Work Header

God Marked

Chapter Text

The raid is not going well.

Katsuki narrowly dodges razor sharp claws before blasting the decay beast away. Nasty, filthy things.

But he thinks he could still make it home for dinner. If only this fucking witch would cooperate, that is.

Katsuki allows a frisson of irritation to pierce through his focus. This raid is supposed to be easy - or as easy as these things could ever go. Two witches, their familiars, all surprised in their sleep. Wham bam and Katsuki would be done for the day.

Except things go wrong almost as soon as the raid begins.

The only thing that’s correct about their intel is that the witches had familiars. Which isn’t saying much because all witches have familiars. You can’t be a witch without one.

There are, Katsuki would like to point out, five witches instead of two and they are very much awake when Katsuki and his squad go in.

God fucking dammit.

Katsuki flanked by Kirishima, Ashido and Sero had rushed in as soon as Kaminari took down the wards around the cottage, disrupting its magical flow with short bursts of lightning. Kaminari had stayed behind for a moment, collapsing the residual magic in the air and taking it into himself for the coming battle.

They managed to subdue two witches and their familiars right off the bat. Katsuki blasted one before she could recover from her surprise at their sudden appearance while Ashido and Kirishima took down another. Sero took care of the owl and rat, then moved to bind the downed witches with his twice-blessed cords. Neither witch was even able to call a Word of power or begin a chant, taken entirely by surprise by the witch hunters’ entrance.

That would have been that except there are, as already pointed out, three more witches than expected and all three of them are already calling out Words of power.

One would think that three against five would be a fight skewed in favor of the Bakusquad.

But the thing with fighting against witches is that it’s never a fair fight. They take and expend power where and when they wanted, not sparing a thought to the damage they cause to the fabric of life around them. And they certainly don’t care if they maim or kill you.

Witch hunters, on the other hand, are constrained to work within limits imposed by the law and their own conscience. There are lines you cross only when things are dire and you have no other choice. And there are lines you do not cross at all. Ever.

Otherwise, you become what you hunt.

Right now, even outnumbered, these witches still have the advantage. They have active runes of defense in place - Katsuki could feel its influence dampening his powers liked a heavy, wet blanket thrown over him - while the Bakusquad had long since lost the element of surprise. And the familiars aren’t just there for decoration. They could and would harm the hunters, if given the chance. That huge badger for one looks like trouble. It’s massive, and the black ichor on its claws is very likely poison.

Still, Katsuki isn’t the best witch hunter for nothing. And his squad, annoying as they can sometimes be, is very good at what they do.

Like a well oiled machine, the Bakusquad moves in concert to take down the three remaining witches. Kaminari zaps lightning across the room, pushing back two witches while isolating the third so the squad could deal with her separately.

That witch goes down under Katsuki and Ashido’s combined attack. Sero follows up with his blessed cords, tying up the witch as soon as she goes down. Kirishima takes out the feral cat before its claws could reach him.

Kaminari sends another bolt of lightning to separate the two remaining witches and Ashido moves to the next witch, harrying him with spurts of acid while the rest of the squad secure the third witch.

But the fourth witch is ready for them and he takes down Ashido before they were able to subdue him, catching her with a vine of dark thorns and then smashing her to the floor. Katsuki blasts that guy with a vengeance despite Kirishima’s shout that Ashido’s okay, just out for the count.

And then they are down to the last witch.

This last one is powerful. Her raised arms are criss-crossed with scars and blood marks, the stains of blood magic tattooed permanently on her skin. Katsuki knew that her body beneath the tunic would bear the same tell-tale blood marks - that's what blood magic does to you, marks your body, taints your soul. She summons decay beasts, each one more vicious than the last, sending them to attack the witch hunters. They are shadows, born of magic, mimicking the decay beasts that roam the land, but no less dangerous. The sounds she makes are terrible, the Words making Katsuki’s skin crawl, his ears ache.

More importantly, the witch is experienced. She dodges when she needs to. Stands her ground when necessary. And she doesn’t get fazed by the attacks meant to distract her, pare down her shields. She knows she is safe behind her line of decay beasts.

Katsuki has no doubt they would eventually win. Power to power he is a match against this last witch, his fire blasting away each beast as they come near his team.

And they have numbers on their side. Even with Ashido unconscious, it was still four against one.

But the witch is powerful enough to deal considerable damage and Katsuki isn’t about to go home with less squad members than he came in with.

A particularly large decay beast pauses when Katsuki’s blast hits it and rages. It does not stop coming. Kirishima leaps forward to tackle it, his body hardened to Unbreakable, trading blows against claws and fangs. Katsuki could see that Kirishima’s ears were already bleeding; he’s fighting too near the witch, too close to her foul Words.

Behind the decay beasts, the witch is protected by a shield of pure energy, a barrier against both physical and magical attacks. A rapidly tiring Kaminari has been directing quick bolts of lighting to a single point in the witch’s shields. She’s been rotating her defenses throughout the battle to compensate.

But Kaminari only has one task while the witch has to contend with three other hunters and her concentration finally slips.

Kaminari’s bolt penetrates, cascading the witch’s shield on that side. She tries to compensate and ironically leaves the other side open. Sero’s will directed whip breaks through, latches on her arm and he pulls hard. The witch stumbles, her concentration now fully broken. The shield shatters and the spell she is crafting breaks mid-chant, leaving an acrid taste in the air.

Katsuki goes in for the kill.

Figuratively. They are oathbound to take witches alive, if they can, and let the Council deal with them. Life is sacred and all growth has value. The hallmark of their oaths and the god they serve.

Katsuki’s Explosion knocks the witch unconscious and her creatures vanish. They bind her with Sero’s cords, twice blessed and soaked in myrrh, tight across her wrists to prevent casting and movement, once around her neck to prevent speaking of Words and once again around her middle, blocking the flow of innate magic.

The air is heavy with the stench of foul magic, remnants of the prolonged battle. The team breaks off into two. Sero checking that the bindings on the witches and familiars are secure while Kaminari stands guard lest one of the witches try anything.

Katsuki works with Kirishima to clear all the rooms in the cottage for possible occupants. They find none.

“Captives are secure. Mina’s groggy but awake,” Kaminari reports when he catches up to them.

Katsuki nods acknowledgment.

They go to work, brisk and efficient, going through the rooms again, breaking sigils and active runes as they find them, dispelling the spent magic floating in the air. Another team will have to come in later to do a full cleansing but it’s dangerous to leave it like this; Katsuki and his squad will have to do the initial work.

But neither can they linger. Their first priority is to transport the captives to a secure location.

Katsuki heads back to the main room to confer with Sero, still standing guard over the captives. They’ve got three unconscious witches and two others glaring daggers at them, all five witches bound and blessed. The familiars are similarly bound and blessed, the smaller ones pressed into cages. That massive badger will be a bitch to move later but right now, it’s securely bound to the floor.

“Bakugou, you gotta see this,” Kirishima calls from the doorway leading to the backroom.

Katsuki frowns and follows Kirishima’s broad back. They have already cleared that room earlier, there is nothing of import other than bookspells and a scrubbed diagram on the floor.

When Katsuki enters, he sees an opening cut out of the wall. A secret room.

“You cleared it?” Katsuki asks, holding power at the ready, because while he trusts his squad to know what to do, he’s still the squad leader and responsible for everyone.

“Yeah, me and Denki. But there’s something inside.”

Katsuki releases the power and walks across the threshold to peer in.

The place stinks of magic. Foul magic. He puts his wrist to his nose only by sheer force of habit, the stench is nothing physical. It’s a putrefaction of the soul. Dark magic does that, corrupts your soul in exchange for power.

There is light in the room but it was dim. Katsuki reaches with his magic and ignites the lamps along the walls. There’s a diagram on the floor, sodden in blood. Katsuki can now detect the scent of iron mingling with the scent of decay and magic. It was so heavy he was surprised he didn't smell it first.

“I don’t recognize this sigil,” Kirishima says, sounding worried.

Neither does Katsuki. And he knows just about every goddamned blight sigil there is and how to counter it.

So much for getting home by dinner.

Katsuki stalks back into the main room. He finds Kaminari in one of the other rooms scorching a mirror, ensuring it cannot be used as window to communicate or spy on them. Ordinarily they would have used Ashido’s acid to melt the reflective surface. But she’s with Sero, with orders not to help with cleansing. She is awake but is obviously concussed, still a little dazed, head hurting, eyes sensitive to light.

“Kaminari, round up an elemental,” Katsuki instructs curtly. “Tell Yuuei we need another team here. Describe the hidden room. We need Lore and Cleanser. Right the fuck now.”

Kaminari doesn’t argue or question, instead jumping to do as he was instructed. They are still in Hunt conditions and Katsuki never calls him by his real name unless he was deadly serious.

Katsuki goes back to the secret room, forehead furrowed in a frown, not liking the math. The problem is that he has five witches and their familiars on hand that need to be transported to Yuuei under full guard. And he also has an unidentified sigil drawn and soaked in blood, screaming so much power the fine hair on his arms had stood on end, that he doesn’t know how to break and dare not leave unbroken.

And he only has four other Hunters at his disposal, one of them incapacitated with concussion.

If that last witch wasn’t so strong or if that sigil didn’t reek of such raw power, this wouldn’t be a problem.

But it is what it is and Katsuki will have to deal with it. At least the sun is still high up and won’t set for several more hours. They have time.

If they’re staying, he needs to secure the area. He goes outside the cottage, grateful for the heat of the sun on his skin and begins fortifying the grounds defense.

An hour later, Katsuki feels Aizawa walk through the wards he had put up to prevent unwanted intrusion.

He goes out to the front yard to meet the new team.

Loremaster Aizawa arrives with Cementoss, one other high ranked cleanser, and a full squad of hunters. Aizawa could walk in because Katsuki knows his mentor well enough to spell his essence into the wards but he needs to let the rest of the team in.

“You’re early,” Katsuki says, almost belligerent in his surprise. “Wasn’t expecting anyone for another hour at least.”

Aizawa gives the appearance of shrugging without actually moving his shoulders. “They told us to go so we went.”

Katsuki meets Aizawa’s eyes.

“It’s nasty inside, sensei.”

Katsuki is good at what he does in good part because of his battle sense. And right now they’re telling him that something is wrong with today’s raid. He hadn’t specified Aizawa when he asked Kaminari to make the call but he’s damn glad Yuuei sent him.

Katsuki has led more successful missions than he can count. He’s probably the most powerful offensive magic user alive today and he knows it. But seeing his former teacher and mentor here now has something unknotting inside Katsuki. The muscles in his shoulders eases a fraction. He hadn’t even known he was so tense. There is something in the situation that has his nerves keyed up in high alert, as if he’s still in battle conditions, not just playing guard to a bunch of captured witches.

“Show me,” says Aizawa.

Katsuki leads them inside the cottage. The new squad and cleanser break off at Katsuki’s signal to get their briefing from Sero. Katsuki leads Aizawa and Cementoss to the hidden room, passing Kirishima who had been standing guard by the doorway.

It’s difficult to convey emotions through a solid block of rock face but Cementoss nevertheless contrives to express surprise and curiosity at the blood soaked sigil on the floor.

“I recognize most of the runes but I’ve never seen them arranged quite this way before. And those runes in the middle are new to me,” Cementoss says.

Cementoss is an experienced cleanser, one of Katsuki’s former teachers, and it is disturbing that he isn’t familiar with the sigil as well. Katsuki’s instinct to call for a loremaster is proving correct.

“Have you touched this in any way, Bakugou?” asks Cementoss, crouching down to the see the sigil lines better.

Katsuki shakes his head. “No. We just checked the room for immediate threats then cleared out. Kirishima’s been on guard since, no disturbance.”

They turn to Aizawa expectantly.

“Sensei? Are you familiar with this sigil?” Katsuki finally prods when Aizawa remains silent.

“I have seen it once before, yes,” Aizawa finally says, sounding reluctant.

“We didn’t cover this in class,” Katsuki says.

Aizawa’s lips twists in a smile that is more grim than amused.

“No, Bakugou. We would not have covered this in class.”

“Can you break it?” Katsuki says, asking the pertinent question for the day.

Aizawa nods slowly. “I have to consult to be sure but yes, I believe we can safely unmake this,” he looks around but there are no windows “before the sun goes down.”

Katsuki gives a curt nod. There are few people whose magical skills Katsuki trusts as much he does Aizawa’s, and even less people he respects as much. If Aizawa thinks he has it in hand, then he does.

“You need anything from us or the captives before we leave? Ashido’s concussed and I want us on the move as soon as possible.”

