.
A small fire, blooming in his palm.
“Took you long enough,” Father spits, letting Shouto crumple to floor as he starts pacing in the other direction.
Shouto can’t breathe. Everything hurts. He wants to cry. He wants to scream, wants to call for the guards. Wants someone to come help him.
But they don’t. They won’t. Not in this castle. No one ever does. And even though Shouto hasn’t figured it out yet, no one ever will.
Father is still talking, and oh, oh no. Shouto should be listening. Father will be cross if he finds out that Shouto’s been tuning him out. But for some reason, his ears aren’t obeying him. All he can hear is a ringing, like someone’s set off an explosion too close to his head. There’s just the ringing and the sound of his lungs expanding in his chest, little puffs of air that are too fast. Too frantic.
“…not everyone will be as patient with you as I’ve been,” Father says.
Shouto believes him.
“I’m sorry,” says Shouto, and gives his head a little shake as if that will knock the memories loose. “I got—” he can’t blame it on the servants. He’d tried deflecting his tardiness onto a serving girl once, when he was a child—frightened and selfish and too stupid to know any better. Stupid enough to think that surely, surely Enji would never lay a hand on anyone who could say anything.
He’d been wrong.
She’d left the castle that night without a job and with a bloody back and the promise that Enji would take her tongue if she dared utter a word.
Shouto hadn’t spoken a word for nearly a week afterwards. There was no apology, no act of repentance he could do to make up for his mistake. No way to make it right.
The only thing he could do—the only thing he deserved to do—was live with the weight of it. Let the guilt sink its claws into his heart and hold tight. Let it hurt , because at least that way he would remember to never do it again.
Because he’d finally realized that whatever cruelty ran through his father’s veins had touched him too. What else could it be, that his first instinct was to hurt others for his own sake? That he needed to leave himself a reminder not to hurt others?
For the first time, Shouto was able to look in the mirror and see, really see , what his mother must have on the day that she’d attacked him.
Todoroki Shouto is his father’s son.
It is only fair that he, and he alone, should bear the weight of the man’s temper.
Shouto clears his throat. “I was in the stables earlier this morning and wished to make myself presentable before I appeared—my sincerest apologies if I troubled you, father.”
He bows apologetically, enough to be respectful but not so deep that Enji will think that he is being mocked.
Enji grunts dismissively—but he seems significantly less annoyed than before.
Shouto resists the urge to slump in relief. Thank God.
But then Enji doesn’t say anything else. Something coils up in Shouto’s stomach, tight and low and nausea-inducing.
After a long, long, moment, Shouto begins, halting and hesitant: “Father…did you want—can I be of service to you?”
Enji blinks, and laughs. “Ah, yes,” he says. “Shouto, my boy, I think it’s time you killed your first dragon.”
The gears in Shouto’s mind grind to a halt. “What?” he says.
Enji gestures to some of the reports on his desk. “I’ve received word,” he says grandly, “of a dragon with a rider causing trouble on our western border. They’re said to be devastatingly powerful. I think that it’s high time we took care of them.”
“I—you don’t want to send an envoy? Knights?”
A scoff. “Knights? No. It’s been a great many years since a dragon rider gave us any real trouble. There have been some, but their forces are a fraction of what they once were. I hunted down most of their strongest years ago; I slew the beasts and then sent their riders to the chopping block. Or, occasionally, the other way around. That was more troublesome, though. Dragons fight harder when they’re angry.”
Shouto wouldn’t think that monsters like Enji calls them would feel such anger at the death of a rider. That would require love, would it not? And monsters don’t feel love.
But it doesn’t matter. Because all Shouto can think about is the dragon head from his childhood, too bright to look at but for that blank, empty eye. Monster or not, it had had its body chopped into pieces, its parts dragged about the city and jeered at.
Beaten down, slain, torn apart, spit on, denigrated. Paraded as a sick trophy and then thrown away.
Shouto doesn’t want to do that to another living creature, no matter what it is.
But Enji? Enji is still talking.
“An honor like this? Defeating a powerful enemy that we thought eradicated? It can only go to a member of the royal family. To my heir . I would have it no other way.”
Shouto is about to open his mouth. To come up with… some excuse. Some way to get out of it.
But even Shouto never finds out what he’s about to say, because Enji’s eyes narrow when he’s sees the look flickering across Shouto’s face. When he sees the hesitation.
And instead of snapping, like Shouto expects, instead of setting himself aflame to force his way, Enji smiles, a small, victorious thing.
“If you do this, Shouto,” he says, “I’ll know you’re strong. I’ll know that you’re capable of keeping yourself safe. In fact, if you prove yourself to me—to the kingdom —in such a way, I might even be able to justify releasing your mother from her confinement. But only if you can do this. Otherwise the people might doubt my judgement in allowing someone who’s a threat to the Crown Prince to roam free.”
It’s a sick trick. A horrible tactic, made all the worse by the fact that Shouto knows that Enji isn’t bluffing.
Enji’s deals are never good . In fact, they’re consistently lopsided. Learn this, and I won’t beat you. If you want a day’s rest, then earn it. If you want me to spare her, then collect this bounty for me, and make an example of it.
But they only work because Enji is never lying. Because Enji, for all his cruelty, knows that dangling these scraps in front of Shouto’s nose only ever works if he fucking delivers.
If you do nothing but beat a dog for its entire life, you have to give it breaks from the pain, or else sooner or later it will cut its losses and bite the hand that comes down on it.
“Of course,” Enji continues, “if you don’t care enough about seeing your mother again to even try…well, attacking the Crown Prince is an act of treason, as I’m sure you know. The Queen was only spared because of her son’s overwhelming affection for her. But if that affection has evaporated, then I see no reason to stay her sentence any longer.”
And that’s the downside.
Because Todoroki Enji always delivers on his promises.
But he has never failed to follow through on a threat either.
Shouto feels like he’s going to be sick.
Kill a dragon, Enji is saying, or I’ll kill your mother.
And Shouto thinks about his face, buried in his mother’s shoulder.
He thinks about the way her body had shuddered as she’d wept, overwhelmed with grief for a creature that her husband had killed.
“That poor thing,” Shouto remembers her saying softly, so softly that she probably hadn’t even intended for him to overhear. “That poor, poor thing. What sort of monster—”
“— you’re a monster, Enji,” she had snapped, her entire body shaking, her blue eyes glazed over— a single blue eye, dead and open —not seeing a single thing in front of her as she advanced, kettle clutched in hand. She wasn’t using a cloth to hold the handle, and Shouto could see her skin blistering where it was making contact with the metal.
Everything after that is a blur of screaming and pain and—his bedside nurses, muttering to one another.
“Poor woman,” one of them had said, voice so soft and sad, “what a terrible mistake. Thinking she was attacking her husband and hurting her child instead. I don’t know how she could have confused them.”
It’s the only thing that he remembers from before fully regaining consciousness.
But Shouto thinks he understands.
In fact, these days, he sees the likeness more often than not.
Shouto doesn’t want to hurt anyone or anything. He doesn’t want pain from Enji’s anger to fall on any shoulders but his own.
What sort of monster— his mother had said, and now Shouto knows.
“Okay,” says Shouto, and it’s too fast. Too desperate. He knows it from the second that Enji leans back slightly, smile curling just a little too wide to be anything other than smug. But at this point, Shouto can’t even bring himself to care. “I’ll do it.”
Huh, thinks Shouto then.
Maybe monsters can act out of love after all .
Shouto makes it to the town of Vale after roughly two weeks of travel.
Vale is nestled right at the foot of the mountains that mark the border between Mustafu and Yuuei, only a few miles east of the pass that connects the two kingdoms. Dragons have never been native to Yuuei, but the country had never outlawed the creatures either. But most dragons are loyal to the places they consider their home, so not many had attempted to flee to the neighboring kingdom. But it makes sense why the dragon rider’s activity—while scattered across the entire border—all appears to trace back here.
Despite being Mustafan, Vale—small in a quaint way—seems to be a mix of the cultures of both countries, a sure sign that the town is taking advantage of its location to ignore Enji’s trade sanctions against Yuuei.
Good for them.
Shouto attracts stares when he heads over to the local stables to secure someone to care for his horse. When he opens the door to the only inn in town, the entire room falls silent. He ignores the attention resolutely, resisting the urge to duck his head under everyone’s gazes. It can’t be avoided, really. He hasn’t shown up in full princely regalia, of course, but his clothes are still of fine enough make to catch attention.
And, well. There’s also his hair. And the eyes. And the scar.
He can wear any hood he likes—but there’s no real way to disguise all that, so why even try?
No one bothers him about it, at least, but Shouto finds himself sagging with relief when the innkeeper drops the keys into his hand and he can escape up the stairs and lock the door of his room behind him.
The accommodations themselves are modest. Small, but clean. Enji would never tolerate something so quaint, even if it was his only option. For Shouto, on the other hand, it is more than suitable.
There’s a small desk in the room’s corner. Mahogany, it looks like, though age has robbed it of its polish and shine. Shouto drops his bag onto it, before rummaging around inside until he finds what he’s looking for.
His sister’s letter is a comforting weight in his hands. Her gentle, curling script helps soothe the strange, uncomfortable prickling on the back of his neck.
Natsuo and I have all the money we need for now, dear brother, Fuyumi has written. So please, don’t worry about us. Be careful. Be safe. I love you.
Shouto’s chest is warm with affection at her words, but there’s a tight feeling in his heart that even her reassurances can’t loosen. His siblings are one of the few things he has left that make life worth living. Touya is lost to Shouto, exiled when Shouto was so young that he can barely remember him. Fuyumi and Natsuo were barred from coming too close as a result, so Shouto is restricted to letters and royal events that Enji knows are too conspicuous to keep his children from. But despite the limited contact, Fuyumi and Natsuo are a small bright spot in his life, utterly unresentful of their father’s blatant favoritism, reaching out to him despite the personal risk.
And if Shouto fails, the consequences of this will fall on their heads as well as his mother’s.
The thought causes the spit in his mouth to sour, but Shouto forces himself to pull some food out of his pack nonetheless. He can’t be at anything short of his strongest for this mission. The taste of his rations are getting tiresome, but until he knows how Vale feels about the crown, he should probably avoid eating anything served here. After all, if their sentiments towards Enji are anything like his own, he’s likely to find his food poisoned.
