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A bath warmed by hellfire couldn’t take the chill out of Katuski’s bones. He’s buried in his old cloak of furs and a tunic he hasn’t worn in years, yet his fingers still tremble and his magic responds sluggishly in his blood.  If he’d known this village would freeze over so thoroughly, he would have chosen a different town to hole up in for the coming winter. He’d wished someone at the guild would have told him how close the town of Hind’s Landing rested to the Chord. That sleepy-eyed bastard, at least, should have given him a fucking warning. Monoma’s working up there on contract. If anything goes south, because it will, with you there, at least he’ll be nearby to arrest you, Bakugou. 

To be painfully honest, the cells would be warmer than a camp covered in snow, but the idea of even looking at that copy-cat bastard makes Katsuki want to set himself on fire.  At least he’d be warmer that way. 

Gods, he hates the fucking snow. Through the encroaching snow storm, the mountain’s bleak-faced cliff-sides, black as coal with dragon glass and dark, waxy evergreens were barely visible. He’d already thrown himself into that mess once today to hunt the town’s rampaging ‘beast’ and made no plans to do so again, not when his magic’s dropping with every second wasted in this gods-forsaken temperature.

The beast he’s hunted, claimed to be a ferocious deer who’s killed at least three people in the past week, lays slung across his shoulders. The sheer size of it would stagger a normal man, but, well, he was Bakugou Katsuki, and he wasn’t a normal man.

 One might think, it’s just a deer. Hunt it. How ferocious can they be?

One would be mistaken to hunt this one thinking it was just a deer. That might have excused the hunter who’d come before him for his ill-fated demise, but then again, Katsuki’s of the mind that if you’re going to do a job, you do it right, prep work and all. 

The deer he’s hauled to the Warden’s Station on the edge of the town collapses into the dirt with a solid thud and the guards tentatively poke it with the end of their halberds, but Katsuki knows it’s not the deer they’re sizing up for danger. Their posture reads more to him than their eyes, how all of their bodies have turned to face him while they inspect what he’s brought.

“Pay me,” Katsuki growls, hand outstretched for coin he’s absolutely due. 

One of the men grunts and comes forward, distrust in his face. “One big bad nova went out and brought back a normal deer and asks for payment. You’ve got to be mad if you think I’m going to pay you for this.”

Katsuki’s eye twitches at the name, but he doesn’t say anything. Remember, they’re beneath you.

He kicks the ‘deer’ and with a flash of power, the glamour releases. Where once it had ashen fur and short, curled antlers now sat a crown of sapphire horns and streaks of blue gemstone, very much like the ore veins lining the underground of the Chord. They trace through its body and pulse with a dark power that curls at the air like rancid eggs. The guards reel back in an instant, and Katsuki’s power pushes out to defend against it.

“You’d think you’d fucking know what a keryne looks like since your town’s named after them. It’s a fucking hind, alright.” He digs the heel of his boot into a glowing vein, and the air pops from the clash of magic; his natural, overflowing aura and the poor thing’s tainted reserves still violent even in death. “Just a fae hind. Don’t know what fucked it up, or why, but that wasn’t the job. Now pay me so I can get out of this fucking weather.“

The guards begrudgingly share a look between each other and the dead creature, and the captain unwillingly passes over the reward. Katsuki doesn’t bother counting it —it was an extra job accepted out of boredom, not necessity. He'd just wanted his dues.

When Katsuki makes to re-enter the town, passing the warded walls and beneath an enchanted iron gate, a guard calls out in a panicked voice, “Hey, wait! What are we supposed to do with the body of a fae like this?”

Katsuki doesn’t turn around, but he does hold his hand out. He snaps his fingers. The sound slices through the snowy air, and a whisk of power lashes out from Katsuki’s body and strikes at the corpse and sends all the protective barriers near the gate ringing in protest. In an instant, the fae catches fire, the swell of corruption once heavy in the air now smothered by a stronger, more powerful threat. 

“You burn it.”

 

~*~*~*~

 

There are a few laws in place to protect people from novas like him. When you’re a walking natural disaster, it tends to put a damper on how people see you. What people’s opinions on how much trouble it's really worth keeping you alive to solve their problems, and boy did the people in the empire have fuckin’ problems to solve. 

The first law is to announce yourself to the guard or the Wardens upon arrival to any settlement or town organized enough to have a defense, even if, like Katsuki, you’ve been certified to be one of them. Imperially funded baby-sitters is what the wardens are, tasked with keeping watch on magical monsters like him. He’s rogue, so no little piss baby like Monoma follows him around holding his hand, which can make his life hell sometimes, if he’s being honest. Towns can turn a nova  out on the grounds of their very existence, but when a warden is in tow they usually give that a second look. Katsuki’s been lucky so far with Hind’s Landing; their need for his power has vastly outweighed their fear of it, so far, but the townspeople still give him a wide berth as he walks their streets and hiss at him as they pass. Even if he hadn't announced himself, which would have landed him in pretty serious trouble if they'd figured it out later, he's identified by the red sash at his waist. Red, strong in flame and weak to ice.