“You didn’t request for a Healer,” Aizawa says, not quite a question. But he had once stood teacher and guardian to Katsuki and the rest of the squad not that long ago and some things are hard to let go of.

“We’re good, just superficial wounds. Kaminari exhausted himself some. But Ashido got slammed and is still dazed.”

Aizawa nods. “I do not need them to break this sigil,” he says, answering Katsuki’s previous question. “I would not trust what they have to say in any case.”

Katsuki agrees. Witches seem to find perverse pleasure in muddling facts and sowing discord. Anything they say would be suspect without external verification.

“One of them is powerful, sensei. Big time,” Katsuki remembers to mention.

“How powerful?” Aizawa asks.

“She called shadow creatures while defending against a full frontal attack. No summoning circles, barely any preparation.”

Aizawa’s eyebrows rise and Cementoss gives a low whistle - a surprising feat considering he doesn’t really have lips, just an opening in his rock face for a mouth.

“Let me work on her then you can go,” Aizawa says.

Katsuki felt his shoulders relax even more.

Aizawa can nullify magic. He can dispel crafted magic like spells and runes with an exertion of will and a touch of his own innate power. He would have been an excellent cleanser. He had, in fact, been a gifted warrior slash hunter in his youth but had found his true calling in keeping lore and teaching, passing on his knowledge and experience, and impressing enough fear in the hearts of his students to make sure they stay alive when hunting.

But more important for this case, Aizawa can seal people’s magic for a time, prevent them from reaching for the power inside themselves or from outside sources. This would make the transport much safer.

They leave the room and head back to the main hall. The new team had already dispersed to begin cleansing in earnest.

“This was a bad raid, sensei. We only got word of two witches,” Katsuki says.

“Who put together this mission?” Aizawa asks, eyeing the five witches tied up in the middle of the room.

“We coordinated with Hawks. We came in last minute. This was supposed to be Monoma’s raid but there were some problems with two of his squad. Hive attack, I think.”

Katsuki doesn’t say the obvious: the raid only succeeded because he and his squad, all modesty aside, are the best there is. Yuuei would never have sent a squad of five to deal with five witches; that would have been suicide for the witch hunters. If Monoma’s team had gone in as originally planned, the raid would very likely have had a different outcome.

People have innate magic inside them, each a little different than others. They are born with it. It is part of their life force. For most people, these magics are small, non-flashy things. Just enough to give off a bright glow through their skin or pull light objects to them over a short distance. Maybe let them turn their hair a different color.

Some people, the fortunate few, have an enormous wellspring of power inside them. If they possess a will strong enough to shape it, to give it form, they can perform great feats of magic.

Katsuki was born from a long line of fire wielders, the most difficult element to control and master. Fire is not usually an element aligned with the god of life and growth - by its nature, much of what it does is destroy. But for this very reason, the Bakugou line had always fought for One for All. All Might. They were stubborn but loyal and damn proud of it.

But unlike his father, grandfather, or even great grandfather before him, Katsuki was born with a gigantic bonfire inside him, roaring and all-consuming. That is impressive enough, something that hasn't occurred in over a thousand years. But that Katsuki can bend and wield the conflagration as he sees fit is even more so.

For it is not just a matter innate magic. It takes force of will. And Bakugou Katsuki’s will is forged iron.

Because magic is part of one’s life force, it exists wherever there is life. In trees, plants, animals small and big. Even mountains, rivers and the seas have it, having borne life inside them for eons, that very life continuously seeping through its pores.

And then there is the magic that comes from life of the earth itself, where all power pool and gather when the once living creatures give up their final breaths. They call it ley lines, naturally occurring lines of power that flow in and around the earth, like rivers of ever moving magic. Every now and then, some misguided soul attempts to tap into the ley lines in a bid to harness its power. But the magic in these ley lines is the sum of life itself. It cannot be tamed, cannot be wielded by any mortal.

There is always residual magic in the air, floating and listless, before it eventually finds its way to the ley lines. It comes from the newly dead, from broken spells like the wards that Kaminari had taken down, from expended magic.

People can tap into this residual magic and use it to augment their innate one, forestalling exhaustion. Most people do it unconsciously, as easy as breathing. Trained magic users like Katsuki can gather it, use it, even store it for later use.

What makes the witches a scourge is that they are not content to use the residual magics around them. They steal it from things that are still alive, preferably people or intelligent animals. Death releases the innate magic in one go. A pained, angry or terrified living thing will expend its innate magic for as long as the pain continuous or death takes it. A witch can farm your agony for a long time before your body finally gives in.

It takes a certain kind of mindset to cross that line. Magic use requires exertion of will. A witch wills something alive to die, wills them to experience pain, agony, terror. Not everyone can do it. Most people can hurt other people, people who have wronged them, pissed them off, cut ahead of them in line when they’ve already had a bad day. That’s instinctive. To hit back.

But very few people have the will to deliberately mine magic from other living beings through pain and death. Not only because it is difficult to do but because the power that you gain taints your own soul. Each agonizing shriek, each death you cause blights you. Life is sacred. To deliberately end it, pollutes you, poisons you. You become mangled inside, corrupted. Unable to live under the light of the sun, or appreciate the beauty of a flower or a newborn child.

For some, the power they gain is worth the price they pay. They follow All for One, the god of death and decay. Because magic taken this way is always, always more powerful than innate ones. As if the pain magnifies it. A normal person would use magic only until it exhausts him. A witch would have no such limitations, burning magic without care for cost because they can always get it elsewhere.

This is why Yuuei stacks odds heavily in favor of witch hunters when planning raids. Losing to witches doesn’t just mean the hunters get killed in action. By nature, hunters have deep innate magic. Death for a captive hunter would actually be a blessing.

Transport to Heights Alliance is uneventful. Kirishima keeps up a constant flow of chatter, ensuring that Ashido remains awake. Katsuki tunes them out.

By the time they reach Musutafu, all five witches are already conscious and awake. The powerful one had kept her dark eyes trained on Katsuki from the moment she woke up. Katsuki had met her eyes at one point but soon gave it up. She is sealed, bound, and offers no danger to him or his team for the moment. He refuses to engage and he is far from intimidated.

They reach Yuuei by mid afternoon and two of the witches have grown visibly nervous at leaving the carriage under the still burning light of the sun.

Witches don’t burn under sunlight, as some folktales claim they do, but it does make them uncomfortable. Most times, extremely so.

One of Katsuki’s school books had said that the discomfort is both physical - the light too intense for their nocturnal eyes, touching their skin as a fierce sunburn - and emotional. There is an almost physical pain in the knowledge that you can no longer have what you once had, the loss of things that the rest of the world take for granted. There is exhilaration in being a witch, a euphoria. But there is no joy. The sun and its all pervading light serve as a harsh reminder of this.

Their arrival is expected and more hunters attach themselves to the party, forming an escort. Katsuki’s earlier call for reinforcement has apparently been noted.

Kaminari and Ashido break away to head to the Healers’ room. Katsuki formally turns over the captive witches to Kendo Itsuka, the ranking Hunter on duty. Kirishima, Sero and two other hunters bring the familiars to be confined two floors below ground. The witches, on the other hand, will be imprisoned at the top most floor.

It's good judgment to separate witches from their familiars. Witches are bound to their familiars. Or rather, their familiars are bound to them. The familiars cannot go too far, too long away from their masters. The stronger the witch, the farther and longer they can sustain the separation. Because of the witches’ affinity to shadows, most familiars are nocturnal creatures, awake when their masters are at work. The link to a living creature is an integral part of the blood spells that witches perform, a key they use to open the doorway to other living beings. The bond unnaturally extends the life of the familiar but slowly degrades their natural essence, leaving them as warped as their masters, feral in mind and misshapen in body.

Katsuki accompanies the guards as they march the witches up the stairs. Captive witches are held in rooms with shuttered windows that can be retracted at a moment’s notice, allowing sunlight to flood in in times of emergency. The top of Heights Alliance and the floors underneath are not too far apart to strain the bond. There may be some discomfort for the weaker witches, but witch, familiar, and bond will survive.

“Keep an eye on this one,” Katsuki says, jerking his head towards the powerful witch.

Kendo peers at the witch in question. She is alone in the cell, each witch placed in separate rooms. Aizawa’s seal is still in place and the witch simply stands in the middle of the room, looking back at them, an unholy light in her too dark eyes.

“What’s the deal with her?” Kendo asks, her ponytail bouncing with each head movement.

“She’s strong. Keep her bound and guarded at all times. I’ll see if Aizawa consents to seal her while she’s waiting for trial.”

Kendo’s eyebrows rise and her green eyes widen. Katsuki holds the eye contact. Kendo had trained as a hunter at the same time as Katsuki. They were not in the same class but they had been in enough shared lessons and missions since to have gained a mutual respect for each other’s capabilities. Katsuki knows that his warning will be heeded.

She nods.

“I see you.”

Katsuki starts at the gravelly voice and Kendo actually jumps. Even without the infusion of power, the voice was grating to the ears.

They both turn to the witch. The scars and blood tattoos are still visible where her forearms are exposed but her face is surprisingly unmarred. A disturbing fact. She could have passed off as a normal person, untainted, if you overlook the paleness of her features. She is unlikely to have seen the sun in recent years. She could pass you by the street and gut you before you know it.

Katsuki’s right hand burns bright as he holds power ready. He reminds himself the witch is bound, sealed, and imprisoned.

“What do you see?” Kendo asks in a firm voice.

“You are god marked, witch hunter.”

The dark eyes look straight into Katsuki’s own. There is interest there. Amusement. A misplaced satisfaction considering her current predicament.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Kendo glance at him, brows knitted in confusion.

“What do you mean by ‘god marked’,” she asks again.

“I see you,” the witch repeats “and what i see, others will too.”

She smiles, if it can still be called that, lips pulled back, lascivious and almost feral, before she steps back farther into the room, further into shadow. She turns away, conversation clearly over.

Katsuki lets the gathered power fade away. His shoulders are tight with tension and he could feel the fine hairs on his arms and the back of his neck standing in agitation.

Kendo clears her throat. “Bound and guarded at all times, got it.”

Katsuki just nods.

Katsuki lives alone in the same cottage he grew up in, in a small, quiet village clinging to the outskirts of Musutafu.

His father is an artist and like others of the Bakugou line, Masaru has fire inside him. It burns bright but delicate, nowhere near the inferno that is Katsuki’s innate magic. Where Katsuki chooses to wield his fire as a weapon, Masaru’s fire molds materials such as metal, glass, sand, and even wood into exquisite works of art. Once the war had died down and people could focus their attention on living and not merely surviving, Katsuki’s parents had moved to the Capital to better pursue Masaru’s craft.

Katsuki himself had left his home as a youth to train in Yuuei but returned as a young man once he had completed his studies. Katsuki could have lived anywhere, his skill as a hunter is valuable in all parts of the realm. But staying in the village had seemed right.

It’s still a good two hour travel to get to Yuuei but it was near enough for convenience and far enough to allow Katsuki peace and privacy. He had lived inside Yuuei for three years, and a lot of his fellow hunters still keep quarters there, forming part of Yuuei's duty rosters, but Katsuki himself did not want a repeat of it.

His cottage is one of two that sits at the end of the lane. Behind it is a forest of ancient trees that grew thicker as you go farther in. Their nearest neighbor is a brisk twenty minute walk away.

If you weren’t familiar with the area, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would miss the turn from the main road and miss the lane altogether. The cottages cannot be seen from the main road. It is hidden by Katsuki’s wards, by a curve in the path, and by trees that had already been old when Katsuki was still a child.

The night still turns the world unsafe but not as unsafe as it used to be. Katsuki’s generation of magic wielders are hunters, hunting down witches, picking them off as they find them. But those who came before them were warriors, engaged in a war against blood magic users.

It had been a war of attrition, with massive casualties from both sides. At no other time recorded did blood magic users rose to such great numbers. Civilization appeared to be on the brink of collapse as terror held sway during the long nights.

But somehow the tide had turned about a quarter of a century ago, shortly after Katsuki had been born. He had no memory of war or dark times. But even so, growing up he had been aware of atrocities committed in service of death and decay and had fiercely pledged his life and magic in the service of the other.

The moon is already high in the sky by the time Katsuki steps down from the back of the giant salamander. He unlatches the saddle and takes off the bit, rubbing its head some before allowing the creature to leave to forage for itself. It slinks into the forest, it’s bright orange hide already shifting to a non-descript grey green, the better to hide itself in the night. It will come again when Katsuki has need of it.