The next morning he heads down to the tavern on the first floor. The innkeeper glances at him from where she’s cleaning down one of the tables and, recognizing him, ducks her head respectfully.
“Your highness,” she says, voice neutral enough that Shouto can’t tell if the title is respectful or performative. “Breakfast?”
Shouto doesn’t respond verbally, instead giving his head a small shake no. “Actually,” he says, “I was hoping I could ask you for information on someone who may have passed through here recently. You’ll be compensated for your help, of course.”
Her eyes narrow—just for a second, fast enough to be nearly imperceptible, but Shouto has spent his whole life watching people for the smallest of reactions to his actions and words. He pauses, thrown off. Had he mis-stepped? Or maybe it doesn’t matter, because her face smooths out and she nods her head politely.
“Certainly. Who are you asking after, your highness?”
Shouto recites the vague description that he’d cobbled together from the scattered reports. “I’m looking for a boy, about my age. Small in stature. Green-haired. He would have been wearing leather armor, and was possibly traveling with companions.”
The innkeeper frowns.
There’s a spark of recognition in her eyes, and Shouto leans forward further, eager for answers. The sooner he gets this over with, the sooner he can see his mother again. The less time he has to think about what he’s about to do. “There are rumors that he’s a dragonrider.”
The innkeeper stops cleaning, drawing up to her full height. “I can’t help you,” she says, voice sharp. The sudden change in her demeanor is startling, and Shouto can’t stop himself from reaching for her.
“I—” he starts. This is a good lead. He can’t lose it. “I need to know. Please .”
His voice cracks a little bit on that last word, which is kind of embarrassing, but the innkeeper either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care.
“I. Cannot. Help. You.” She enunciates clearly, and makes to leave.
Shouto extends a hand.
He doesn’t even remember choosing to do so. The movement is more instinct than anything else, a frantic act to try and stop her from leaving. It isn’t until she pulls her arm out of his grasp with a sudden hiss that Shouto remembers what a bad idea it is for him to touch others when he’s emotional.
She’s rubbing at her wrist now, glaring at him. “Was that meant to intimidate me?” she says, glaring at him. She keeps talking, but Shouto keeps staring at the ring of frost around her wrist. It’s light, a pale white. Shouto knows a lot about frostbite. He knows that this is nothing—that he might as well have just held some actual ice to her wrist for a couple seconds. He can already see it melting. Within the next two minutes, she won’t feel it at all anymore.
Shouto isn’t sure he can say the same about himself.
His tolerance for the cold is high, but he feels chilled to the bone. He stuffs his hands into the pockets in the cloak, both to hide the fact that they’re shaking and because he can feel the magical energy building in them, practically to the rate of his thundering heart, and he can’t risk losing control again.
The innkeeper is still talking to him.
She looks a little angry, and Shouto curses himself. You should at least do her the dignity of listening , he thinks. After all, she’s well within her rights to be furious. After Shouto had done that to her, the least he can do is properly take this—
( “You should be able to take this,” his father snarls, disgusted, as Shouto curls up on his side, cheek pressed into a small puddle of bile. His stomach and side hurt so, so much. He can’t stand up. He keeps trying but every time he just falls back down. He should be able to take it, but—but he can’t—)
“That’s enough!” a voice cuts through the din, and the noise in Shouto’s head falls quiet as he stops to examine the newcomer. Already, power is tingling in his hands, ready to be unleashed in the case of a new threat, but…the girl standing in the doorway doesn’t look like a threat.
She can’t be much younger than Shouto. She’s dressed in traveler’s clothing, a cloak, clothes in all white and brown, and light leather armor. Her hair is short and the color of chestnuts, her face round and soft looking—it’s a gentle face, which only makes the displeased expression on her face all the more unsettling.
She turns to the innkeeper. “You know he wouldn’t want you to put yourself at risk for his secrets,” she says gently, and then she glares at Shouto.
“Uraraka—” the innkeeper starts, and then pauses, glancing between the two of them and stepping back like she doesn’t want to interrupt.
The girl—Uraraka—sighs, and turns to face Shouto directly. “He’s up the mountainside a bit. Take the main path. He’s not very subtle, so he should be easy enough for you to track from there.”
He’d been expecting hostility, maybe threats. Not…for her to inform on the boy who seems to be her ally.
“Thanks,” he says cautiously, heading for the door.
The innkeeper gasps, horrified, but Uraraka doesn’t look bothered.
“Good luck,” she drawls, leaning against the wall behind her. She’s speaking with a tone that greatly suggests she doesn’t believe he’ll have any.
Shouto pauses in the doorway before turning back, reaching into his coinpurse and pulling out a handful of coin.
The innkeeper looks bewildered when Shouto drops nearly thirty gold into her hands—understandable, since the room had only been fifty silver, but Shouto doesn’t give her any further explanation as he makes to leave again, brushing past Uraraka as he does.
He has—he has…Shouto clenches his fists.
He has a dragon rider to kill, whether he likes it or not.
After a couple hours of fruitless searching, Shouto is beginning to think that he let Uraraka send him on a wild goose chase.
And then he spots them. Footprints. Fresh. Diverging from the main path.
Shouto listens to his gut, and follows them. Eventually, they lead to a massive lake, hints of water just barely visible through the copse of trees. And as he gets closer to it, he can hear some telltale splashing, can see a human outline in the distance.
There’s a boy standing knee deep in the water, looking unbothered by the chill of winter in the air. He’s fully clothed but for a couple pieces of leather armor and boots that appear to have been shed along the waterside. He hasn’t even bothered to roll his trousers up to prevent them from getting wet.
He does, in fact, look to be about Shouto’s age, though at first glance his features are soft enough that you could take him for younger. Green hair. Not tiny, but definitely shorter than Shouto.
He fits the description.
Shouto steps closer, still unnoticed, and eyes the collection of items on the ground, and then pauses.
It’s not just armor. It looks like the boy dumped off virtually every weapon that he had on him.
Shouto nudges the items cautiously with his foot and then glances at the boy. Yeah. Every weapon.
Somehow, the idea that he might fight an unarmed opponent doesn’t make Shouto feel any better about what he has to do.
And the boy still hasn’t noticed him.
Shouto is almost tempted to just stand here and let the boy spot him of his own accord, but…
But he just wants this to be over with .
“Are you the dragon rider?” he finally says. He’s virtually positive at this point, but verbal confirmation would be nice. The last thing that he wants is to hurt the wrong person.
The boy yelps, turning around in the water to face Shouto but moving too quickly, slipping backwards with a splash.
“Ugh,” he sits up, now dripping wet, and pushes his damp hair out of his face, laughing a bit as he does, apparently amused by his own silliness. “Yeah,” he says, smiling at Shouto. “That’s me! What can I do for you? Do you need help with something?”
Shouto’s heart aches.
Of course. The boy just couldn’t be a monster. He had to be friendly . Heavens forbid anything ever be made easy for Shouto.
He swallows, closing his eyes for one long moment before opening them again and trying his best to steel himself.
Just do it quickly , he tells himself. Just—
“I’m really sorry,” says Shouto, voice tight.
The boy tilts his head curiously. “For what?”
Shouto lets the spire of ice he sends in the boy’s direction be his answer.
The boy makes a noise of surprise—but he’s fast, on his feet and dodging out of the way of Shouto’s attack in the blink of an eye. Only one sharp edge catches him in the meat of his shoulder, an impressive feat considering he’d been lying prone not one moment ago.
The boy hisses, rubbing at the line of blood starting to soak the fabric around the new tear in his shirtsleeve.
“Ow,” he says, and then ventures a glance at his stuff on the shore.
He makes a move for it, but he never stood a chance. Not when he is a good seven feet away and Shouto is right there, and certainly not with Shouto’s ice magic causing further interference.
Shouto kicks the items away, towards the treeline, and then forces himself to take a deep breath.
This will be over soon. For both of them.
Shouto’s father had asked for the rider alive.
So that he could be turned into an example.
Maybe…Shouto revises his plan in his head. He takes the rider prisoner. He kills the dragon. Back in the Crown City, Shouto can find a way to arrange for the rider’s escape—a way that won’t trace back to Shouto. It feels like the best possible solution.
Shouto freezes the shallow water around the boy’s legs. The boy sees it coming, tries to avoid it, and only partially succeeds, getting one leg out of the water and onto the shore in time, but effectively stuck, otherwise. Shouto pulls a dagger from his belt, twirling it so that he’s holding it in a reverse grip.
“Don’t struggle,” he tries to advise. If the boy fights too hard, Shouto could hit him too hard and hurt him more than he needs to.
But the boy’s eyes widen. “ Don’t ,” he says, and it sounds more like a warning than a plea.
Shouto opens his mouth again, though he’s not quite sure why. To apologize again, maybe? To make some desperate attempt at explaining himself.
But he never gets to say it, because before the first syllable leaves his mouth, the world goes dark.
Not pitch black, but dim. Shadowy, like something’s blocking out the sun.
Shouto looks up just in time to see something dive from above.
Something…terrifyingly, impossibly large.
When the dragon lands in between Shouto and the boy, half of its body in the water and half out, the entire earth shakes with the weight of the impact. Its scales are blinding in the light, so bright that Shouto almost doesn’t see the massive wave of displaced water moving in his direction. Only years of training and well-honed instincts help him freeze it in time.
Not that it does anything. As quickly as Shouto freezes it, the dragon lashes at the new wall of ice with its tail, shattering it like it’s nothing and sending a barrage of shards in Shouto’s direction.
And this time, Shouto doesn’t react fast enough. He should , especially if he’s going to make his way relying on only ice magic. But he doesn’t. He’s not quick enough to deflect them. He’s barely able to bring his arms up to protect his face. The pieces aren’t large , thankfully. They mostly just tear at his clothes, leaving shallow cuts along his arms and side. Only one chunk, slightly bigger than the rest, collides with his center mass, slamming into his shoulder with a painful-sounding crunch.
( Shouto’s leg burns. There’s a blister forming there, hot and red and painful.
“You’re too slow, Shouto,” father lamented. “When will you learn?”
Shouto doesn’t respond. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know. He’s so slow. Too slow. He can’t avoid the hits or stop them.)