Law number two made it illegal for people to serve alcohol to novas, or for novas to purchase it. Katsuki's never personally cared about this one. He'd rather not get intoxicated and lose control of his magic as it was hard enough not burning the forest down when he let his temper outpace his patience. He couldn't even begin to imagine the devastation a relaxed version of himself was capable of dishing out. It did make it difficult to find a place to sleep at night when usually the smaller towns, like Hind's Landing, had their inn and their pub consolidated into one building.

The barkeep has made sure to set him at a table where they not only could see any move he makes, but also keeps him close to the cold wind draft that blew in every time the door opened. He’s cold and weakened, as planned. You know, just in case.

That kind of pisses him off, but what can he do? He'd rather put up with this bullshit than sleep out there. And if he wants to stay till spring, he'll need to be on his best behavior. As best he could manage. So he sits in the corner, tears into his salted meat and bread, and tries to unwind. 

Katsuki should have sensed it on the way in if anything local was corrupted to hell and back like that deer, but the ice dulled his senses in strange, unpredictable ways. Unlike real people the fae come out of the woodwork, literally, to meet him. Usually, they try to talk to him, trick him out of his power, or eat him, but he'd only really noticed too late how quiet the woods are around the town. That corruption was something that could occur naturally in the fae over time, but at the same time it'd be spreading around into the other creatures, the undergrowth. One little dark magic machine is… weird.

Katsuki looks down to his chest and hooks a finger into the dip of his collar. The damn thing had been fierce too. He's mostly healed up, but there's a single stinging cut that rakes across his chest from a near miss. He'd usually not fuck around wasting his energy healing in this weather, where the heat was non-existent and had to be provided from within, but he didn't want to chance getting royally fucked over with whatever magical disease that thing was carrying.  

He realizes his mistake when suddenly a pair of wide eyes appear at the edge of his table, barely tall enough to reach over it. Someone's kid has inched closer, bold for a brat, dressed in rough, threadbare clothing. Katsuki shifts back in his seat and shoves as much growl in his voice as he can manage feeling this tired. 

"Can I help you?" He asks, in a way that clearly suggests that he's not fucking interested.

The kids eyes flicker from his hand, still holding the shirt open to Katsuki's red eyes and back again. "Can I see it?"

Katsuki's eyebrows disappear into his bangs. He looks around for this kid's parents, but no one seems to be coming up to claim him. Even the bartender seems uninterested in the exchange.

"You're the nova, right?" The kid whispers conspiratorially. "Let me see the mark."

Katsuki grunts and sizes him up. It's not like it really fucking matters or anything, because anyone can see his bright red sash amidst all this darkness. He slides his hand over and pulls down the other side of his shirt, exposing the skin over his heart. Dark skin stretches over his chest and shoulders in shimmering, inky lines, reminiscent of water and large jagged stones curling over his collarbone. 

The child’s eyes widen, mouth pressed to the edge of the table as he eyes the design. Then he quickly glances to the left and right and, upon seeing that no one was paying him any attention, drags his own collar to the side. The shirt barely fit his frame to begin with, so it isn’t hard for Katsuki to see that he’s got a small mark of his own, black and curled over his heart in the form of a dog, or wolf perhaps, teeth bared and sharp. 

 Katsuki grimaces for the briefest of moments, the boy’s light scars suddenly all the more noticeable. Scores of teeth mark across his arms and throat, newly healed and soon to fade as soon as the kid comes into his power.

“Don’t go showin’ that off to just anyone, not even novas,” Katsuki flicks the kids forehead, hard, and the boy stumbles back a bit. There’s a faint smile on his face, though, and Katsuki wonders if he really understands what he means. “Not all of us are nice. I’m not.”

“You seem pretty nice to me,” the kid states, rubbing his forehead.

“I’m not. Now, get lost, brat. I’m trying to eat in peace.”

“Oh, yeah! Wait,” the kid places something tiny on the table in front of Katsuki, small hand barely covering the edges of a pair of dark blue dice. Katsuki sits forward when he sees them, a little magic popping out defensively and sending every candle in the tavern three inches taller for the span of a breath. Now, suddenly, every pair of eyes in the room narrows in on their little conversation, distrust thick in the air.

“The man outside wanted me to give these to you.”

“Yeah?” Katsuki licks his lips and palms the dice, running over the golden marks with the edge of his thumb. “He still out there?”

“Beats me.” the kid says with a shrug. Then he waves and heads toward the bar, where the barkeep is tentatively holding out a piece of bread for him. Katsuki doesn’t care or anything, but he hopes that they leave the kid alone and don’t go looking into why he might have been talking with a nova. If they did, free bread would disappear faster than a match in a snowstorm. 