He can see his house, dark and unwelcoming. Beyond it, a smaller cottage with white painted window boxes brimming with tiny, purple flowers. It has lights flickering through the windows.

It is an easy choice.

The wards around the well-lit cottage part and welcome Katsuki like a warm, affectionate blanket. He had put them up himself years ago and renewed them every few weeks.

He pushes open the door and half sighs into the feeling of well-being and contentment, of warmth and security.

“I’m home,” he calls out.

A young man looks up from where he is curled up in a comfortable chair by the hearth, the flickering light from the fire playing with his green curls. Green eyes meet Katsuki’s and he watches as they light up with obvious pleasure. A warm, welcoming smile bursts across the freckled face, as vibrant as the dawn.

“Welcome home, Kacchan,” he says.

Katsuki feels his entire being ease into contentment.

He is home.

Chapter Text

Katsuki’s earliest memory is holding Izuku’s hand in the woods.

Izuku had been mute at the time, his big round eyes staring at Katsuki with equal parts confusion and curiosity.

“You can’t talk?” he said, blond head inclined. “Makes you kinda useless.”

Izuku had not replied, just continued to blink at Katsuki, the beginnings of a smile on his lips. Katsuki had shrugged and took Izuku’s hand in his, grinning at his new friend.

“It’s fine now, I am here,” he said. His high pitched voice firm and reassuring. A child’s easy vow he hadn’t known then he would repeat throughout their lives.

His parents had eventually found them, Masaru crying with relief. Katsuki didn’t mind his father hugging him but had scowled at his mother’s shrieks, asking where the hell has he been, they’ve been looking for him for hours. Katsuki hadn’t known how to count hours back then, but he didn’t think he had been playing for a long time and he didn’t like being screamed at.

Eventually everyone had calmed down and his parents noticed Izuku. He didn’t exactly hide but he had sidled closer to Katsuki and hadn’t let go of his hand.

“Hello,” his father had said. “Who is this, Katsuki?” Masaru turned to him when Izuku didn’t respond.

Katsuki shrugged. “He’s Deku.”

Izuku had not responded to any questions, had not let go of Katsuki’s hand.

His parents had exchanged a look then marched both boys back to the direction of the cottage. Katsuki remembers being surprised at how far they had to walk. Masaru had offered to carry them when Katsuki stumbled but he just scowled back.

Katsuki had been four years old.

“You look tired, Kacchan,” Izuku says as Katsuki walks further into the cottage.

“It’s been a shitty day,” Katsuki answers. He takes off his boots and plops his broad frame on the seat opposite Izuku. He is exhausted.

Todoroki, a half-tamed fox, is curled up on Izuku’s lap as usual. He opens one blue green eye - the left one - to look at Katsuki and huffs before closing his eye again under Izuku's gentle stroking. Lucky mutt.

“Anyone injured?”

Katsuki shakes his head. Izuku doesn’t ask if anyone died because he knows Katsuki. He has seen how Katsuki was when a fellow hunter and friend dies in the line of duty. Tired and grumpy would not be the words for it.

“Got food, Deku?” Katsuki says, eyeing the large pot by the hearth. He is not above begging for a meal when it’s nearing midnight, he’s bone tired, and he hasn’t eaten anything since mid day.

Izuku smiles. “For you, Kacchan. Always.”

He pushes Todoroki off his lap to fetch a bowl from the kitchen and Katsuki spares a moment to smirk at the fox grumbling at having his nap disturbed. Izuku returns, plates a bowl of stew and hands it to Katsuki.

“I didn’t know what time you’d come home so I kept it warm for you.”

Katsuki’s response is not audible, busy as he is inhaling his meal. Izuku waits until after he handed Katsuki his second bowl before he starts a conversation.

“I went to the town hall earlier today, delivered the fresh batch of red unguent. Saw Tsubasa and his wife. He’s getting bigger than she is, even with the baby,” he says with a rueful smile.

Izuku keeps the conversation light and Katsuki nods along, interjecting a comment or two.

“It was a bad raid all around, Deku,” Katsuki eventually says after a lull in the conversation, empty bowl placed to the side. “Ashido’s in the hospital for observation - she got knocked out. Kaminari will be out for a couple of days for exhaustion. Kirishima is one big bruise.”


“He’s okay. We got out okay.”

“That’s really all that matters.”

Katsuki shakes his head. “We got bad intel on this one. We would all have walked away good if things went to plan.”

Which, even Katsuki acknowledges, is a stupid way to think about things. If things had gone according to plan, of course everything would have turned out fine. No one plans to fail.

Katsuki tells him about the excess of witches, the unknown sigil, Aizawa, and the witch’s words in the prison cell.

“She called me ‘god marked’,” he says, uneasy with the memory.

In contrast to Katsuki’s harsh, unnerved tone, Izuku smiles, the soft, quiet one that Katsuki secretly likes the most.

“You are. Marked, I mean,” Izuku says.

Katsuki frowns at Izuku. “Marked by who? Why?”

“Don’t be silly, Kacchan. You only serve one. And you are marked because you are beloved,” Izuku says, as if this is the most obvious truth in the world.

“I am god marked because I am beloved by a god.” Katsuki says, the incredulity in his tone making it a question.

“Is that so hard to believe, Kacchan? That you are loved so much, you are marked as his.”

“By All Might?”

Izuku cocks his head to the side. “Well, by the bearer of One for All, at least,” he finally says with a wry smile.

Katsuki doesn’t question why Izuku knows this. Even as kids, Izuku had known things. He knew where to find a kaleidoscope of butterflies, how to tame a wily fox, how to always find Katsuki. His herblore has long ago surpassed Inko’s and while he himself does not possess magic, he seems to intuitively know the depth, breadth, use and limitations of people’s magics.

“We are all marked in some way, Kacchan,” Izuku continued, “the pain we inflict on others, the love we receive, they stain us or shape us. Some marks are just more visible than others.”

“The witches,” Katsuki says.

Izuku nods, green eyes full of compassion. “They break themselves following his path. But all he knows is to destroy. They never see this until it’s too late.”

“So this mark is nothing special after all,” Katsuki says. “The way she said it… it creeped me out. Like I have a target on my forehead.”

Izuku huffed a small laugh. “I wouldn’t say it’s nothing special. One who is master over all of life and growth. Can you imagine the depth and breadth of his domain? For him to single you out, mark you as his…” Izuku laughed again, clearly delighted with the idea.

Katsuki closed his eyes, not wanting to think about gods and their marks anymore.

Katsuki’s parents had initially tried to find out who Izuku’s parents were. But they could get no information from Izuku and no one had come to claim him.

Inko who lived next door, had opened her heart and home to the little boy, and until her death ten and five years later, had sent daily prayers in the name of Izuku’s parents, either dead and forgotten or grieving for a son lost.

They soon found out that Izuku has no magic inside him. It had confused them in the beginning because everyone has magic in them. Even newborn babies have it. Not everyone has geysers of power like Katsuki does but everyone has some.

Except that Izuku doesn’t.

He cannot affect himself or the things around him. He is just himself.

Katsuki had poked and prodded, frowned, scowled and badgered but Izuku still had no magic.

Katsuki would call him ‘useless’ which makes Izuku cry. Katsuki would peer at him in ire and confusion, his smooth, baby-skinned brow wrinkled, and call him ‘crybaby’. Izuku would cry harder.

At some point, Katsuki would always throw up his hands in equal measure disgust and exasperation and tug on Izuku’s hand so they could go back to playing.

When Katsuki wakes up the next day, he is unsurprised to find himself in Izuku’s spare bedroom. He doesn’t remember stumbling in after their conversation by the fireside. He had been exhausted.

Not for the first time, Katsuki thinks about moving in and sharing the cottage with Izuku. He ends up sleeping here a lot of nights anyway.

He heads to the kitchen and finds pots of honey and jam, a loaf of bread and a bowl of nuts laid out in the table top. No sign of the owner of the house or his pet.

Izuku comes through the front door just as Katsuki is spreading some jam on his bread. The hem of his shirt is pulled up to his chest in a makeshift bag, exposing a firm belly.

“Good morning, Kacchan,” he chirps, unloading almost a dozen peaches from his shirt.

Katsuki eyes the perfectly ripened, sun-kissed fruits. Its sweet smell settles over the small kitchen. “Peaches? Isn’t it too early in the season?”

Izuku smiles. “A bit. The tree was feeling generous.”

He puts on the kettle and makes them tea.

“Are you heading back to Yuuei?”

Katsuki shakes his head, biting into a peach, juice running down his chin. “Not until they need me next. We finished debrief yesterday.” He pauses, considering. “Maybe I’ll stop by in a couple of days. I wanna know how Aizawa handled the sigil. But right now I need to rest.”

Even as Katsuki says it, he knows it isn’t true. He couldn’t have had more than 6 hours of sleep and yet he feels refreshed, yesterday’s worry and exhaustion had all but left him. He isn’t in top form yet but he’s nowhere near as tired as he should be.

Just last week, Kirishima was complaining about getting too old for what they’re doing, his body aching from battle. Katsuki on the other hand, just keep getting better, his blasts stronger, reflexes quicker. And like today, his recovery rate is faster.

He frowns. Maybe there’s something to this god marked thing.

“I might as well reinforce your wards while I’m here, Deku. Got any problems with decay elements?”

“Thank you, Kacchan. You always take care of me,” Izuku says, smiling.

“Problems?” Katsuki repeated, ignoring the thanks and sentiment.

“No, no problems. I don’t think anything would dare attack me with all your protections in place,” Izuku says.

Katsuki doesn’t acknowledge the teasing light in Izuku’s green eyes. Izuku can make fun of Katsuki all he likes, as long as his magic null ass doesn’t get disintegrated in half by a passing decay beast.

“I don’t see your pet,” says Katsuki.

“Todoroki is not my pet, Kacchan,” Izuku replies in the patient tone of one who has explained the same thing several times before. “He is his own person. He stays with me because he chooses to do so.”

“He’s still not here.”

“He left this morning and isn’t back yet,” Izuku says with an easy shrug.

Katsuki rolls his eyes. “So much for your guard dog.”

Izuku sputters a laugh, scandalized. “Kacchan, he’s not a guard dog! He’s not even a dog,” he says still chuckling. “He’s more a companion.”

“Whatever. Anyway, it's fine now. I’m here.”

Izuku smiles, his eyes brilliant with happiness. “And you wonder that you are marked.”

It was Katsuki’s turn to shrug, ignoring the familiar heat on his cheeks.

Izuku had not spoken for over a year. The adults had been afraid that Izuku had gone through some trauma which robbed him of speech. But Katsuki had never worried about it. Izuku’s eyes were too bright, too wide, too filled with excitement. He was always too willing to follow where Katsuki led, his tiny hand secure in his.

When Izuku did begin to speak, his first words were “Kacchan, you’re amazing,” said in wonder at some magic Katsuki was doing at the time.

Izuku had always been fascinated by Katsuki’s fire. Always been in awe of it without being scared of it.

Katsuki knows down to his bones that a significant portion of his unyielding belief in himself was forged with every "Kacchan, you’re amazing" he had ever heard from Izuku’s lips.

Bakugou Katsuki does not fail or falter because Izuku tells him so.

Katsuki goes back to his cottage after breakfast for a bath and change of clothes. He roots around his bag for some spell casting materials then heads back to Izuku’s cottage.

He finds Izuku in his workroom, carefully measuring out several potions into smaller containers.

“Deku, I’m gonna be working on your wards. You okay not to wander around?”

“Ahn, yeah. I can work here for now. I need to gather ingredients some time today though.”

Katsuki nods. “Do that later. I can help you. Gimme your rabbit.”

Izuku wipes his hands then reaches inside his shirt for a token about the size of a child’s palm. He pulls the leather thong from around his neck and hands it to Katsuki.

It’s made of pure jade, a stone not naturally mined in their lands and most magic practitioners don’t know how to use it. He’d learned of the stone while doing supplemental reading in Yuuei’s extensive archives. It had cost Katsuki a small fortune to acquire but its ability to hold complex spells had made the price worth it. It’s always cold to the touch, no matter the temperature outside. It’s irregularly shaped - Katsuki hadn’t been concerned with its looks when he bought it - and Izuku had laughed when he first saw it, saying it looked like a funny, green rabbit.

Katsuki’s wardings are complex, detailed spell works that would leave most magic practitioners in awe. He’d experimented with what they taught him in Yuuei then designed a spell structure that best gave him what he wanted. Disguise and deterrence. Alarm and warning. Shield and protection. All spelled to accommodate someone who cannot see, feel, or interact with the wards itself.