Shouto doesn’t remember dropping to his knees, but the next thing he knows, the boy is calling out to him.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
Shouto tries to force himself to refocus. There’s the boy…the dragon rider. He’s freed himself from the ice, which was probably shattered by the dragon’s landing, but his leg is bleeding as well as his shoulder, now. He’s frowning, and he—he actually looks concerned? For the guy who he thinks was just trying to kill him?
He’s peering out from behind one of the dragon’s massive legs, eyes worried, and—and, oh God.
Shouto had thought he was prepared to see one. But seeing part of one, he supposes, doesn’t make you ready for the whole thing. And this dragon is…massive. Larger than the one they’d brought into the city by far .
Its head is easily twice as tall as Shouto is and that’s only if Shouto excludes the strangely elegant horns that emerge from its skull, long and curving. It’s an absolutely hulking beast. Shouto can’t imagine that it’s rider has any other way of boarding it than actually climbing it. Massive golden scales plate its body. Shouto’s gaze follows the line of its back—not spiked, but ridged, and settle on a long tail that ends in a deadly sharp arrowhead point.
It cranes its graceful neck to peer at its rider, still behind its leg, and sniffs slightly. It takes Shouto a moment to recognize the action—scenting the air for blood.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” the boy reassures.
There’s a grumble in the dragon’s chest, and the boy rolls his eyes.
“I’m not lying!” he says, giving the wound on his arm a dismissive pat. “It’s nothing major.”
With that, the dragon appears placated, and swivels its head back in Shouto’s direction.
Shouto is not a coward. He is not afraid to die. But he can’t help but wonder if his father had ever truly believed that he was capable of fighting a beast like this. Had Enji just not known about the dragon’s power? Or perhaps he really was just that arrogant?
Or maybe he just didn’t care.
Shouto isn’t a believer in giving up. He can’t be. Enji pushed him to his limits every single day of his life. He’s never been afforded the privilege of surrender before.
You win, or you die trying.
And this isn’t a fight Shouto can win.
The dragon’s eyes are beautiful. Piercing blue irises in black sclera, pupils dark slits, like a cat’s.
They stare at each other for a long moment, and then something happens.
There’s an uncomfortable pressure on the back of his head and then…
And then it’s like there’s someone else there, and Shouto hears, in a voice that vibrates so low and powerful that he can feel it in his bones:
Are you quite alright? You look a little bit—
Shouto shuts it out before it can finish speaking, not even knowing how he does it. He just reacts on instinct, but the dragon rears back a bit, blinking its large eyes in a way that seems a little taken aback.
“What—” Shouto wheezes, suddenly finding himself short of air.
The world sways in front of him.
“Whooooa,” the boy slips out from behind the dragon now, rushing over to Shouto’s side. “Are you okay?”
Shouto tries to say: “I’m fine. Get away.”
Instead he says: “I-I’m—”
And then he passes out.
oof sorry for the late update ive spent the entire past week completely taken out by a nasty cold; i havent had the energy to crawl on ao3 to post, much less do my usual pre-posting readthrough and edit. i still am not back to full health so while i did give this chapter a brief look and touch some things up, i wasn't able to go as in-depth as i usually like, so pardon any wonky writing or errors. i will be sure to come back once im feeling better and give it a closer examination!
and as always thanks to cricketmilk for the spectacular art!!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shouto wakes up in a cave, bound hand and foot.
There’s a fire puttering on near the mouth of the cavern, casting the vast area in beautiful shades of orange and red.
There was obviously some effort made to keep him from being totally uncomfortable. His hands are tied securely enough that he can’t get practically any range of motion, not even in his fingers, which means that unless he can get them to loosen up slightly, magic is a nonstarter. But at the same time, care was clearly taken to make sure that the bonds didn’t cut off his circulation too much.
He was lying, and is now sitting on, a bed roll—something he suspects was an attempt to avoid leaving him entirely victim to the cold rock, and a fairly thick blanket is pooled around his waist.
Shouto takes a breath.
Such kindness is foreign, especially considering…
“Hey,” says a familiar voice.
It’s the boy. He’s popped his head into the mouth of the cave, little more than a silhouette against the light filtering in from the outside.
“You feeling okay?” The boy says. He sounds tentative, unsure,
Shouto pauses. “Fine,” he says flatly.
“Ah,” says the boy. “Cool. Would it be alright if I looked at your shoulder? I’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”
Shouto blinks at the boy in confusion, but nods.
It takes him another moment to realize that there is, in fact, a bandage wrapped snugly around his shoulder.
“I’m sorry about that,” the boy tries, nodding the to the ropes around Shouto’s hands and wrists. “I didn’t really want to, but Yagi insisted that we be safe. Just in case you try to kill me again. It’s not putting any strain on your shoulder, is it? We spent a long time trying to figure out a way that wouldn’t be painful for you—”
“It’s fine,” Shouto interrupts, and then, feeling strangely bold for some reason: “Who’s Yagi?”
“Huh?” the boy blinks. “Yagi?” he makes a vague hand gesture in the air, and when Shouto doesn’t give any sign of comprehension, he says: “Yagi-sensei?” with a vague air of hopefulness, like that will elucidate something.
A beat passes and then the boy gasps. “Oh my gosh,” he drops his face into his hands. “I forgot you didn’t know our names! I’m Midoriya Izuku! Yagi-sensei is my dragon.”
“…you call your dragon ‘sensei’?”
“Yeah?” Midoriya quirks an eyebrow in Shouto’s direction, like he doesn’t see anything weird about it and can’t imagine why Shouto does, and then he amends: “Well, sometimes. When we’re being formal. And you’re…Todoroki, right? I felt kind of stupid for not realizing that you were the prince until Yagi pointed it out. I mean you,” he gestures at his face, and then freezes. “That wasn’t supposed to be—oh, God, wait, no. Did that just look like I was talking about the scar? I was trying to make a motion for hair. Lots of people have facial scars, so that wouldn’t be the best point of distinction, but your hair is really unusual—in a cool way, you know? Not like, in a bad way or a weird way. Also, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with having scars, but I also understand that sometimes people can feel—”
Shouto blinks. “It’s fine,” he says.
Midoriya pauses. “You know, aside from like, two questions, you’ve basically only said ‘sorry’ and ‘fine.’ Which makes me think that things aren’t actually, you know, fine.”
Shouto doesn’t respond, so Midoriya hums thoughtfully. “I got off on another tangent…” he mutters to himself. “What was I trying to say originally? Oh!” He gestures to the ties around Shouto’s wrists again. “I’m so sorry about that,” he says. “I swear . This wasn’t like, an evil plot to kidnap you. After you passed out, we didn’t just want to leave you there, but we also couldn’t take you back into town, since I wasn’t strong enough to carry you all the way down on my own, and Yagi obviously couldn’t go, and we were concerned that local Crownsguard might have spotted Yagi while he was…uh, making his way over to us. So we brought you with us to make sure that you’d be okay, and we’re in one of our hideouts now. And you can only really get to and from here by dragon, which is—” Midoriya sighs dreamily, “ so fascinating from an evolutionary and a geographical standpoint, because no one is quite sure if dragons move to regions with geographical formations like this or if geographical formations like this were created for dragons—wait. My point was that now that you’re here, we can’t take you down because you need a dragon to and from this point, but Yagi can’t really fly anywhere right now because we’re concerned about the attention we might have drawn and a massive snowstorm is about to hit. And, I mean, you won’t just be stuck here the whole time. There’s some surrounding area up here. Enough to explore and get the food we’ll need to wait this out, which will probably be like a week at most—but anyways, I’m really sorry we tied you up! Yagi can just be protective. But he’s pretty trusting too. I’m sure that if you promise him you won’t stab me to death in my sleep, he’ll be fine with untying you.”
“It’s fine ,” Shouto says again, more sharply this time. It doesn’t make sense why Midoriya keeps talking, or why he keeps fussing and trying to make Shouto comfortable when they’re probably going to kill him anyways.
The only thing Shouto can’t figure out is why they haven’t done it already. Do they want something? Information?
Midoriya seems friendly enough, but Shouto has already tried to kill him once. It would be understandable for him to want to rout the threat.
Whatever his motivations, Midoriya seems taken aback by Shouto’s tone, stepping away slightly, brow furrowing as he does.
“Okay,” Midoriya says hesitantly. “Do you need anything else?”
Shouto doesn’t respond.
“I—” Midoriya sounds lost for words, like he’s not really sure where to go from here. “I’m going to go try and get us something to eat for dinner, okay? I won’t be going far, and it’s pretty empty out here, so if you do need something you can just yell.”
Midoriya gives him a nervous smile that Shouto doesn’t return, before heading to the other side of the fire to pick up a long coat that was lying on the ground, shrugging it on.
Shouto watches him leave before leaning his head against the cool cave wall behind him. He closes his eyes.
He just wants this to be over soon.
Izuku finds Yagi at the edge of the encampment. The cold bites at him through his jacket. They’re up pretty high, after all. There’s a reason why you need a dragon to get here. There’s nothing but the cavern in the mountain’s face and limited flatlands with sparse plant and animal life, carved into the side of the mountain like a shelf before dropping off into a sheer rock face for thousands of feet. Perfect for dragons.
That is where Yagi is now, his massive golden body curled up right at the cliff’s edge, the tip of his snout and most of his tail dangling right off it.
He lifts his long neck when he senses Izuku’s approach though, turning his gaze in Izuku’s direction and blinking, long and slow.
My boy, he says as Izuku draws close, ducking his head obligingly when Izuku reaches up towards him, and chuckling lowly when Izuku affectionately rubs the scales on the underside of his jaw. Is he well?
Izuku glances back to the mouth of the cave, a couple hundred feet away. “I mean, I think he’s good as he can be, all things considered. But…he’s not what I expected. I thought he would be indignant. Angry. But he just seemed…quiet, I guess? He wasn’t aggressive at all.”
Yagi doesn’t say anything, but Izuku can practically see the gears turning in his brain. Can practically feel the curiosity.
Izuku purses lips.
The prince—Todoroki—there’s something strange about him. Izuku had been concerned, at first. Dragon hunters are almost always zealots about their work—you kind of have to be, to be crazy enough to go after dragons , whether they’re interested in hurting you or not.
And Todoroki? So far, Todoroki is not fitting that profile.
Izuku has met a lot of people with bad intentions in his life. He met most of them after Yagi, but some of them did come before, and he hadn’t always escaped from those situations unscathed. So he’s not an idiot—he knows to be as careful of those people as he is kind to them.
But right now, when he looks at the prince, he’s doesn’t seem someone who wants to hurt him, regardless of the fact that he’d tried.
He sees somehow who looks like they need help . He feels it in his gut, the tug of it low and intense. And if there’s anything that running with dragons has taught Izuku, it’s to trust his instincts.
He doesn’t say any of that out loud, of course, but he’s sure Yagi can sense it. Yagi might even feel the same way.
Instead, he lifts the two rabbits dangling from his left hand.
“Traps caught a couple,” he says. “You should transform, so you can eat.”
There’s no need for that, says Yagi calmly, and Izuku frowns.
“There’s no big game up here,” he says. “And no offense, but we didn’t pack enough rations to feed you in this form.”
Yagi snorts, a short, skeptical rumble in his chest, accentuated with the slightest bit of smoke uncurling from his nose.
Dragons can sustain themselves for months between meals, he says, and then lifts his great tail and firmly drops it between Izuku and the edge of the cliff, effectively ending Izuku’s attempts to peer over the edge.
“Yagi-sensei!” Izuku whines, dragging the words out pleadingly. Yagi is immovable, however, and Izuku finally gives up, shrugging and clambering up the bulk of Yagi’s tail so that he can rest his back against it.
“Right,” Izuku continues, once he gets settled, “but that doesn’t mean you should . We’re stuck up here for at least a week, and I already told his highness that you can’t get down from here without a dragon. He’s not going to try and murder me at this point. Or at the very least, I’d pin the odds of that happening as somewhere between no chance in hell and very unlikely .”
You never know when something can go wrong, Yagi says, with his deep, wise voice. It’s best that I’m at the ready .
“Oh my goodness, you’re so paranoid ,” Izuku declares dramatically, and attempts to flop over onto his stomach so he look at Yagi balefully. Unfortunately, he underestimates exactly how close he is to the side of Yagi’s tail, and gives a sudden yelp as he slides off and hits the dirt with a loud thud .
There’s a moment of silence, the entirety of which Izuku spends flat on his stomach on the ground, wishing that the earth would open up and swallow him whole.
(Surprise: it doesn’t happen.)
After giving himself a moment of silence to mourn his pride and dignity, Izuku hops back onto his feet as quickly as possible, and makes a show of brushing off the dirt, trying to pretend that Yagi hasn’t been watching the whole time.
He turns back to face Yagi, who’s staring at him with something amused quirking his draconic features, and gives him a nervous smile.
“I’m okay!” he says, a little too fast.
Yagi laughs now, the way that dragons do, rumbling and deep.
Izuku’s anxious enough that from anyone else he would probably retreat from genuine embarrassment and humiliation, but he can also feel the genuine amusement and affection rolling of Yagi through the bond, warm and gentle and enveloping.
Izuku gives Yagi a look of fake irritation. “Okay. Laugh it up. Remember that time you almost landed on Aizawa-sensei and he nearly tore your face off?”
The laughter stops, though Yagi is obviously making an obvious effort to keep it in.
That’s a low blow, Izuku, he says, a couple chuckles still seeping through.
Izuku flicks one of Yagi’s scales. “You deserved it.”
It’s dark by the time that the two of them return to the cave. The cavern is massive, but Yagi still barely fits through the entrance. And Izuku really does mean barely. Even though he hunkers down on himself as he walks through, Yagi’s scales still scrape harshly along the rock walls. Luckily, the space opens up considerably once inside, and Yagi is able to make his way over to the back of the cave, where he curls up comfortably.
Izuku glances at Todoroki. The prince had stared at Yagi when the dragon entered, eyes narrowed, but he’d averted his gaze as soon as he noticed Izuku looking.
“Is rabbit alright?” he asks. “There’s not much else up here as far as wildlife goes, and there’s not that many human-friendly plants either. But Yagi and I still have some rations left. There’s some bread. Cheese. Berries. Some cured meats. You’re welcome to them if you’d prefer that. I’m sorry that it’s not anything fancy.”
It seems to take Todoroki a moment to register that Izuku is expecting a response, because after a couple seconds he lifts his head and blinks his mismatched eyes in Izuku’s direction, almost looking a little bit confused.
But he seems to orient himself, then, and his face sets back into something carefully controlled.
“Rabbit’s fine,” he says, perfectly neutral, leaving no hints as to whether or not that’s actually true.
Izuku turns to face Yagi then, making a face that he hopes appropriately conveys his message, which is: you see what I mean ?
He’s pretty sure that Yagi does. The dragon is watching Todoroki carefully now, giant eyes narrowed just slightly. Not as if on the lookout for an attack, but as if looking at Todoroki closely enough will help him understand.
Izuku’s pretty sure that Yagi won’t protest now, so he bends down and pulls out the small dagger he keeps in his left boot and makes his way over to Todoroki.
The prince’s eyes flicker over to the blade for just a moment, but once again, his reaction seems to be a schooled neutrality. Aside from the brief look, he maintains eye contact with Izuku, who gives him a smile and says, as placatingly as possible:
“Is it okay if I untie you now?”
Todoroki doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t pull away either when Izuku cuts the rope away from his ankles. He also doesn’t kick Izuku in the face the second he gets free, which is decidedly excellent. Izuku makes quick work of the ropes on Todoroki’s hands next. The knotwork there was decidedly more complex, and Izuku’s admittedly still worried that the other boy might have been hurt by it. Instinct causes him to check, turning Todoroki’s wrists over and running his hands over them, searching for any signs of bruising or swelling.
There’s none from what he can tell, but he never finishes looking. It takes him a moment to realize that Todoroki has frozen under his touch, and Izuku glances up and meets Todoroki’s eyes, which are locked onto the point of contact between them with an expression that Izuku can’t quite interpret.
Fuck , Izuku thinks.
How many times has he been warned that he needs to get better at balancing his instinct to rush in and help people with respecting their boundaries?
“I’m sorry!” Izuku drops the prince’s wrists like they’re red hot. “Sorry, I just wanted to make sure that they weren’t too tight, that was—I’m sorry.”
Todoroki doesn’t give any particular reaction, though he does rub one of his wrists—a nervous tic, or had they really been too tight?
“They weren’t,” Todoroki says flatly.
“Cool!” says Izuku. “I just—you can relax here while I cook, if you want. Or you can go stretch your legs outside! Just don’t go too far, it’s dark, and even though you can still see the edge I think it’s possible to still miss it. I don’t want you to slip!”
There’s a hesitant pause. “Here is…fine.”
Finally, Todoroki gives Izuku some hint as to what he’s actually saying. “Are you sure?” says Izuku with a frown. “You’ve been sitting all day. Your back must be killing you. I understand if you’re tired, but maybe you could go walk around the mouth of the cave?”
Izuku’s not going to force Todoroki to do anything he doesn’t want, but he should at least give Todoroki as much of an opportunity as possible to actually do what he wants.
Todoroki doesn’t respond right away, and for a long second Izuku is sure that he’s going to say no—Izuku can practically see the word hovering on the other boy’s lips—and that Izuku’s going to have to cook dinner feeling guilty and with the prince staring at him and watching his every movement with sullen eyes.
But something seems to catch the word in Todoroki’s throat—he must be really uncomfortable, if Izuku had to guess, and Izuku winces internally.
And finally, finally, Todoroki says, slow and halting and bit uncertain: “…okay.”
Izuku smiles as Todoroki pulls himself up from where he’s sitting on the ground, wincing a bit as he does, and heads outside.
Making dinner is pretty short work—this isn’t the first time Izuku has had to do this. The first time, he’d cried for an hour, cut himself on the carving knife, set one of their bags on fire, and just generally created a disaster until Aizawa-sensei had come along with a world-weary sigh, extinguished his mess while Yagi bandaged his palm, and then showed him the proper way to do it with curt, somewhat irritated instructions.
So yeah, Izuku’s come a long way since then. By now, he’d even say that his cooking his halfway palatable.
They have some spices in their supplies, and there’s plenty of freshwater up here—it may be winter, but melting snow is easy enough work, so Izuku pulls a pot from one of their bags and sets about making a simple but hearty stew.
After a little while, there’s not much more for Izuku to do other than let it simmer for a few more minutes, so he ducks outside to fetch Todoroki.
Izuku winces the second that he does, and then hisses. Damn, he hadn’t even thought about offering Todoroki a jacket or a blanket—he’d forgotten how cold it was out here, especially at night. Snow is flurrying down from above, marking the storm’s definitive arrival. Izuku rubs his arms.
He makes his way over to Todoroki, who is standing about twenty feet out. He seems lost deep in thought, and unlike Izuku, he doesn’t seem to be reacting to the cold at all. He has his head tilted upwards, staring at the stars.
They are pretty remarkable, Izuku supposes, away from the light pollution of cities and towns. Izuku never ceases to wonder at their beauty himself, though he has gotten considerably more used to them from night flights with Yagi.
“They’re lovely, right?” Izuku says, when he gets up to Todoroki’s right.
Todoroki hadn’t heard him coming, apparently.
Rather than saying anything in response, Todoroki whips around at the sound of his voice like he’s been hit, and before Izuku can even fully register that his world is twisting and turning, and he is flat on the ground for the second time today, one of Todoroki’s hands twisting an arm behind his back and the other resting heavy on the back of his neck, pressing his face into the dirt.
One hand is burning unnaturally warm, and the other ice cold.
Izuku’s first instinct is to buck the other boy off, or to reach for the bond and tug on it in distress—call Yagi for help.
But he stops short. Because something about Todoroki’s eyes when he’d struck had been off—they hadn’t seemed vicious , or angry. They’d seemed blank.
And sure enough, after a moment Todoroki’s hands loosen, and he can hear the other boy’s breathing harshen slightly, and the weight disappears entirely as Todoroki stumbles to his feet and away from Izuku.
He’s staring at his hands like he can’t believe what they’re foreign to him, like he can’t comprehend what they’ve done.
“I—” he says, and there’s a hint of raw emotion there, “I wasn’t trying to—”
Izuku spares him, offering him a soft smile as he gets to his feet. “It’s fine,” he says, brushing the dirt off of his shoulders. “I wasn’t trying to surprise you or anything. Are you okay?”