On his first day back from his apprenticeship, Katsuki took down the common warding that their parents had paid someone to build and then put up his own. He could not key the spell to Izuku so they solved it by keying it to the jade amulet. Izuku had worn it next to his skin from the day Katsuki gave it to him. His funny, green rabbit.

The wards hide Izuku from the curiosity of passersby, both man and beast. They will not see the cottage. They’ll be distracted by something, or remember a better path, or feel uneasy, the wards affecting different people in different ways. You need to know what you are looking for, need to have been invited, to see through the veil.

It will alert Katsuki if someone or something tries to enter the warded area. It is tied to him, fed purely from his innate magic, and he will feel it no matter where in the realm he is. He would ordinarily tie it to Izuku as well but null as he was, Katsuki had instead spelled the jade amulet to heat when someone attempts to breach the warding.

Attempts to breach lead to the third function - the wards as a shield. Wards, like any other personal spell, are dependent on the strength and abilities of the caster. Katsuki’s wardings on Izuku’s cottage will hold against anything other than a direct attack from a coven of powerful witches. Even then, it would likely hold long enough for Katsuki to come or send help.

Katsuki’s warding is extremely difficult to take down. Even Kaminari, whose magic is extraordinarily adapted to dismantling shield spells, needs time and focus to do it. Katsuki doesn’t take chances with Izuku’s safety. He dislikes leaving him alone, unprotected, and the warding lends Katsuki peace of mind when he’s away on a mission.

Katsuki finishes the spell work and from the angle of the sun, he knows he had spent a good portion of the morning on it. He staggers a little when he stands up, spellcasting the wards always take a lot out of him. When he’s casting fireballs in battle, he augments his innate magic with ones he has stored or with what’s floating around. Wardings are personal and Katsuki needs to use his own magic to ensure it does what he wants. The stronger his will to protect, the better his wards will hold.

He pops a piece of candy in his mouth that he had put in his pocket earlier just for this scenario and patiently waits for the shock to his system to subside.

After a while, he goes to check his own cottage, as well as the lesser wards he had placed in a perimeter around their land, from the beginning of the lane at the bend in the main road, going some ways into the woods, until the natural magical border that is the stream running east to west. Katsuki decides to let them be for now; he’s tired and the wards in both are strong enough. They will do.

Izuku is still in his workroom when Katsuki returns. He is frowning down a small bubbling cauldron.

“Deku,” Katsuki says the name, announcing his presence.

Izuku looks at him and the frown is immediately replaced with a worried look.

“Here,” Katsuki says, palm out, offering the jade token back. “Put it on.”

Izuku takes it, their fingers brushing, and places the leather thong around his neck.

“You’ve exhausted yourself, Kacchan,” Izuku says softly.

Katsuki shrugs.

“It’s finished. I can rest all day.” As if to prove his point, Katsuki sits on a chair beside the work table. He leans back, an elbow on the table and closes his eyes with a tired sigh.

He hears Izuku’s steps, feels him draw near. He feels warm, callused fingers glide across his jaw. Feels the fingers move through his hair in a gentle, soothing motion. They touch his temple. Until finally settling on his forehead, the palm hovering over one side of his face.

It was soothing. Warm where the fingertips touch his skin. He allows the touch for a few more moments before he tilts his head away, dislodging Izuku’s hand.

“Quit it, Deku. I’m fine,” Katsuki says, eyes still closed.

He hears Izuku’s soft sigh. “Stay here and rest for a bit. I’ll see to our lunch.”

Katsuki feels Izuku lean in and then there’s a gentle pressure on his forehead. Izuku’s soft lips on his skin. He feels it even after Izuku has left the room.

He wonders if this is what it feels like to be marked.

They had grown up together, closer than even brothers for having chosen each other.

The only time they had ever fought is something Katsuki still has difficulty thinking about. They had been ten and four years old.

As children, it had always been Katsuki who was praised for his skills, his intelligence. His good looks. He’d been tall for his age, strong both in body and magic. Izuku was a near constant presence at his side but had often been overlooked and unremarked upon.

It wasn’t that Izuku was shy. He wasn’t, not really. But he was reserved where Katsuki was brash and forward, observing people with those big, green eyes rather than interacting. He didn’t like to be touched and rationed his smiles for those he truly liked. It was easy for people’s attention to slide from the quiet boy, small and thin for his age, to the loud, blond powerhouse with the cheeky grin.

But Katsuki had always seen the world in those green eyes, and Izuku’s hand had spent a decade held in his. He’d taken Izuku’s soft laughter for himself and sustained Izuku’s fascination and endless curiosity for all things Katsuki and non-Katsuki with alternating patience and exasperated curtness.

That day, an older boy named Shindo noticed what Katsuki had always known. Shindo had looked into Izuku eyes and smiled. Izuku smiled tentatively back. Katsuki frowned.

Shindo stepped in close, crowding Izuku, placed a hand on his bare arm. Izuku flinched. Katsuki reacted.

The next thing Katsuki knew, he was being pulled away from a battered Shindo, sprawled on the ground and moaning, face bearing the singed marks of Katsuki’s flaming fists.

Izuku had stepped between them. “Enough, Kacchan. You've hurt him enough.”

Katsuki had never seen anything but adoration in Izuku’s eyes before. It had shaken something fundamental inside him. He would have called himself wretched if he wasn’t Bakugou Katsuki.

Lunch is a quiet affair. Katsuki is too tired for conversation although the meal revived him somewhat.

Izuku still has an unfinished brew and he hurries back to his workroom after the meal.

“Don’t forget to wake me up if you’re heading out into the woods, Deku,” Katsuki says, leaning against the doorway.

Izuku nods, amusement clear in the tilt of his lips but he knew better than to argue.

“I’ll be another half hour here. Go nap, Kacchan. I’ll wake you up.”

Katsuki nods and heads to the spare room. He is asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

Katsuki is a light sleeper. In the three years that he had lived inside Yuuei grounds, sharing housing with his training mates, he had always awakened the few times someone had lingered outside his door. He was awake and fully conscious by the time his bedroom door was opened. Through all their training and missions, no one had ever been able to sneak up on Katsuki.

In this, Izuku is the exception. As he is in many other ways.

When Katsuki wakes up from his nap, it is to Izuku’s unmistakable fingers once again touching his forehead. The point of contact feels warm, almost hot. But not uncomfortable.

He opens his eyes and meets green eyes. Izuku is seated on the side of the bed by Katsuki’s hip. His fingers move to push Katsuki’s hair back, lingering at his temple.

“I wanted to let you sleep more, Kacchan, but I really do need some valerian root,” Izuku says apologetically.

They walk deep in the woods together. Izuku had told Katsuki what plants he needs and Katsuki helped when he spotted some but he mostly let Izuku do his own gathering.

Their forest isn’t exactly unsafe. It’s not one of those haunted forests where so much innocent blood has been spilled, the very earth is soiled and the trees groan in anger. But decay creatures still wander the lands and there are always wild animals. They had grown up exploring sections of this forest, but it is vast and remains largely unspoilt by humans. Katsuki feels better if Izuku doesn’t wander the forests alone.

About an hour into their excursion, Todoroki appears and pads silently beside Izuku, seemingly bigger than he usually does inside the cottage. Katsuki doesn’t say anything and Todoroki, of course, ignores him.

Katsuki left for Yuuei a little over a year after the incident with Shindo. He had been ten and six years old.

At the beginning of his first year in Yuuei, he and all the other new trainees had undergone an oath ceremony, pledging their life, magic, and service in the name of the god of life and growth. One for All. All Might. To battle those who would serve the other.

It was a full ritual, complete with sun-bleached robes to wear, self-grown germinated seeds for offering, and an ancient sigil inscribed on the floor, unbroken for millennia, emanating power, peace and fierce protectiveness. Stepping inside it, Katsuki felt enveloped with warmth as in his mother’s womb.

For years, the span of two generations, people had sworn fealty to the god of life and growth and had not heard a response. They continued to swear anyway, for the alternative was death and decay. And better a silent god than a deranged one.

When Katsuki and his group swore their oaths that day, someone, something answered. It had whispered, clear as bells in their minds: It is fine now. I am here.

Katsuki’s world tilted. And when it righted itself, he had not been ashamed to weep.

The word had spread quickly: One for All is alive, is awake, is communing once again. Throughout the realm, people had renewed their oaths and each one was blessed by a thought, a whisper, a warm feeling, the brush of warm air across their faces. It was the beginning of the end for the other. There are still witches - too many of them - but the balance that has shifted some twenty years ago has now fully tilted on the side of life and growth.

For Katsuki, he had gone through his training and apprenticeship clothed in the warm, protective presence of One for All. He could not have told you why the feeling was familiar.

He was gone for five years. Three years of learning. Two years as an apprentice under Tsunagu Hakamata, a veteran of the war, with the power to manipulate threads of fabric. He was preternaturally quick, strong and experienced. An excellent choice for a mentor despite that Katsuki chafed under his emphasis on what other people see and think. Except for that one time when a pair of laughing green eyes turned glassy with disappointment, Katsuki had never seen the need to accommodate other people’s sensibilities.

By the time Katsuki finished his apprenticeship, he was equally quick and strong but still not as experienced. That will come later.

Katsuki stops when Izuku crouches to harvest some yarrow. Just like the peaches, the flowers are in bloom early for the season. Izuku is humming, a thread of music that seems to mesh itself seamlessly with the other sounds of the forest.

He looks far to their right. There is something pacing them. Katsuki doesn’t say anything. He didn’t think it was malignant, perhaps some creature of the forest, curious about their presence. They may have lived all their lives right outside the forest but it was never fully their own.

He hears the humming stop and looks to see Izuku looking at him quizzically.


“There’s something out there. Probably nothing. It is a forest.”

Izuku looks towards where Katsuki tipped his chin then smiled back at him.

“You feel that?” Izuku says, smiling brightly at him.

“Yes. Do you feel it?”

On another, less masculine frame, Izuku’s laughter would have been a giggle.

“Yes, I feel it. There is so much life in this forest. But that particular one, it’s being kind.” Izuku inclined his head. “Or perhaps 'kind' is the wrong word for wild creatures. It means us no harm anyway.”

“You talk as if you know it personally, Deku,” Katsuki growls out suspiciously.

“I’ve been to this forest more often than you, Kacchan,” he says gently. “It knows me better.”

“Dammit, Deku!”

“I know you worry, Kacchan,” Izuku hurries to reassure him, one hand touching his upper arm. “But I assure you, I am safe here. And Todoroki is always with me.”

Katsuki cuts a look to the white fox at Izuku’s side. It returns his look impassively.

“Your ability to sense life is getting better,” Izuku says, clearly pleased and just as clearly changing the subject. “You were always good at sensing danger but this one is not a threat to us. And this forest is its home. I’m pleased you are able to sense it.”

Katsuki cleared his throat. It was obviously a compliment. “Why is it pacing us then?” he rapped out instead, rather curtly.

“Hmm? Think of it as an honor guard,” Izuku says with a smile. “And it is an honor. If anything can be called master of this forest, it will be that one. C’mon, I still need some maidenhair.”

Izuku reaches down to clasp his hand and pulls him forward, to walk in step with him. Katsuki does not let go.

Inko Midoriya had died the year before Katsuki came home from his training. She had been an apothecary by trade and had trained Izuku to follow her footsteps. The woods behind their cottage is an ideal source of ingredients, and what did not grow in the wild, the Midoriyas grew in their garden. The trade suits Izuku very well because there is no need for magic to create the tisanes and tinctures needed to cure most ailments - the reaction is chemical rather than magical - just a wide knowledge of herblore and an abundance of patience.

Katsuki had always liked Inko, and accepted his share of hugs and butterfly kisses over the years, one for each that Izuku got. For as long as Katsuki could remember, Inko had been a warm, loving presence in his life. Soft and affectionate, in a way his mother hadn’t been, Mitsuki having too many edges to be tender and Katsuki too much like his mother. Katsuki loves his parents because they are his parents, and quite possibly, the reverse is true as well. They are supportive and indulgent, concerned without being too affectionate. But Katsuki had loved Inko in the same way Inko had loved him: with a love that’s freely given.

For as long as he could remember, it had been Inko who had tended the herb garden, Inko who had stirred the cauldron and decanted the potions. These days it’s Izuku who does it, hands working efficiently, his manner confident and assured. Same green hair, same green eyes, but a world of difference between them. Katsuki had mostly forgotten that Izuku wasn’t really Inko’s child, the two looking so much alike it was hard to believe it was a coincidence.