Todoroki doesn’t react, so Izuku, after a moment’s hesitation, draws closer and puts a soft hand on Todoroki’s back.
“Hey,” he says, “can I check your shoulder? I want to make sure you didn’t hurt it just now.”
Todoroki gives Izuku a look like he can’t believe the words out of his mouth. Izuku just smiles, hoping that Todoroki will take his intentions for what they are.
It takes a second, but Todoroki, still looking a bit shaken, nods.
Todoroki’s shoulder seems fine—it probably hurts a bit from the exertion, but the swelling hasn’t gotten any worse, which is about as good as they can hope for.
“Do you have a history of dislocation in this arm?” Izuku inquires.
Todoroki goes still beneath Izuku’s touch again, and Izuku lifts his hands automatically, trying to give him space.
“You don’t have to answer that,” Izuku says gently, “sorry, I was just trying to figure out how it got injured during our…earlier scuffle.”
Todoroki looks at the ground, and Izuku wishes with a sudden, powerful strength that he was a mind reader.
“It’s happened couple times,” Todoroki said simply, and doesn’t elaborate.
They lapse into silence for a little while as Izuku checks and double checks that Todoroki really hadn’t strained his shoulder too much. But after a little bit, Izuku refastens the wrappings, and steps away, trying not to invade the other boy’s space as much as possible.
“Dinner’s probably ready by now,” Izuku offers, heading back to the cavern and waving for Todoroki to follow.
Todoroki blinks, frozen and stiff in the chill of evening, but after a moment he does in fact trail slowly after Izuku.
If the warmth of the crackling fire is any relief to him, he gives no such indication. His face does, however, twitch in surprise when Izuku dumps a generous helping of stew in his bowl.
He looks even more bewildered when Izuku tries to ply him with seconds, though he declines firmly.
“I can clean,” Todoroki says, instead of handing his bowl over when Izuku extends a hand for it.
Izuku tilts his head curiously. “No,” he says mildly, “it’s fine. Your shoulder’s injured, remember? I don’t want to—”
“I can do it,” says Todoroki, a little more insistently this time, probably the first fit of true boldness that Izuku has seen from him so far.
“It’s really okay,” Izuku tries. “I—”
“ Stop ,” says Todoroki, and Izuku does, cutting off his sentence before it really begins. “ Stop .”
He stands, and he looks genuinely very vexed. The bowl, clutched in his right hand, ices over. Yagi lifts his head, a rumble building in his chest—not a threat, but a reminder that he is there.
Todoroki ignores it.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to play at,” snaps Todoroki, suddenly taking a couple short steps forward. “But it’s not— I’m not—”
Izuku can’t stop himself from frowning. What is Todoroki implying? The thing about it is that Todoroki doesn’t seem hostile. Whatever this is, it doesn’t seem like he means harm . Todoroki is tense, but it’s because he’s shaking, not because he’s coiled to attack. His voice is angry, but not resolute. There’s a quaver to it—it’s as lost and confused as it is furious, like Todoroki isn’t positive about his anger.
Whatever it is, Yagi must pick up on it too, because he’s watching them carefully with his massive eyes, tail shifting slightly as he thinks, but he isn’t acting either.
Izuku pauses, and then lifts his hands placatingly. “We aren’t trying anything,” he attempts. Todoroki doesn’t react, gaze remaining dead-set on Izuku, narrowed and suspicious.
Izuku reaches out for the other boy, though he’s not quite sure for what. To calm him? To get him to stop shaking?
But Todoroki shifts out of his reach, and continues.
“Just…just…” he says. “Stop this. No more games. Just kill me and get it over with.”
Izuku freezes in place. Everything in his brain grinds to an absolute halt. Behind him, he can hear Yagi’s tail fall still.
“ What?” Izuku chokes, frantically combing his memory for anything they could have said or done to create that impression. Yeah, okay, waking to find yourself tied up is…not a great start, but Izuku had thought that he’d explained.
But apparently, he hadn’t done a good enough job.
“I swear—” Izuku chokes. “We’re not going to kill you! I just—no, no. I’m so sorry if we made you think that! I mean—okay, if we were going to kill you, why would we have treated your shoulder? Why wouldn’t we have done it already?”
Todoroki hesitates for a moment at that, but then seems to recover. “Information,” he says simply.
Izuku blinks, confused. “Information about what ?” he asks.
Todoroki gives him an odd expression. “The crown,” he says. “My father.”
“Yeah,” says Izuku. “But you’d never tell us that stuff willingly.”
Todoroki fixes him with a dubious expression then, and Izuku realizes, with a sudden sinking in his stomach, what the prince is suggesting.
Izuku can’t stop himself from physically recoiling at the thought, backing up a few frantic steps and shaking his head in disbelief. “I—” he says. “Todoroki, you have to believe me. Yagi and I don’t work like that. We just wanted to make sure that you were okay, and then we were going to take you back to safety. It’s inconvenient that we have to lie low for the time being, but we were never going to…kill you!”
Todoroki looks more unsure now, gaze shifting between Izuku and Yagi like that will help him understand.
And then Yagi rises. Gargantuan beast that he is, it only takes him a couple paces to get all the way across the cave. He’s not angry. Not even annoyed. Izuku can tell.
But Todoroki can’t—all Todoroki can see is that he’s being advanced on be a creature that could swallow him whole with ease.
Todoroki starts to step backwards before he seems to think better of it, freezing in place and staring at Yagi with a guarded expression.
Yagi comes to a stop maybe five feet away from Todoroki.
And then he speaks.
My boy, he says, channeling his voice so that Todoroki can hear it just as Izuku does, a noise that reverberates through your whole body—warm and powerful and safe. You have nothing to fear. You have my word that no harm shall befall you.
todoroki, realizing the talking dragon wasnt a hallucination: [chuckles nervously] ....What the fuck?
Me: I'm going to update weekly!
Narrator voice: And then she didn't.
WHOOP. Sorry that I disappeared (and just that I've been scarce in general.... *stares in fear at the massive backlog of tumblr messages I have to respond to*)! These past two quarters of school have been really intense, and more recently I got hit with a really nasty cold that took me out for a couple weeks and left me trying to catch up in a lot of my classes. It's all left me really drained and exhausted; I haven't been able to do things like edit this chapter or respond to asks, much less write anything that I'm satisfied with. Everyone has been so kind and understanding though, so thank you all, whether you've kudos'd or left a kind comment or sent me messages on tumblr. While I haven't been able to respond, I appreciate it more than I can say, and it encourages me to chip away at my works a little more every day. The good news is that I'll be free for the summer soon, and I'm excited to recharge and get back to my work!
And, as always, thank you so much to my artist cricketmilk, whose infinite patience when dealing with me, my writing, and my perpetual forgetfulness throughout this whirlwind of the school year has been an absolute gift.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It takes Todoroki a little while to recover from the shock of being spoken to by a literal, actual dragon. But he also seems to believe Yagi’s reassurance more than he did any of Izuku’s—a fact that Izuku is trying his very best to not be offended by.
The storm outside is brewing harder now, filling the cave with a chill even despite the fire.
“Todoroki,” Izuku says, and the other boy glances up.
Todoroki seems a little more settled now, a little less like he’s expecting Izuku to stab him in the back at any given second. Izuku hefts up his bedroll and blankets, all gathered up in his arms, and places them at the foot of Todoroki’s own bedroll.
“Here,” he says. “This should be enough to keep you comfortable through the night! But if you get too cold, don’t be afraid to let us know, okay?”
Todoroki picks up the bundle, casting a startled expression in Izuku’s direction. “What about you?” he asks, sounding earnestly concerned. “I can’t—"
Izuku’s heart pangs, and he gives the other boy a happy smile. “Don’t worry about it!” he says. “I can make do without! Sleep well, Todoroki!”
Izuku doesn’t give Todoroki another chance to protest, retreating over to where Yagi is lounging drowsily.
Yagi’s eyes are closed, but he obligingly cracks one eyelid open when Izuku taps on one of his massive legs. He huffs fondly when he sees Izuku looking up at him with an entreating smile, but slowly lifts one of his wings so Izuku can crawl in and tuck himself between Yagi’s side and the curve of his foreleg. Once Izuku’s done squirming and appears to have settled on a position, he finds him lulled into sleep almost immediately, so tired out by the emotional stress of the past couple hours and comforted by the warmth radiating from Yagi’s side that he almost doesn’t even register Yagi lowering his wing again, draping it over them both.
When Shouto wakes the next morning, the dragon— Yagi, Midoriya had told him, and later so had the dragon himself , a fact that Shouto is very carefully trying to regulate his shock to—is gone.
Yagi is not what Shouto had been expecting. Enji had always made it sound like dragons were intelligent, yes, but driven solely by their bloodlust and their greed for worship, power, and riches, selecting riders who would help them achieve those goals.
But when Yagi had spoken to him last night, he hadn’t sounded like he was any of those things. He had sounded kind, and infinitely wise. He must be patient too, biding his time to observe rather than acting the moment that Shouto had exhibited any signs of aggression.
Shouto can’t help but be fascinated, especially now that he’s not actively fighting the creature.
Yagi is massive. His scales are gold, yes, but now that they aren’t under direct sun anymore—where they’d been blinding—Shouto can see that the gold is less of yellow than it is a rich amber, luminescent and swirling with gradations in color.
Despite the fact that Yagi’s scales alone look as thick and as strong as plate armor, there are also thick, strong-looking leather straps that run across his body in places, all connecting a heavy, strong-looking piece of armor over his left side. A weakness, perhaps? Not that it matters. Shouto doubts, somehow, that Yagi could have any weakness that Shouto is strong enough to exploit.
The realization that Enji may have lied to him about dragons isn’t a shock. It should be, but Shouto can’t muster up anything more than vague disappointment. It isn’t the first time that Enji has manipulated the truth, after all.
But what is Shouto supposed to do with that information?
He has no choice but to kill Yagi if he wants to save his mother—but how can he? Even just logistically. Yagi’s power far supersedes Shouto’s own, and they both know it. And even if he had the power, killing Yagi would strand him here.
This not a fight that he can win.
“Hey,” says Midoriya, and Shouto barely keeps himself from jumping in surprise.