Some time during the years that Katsuki had been away, Izuku had also acquired a pet. A fox, with snow white pelt except for the deep red fur covering half of his head and a small patch around his left eye. Izuku called him Todoroki.

The fox is big for its kind, heavy with lean muscles. Much larger than any fox Katsuki has ever seen in the wild. He doesn’t know how Izuku had tamed it. Izuku only smiled and said he was out walking in the woods one day and Todoroki appeared, his left leg limp. The fox walked listing, as if he was unused to relying on his left side. Izuku said that when he walked home, Todoroki had followed.

Todoroki spends his time either asleep by the fireside, his length stretching across the entire hearth, or asleep on Izuku’s lap. For some reason, despite its big size, it always seems to fit comfortably on Izuku’s lap, his body curled smaller, his tail draped warmly across Izuku’s legs. Todoroki, of course, never once slept on Katsuki’s lap. He barely even acknowledges Katsuki’s presence, other than to give him baleful looks.

Those were not the only changes in the interim. In the five years that Katsuki had been gone, they had both grown up.

Katsuki at fifteen had been a strapping youth. He had already been tall and only got taller while in Yuuei. His broad shoulders had continued to broaden until he intimidated by simply by walking into a room. His chest, arms, thighs and legs are thick with corded muscles so much so that his kicks and punches are as deadly in a fight as was his magic.

Izuku had gone the other way. He had grown tall as well, taller than even Katsuki by a few inches but his body was lean, where Katsuki was broad. Lithe, slender and graceful. His chest and upper arms toned from all the hours stirring that cauldron. Katsuki’s eyes were the fierceness of a bonfire, Izuku’s the deep, calm, stillness of an ancient grove.

Izuku was a rapier to Katsuki’s broadsword. A bejeweled, ornate fan to Katsuki’s broad-stroked painting. For while Katsuki was beautiful in a purely masculine way, there was something of the feminine in Izuku’s graceful form, in the tilt of his eyes, in the almost but not quite delicate line of of jaw. Strong because he was, nurturing because he can be.

When Katsuki had left five years earlier, Izuku cried, brokenly saying 'Kacchan' over and over. Katsuki called him ‘useless crybaby’, all the while wiping his tears away with fire roughened fingers.

When Katsuki returned home, Izuku cried again, joyfully saying Katsuki’s true, childhood name. Katsuki had grinned, caught him in his arms and called him ‘crybaby’. Izuku had laughed as well, laughed and cried with his face buried against Katsuki’s soft blond hair.

Five years is a long time but while a lot of things have changed, some of them remain the same.

Izuku’s pack is already filled to brimming and even Katsuki is holding a length of devil’s vine in his hand, when the air elemental finds them.

It is agitated, as all air elementals are, flitting here and there, surging around Katsuki’s body, joyous at having found the person it had been tasked to seek. Katsuki waits, there isn’t much else to be done when dealing with the playful creatures. Air elementals are like small children, always curious, always happy to help, but prone to distraction.

It eventually settles into a form that looks uncannily like Uraraka, its translucent body perfectly mimicking even her somber expression.

“Bakugou, we need you here in Yuuei.” The voice is tinny, like hearing it as a faint echo in a large cavern, but the tone is recognizably Uraraka. “Tsuyu and Shoji were on patrol this morning in Hosu. It’s been six hours since they were supposed to report. We’re organizing a search.”

“Fuck,” Katsuki swears.

He holds out his hand, palm up, and wills some of his magic to life. The elemental dances around the sparks in the palm of his hand before flitting away, in search of other interesting things to see.

Six hours. Plus the time it took the elemental to find him. And it will take him another two hours to reach Yuuei.

He swears again.

Katsuki turns to Izuku. He would have heard the same message.

“Let’s head back,” Izuku says quietly.

They walk back to the cottage in brisk silence.

Katsuki leaves Izuku by his door and heads to his own. He pulls out a small leather pouch containing a piece of skin molted by his giant salamander and wills some of his magic into it. It glows for a moment until Katsuki feels a reply to his call. He tucks the pouch back in his pocket and heads inside.

His bag is still packed and ready. He adds an extra change of clothes. He's not surprised to find there’s no food in his kitchen.

Izuku is waiting for him when he comes out of his cottage, a small pack ready.

“Some peaches for your travel.”

Katsuki takes it but doesn’t place it inside his rucksack, mindful of the fruit’s tender flesh. He scans the horizon but sees no sign of the salamander yet.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back,” Katsuki says, turning to Izuku. “You take care of yourself, Deku. For fuck’s sake, don’t stray too far into the woods. And don’t go out without Half ‘n Half. There’s some weird shit going on.”

“I’ll be careful. I promise.” Izuku says solemnly.

Katsuki is not in the mood to be teased and a cocky response from Izuku would have just pissed him off, made him worry while he is away. Izuku knows him too well.

Izuku reaches up and ghosts his fingers across Katsuki’s face, pausing at his forehead.

“Be safe, Kacchan. Come back to me.”

Katsuki closes his eyes, feeling the benediction and charge. He feels himself calmer, centered, the anxiety tight in his gut easing to a low simmering worry.

He grabs Izuku’s wrist and pulls his hand away from his face.

“You worry about yourself, Deku.”

He lets go of Izuku’s wrist and their hands brush against each other. Katsuki slides their fingers together.

The salamander finally arrives, darting forward from the direction of the forest. It stands there patiently while Katsuki cinches the riding gear over it’s body, the smooth skin already turning into the fiery colors of sunset from Katsuki's presence.

With a last look and nod at Izuku, Katsuki leaves.

He never makes it to Yuuei.

Chapter Text

Katsuki receives another elemental within half an hour of leaving Izuku.

It was an earth one this time. It pops out from the ground like a clod of dirt and rolls along beside his sprinting salamander, trying to catch his attention. He pulls his mount to a stop and waits for the elemental to settle. Unlike their air brethren, earth elementals are slower in passing messages but are more reliable.

It shifts forms like so much clay, until finally settling on a perfect replica of Iida, complete with spectacles.

“Greetings, Bakugou. We’ve set up search teams for Tsuyu and Shoji. You’re paired with Uraraka. We’re heading out now to Hosu. Best if you just meet us there. Rendezvous at the Hosu shrine.”

The elemental delivers the message in Iida’s clipped tones, the sound low and rumbly to Katsuki’s ears.

Katsuki wills a small ball of flames to life and drops it to the ground. The earth elemental rolls towards it and happily cavorts in the flames.

Katsuki checks his bearings. Hosu is another two and half hours travel to the west from here, straight down this road. The elemental had caught him before he made the turn towards Yuuei. He hasn’t lost any time, won’t need to back track.

Elementals aren’t part of either life and growth or the other. They just are. Forces of nature that existed long before humans came into existence. They are not individually sentient, per se, they share a common memory with their own kind but are prone to forgetfulness because of their nature. Ask one a simple question and if another of its kind knows, you will get an answer. If you set them a task, they will endeavour to fulfil it but very likely forget it as soon as it is completed.

They are able to recognize individual persons and magic users have always used them to send messages keyed to specific people. Elementals can travel faster than any other living thing, passing through obstacles, limited only by their own nature; even children know that fire elementals cannot pass through water, air elementals cannot go deep underground.

They are curious creatures and feed off magic. Many elementals haunt Yuuei’s halls and other places where magic users congregate for this very reason, some of them attaching themselves to specific persons. The few times that Katsuki has received messages from Iida, he had always used an earth elemental.

Fire elementals have always been partial to Katsuki. They like to follow him around, flickering on and off like fiery will ‘o the wisps in his wake. When on a mission, he needs to shield himself else it would be impossible to sneak up on a witch’s cottage with a dozen flickering flames flitting around him, illuminating him.

As young children, Katsuki and Izuku liked to play catch-the-flame, an undertaking much less productive than catching butterflies because elementals don’t really have a physical body to catch, but it served to entertain two rambunctious boys and didn’t hurt the elementals so the adults let them be. Tired boys only made for easier bedtimes.

Izuku also liked catching butterflies but only if they set them free after. Having no magic, Izuku attracted no elementals. But butterflies majestic in all the colors of nature ever flocked to him.

Hosu is a fair sized town, a sprawling mass of houses, taverns, and trade shops with almost 4,000 people in residence and a constant flow of traders and travellers spending the night or longer in the town’s many inns. It sits at a junction of the Great River from the west and its tributary from the south. It has expanded outwards through the centuries to the size it is today. Compared to Musutafu which is essentially a garrison town built around Yuuei and its needs, Hosu is a trading town. People from farther west of the realm travel to Hosu via the Great River. Those who are bound for Yuuei more often than not spend a night in Hosu before travelling eastward to reach Musutafu - a full day travel on foot, four hours on a mount. The same is usually true on the way back, taking advantage of the produce and wares that Hosu has to offer, before travelling on.

It has a school, a number of trade masters looking for apprentices, and a shrine to the god of life and growth large enough to service its residents and transients. Neither school nor shrine is as big or impressive as the university and citadel in Musutafu, but then nothing in the realm is like Yuuei.

In the generation past, Hosu had succumbed to the encroachment of death and decay. The town had shrunk, trade with other towns had come to a near standstill, and a lot of inhabitants had moved to Musutafu, nearer Yuuei and its protection. In the ten years that One for All has awakened, Hosu has gotten back on its feet and become once more a bustling place for trade.

Katsuki arrives in Hosu with the sun still in the sky. He estimates some two hours of daylight before the sun finally sets. Familiar as he was with Hosu, Katsuki had no difficulty finding his way to the shrine. He sees two Yuuei carriages by the front but no sign of Uraraka or Iida. He flags a passing air elemental and asks where Uraraka is, sending an image with a bit of his magic. He could have used his own magic to feel out Uraraka directly but he wanted to be keyed to Shoji and Tsuyu for when they begin searching later. Uraraka is popular with air elementals and he follows the translucent figure as it weaves its way in and around the shrine grounds.

He sees Uraraka talking with an older hunter, a water manipulator whose name he forgets - bite him - but had always called ‘Manual’ for the pedantic way he does things. Katsuki feeds the elemental a bit of his magic in thanks before it flits away, and he joins Uraraka.

“Mizushima-san, you remember Bakugou?” Uraraka says.

The two nod at each other. Katsuki could see the strain of worry in Uraraka’s face.

“Status?” Katsuki asks.

It’s Manual who speaks first. “We’ve had two teams of two scouting the area since about five hours ago. About three hours since they were supposed to report back. We called Yuuei about two hours after that when it became clear it wasn’t just a case of them being lost.”

Katsuki raised an eyebrow. Manual shrugged, a little apologetically. “They were new to the area, we couldn’t have known either way. Not until the elementals we sent came back with their messages undelivered.”

“Three teams from Yuuei are already deployed,” Uraraka interjected hastily. “Iida and Jirou. Tokoyami and Ojiro. Awase and Tokage. You and me makes four. We’ve sectioned the area. Two teams here inside, bisecting the town, expanding outward as they go. Awase and Tokage are searching outside to the north and west. We got south and east.”

“Hosu’s teams are still out scouting,” Manual says, taking up the report, “reverse configuration north and east, south and west, but we aren’t very familiar with either Shoji or Tsuyu so your teams might have better luck at finding them. They’ll come in at sundown,” continues Manual.

The deployment makes sense. When Katsuki was still training in Yuuei, they had an elderly teacher, a veteran of the war, whose magic was unparalleled in locating people or lost objects. He didn’t have to know you, he just needed an item you owned or had an attachment to. You could block him, put up a shield or a rune of unknowing, but with enough time and force of will, he will always find that which he sought. His magic had been invaluable during the war when friends and fellow hunters would go out and not come back, waylaid or worse by the servants of the other side. He died two years ago, peacefully in his sleep, having spent his life in the service of One for All.

For most other magic users though, the strength of location spells is directly proportional to how well the spell caster knew the person missing. It feeds into the personal bond that’s already existing between the spell caster and the object of the search.

Katsuki had trained and lived with Shoji and Tsuyu for three years, same with Uraraka and the other two search teams. Awase and Tokage had been in the same year with them. Awase had apprenticed with Shoji under the same veteran hunter and Tokage had been in a relationship with Tsuyu for over two years before they broke it off.

All eight of them had shared hearth and home, laughter, love, friendship, pain and near death with Shoji and Tsuyu. If they cannot find them, it won’t be for lack of attachment or trying.