Oddly enough, Midoriya still looks half-asleep as he rummages through the packs at the edge of the cave. He must have woken up before Shouto, since the first thing Shouto had done was glance over to where Yagi and Midoriya had been only to find that neither of them were there, but Shouto has rarely had the privilege of affording himself more than a moment of drowsiness in the mornings.
“Morning,” Shouto responds, as Midoriya finally finds what he was looking for and pulls— ah— rations out of the bag.
He makes his way over to Shouto and hands some to him—Shouto glances at it. It’s pretty simple, matches with what Midoriya had told him that they’d had last night. Some bread, cheese, a couple pieces of dried meat.
Midoriya pauses, looking hesitant. “May I?” he asks, and it takes Shouto a moment to realize that he’s asking for permission to sit down.
Shouto pauses, glancing Midorya up and down briefly. Midoriya looks genuine enough, a small, hopeful smile quirking his lips.
“Yeah,” he says, carefully neutral. There’s no point in refusing anyways. Shouto is still skeptical that Midoriya’s hospitality isn’t limited.
Midoriya smiles at that, settling down a couple feet to Shouto’s left, facing him. He crosses his legs under him as he sits, placing his own food on his lap.
“Thanks!” he says.
For what? Permission to sit? Shouto isn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so he plays it safe, and he keeps quiet instead.
Midoriya visibly falters a bit, awkwardly taking a bit of bread in the silence that stretches between them for what feels like miles.
But after a little while, Midoriya musters the courage, it seems, to say something. “So,” he says. “The snow’s really pretty, right?”
Shouto makes a noncommittal noise of agreement, carefully neutral, but Midoriya doesn’t seem to take offense.
“Did you know,” says Midoriya, “I actually didn’t see snow for the first time until like a year ago? I was soooo excited. Yagi got a really big laugh out of it—don’t ask him, though, he’ll probably tell you some embarrassing stories…”
Midoriya keeps talking. Occasionally he pauses, as if checking to make sure Shouto doesn’t have any interjections or anything that he wants to share, but continues when Shouto prods him to do so.
It’s…surprising. He doesn’t think, at this point, that Midoriya has the stomach for torture, but on some level he’d still expected invasive questions. Expected Midoriya to pry and pry to find out as much he could about the boy who had tried to kill him—and Shouto certainly would not have blamed him for it.
If someone tried to kill Shouto or someone that he cared about—his mother, one of his siblings—well, Shouto doesn’t want to think of himself as the sort of person who would willingly hurt others, but these days he feels like he doesn’t know his own lines as well as he thought he did.
But regardless, Midoriya seems content to chatter politely about…everything and nothing, apparently uninterested in haranguing Shouto for information.
It’s the sort of revelation that makes something twist in Shouto’s stomach like a knife in the gut. Of course.
Enji just couldn’t send him after someone awful, could he?
“Hey,” says Midoriya, and then suddenly he’s in Shouto’s field of vision, leaning forwards slightly and looking at Shouto with an inquisitive, almost concerned expression. “You good?”
Shouto clears his throat. “Fine,” he says, and it almost sounds true. “You were saying?”
Shouto doesn’t know why Midoriya brought him along to go check the traps.
Or, well, that’s not totally accurate. A more accurate statement would be that Midoriya had declared that he was going to do so as the snow let up just slightly, and asked Shouto if he had wanted to come along.
Shouto had very nearly declined, until he considered the possibility of sitting here, doing nothing, for nearly the entire day.
He’s dressed more lightly than Midoriya, though it is certainly not for lack of trying on the other boy’s part. Midoriya had tried to give him what must have been three spare coats, including his own.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Midoriya had said hurriedly. “We won’t be too long, and it’s our fault you’re up here with us in the cold anyways.”
It had taken Shouto giving Midoriya an explanation and—ultimately—a demonstration of his magic to convince the other boy that his ability to thermoregulate made a few minutes in a winter storm a nonissue.
“Woah,” the other boy had breathed, looking awestruck. “That’s amazing! So not only can you manage your body temperature, but you can endure a wider range of temperatures than most individuals, right? Todoroki, that’s absolutely incredible! Don’t be afraid to ask me for a jacket if you do get too cold though, okay? Everybody has their limits.” He’d given Shouto a small, nervous smile. “You don’t want to test them too much, right?”
That, more than anything else, had thrown Shouto for a loop.
His mother had said things like that once—had begged Enji to understand, to stop.
But she’d always been pushed aside, because to Todoroki Enji, limits weren’t just made to be tested, they were made to be broken. You pushed yourself past them. You ignored them and you crushed them beneath your feet until you could trick yourself into believing that you had none at all, or you were cast aside like the rest of rest of Enji’s children.
Not that it matters. A little adverse weather isn’t enough to faze Shouto, not even on a bad day.
And sure enough, the cold is…well, it’s not comfortable, but Shouto has certainly dealt with worse. It’s easy enough to brace himself against the bite of the storm with his magic flowing through him—his fire magic heating him slightly and his ice magic neutralizing any danger that the cold might pose.
Midoriya, on the other hand, is shaking slightly even beneath his jacket. Not enough to impair his function, but there’s still a delicate tremor running through him that gets slightly more pronounced when the wind blows harder.
The clearing on the top of the mountain is large, stretching even around the curve of the mountain, where it gets slightly forested. In the light of day, now, Shouto can see why Midoriya was so fascinated by it. This certainly does not seem like something that could have happened due to natural events. The very shape of it is unnatural, as is the sheer, sheer drop that’s visible when you get too close to the edge.
Had this been made for dragons by humans? Or had they managed it themselves? Or is the truth, as Midoriya had suggested, so ancient that it is simply lost to time?
“I can feel you thinking,” Midoriya says jokingly, as he leads Shouto into some of the cover of trees.
“I—” Shouto starts, just as Midoriya comes to a sudden halt over a trap and kneels down to check it.
“Yeah?” says Midoriya. “What’s up?”
Shouto pauses. “Where’s your dragon?” It is a question that’s been nagging him. The area is large, but Yagi is even more so. There are only so many places that he could be hiding out of sight.
“Oh,” says Midoriya, focused on his work. “He’s probably out flying. I think he was going to go down to the village—find some of our friends. They may be able to equip him with some supplies for us.”
“I thought he couldn’t fly us out of here until the storm passed?” Shouto snaps, and then immediately curses himself. That, he knows, had sounded too harsh, too suddenly suspicious, but Midoriya glances at him, peering up through long lashes, flakes of snow catching in them and in his hair, and gives a small smile.
“He can’t,” says Midoriya, getting to his feet without removing anything from the trap—empty, then. “I mean, he can fly it, of course. I mean…have you seen him? Dragons are hardy. There’s not much that they can’t fly through. It’s us that can’t make the trip. Flying through the storm would be risky enough even if we were both strapped in with full gear—but I only have one set of that, unfortunately. I usually bring another, but, well, we weren’t thinking that we’d need it, and we were trying to travel light. Normally he’d fly us above the storm, but we’re already so high, Yagi checked—gaining the sort of height we’d need to stay out of it would make it too hard to breathe. So here we are!”
“Oh,” Shouto says.
“Well, that’s one of the only problems with dragon riding! We’re much more delicate than they are. People,” Midoriya says with a shrug, “are just so breakable.”
And, oh—isn’t that a fact with which Shouto is intimately familiar? Shouto knows the fragility to the human body down to its finest details—knows how hard you have to hit to splinter a bone, and the exact amount of force needed to split skin. Yet he doesn’t understand how Midoriya can sound so okay with it, so comfortable. Entirely content in the knowledge of exactly how little it would take to kill him.
Shouto has never felt like that. He’s lived his entire life keenly aware of the fact that Enji—his father— could bring his life, his mother’s life, his siblings’ lives, to an end on a whim and with the flick of a hand.
But Midoriya doesn’t seem afraid at all, and Shouto can’t tell if the feeling that fact stirs up in his chest is awe or envy.
That night, Midoriya looks at the food in front of him, and then at Shouto, and frowns, and then says: “Todoroki, how are you with a knife?”
The answer is of course, quite handy, and even though Shouto had known from the beginning where Midoriya had been going with that question, it doesn’t stop him from starting in surprise when Midoriya presses a spare blade into his hand with instructions to cut the vegetables, before turning back to his own work.
He doesn’t seem to even consider how easy it would be for Shouto to kill him right now. Yagi isn’t there. He would probably arrive in short order, if Shouto acted. But he couldn’t stop it. Not if Shouto did it quickly, and he could . It would be so simple. Two paces, and Shouto could slide the blade home. Lodge it in the center of Midoriya’s spine, or the base of his neck. Quick, fatal. He probably wouldn’t even have time to react—to make so much as a noise, not until it was too late.
Yagi and Midoriya seem close, too. Perhaps the dragon’s own will to live would fade if his rider were slain. Shouto had heard stories of such things—from his mother, from wetnurses and maids who doted on him in secret, a small rebellion of their own against the king. He had heard that dragons and riders died together. That one would start to fall from this world if the other were struck down.
It would take almost no effort to test that theory now.
It takes Shouto a long moment to realize he’s staring blankly at the ground in front of him, grip on the knife white-knuckled and uncomfortably tight as he slices the vegetables blindly.
He forces himself to release a deep breath.
No—no. Regardless of whether or not killing Midoriya would sap Yagi’s will to live, chances are that the dragon will kill him in revenge regardless.
There’s no point. There’s no point.
Shouto forces himself to loosen his grip on the handle of the blade, and tries to ignore the lightening in his chest that feels suspiciously like relief.
Midoriya glances back over his shoulder at Shouto. “Carrots ready?” he asks. If he’s noticed Shouto’s hand flexing around the blade, he gives no indication, but at this point, Shouto isn’t taking anything about Midoriya for granted. Most people in their situation would have viewed it as an act of aggression, would have been concerned that Shouto was thinking exactly what he had been. But Midoriya’s pattern of behavior seems to indicate that even if he knew what Shouto had been considering, his reaction might not have changed at all, and its horribly confusing.
“Yeah,” Shouto says, and Midoriya smiles. He turns around and reaches over, scooping the chopped carrots up into his hands.
“Thanks!” he says, and then lifts them up to smell them. His nose immediately crinkles. “Ew, this is so gross.”
Shouto doesn’t particularly mind carrots—he doesn’t particularly mind any food, really. It’s just a part of life. He might be a prince, but the palace chefs had always been sure to curate every meal to his father’s tastes, not his own.