The two of them ride their way out of the city, Uraraka mounted on a smaller salamander in a shade of pink that matches the apples of her rounded cheeks.

“What’s the deal with Hosu?” Katsuki asks.

Uraraka shrugs. “You tell me. Tsuyu and Shoji got deployed here 3 days ago. Just started patrolling yesterday. It’s why Hosu took so long to inform Yuuei, they figured the two were just exploring, getting to know their area better.”

Katsuki bit off a sarcastic comment. Hunters on patrol are too well trained to ignore things like reporting on time and keeping to a schedule. But Hosu is a trade town, and now that war conditions have let up, they are more concerned with petty theft and keeping the peace than battling decay beasts or witches.

Hunters aren’t trained to settle domestic disputes or barroom brawls. It would be like lighting a candle by setting off a bomb. While they do occasionally help the local police force in keeping the peace, that is not their primary mandate or training. Hunters like Katsuki are essentially warrior-priests. They are disciplined; strong in body, faithful in spirit. They serve One for All, protecting the realm from the servants of the other. They follow their oaths, hunt those who would break it, battle those who would trample upon life and growth.

They don’t wander around three hours past their scheduled time to report taking in the new scenery.

“Why were they assigned here?” Katsuki asks.

“Hosu requested it. The harvest fair is coming up and they wanted more of us on hand for protection when the traders come in. From all accounts it’s been a very good year and they’re expecting more people than usual.”

“Yuuei only sent two?” Katsuki frowns. Two additional hunters to deal with a deluge of people doesn’t seem enough.

“We’ve got twelve Yuuei hunters out of commission. It’s why we had to call you.”

Katsuki scowls at Uraraka.

“Well, that and I knew you’d blast my poor heinie off if I didn’t call you in for this search.”

“Damn right,” Katsuki mutters and Uraraka smiles, a fond expression temporarily displacing the worry in her face.

“Wait, twelve hunters are down?” Katsuki exclaims.

Uraraka nods and rattles off the names. Including Mina and Kaminari - who still have four days of prescribed rest - and the two members from Monoma’s squad - younger ones that Katsuki is not very familiar with - eight other hunters are injured or incapacitated in some way. Katsuki can’t remember the last time that many Yuuei hunters were out of commission. And those are only the Yuuei hunters.

Kirishima and Sero, like Katsuki, are not part of Yuuei’s rosters, choosing to take part in missions where their skills are needed, as needed. Katsuki knows that Kirishima is in no position to go on another mission until his bruising goes down. Katsuki himself would have also taken a couple of days to rest except he never seems to wake up tired these days, no matter how exhausted he was the night before. And Uraraka was correct, he wouldn’t have turned down this search mission in any case.

A dozen Yuuei hunters down and now they have two more missing.

Katsuki and Uraraka arrive on the town’s south gates and begin to search in their designated area, moving efficiently, as quickly as they dared, carving a path to the east, then back again southwards, in ever expanding arcs. They have a large area to search and it’s already been several hours since Tsuyu and Shoji were declared missing.

Not that Katsuki had ever said but he had always liked working with Uraraka. She is one of the few people who got away with teasing Katsuki. Urakaka is competent, hard-working, and had excellent control over her magic. They have gone up the ranks over the past five years and they don’t work together much these days; Uraraka heading her own squad while Katsuki has his.

She can cast spells that play havoc with an object’s gravity. She can cause you to be weightless, leaving you flailing and disoriented, floating about and effectively neutralized. She can weigh you down until you leave indentations on the hard packed ground and your ribs crack from the force of the added weight. She can turn a large boulder weightless, throw it at you and release the spell just as it hits you, breaking bones and any urge left to fight. Her magic requires split second control and mastery otherwise she can kill with it. Much of her apprenticeship was spent fine-tuning her control so she won’t accidentally kill her quarry, and focusing instead on a host of practical application areas such as in logistics, containment, and rescue.

They’re still not sure what happened to Tsuyu and Shoji. Best case scenario, the two are trapped or hiding somewhere and only awaiting rescue. The Hosu shrine and Yuuei have sent several elementals in the course of the day, keyed to both Tsuyu and Shoji, but none could find them. This is not as dire as it sounds because it is easy enough to block elementals if you know what you are doing, but it’s still disturbing. They have either closed themselves off behind a barrier or had been placed behind one.

Worst case, they are being held captive by those who would use them for their magic. Yes, that is the worst case, far worse than being dead.

Search in this case is two-fold. They are, of course, using their physical senses for indications as to what could have happened, searching for clues. A witch attack would generally leave traces of foul magic, if not actual spilled blood. It is tedious and has become more difficult now that the sun has gone down, drastically cutting their visibility. They have been at this for over two hours now. So far, they have seen nothing of particular note.

But the main search consists of sending out magical feelers. Small threads of their magic sent out in intervals, towards all directions, seeking two familiar presences. Uraraka’s feelers, like most other people’s, are not visible. Katsuki’s feelers though take the form of small sparks, like flint hitting stone, flitting outward as far away as the magic Katsuki willed into them fuels them, dissipating when it runs out.

This takes time because the feelers cannot distinguish between obstacles. It cannot tell between a tree or a mountain or the wall of a house and doesn’t know whether to go around, go over or go back. The spell caster needs to keep feeding power through the threads to keep it moving or sending out more to compensate. It’s why they sent two teams to search inside the town - there are many more barriers like walls and doors compared to the countryside and its occasional animals and trees.

Katsuki’s sparks, especially now that it’s dark, make it easier to see if one of his feelers has encountered an obstacle, and more than once Uraraka has wished aloud that she too can spell her feelers to be visible. Not that visibility really matters. The threads are connected to the spell casters and they can feel when one of their threads have stopped. Or it finds what it is looking for.

Just entering the fourth hour of their search, one of Katsuki’s sparks finally encounters something of Shoji and Katsuki calls Uraraka over. He sends out another feeler in pursuit of the first and they follow it. The spark leads them farther away, near a grove of trees that looks foreboding even from afar.

The spark hovers over something on the ground and Katsuki bites off a curse. He hears Uraraka gasp to his right.

A hand lay on the ground, big and ash grey, amputated at the wrist. Blood had soaked the ground and already dried around it.

“Shoji,” Uraraka whispers in dismay.

Shoji is a healer. Katsuki has seen him close up a gaping wound, pushing the man’s spilled guts back in, in just seconds. He doesn’t know if Shoji’s healing magic extends to regrowing amputated limbs.

“Pull in your feelers and shield up,” he says to Uraraka and does the same for himself. He damped down on the ball of flame he had lighting their way, lowering it to mere embers.

“We need to contact Iida and the others,” Uraraka says.

Katsuki agrees, they cannot continue the search or conduct rescue on their own. Not with just the two of them, not after nightfall. There’s obviously been foul play. There is a faint but unmistakable miasma hovering over the small area, remnants of whatever spell the witches used. They need to convene with the other hunters. There’s no telling what they will be facing when they find where Shoji and Tsuyu were taken. The moon is high in the sky and there are seven more hours before the day breaks.

Unfortunately, there is a disconcerting lack of elementals nearby. Katsuki had been almost surprised the dismembered hand hadn’t been taken by foraging animals but like the missing elementals, the area seems to have misplaced its wildlife as well.

Katsuki swears under his breath and tries not to think about what his friends may be going through.

They agree to back track nearer where the town is. They pick an easily defensible spot and send out some magic to attract elementals. Several earth ones pop up from the ground and Katsuki sends off a message to Iida, asking his team to meet up with him and Uraraka. Uraraka sends a message to Jirou, and another to Awase. Katsuki sends a message to Hosu shrine and finally, to Yuuei.

Two other teams meet up with them some half an hour later. Iida and Ojiro, Jirou and Tokoyami.

Awase and Tokage had been searching beyond the town, on the other side and would have farther to travel back. They had been instructed to regroup with the hunters in the shrine instead and bring reinforcements.

Katsuki knows each and everyone of this group, knows their strengths and weaknesses. Ojirou and Iida are proven to have steady nerves and level heads, both quick on their feet, excellent in hand to hand combat.

Iida’s main manifestation for his magic is speed. He can propel himself several feet forward, backward or the side, dashing about in bursts of speed. It’s hard to hit someone who isn’t there anymore by the time your attack closes in, harder to avoid someone who can get to you before you finish blinking. Ojirou uses magic to augment his strength and stamina - he stops hitting you only after he has already exhausted all the available magic within reach. He is also able to generate a phantom limb, like a prehensile tail, that he uses to great effect in combat. Tokoyami is strong in the dark and they have Jirou for reconnaissance.

Katsuki pushes for them to go on and he doesn’t meet with any objection. There are six of them. A full squad and one more. He takes command and no one challenges him, even Uraraka who usually heads her own squad is deferring to him.

They return to the area where Katsuki and Uraraka found Shoji’s hand and crouched down behind a clump of tall shrubs. They are now in full hunt conditions and everyone’s personal shields and defense runes are active.

“Jirou and Tokoyami,” Katsuki begins, “you’re on recon. We need to know how many witches we’re up against. Any more than four and we’re staying put until reinforcements get here. They can’t be more than an hour behind.”

“Where do we start?” Tokoyami asks, looking out into the night. “It’s still a big area.”

“We can still split up in teams, but keep close together. Make it easy to regroup,” suggests Iida.

Katsuki growls at them in irritation. “They’re in that area.” He points to the wooded area about two hundred meters to their right.

Everyone looks to where Katsuki points to.

“Huh. I didn’t notice that,” Jirou said, suspicion coating the surprise in her tone.

“Neither did I. How did you see it, Bakugou?” Ojiro asks.

Katsuki frowns. “None of you noticed it earlier?”

Five hunters shake their head no.

“I didn’t see it, even when we were first here. But I could sense there was something wrong, and not just because of all the blood,” says Uraraka.

“The whole place reeks of foul magic,” Katsuki says. “The more we stay here, the worse it gets,” he replies.

Iida clears his throat. “It looks like a regular wooded area to me. Although like Jirou, I also didn’t notice it at first.”

“We’ll check out the copse,” Katsuki says, getting them back to planning. “There’s obviously a spell of inattention in place. We’ve scouted this area for hours and I didn’t see any other place that looked suspicious. That area is secluded enough to hide in, and it’s fucking weird that there are no animals or elementals in this place. Chances are the place is warded and they can’t come in or are being driven away.”

Tokoyami sends out his shadow into the wooded area. It comes back shortly, reporting that it had encountered a warding, making everyone go tense.

Tokoyami’s shadow is better than elementals or feelers of magic because it is sentient to some extent, channeling a part of Tokoyami’s consciousness. It is able to observe, reason, and act as appropriate. It had encountered the warding and stopped before it could trip it. It circled the area and is now able to give them dimensions of the warded place. It confirms there is a small house in the grove, little more than a shepherd's hut.

They head closer then stop to allow Jirou to check how many witches are inside. She crafts a spell that magnifies her senses a thousand fold. With practiced ease, she blocks out the familiar pauses and beats coming from the five other hunters around her. She ignores the susurration of the wind, the creaking of the trees, every minute sound of the forest. It’s uncanny how silent the woods is, how lacking in life. She focuses on the house directly ahead of them.

“The hut is just a front. There’s a large basement with several rooms. I hear 4 heartbeats. One of them is Shoji, he’s in the basement. From the slow beat, I’d say he’s unconscious.” Jirou says.

“And Tsuyu?” Iida asks.

Jirou shakes her head and doesn’t answer.

Katsuki clenches his teeth.

They make plans. Katsuki will take down the wards with brute force. With the team he has now, there’s no other choice. He would be several steps behind everyone as they rush inside and he collapses the warding but it can’t be helped. He would ordinarily be at the front of the charge but they have no shield breaker with them. Katsuki spares a moment to wish for Kaminari to be here then focuses back to the task at hand.

Uraraka will take lead, flanked by Iida and Ojiro. Jirou and Tokoyami are range fighters and will divide the witches’ attention. They will hold this until Katsuki gets there then Jirou and Tokoyami are on Shoji rescue duty. Eyes on three witches at all times. They can’t allow any one of them to get to Shoji and use him as hostage or perhaps finish him off in an act of spite.

They will think about Tsuyu later.

Katsuki searches and finds a junction in the warding spell. He still wasn’t at one hundred percent after working on Izuku’s wards that morning but he had slowly been renewing his reserves throughout the day. He didn’t worry about magic expenditure. They only get one shot at this. The moment he attacks the wards, the witches inside would be alerted.

He gives it as much power as he could muster and for half a heartbeat the criss-crossed spellwork that made up the warding was illuminated, the latticework of pure will and magic outlined with Katsuki’s sparks, and then the entire thing goes down in an ear-deafening BOOM!

Katsuki’s team is prepared for it and rushes the fifty or so meters from the edge of the warding to the door of the hut. He hopes the sound is shocking enough to give the witches pause, giving them more of an advantage.

He firmly gathers the flailing spell and collapses it, making sure it doesn’t go back up or send out a beacon for help. Then he takes the magic expended by his blast and the collapsed spell, and takes it all back in, replenishing a good half of his usual store, ready to do battle.

By the time he reaches the hut, one witch is already down, while another is having the fight of his life. Katsuki faces off with the third witch and he sees Jirou and Tokoyami from the corner of his eye disappear somewhere downstairs.

He hits the witch with blast after unrelenting blast of his magic, thinking of Shoji’s dismembered hand. The fight lasts no longer than five minutes. His friends had put up more of a fight back when they were still in training.

Katsuki sends Iida and Ojiro outside to stand guard. This is not a mission they undertook after several days or weeks of gathering information and surveillance. For all they know, there is another coven of witches nearby who felt the wards come down and are now on their way to take back control of the hut.

He helps Uraraka bind the witches and familiars.

He is about to go down the basement, impatient at the delay, when he sees Jirou and Tokoyami’s heads come up, helping an unconscious Shoji. They were too short to fully support him so he was hunched down over their shoulders, feet dragging on the floor. Tokoyami’s shadow was helping pull up Shoji by the armpits. Their faces bore the strain of carrying Shoji’s dead weight. Shoji was built almost as big as Katsuki.

“Uraraka, go!” he calls out. “I got this”.

She looks to where he’s pointing and hurries forward, throwing a spell over Shoji, immediately lightening the load. Katsuki could hear Jirou and Tokoyami’s twin sighs of relief.

Even from across the room, Katsuki could see both of Shoji’s arms now end in bloody stumps and he has dried blood all over him. His lips has an unnatural bluish tinge.

“Tsuyu’s down there,” Jirou says, preparing to go back down.

Katsuki swore. “No wait, I’ll carry her. Uraraka, stay up here and watch these three. You two come down with me and secure the rooms below. I don’t like this place, we move out in five minutes.”

Katsuki really doesn’t like the place. There is something deeply profane about it. A feeling of wrongness. More than was usual in a witch’s hut. He’s willing to leave the hut uncleased, let Yuuei deal with it tomorrow. They need to get Shoji out of here and into a healer’s care.

“She’s in the second door, on your right,” Tokoyami says quietly. Katsuki nods, heading for the room.

The room is cold. So fucking cold. That explains Shoji’s blue lips.

Tsuyu is curled up on a ragged pallet by the corner. It looks like Shoji had taken the effort to cover her up, a coat several sizes too big for her lay on top of her.

Katsuki picks her up, coat and all. She looks small in his arms, her small frame almost weightless, as if Uraraka had spelled her.

Jirou had not heard a heartbeat and Katsuki can see that her chest is not moving, she’s not drawing in breaths.

And yet.

Katsuki frowns down at Tsuyu. There are no visible wounds that he could see. And Shoji was a healer, he would have done his best to save her, if he could. Had he had the chance.

Katsuki shifts her weight and holds her against his chest with one arm. He reaches out with his other hand, places his fingers on her forehead. Her skin is so cold.

And yet…. There is life inside her.

Katsuki swears, thinking fast. Change of priorities. They need to get Shoji and Tsuyu out of here. He’d be willing to leave the witches so they could be on their way. Yuuei can deal with that, if it comes to it. It’s Katsuki’s call to make.

He leaves the room with his precious load and meets Tokoyami and Jirou exiting another room.

“Go ahead, there’s another room left,” Jirou says.

Katsuki nods. “We leave in two minutes.”

He brings Tsuyu upstairs and Uraraka lets out a whimper when she saw her. She tenderly brushes her fingers along Tsuyu’s temple, then spells her, lightening her weight.

“I don’t think she’s dead,” Katsuki says grimly, giving voice to his thoughts, questioning himself even as he said it.

“What?” Uraraka whispers in shock, her brown eyes huge in her rounded face.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re bringing her with us anyway. Just keep her covered, she’s freezing. If she’s still alive, then the healer in Hosu can figure it out,” Katsuki says. “No, wait. Shoji needs his coat back. Fuck, we can get her Iida’s later.” Katsuki would have shared his coat but his fire burns bright inside him and he has never felt the need for one.

“You hold her.” Katsuki turns Tsuyu over to Uraraka who easily catches her near weightless body. He pulls Shoji’s coat from Tsuyu’s body, spells it for warmth, then drapes it over Shoji’s still form. The end of his arms are now wrapped in bandages; doubtless Uraraka’s work.

Katsuki takes Tsuyu back from Uraraka and she begins spelling the three witches and their familiars. All are tied up and unconscious, a length of rope leading from their waists. The hunters will be able to pull them along like oddly-shaped balloons. Katsuki was familiar with this method of transport and was glad Uraraka was with the team. He would have left the witches otherwise.

“Bakugou, we found something downstairs I think you should see.”

Katsuki turns his head, hit by a deja vu so strong he feels dizzy for a moment. He meets Tokoyami’s solemn expression.

A hollow pit opens in his stomach.

“Where is it?”

“The last room, at the end of the hall.”

He hands Tsuyu to Tokoyami. “Round everyone up. I’ll meet you outside.”

Tokoyami nods. Jirou and Uraraka gather Shoji, the witches and the familiars, moving everyone out the door.

Katsuki goes down the stairs again, walking past the cleared rooms, all the way to the end of the corridor. He could smell it before he even entered the room.

Blood magic. Decay. Corruption. Without even doing a spell, Katsuki knows without a doubt that Shoji had bled for whatever spell craft is in this room.

Katsuki pushes open the door and he sees it. The same blood soaked sigil from yesterday’s raid.

Chapter Text


Aizawa Shouta freezes, his heart quite literally stops beating, making him dizzy, before thudding like mad in his chest.

He’s heard the voice twice before. It’s not any easier.

The first time was a benediction. An affirmation. It had been the god fealty ceremony held at the beginning of the school year some ten years ago. Shouta, like all the other teachers of Yuuei, was in attendance. He would be lying if he says that he had expected it, and while he may sometimes obfuscate the truth or play logical ruses, he never actually lies outright.

So, no, he had not been expecting the voice back then. The god fealty ceremony had become routine by that point, something for the new students of Yuuei to prepare for, to undergo. But the god of life and growth had stopped answering a long time ago, long before even Shouta made his own fealty some twenty years prior.

That day, the new students dressed in sun bleached robes stepped into the ancient sigil of life and growth and the world as they knew it was renewed.

Shouta saw the sigil at their feet glow, then burst into light, the white robes of his students gone incandescent. He had a moment to feel fear for his students, a long heartbeat of despair and rage that anyone had dared to attack his young charges, to see them waver, fall to their knees, before he too heard the voice.

It called him by name.

Shouta. It is fine now. I am here.

When Shouta came back to his senses, the ground was littered with the weeping and the dazed, students and teachers alike. They would later learn that everyone in Yuuei heard something, merely varying in intensity. It spread out in concentric circles, like ripples in a lake, the heart of which was the ancient sigil. That was not surprising; they were in Yuuei, the bastion of life and growth, the heart of the fight against the other. They all serve.

But they will soon learn that the phenomenon has spread throughout the land, touching everyone who gave fealty. People remember. Where were you when the god of life and growth returned?

Shouta remembers where he was. He was ten steps away from ground zero. He saw it happen.

Yuuei was in uproar the days following the fealty ceremony. Elementals kept arriving with messages, most of them looking for Nezu, all of them confirming the god’s return, asking for guidance. It has been two generations since the god was last heard. Those who could, those who could safely leave their territories with less protection - the warriors, the witch hunters, the magic users trained by Yuuei - they all came home, back to Yuuei.

The older students were met once in the mornings and given studies to occupy their time, while the teachers spent the rest of the day in discussions and meetings, trying to make sense of what happened. What happened to All Might? Why did he disappear? How did he return? Why now?

The new students, the ones who were in the center of it, were interviewed and examined over and over. Magic proficiency was tested and retested. Information was gathered. Life history, family, parents. Hobbies and predilections. Other than the fact that theirs was an exceptionally talented crop of magic users, the students seem to be no different than any other fifteen year old.

They never did establish the whys and wherefores. There were a lot of speculations made but nothing was concluded. After a while, life in Yuuei returned to normal.

Except that for Shouta, life could not return to what it was before.

He was one of the very few that was called by name. Shouta, the voice said, so clear he could still hear it when he listens.

Ten days after the incident, Shouta petitioned to be a loremaster.

History is taught in Yuuei. Shouta has always approved of this, for how else can you learn from the mistakes of your forebearers, if you are not taught the consequences of their hubris? Their greed, their lack of foresight.

But as loremaster, he began to have a better understanding of how the god wars came to be.

Yuuei is, first and foremost, a school for teaching magic users. Each year, during spring, they pick the ones with the most potential from the applicants, train them, and then send them off to be productive in the world. Yuuei graduates become all manner of professions: tradesmen, apothecaries, guardsmen, ministers. They are taught defensive and offensive magic only as part of a wide curriculum of magic use.

While philosophy and ethics are taught, as well as basics in law, Yuuei was never an arbiter of what is good or evil. Yuuei graduates for the most part live law-abiding lives, but some do turn to crime. A lot go on to become successful and achieve renown - something that can be attributed both to their natural talent as well as Yuuei’s training - but most others fade into obscurity, living normal, everyday lives.

Yuuei is aligned with the god of life and growth simply because the willful infliction of death and agony against other living beings to obtain their magic is abhorrent to most people. Not to mention forbidden by the laws of the land.

So Yuuei has always taught magic in accordance with the precepts of All Might: life is sacred, all growth has value. Use the magic that is within you, tame the magic that is without you. (To this Shouta would add: leave the magic in the leylines the fuck alone; it will kill you.)

Everyone knows that All Might disappeared some sixty years ago. Two generations of magic users have never seen him, never heard his voice. What Shouta found out as loremaster was that All Might had began to weaken even before that. A generation before he fully disappeared, All MIght’s presence had already started waning. He had not been sighted in all that time, had been heard only by the most devout of servants.

The rise of those who serve the other began then as well, a good thirty years before All Might disappeared. With the increase in witch activities, Yuuei adjusted its curriculum to focus more on offensive and defensive magics simply because that was what the situation at large called for. Even if a student wished to become a scribe or an innkeeper, they would still likely be the best magic user in their town or village and the more they knew about protecting themselves and their community, the better off everyone would be.

The date given for the start of the god wars - when All Might disappeared - was not the beginning at all. It was only when both sides openly declared war against the other. Before that, witches had become increasingly aggressive with each passing year and by that point, other schools for magic users have long since followed Yuuei footsteps and adjusted their teaching focus.

After All Might disappeared, Yuuei graduates have had little choice but to become warriors in the god wars. There had been too much at stake. Too many friends, lovers, family members have faced death and decay.

Yuuei’s place in society evolved from a prestigious school of magic users to the high command of the fight against the other. Funding from the king’s treasury came pouring in. A war council was established, headed by Nezu - once simply the principal of a school - and was headquartered in Heights Alliance, a tower inside Yuuei campus grounds. Jail cells for witches and their familiars were constructed alongside libraries and classrooms. Alumnae and capable magic users flocked to Yuuei, ready and willing to be deployed along with its new graduates, to become part of its concerted effort to attack witches and their covens.

Shouta was no different. He entered Yuuei, vied for the right to study within its walls, with the intention of becoming a warrior for the god of life and growth. Every magic user wanted to be one. Everyone had lost someone or knew someone lost in the god wars.

When Shouta was five and thirty years old, twenty years after his own god fealty ceremony, he heard the god of life and growth call his name.

The second time he heard the voice was two days ago. A full ten years since he first heard it. Instead of an affirmation, the voice spoke a warning.

Shouta, it begins again. They need you in Dagobah.

By the time the elemental from Kaminari arrived in Yuuei asking for reinforcements and a loremaster, Shouta and his team were ready and mounted.

Shouta, they found another in Hosu.

The message this time is gentle but the prodding is clear. They need him in Hosu.

Unlike the raid in Dagobah, Shouta is very much aware of the happenings in Hosu. Two of his former students have gone missing, failed to report back after a routine patrol. Eight more of his former students have gone to search for them.

You will need Shuzenji Chiyo.