Still, though. “You don’t have to use them, if you don’t like them.”
Midoriya sighs heavily. “I wish,” he says. “But Yagi says I need to eat more vegetables.”
He doesn’t move for a long moment, staring blankly off into the distance.
“Is something wrong?” Shouto asks.
“No,” Midoriya starts, “I don’t know, I just have a bad feeling for some reason—”
And then he freezes, head jerking upwards to stare at the cave’s ceiling for a couple long seconds, and then he bolts from the cave.
Shouto stares after him. He doesn’t comprehend what has the has the other boy so alarmed until he hears the noise, a terrible cracking through the air, like thunder but sharper .
Shouto makes it outside just in time to see a massive golden body connect with the ground. It was a landing—not a fall, but only just barely, and in the end it doesn’t even matter. The dragon—Yagi—staggers and then collapses, folding in on himself.
Midoriya stands still, shocked, before seeming to knock himself out of his reverie. “Todoroki!” he shouts. “Go get some blankets!”
Shouto obeys blindly, pushed into motion only by the firmness in Midoriya’s voice, and by the time he gets back, the gigantic, golden-scaled creature is gone. In Yagi’s place is a man—an adult, sun-tan, and his father’s age, if not a little older. But unlike his father, this man is not broad-shouldered—instead he’s slim, narrow-bodied and bony. And Shouto means really bony—the man looks like he’s short a good dozen meals or so. And most noticeable is the scar—a massive thing that spreads across all of the man’s side. His left side.
Midoriya is breathing rapidly, the noise of barely contained panic. But still, when Shouto extends the bundle in his arms, Midoriya glances up and musters—well, it’s not quite a smile, but it’s an attempt at one, and it leaves Shouto feeling staggered all the same.
“Thanks,” Midoriya says briefly, before turning back to the older man and draping the blankets over his form. Midoriya’s brow furrows slightly, and he uses his sleeve to wipe away the blood trickling from the man’s mouth. Shouto sees none of the staggering confusion that he himself feels on Midroiya’s face. There’s only tense concern—but despite the emotion on his face, Midoriya’s hands are steady as he checks for injuries.
“Midoriya, my boy,” the man croaks, and Shouto comes to two startling realizations.
The first and most obvious is that the man is conscious. Shouto hadn’t noticed at first—a lapse in observation that almost alarms him. The man’s face is gaunt, his eyes sunken and shadowed, so that when squinted in pain Shouto had taken them to be shut.
The second is that—is that Shouto knows that voice. He’d heard it in his head not that long ago, though it’s more strained and raspy now, as if from disuse. It’s—it’s—
“What happened?” Midoriya is calm, kind. Now, though, Midoriya’s voice is low and harsh, as close to frantic as Shouto has ever heard him. “Is it your side?”
Yagi nods. His teeth are grit, but the expression is less pained than it is frustrated. “I overextended myself,” he casts his gaze off to the side with a scowl. “Like a fool.”
Midoriya purses his lips. “It’s been too long since you saw Shuzenji,” he says. “Yagi-sensei, come inside. Rest.”
“No excuses,” Midoriya interrupts. “Aizawa-sensei is always telling you to set a better example for me. Here’s your chance.” Then Midoriya’s features soften, his tone shifting into something cajoling, almost pleading. “Please?”
Yagi opens his mouth, as if to protest, before he seems to think better of it, shoulders slumping in defeat. Instead, he tugs at his arm, trying to stand under his own weight.
“My boy, it’s quite alright, I can walk,” he says.
Midoriya looks up at him, and Shouto can only see a part of his glare from this angle, obstructed by Yagi’s form as it is, but he can tell that it’s a baleful, stubborn thing that leaves no illusions as to what Midoriya thinks of that .
Yagi truly must be injured, because after a moment, he tilts his head in acquiescence, and lets Midoriya lead him into the cave.
Enji has never acquiesced to Shouto on anything. It didn’t matter if Shouto begged, or plead, or groveled like his life depended on it. It didn’t matter if the issue was small or large. As a general rule, Enji never allowed Shouto anything that wasn’t directly beneficial to him or unless he could get Shouto to do something for him in return.
Shouto is about to follow them when he pauses.
Midoriya is clearly concerned. Yagi is injured, badly. And…human, apparently.
Shouto wouldn’t want a stranger lurking over his shoulder if he were in Midoriya’s position, and certainly not a stranger who’s tried to kill him, who had been thinking about finishing the job not an hour ago.
So Shouto surveys the skies—stormy and violent—and waits.
It’s about an hour later, when Shouto perceives a figure picking its way out of the cave and over to where he’s seated, leaning against one of the cavern’s outer walls, under an overhang just barely large enough to keep him away from any snow falling directly in his face.
“Hey,” Midoriya says, and drops down next to Shouto, so close that their shoulders and thighs brush, and just for a second Shouto thinks about just being so tired, just needing to sit for a moment, just a moment, and father is scowling and kneeling beside him and dragging him to his feet and, and— Midoriya isn’t grabbing him, though. He’s close enough that Shouto can feel the firmness of muscle, but somehow, from Midoriya it doesn’t feel like a threat.
Instead, Shouto looks at him, and Midoriya tilts his head curiously. He’s sitting next to Shouto, but the overhang isn’t big enough for the both of them, so on the right side of his head there are snowflakes catching in his hair. They’re already starting to melt away. They’ll leave Izuku damp, soon.
“I’m sorry,” Midoriya says, and Shouto’s mind slows to a halt, and for a long, long second, Shouto wonders what sort of trick this is. Shouto tried to kill them, just the other day. Enji tried, apparently, just a couple hours ago, and Midoriya is here…apologizing?
Taking Shouto’s stunned silence for an answer, Midoriya continues. “I got a little caught up checking on Yagi, but I should have come to talk to you right away once I knew it was safe to leave him alone. I totally understand why you need space, though. When I first saw a dragon shift, I actually fainted.” He gives Shouto a smile, at that. It’s a little half-hearted, a little tired, and Shouto understands why, but it’s a clear attempt at commiseration. At reaching out, even if Shouto can’t figure out why.
But Shouto can’t deny that Midoriya’s onto something. There’s so much to sift through here. His father hadn’t told him anything about dragons being shapeshifters, and Shouto has no clue why. It could be that Enji simply hadn’t known—it’s clearly not common knowledge, since it hadn’t reached Shouto through any other avenues, and Midoriya’s reaction suggests that it could be a well-kept secret.
On the other hand, there aren’t many people alive who know as much about dragons as Enji does. Not, of course, that Enji would have told him, even if he did know.
Your resolve is weak . It’s what Enji says to him every time he wavers. Every time he hesitates. He says it less every year.
“What do you want?” Shouto says, instead of anything else that he’s thinking.
It’s the same question from the night before, except now Midoriya doesn’t blink in shock. Doesn’t try and deny it fiercely. He just frowns slightly; and looks conflicted.
“Two hours ago,” Midoriya starts haltingly, “I would have said ‘nothing.’ But I don’t think that’s true anymore.”
Shouto doesn’t respond—doesn’t know how he can respond. There’s a strange twisting feeling in his chest—the beginning of something that he thinks could become fear. Anxiety, at least. But he doesn’t react, not yet. There’s a plainness to Midoriya’s tone that feels different from, say, the brutal honesty that Enji seems to favor.
Enji wields the truth like a weapon. He uses it the same way he does the back of his hand: to stun and to hurt. But from Midoriya it sounds less like a slap to the face or the crack of the whip than it does armor falling to the floor, leaving him exposed and open.
Midoriya takes a steadying breath. “I want you to help me,” he says. “Partly because I need it. But also because I think you want to.”
Shouto turns his head sharply towards Midoriya. “What do you mean?” he says, but it doesn’t sound quite like a question. In fact, it comes out horribly threatening for someone who could have a dragon sicced on him on a mere whim from Midoriya.
Except that’s not quite true, anymore, is it? Yagi is out of the picture—perhaps not permanently, but for now at least—and that puts Shouto and Midoriya on equal ground. But with magic on Shouto’s side, there’s very little question as to who would win if it came to a fair fight.
Of course—that would leave Shouto with a choice. Let the dragon heal and promptly be slain for his troubles, or kill the dragon while he’s weak and strand himself up here.
Shouto tries to shove the fact that he’s been considering that problem too out of his head. This place is unreachable by most people, yes, but Shouto isn’t most people. Shouto is a magician—he can create massive amounts of ice with a wave of his hand. There may not be a path up here but…theoretically, Shouto could make one.
Midoriya clears his throat. “Lie to your dad,” he says.
Shouto stares at Midoriya blankly. “What?”
“When you go back,” Midoriya tells him earnestly. “Lie. Please . Don’t tell him about Yagi. About his injury”
“...are you insane?” The words slip out before Shouto can stop them, a thought that would have, if he had his way, gone unvoiced. “What makes you think that I want to help you?” Shouto says, because that is by far the most bewildering thing that Midoriya has said throughout this conversation. He can hardly comprehend it, since in the few days since they’ve met Shouto has tried to kill Midoriya and his dragon and then more or less sat in sullen silence for the rest of the time.
Midoriya hesitates thoughtfully, as if he’s choosing his next words with great care. “I…I’ve heard a lot of stories about your father, Todoroki,” he says, and Shouto tenses. “None of them have painted a very kind image of him. Of how he treats his subjects. Or,” Midoriya continues slowly, and he’s suddenly watching Shouto very carefully, “of how he treats his children.”
Shouto scoffs, and Midoriya tilts his head quizzically, clearly befuddled by the reaction. Shouto doesn’t know how to tell Midoriya that he isn’t amused by this news because it’s false, but because it’s blatantly true, and because it is absolutely hilarious to think of how angry his father would be to discover how horribly his cruelty and his iron fist across his kingdom had backfired—that even someone from the country’s very outskirts believes that Enji’s children would turn against him because of it.
“I know he is your father,” Midoriya says, “and your king. And he’s been telling you that dragons like Yagi and people like me are bad for your entire life. But he’s wrong. And he may have given you your orders, but you aren’t him. You don’t have to listen.”
Shouto stares at the ground.
You aren’t him?
Shouto had dreamed of the moment his mother had burned him every single night, for years. He could never be quite sure which dreams were actually memories—lost in the haze of pain before being found again in the realm of sleep—and which were desperate hopes, projected by his subconscious trying to make reality a little bit more bearable.
And in some of those dreams, in the moments after she’d seared his face with boiling water, and in the moments before the guards burst through the door—she stares at him, blank and empty and broken and then she blinks, and it’s like, for just a moment, the fog lifts.
“It’s not—” she says, and then: “No!”
It’s a piercing cry. It hurts almost as much as the ferocious burning in Shouto’s head.
“I thought,” she says, and her voice breaks, and her gaze is growing distant again, “I thought it was him.”
Shouto doesn’t hear her drop the kettle, but the next thing he knows it’s on the ground, tilted over onto its side, steaming water slowly spilling from the dislodged lid. And then the guards are wrenching her arms behind her back, and they’re being too harsh—they’re hurting her—but she isn’t resisting. She’s just standing, still and boneless, like a doll.
They drag her from the room, and she is lost to him
Shouto thinks of Yagi, gargantuan and gold, and he thinks of his mother’s shaking hands, watching the silver being paraded down the street. In his bedchambers that night, away from the prying eyes and ears of his father and his father’s men, she had kissed his forehead and pulled him close and said: “If no more dragons ever die in this country, it will be too many.”
But there’s still one major problem with Midoriya’s plan, a weakness that will cripple it before it even gets a chance to get started. Unless...
Shouto’s hand twitches. “I’ll help you,” he says, cutting off whatever Midoriya had been about to say next.
He is a monster, he knows. That is an incontrovertible truth. He cannot change it. It’s far too late for that.
He is a monster, so why not be one of his own making?
Midoriya blinks, and then his face breaks into a wide smile, like he hadn’t expected it to be so easy.
“But,” Shouto says, and a bit confusion enters Midoriya’s face, “I need you to help me with something in return.”
“What is it?” The words are hesitant. That’s good. Maybe Midoriya doesn’t trust as blindly as it seems.
Shouto meets Midoriya’s gaze without faltering. “I want you to help me kill my father,” he says.
Shock ripples across Midoriya’s face, and then horror. He shakes his head slowly, trying to stutter out a response.
It takes a moment, but Midoriya finally composes himself enough to say: “No. No, no, no. We can’t do that..”
“Then I can’t help you,” Shouto hesitates, and then amends, “I won’t help you.”
“ Please ,” Midoriya tries. There’s a hint of desperation bleeding into his voice now, and Shouto knows without a doubt that he has the upper hand in these negotiations. To his own surprise, the thought makes him a little sick to his stomach.
“I can’t! ”
Midoriya’s expression crumbles slightly, and it makes something in Shouto’s chest wrench. It occurs to him, vaguely, that he is disgusting. He is supposed to be the crown prince. Midoriya is technically a citizen of Mustafu.
Breaking the law or not, doesn’t Shouto have an obligation to grant Midoriya aid if he asks for it?
But at the same time, Shouto isn’t lying.
Even if Shouto comes crawling home with his tail between his legs, Enji is too prideful to allow any perceived slight to go unpunished. He’ll hurt Shouto, of course. But Shouto does not fear pain much, anymore—a fact that Enji is certainly keenly aware of. So instead it will be his siblings that face the brunt of Enji’s wrath.
And of course, Shouto’s mother.
“Why not?” Midoriya says, the pitch of his voice increasing with his frustration. He crosses his arms in front of him, defensive. Vulnerable.
Shouto should lie. The truth is a weapon, he knows, and you should only hand it to people that you trust not to use it against you.
But Shouto has been full of bad decisions and dumb ideas lately. It’s been enough of a habit that he’s not even surprised when he speaks, words practically red hot with anger.
“Because,” Shouto says, and he’s very nearly snarling, “he’ll kill my mother! ”
Midoriya takes a startled step back at the sudden change in tone, eyes widening and mouth dropping open.
Shouto clamps his own mouth shut, horrified.
He’s not even upset about what he’d just revealed, he’s too busy thinking about the way he’d done it. Too busy scrutinizing Midoriya’s face, looking for any traces of fear among the surprise.
He doesn’t think there’s any, but he can’t be sure.
Shouto sucks in a deep breath through his nose, and he notices vaguely that his hands are shaking.
He shouldn’t have spoken that way. He’s never wanted to speak that way before. He hates that voice—the very one he just used. It’s his father’s —the one Enji uses when he gets angry, always a precursor to pain. It’s guttural and animalistic and the sound of it always sent Shouto into silent panic.
And he’d never expected to hear it here, from his own mouth.
“I was supposed to kill you and Yagi,” he tells Midoriya painfully, tongue clumsy and thick. “And if I didn’t--if I didn’t--”
“Hey,” says Midoriya, and Shouto looks at him without seeing for a moment before his vision finally refocuses. Midoriya has stepped closer now, closer than he was even before, though not so much as to trigger any discomfort in Shouto.
Shouto fully expects to see fear, discomfort, disgust, on Midoriya’s face.
But instead, sympathy is written across his features. His eyes are wide and sad. Midoriya reaches out a hand, hesitantly, and when Shouto doesn’t pull away, he places it on Shouto’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?” he asks, and when Shouto doesn’t respond, he continues. “Thank you for telling me. Because, Todoroki, I think we can help you.”
Shouto’s head jerks, and he stares at Midoriya in confusion.
“Yagi and I aren’t murderers. We aren’t going to kill someone unless it’s in self-defense. But…I mean, if you were supposed to kill us, why don’t we just...pretend that you did?” says Midoriya earnestly.
Shouto shakes his head. “He won’t take my word for it,” he says, barely getting enough oxygen into his lungs to get the words out. “He doesn’t trust me. I was supposed to bring you. For public execution. And as proof .” He sucks in another, desperate breath.
He would do anything to protect his mother, but the more that he thinks about killing Midoriya, the tighter and hotter his chest feels. Now it’s bordering on painful, and Shouto is desperate to make it stop.
“What if we could give you proof?”
Shouto blinks. “What?”
Midoriya’s eyes are narrow, brow furrowed with thought. “I think I have a plan,” he says.
Shouto doesn’t say anything, just regards Midoriya silently. What sort of plan could the boy possibly have, to be so convinced that he can trick the king of Mustafu?
“What if you told your father the truth?” Midoriya says slowly, before hastening to elaborate. “I mean, part of it. Tell him...tell him about this place. We won’t be able to use it anymore, but that’s okay. And tell him the truth of how we met: that Yagi took you by surprise and you woke up here. Then you can say,” Midoriya’s voice has lowered, starting to devolve into muttering, “that you overpowered and killed us. We’ll even send you back with more evidence--maybe one of Yagi’s scales? You can say that you got down using your magic somehow, but there’s no conceivable way that you could have scaled this thing while lugging me along, much less Yagi. Your father will send men here, confirm the plateau, and he’ll have to let it go. It would take them months to figure out a way up, and your father wouldn’t be able to cast too much doubt on your account without--”
“Without seeming paranoid?”
Midoriya grins victoriously. “Exactly! And from there we’ll keep in touch. We already have contacts in the castle. We can get word to them and they’ll help you get into contact with us! And with you on the inside, we can come up with a plan to save your mom! Yagi and I will have to stay out of the spotlight for a while, but that’s alright. It’ll give Aizawa-sensei and Shuzenji a chance to force Yagi-sensei to rest.”
It’s a good plan.
It’s actually a brilliant plan. Maybe, Shouto thinks, Enji wouldn’t hate Midoriya after all. He’d never get the fucking chance, Midoriya can think circles around Shouto’s father without even breaking a sweat.
But there’s still one question burning in the back of Shouto’s mind, hot on his tongue, begging to be asked.
Midoriya blinks. “Why what?”
Shouto licks his lips. His mouth is suddenly painfully dry. Midoriya’s voice, so earnest and kind, is only making the pain in his chest burn tighter and more uncomfortable.
“Why do you want to help me? I tried to kill you.”
Midoriya tilts his head to the side, apparently not comprehending. “You only tried to kill us because your father made you, and I just can’t--” Midoriya shrugs then, suddenly and helplessly. “I want to help you because I don’t think I can live with myself if I do anything else. Does that make sense?”
It does, but it...doesn’t. Midoriya is telling the truth, everything about his expression wide open and honest. It is almost incomprehensible.
Midoriya is the sort of person that Enji would scoff at. The sort of person that he tried to train Shouto out of being.
Shouto thinks that Enji might have succeeded. He doesn’t know if he remembers how to be selfless like that anymore. He thinks that he must have known, once. But now, so many years later, all Shouto can think about is the maid with her raw back—the citizens that Enji would send him to interrogate when they failed to offer up their dues, even though it wasn’t out of selfishness but because their poverty was such that they could not afford to feed themselves, much less their children, and even a single lost coin could mean the difference between life and death.
Shouto tried to protect them, sometimes. Tried to pull what money he wasn’t sending to his siblings out of his coffers to replace what he had been forced to take, tried to take the blame for mistakes that the servants made rather than the other way around.
But he never managed it the first time. It wasn’t his first instinct—he always had to see the consequences firsthand. The servant beaten bloody, the village nearly entirely wiped out—the dessicated corpses of every single family strewn across the streets. The ones who hadn’t been killed by starvation had been so famished that when the plague arrived that there was no possible hope of survival.
And even the times afterwards, Shouto would hesitate. Even though he knew the suffering he was capable of wreaking with his self-centeredness, he would always pause—just for a moment—when he thought about the lesson his father might give him if he knew who was actually paying some of his tax money, about how harsh training would be if he took the blame for a dropped dinner tray or spilled tea.
Shouto is selfish. He doesn’t know whether it’s his own fault, or his father’s, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? The end result is always the same.
How strange it is to come face to face with someone whose first instinct would be to flay the skin off his own back rather than do it to another. Why can’t it be so easy for Shouto?
“Okay,” says Shouto. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Of course,” says Midoriya, and his smile is radiant—beautiful, and perhaps it is best that he doesn’t have any hand in killing Shouto’s father. Shouto is so tired of leaving things worse than when he found them.
So he doesn’t need Midoriya to help him kill his father.
He just needs Midoriya to help him get into the castle, to rescue his mother. And then?
Then he’ll do it himself.
as always, pardon for any wonky writing! Editing is hard and I'm still sleepy!