Shouta closes his eyes at the wellspring of compassion he feels emanating from the voice. There are healers in Hosu. Good ones because it’s such an important trading town. He wonders which of the young people who were once in his care are beyond their help.

It is four hours by mount from Yuuei to Hosu. It takes them almost an hour more to make the trip because no matter that Shuzenji is spry for her age, her aged bones cannot take the jostling of hard travel. As it is, she has to constantly loop her healing magic while en route to ease her aches and pains. Nezu had questioned the need to bring Shuzenji but gave way at Shouta’s unwavering insistence. Shuzenji herself had not demurred, taking her cue from the grim look of urgency in Shouta’s expression.

The elemental that Bakugou sent to Shouta finds them mid travel, some 2 hours after they left Yuuei.

The little fire ball hovers in the air, a face appearing in the depths of the flickering light perfectly mimicking Bakugou’s grim expression.

“Aizawa-sensei, we found Shoji and Tsuyu in a witch hut about an hour by mount south of Hosu. Shoji is unconscious and badly injured.” Bakugou hesitates. “Tsuyu appears to be dead.”

Shouta feels his stomach drop at the news - his mind flashing an image of the quiet, intelligent, green haired girl who made piercing observations; she had been reliable in combat, calm under pressure and resourceful - but frowns at the careful phrasing. It’s not like Bakugou to mince words even with death. Young as his former students are, they have all seen friends and colleagues fall before in combat.

“And we found another blooded sigil like the one in Dagobah,” Bakugou’s image continues.

Shouta had been expecting the news, it’s why they’re off to Hosu after all, but is still unprepared for the chill that runs down his spine, raising goosebumps on his skin. He couldn’t help but recall the voice from two days ago saying it begins again.

He shakes off the feeling. Bakugou is not yet done with his report.

“We captured three witches but I had to leave the hut behind unguarded.”

He notes how Bakugou shared the successful rescue and capture of witches with his team but took responsibility for leaving the captured hut unguarded. Shouta could hardly fault the decision, their priority would have been to bring Shoji to a healer and likely did not have the manpower to secure the hut.

“Dispatching Hosu hunters to guard it now with orders not to fucking engage in case witches have retaken it since we left. We’ll wait for you and squad, if so. Yuuei team, Shoji and Tsuyu all in Hosu shrine for now.”

The plan makes sense. If the hut has indeed been retaken, and the more experienced Yuuei hunters had stayed behind in Hosu, it would make sense to wait for daylight. Rescue of a captive is no longer an issue and more Yuuei hunters will arrive once Bakugou’s message reaches Yuuei.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Shouta feels a spark of pride for the young man he had helped mold. The short message showcased Bakugou’s strengths as a field commander.

On the presumption that Bakugou had sent just the one elemental for Yuuei - expecting Shouta to relay the information - Shouta sends the same elemental to Nezu with instructions to repeat the message. The fire elemental, the most temperamental of the lot, tries to balk but Shuzenji appeases it with some of her magic in addition to what Shouta already gave and off it goes, charmed by her healing magic, flickering in the nightscape.

Three hours later, in the early hours of the morning, they arrive in Hosu and head directly to the shrine.

Shrines used to be places where people gave thanks for a bountiful harvest or a safe childbirth or lambing. They generally have wide open spaces to accommodate harvest festivals. You give a little bow in greeting and gratitude, and you feel a warm touch on your skin, a ruffling of your hair. Maybe you’ll hear a hearty laugh. You leave a melon or a basket of apples, nothing excessive. Then you go on your way, secure in the knowledge that life grows and goes on.

At its heart, all shrines are the same. No matter how modest or opulent the structure is, how plain or lavish the grounds are, all shrines have a small room in its center, constructed from wood, with the ceiling open to the sun, sky, and rain. In the middle of the room, in a small earthenware pot, a seedling - the very symbol of the god of life and growth. These seedlings are consecrated to each shrine and have never died, never decayed, despite the two generations of silence from its master. This is how the people knew not to lose hope: the god of life and growth has disappeared but has not succumbed to the other.

Ever since the god wars, shrines all over the realm have become de facto gathering places for warriors, witch hunters and all other attendants of the god of life and growth; more military camp now than a place for thanksgiving. The shrine in Hosu is no different. The town is large enough that the shrine has built well-appointed housing for the local witch hunters and a good sized healer’s block.

The sentry on duty likely saw the Yuuei carriage approach because Shouta and his party are met by a tired-looking hunter when they disembark. Mizushima introduces himself, recognizing Shouta and Shuzenji by sight. Shouta has a vague recollection of a water manipulator - not particularly brilliant in battle but friendly, hard working and capable. A good fit for Hosu.

“We received a message from Bakugou,” Shouta says. “He says they found Tsuyu and Shoji?”

Mizushima nods, then grimaces. “Yes. They’re in the healer’s block. I will take you there now.”

Shouta, Shuzenji and a squad of five Yuuei witch hunters all follow Mizushima. Technically they don’t all need to be at the healer’s block - an escort of one for Shuzenji would have been enough - but they all know Shoji and Tsuyu, have worked with them, lived with them within Yuuei grounds. Without any standing orders, everyone wanted to see how Shoji is faring. Bakugou’s message had not been reassuring.

“Where is Bakugou?” Shouta asks.

“He was there when I last saw him not an hour ago. If he’s not, I’ll have someone find him for you,” Mizushima replies.

It turns out that Bakugou was in the healer’s block. Not by Shoji’s bedside nearer the door, as Shouta would have thought, but by Tsuyu’s farther into the room.

“I’m sure Shuzenji-san would want to go over Shoji,” says Mizushima. “I will leave you here for the moment and make sure rooms are ready for your party. In the meantime, maybe you can talk some sense into Bakugou,” he says with the same grimace as before.

Bakugou had been asleep when they came in, or at least, he had been slumped in the chair and had his eyes closed. He’s definitely awake now, running a hand over his face as he walked over.

“Sensei, I hadn’t expected you for another two hours at least. Maybe more,” Bakugou says, frowning in surprise.

“The situation is urgent,” Shouta says with a barely there shrug. “We came as soon as I heard,” he says, blatantly omitting who he first heard the news from.

Katsuki nodded at the newcomers and gave a more detailed report of what happened during the search for Shoji and Tsuyu, and their rescue after. As he talked, they kept an eye on Shuzenji as she ran diagnostic spells over Shoji.

Shuzenji finally shuffles over to them with a kindly huff.

“Shoji-kun seems to be the best he can possibly be at the moment. There is the magical exhaustion on top of all his physical injuries. They’ve put him in a healing sleep.”

“His hands?” Bakugou says, ending it like a question.

Shouta can see that the ends of both of Shoji’s arms are swathed in bandages, both notably shorter than usual.

“Shoji-kun’s magic is strong enough to give him some regenerative abilities,” Shuzenji says. “He’s one of the best self-healers I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen him regrow his left ear. That’s only cartilage though and a very small part of him. We’ll have to see if he has enough will and magic to regrow flesh and bones.”

Shouta has noticed that healers, especially the older ones, tend to develop a ‘such is life’ attitude towards injuries. As long as you’re not dead, healers count it as a win.

“But Shoji-kun cannot be why you brought me here, Aizawa-kun. He is in good hands. Are any of your team injured, Bakugou-kun?” Shuzenji asks.

Bakugou shakes his head. “Nothing the local healers couldn’t fix. But Tsuyu, they say they can’t do anything for her. They want to put her in the morgue,” he says irritably.

Shuzenji’s pale grey eyebrows rose at that and Shouta realized why Bakugou was holding vigil beside Tsuyu’s bed: to prevent well-meaning people from taking her away. He can just imagine the argument and how loud it got but Shouta has rarely seen Bakugou not get his way.

“Well, shall we go look at Tsuyu-chan then,” she says, shuffling over to the other end of the room.

They are silent as Shuzenji checks Tsuyu over through both mundane and magical means. Finally she pauses, looking down at Tsuyu in silent contemplation.

“What am I missing, Bakugou-kun?” she asks after a while.

“She’s not dead, Shuzenji sensei. I know what she seems like, I checked her myself. But she’s not dead. We found her, what, six hours ago? She should be fucking rigid but she’s not,” Bakugou says.

He hesitates, uncertain. “Can’t you see it?”

“See what, Bakugou-kun?”

“She’s bright with life. She’s not dead, not decaying. She’s just not growing. So she’s in this sort of… fucking limbo where she’s only half of herself. Alive but not growing.”

“Life and growth,” she says softly.

Shouta meets her wise, old eyes. He has to believe that Bakugou is right, that Tsuyu is not really dead. Otherwise, why would the voice tell him they need Shuzenji here.

She goes back to examining Tsuyu.

“She’s unnaturally cold,” she admits begrudgingly. “Even for a dead body.”

“I could have spelled her to warm up,” says Bakugou, “like I did with Shoji, but I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her and didn’t want to mess up any spell she could be on.”

“Shoji was also cold?” she asks.

“Yes. They were fucking freezing when we found them. Beyond shivering. Blue lips, the works. Tsuyu was like that and Shoji unconscious. He was dazed when he woke up, confused. We couldn’t get anything from him.”

Shuzenji gives a considering nod. “I think I will run some more tests.” She taps her cane on the floor, once. “Go on, go away. Go sleep, all of you. You have a raid in a few hours. I’ll send for you when anything changes.”

“No raid,” Bakugou says, “the Hosu team reported that the hut’s still empty when they got there so they put up defenses and holed themselves tight. They will already start cleansing but I gave strict instructions to leave the blooded sigil alone and wait for Aizawa sensei.”

“Well, go sleep anyway.”

Bakugou hesitated and Shuzenji waved him away. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them take Tsuyu-chan. I’ll be here running spells on her.”

As Bakugou nods, Shouta can see the exhaustion in his well-built frame. He recalls that Bakugou had been in two raids in two days. It’s a wonder the witch hunter is still on his feet.

Without asking for permission or confirmation from Shouta, technically the ranking authority in the group, Bakugou directed one of the witch hunters to stay in the infirmary with Shuzenji as escort with instructions to ‘make sure she gets everything she needs and don’t let the nosy fuckers take Tsuyu away.’

Leaving the room they find a guard waiting for them in the hall. The woman bows politely and offers to conduct them to their rooms for the night.

“Day breaks in three hours,” Bakugou says. “We weren’t sure what time you would arrive but the team would all be up by then. We can leave within half an hour, takes another hour to get to the hut. Unless you need more time to prepare?”

Shouta considers the question. Unmaking the sigil required a massive amount of magic. Like Bakugou, this is also his second sigil to break in as many days. And he just spent the last five hours travelling.

“You say the hut is secure?”

Bakugou nods. “We have a team there now. Hosu hunters. I’m not familiar with the area. Was worried there’s another coven nearby and they’d try to move in but,” he shrugs, “they didn’t. Three witches in the hut and they were all fucking bit players. Nothing like the crazy strong witch in Dagobah.”

Shouta hesitates.

“There is no need to go by day break,” he finally says. “Early morning should be enough. A few more hours of sleep would do us more good than finishing early. We can leave on the eighth hour mark.”

Bakugou gives a quick nod and has a brief talk with their escort, leaving instructions to have messages left for his team about the new plan for the morning. They reach the rooms in short order and their escort bows politely before retreating. The other hunters all turn in, leaving Shouta with Bakugou in the hallway.

“If this stupid sigil is gonna keep popping in my raids, sensei, you gotta tell me how to counter it. What does it do?”

Shouta was ten and eight years when he first met Sorahiko.

Sorahiko had been old by then, well into his seventy years and ancient to Shouta’s young eyes. He was a reclusive man but his name was known in certain circles, sometimes whispered in awe, sometimes in disbelief.

He was the last man still alive to have seen All Might before the god of life and growth disappeared.

In Shouta’s last year in Yuuei, Sorahiko visited the school, ostensibly to observe their training. The man’s frame was shortened by age and was cranky as any other old man Shouta has ever encountered. He played to being confused, forgetful, an act that fooled Shouta and his fellow yearmates, until he met him up close and saw the crafty intelligence hiding behind wizened grey eyes.

Six months later, Sorahiko offered an apprenticeship to Shouta.

Shouta looks at one of the best students he has ever had the pleasure of teaching. Hot headed, stubborn to a fault, and terrible with making pleasantries. But he burns with a passion for their chosen god that Shouta has only ever seen in another person. And the same god has thrown Shouta in his path twice now.

“Bakugou, are you familiar with the loremaster called Gran Torino?”

Some things are not in his hands. You follow the path you are led to.