Katsuki waits a few more minutes eyeing the dice, his stomach churning as the cubes click and clack against each other in his palm. Then, he steps outside. 

The town is drowsy at this time at night. Already the storm he’d seen earlier that day lingers at the edge of the settlement. The sky is darker than it should be, and the moment he hears the crunching of ice beneath his boots Katsuki is tightening his cloaks. The ground is slick and black, and only the flickering glow of the tavern sconce lights the road, the moon entombed behind layers of storm. He can’t see them, but he feels the fae scattering.

Katsuki opens up his magic, his heart shuddering as his power brushes up against another within the city walls. There’s the small one, from before, gentle and flighty and new. And then there’s something older, familiar, and angry. The same as him, weakened but no less dangerous than ever, waiting for him in the narrow space between the tavern and the bookstore next door. The light in the alleyway is pale and cold, a blue will-o-wisp lazily circling the space beside the man’s face, his uninterested gaze following its drifting while he waits. His long torn overcoat makes his form nearly indistinguishable from the shadows even with the blue light brightening his pale, warped skin, and the sight of those burned patches makes Katsuki’s skin shiver in a gross way. He’s long since abandoned the sash he’s supposed to wear to identify himself to the masses.

“Started to think I’d have to go in to get you myself.” Dabi hums low, but doesn’t take his eyes from his own fire. He’s been at this magic thing for so long now his fire seems sentient and separate from his own will, and Katsuki doesn’t doubt that it could be. The thought is terrifying in its own way, but sometimes, late at night when he can hear the sylphs playing between the branches above his campfire, he wonders if his own power will ever become like that.  Most days, thoughts of power consume Katsuki. How to get it, use it, control it, build it. 

It’s what has made him so irresistible to these guys in the first place. He’d thought maybe going out to the fucking boons at Shinsou’s suggestion would help his trail disappear with the roads under the blankets of winter. That they’d give up already if he was further away from the capitol. 

Katsuki blasts the dice at Dabi’s face. The cremated fucker snatches them out of the air with nothing more than inhuman speed and an unamused sigh.

“I came all this way, and that’s how you greet me? Cold, from a brother.” Dabi’s voice curls like smoke in the tight air.

“I’m not your fuckin’ brother.” Katsuki hisses, stance widening to mirror Dabi’s as the man leans forward from his place on the wall. He’s not a big man, almost wiry and gaunt, but his aura is enough to congest the air and fill Katsuki’s head with thoughts of wildfires. He’s only ever felt remotely threatened by his own nature when around this guy, and that’s one reason why he’d taken off. He’s not one for running away, but he knows a dangerous crowd when he sees it. “I already told you guys I’m not fuckin’ interested. I’m not joining your League. Move on to the next poor nova sap already.” 

"You sure?" Dabi asks, leaning back against the wall, posture casual.  Almost like Katsuki didn't just throw his offer right back in his gods-damned face —literally.  His smirk is unsettling. It pulls at the burned and stretched skin of his face until Katsuki is cringing out of mere disgust. His scowl hardly deters the other nova. He just looks at the dice in his hand and continues, "You know, we've been tracking a few other candidates. See, we nova...we're almost too aware of each other. You know that, so you tried putting distance between us."

"Why're you wasting my time telling me shit I already know?"

Dabi smiles. It's eerie and bold and sets him on edge. It only grows when his magic bristles beneath his skin, warm against the onslaught of the bitter night and defensive against the heat of the nova standing there beside him. It’s as if he’s not even aware of the blizzard approaching, like he’s standing in the capitol’s deepest summer when the white of the sun bleaches the leaves.  His lips stretch until his teeth are blinding against the dark burns marring his face. 

A single laugh falls from his lips, drowned out by a deafening surge of magic through the town. Katsuki hears the panic of guards rushing toward their combined power swell, and all the breath leave him at once. 

"No," Katsuki breathes, swallowed by another pulse of magic barreling through them. " No," he growls and reaches out to grasp Dabi by the collar of his old, torn cloak and add a few marks of his own to the scars littered there. Dabi doesn’t seem to mind, just smiling and watching, his hand outstretched towards the tavern wall. Katsuki’s grip has pulled open his coat and torn at the thin white tunic, revealing a solid chest pocketed with more patchy skin and a blistering tattoo pulsing white hot over his heart. 

"You made your choice," Dabi says, amusement thick in his voice, "for all of them."

That’s when Katsuki hears her, a small rush of giggles and air, just before the knife is carving into his side. He jerks away on instinct, only barely missing a fatal gut check, but the blade slices through his abdomen like butter anyway, supplemented by the girl’s razoring wind. He groans, releasing Dabi in an instant to grip his side as he staggers down to one knee. 

“Awww, I missed.” Toga boos quietly, dancing out of Katsuki’s reach when he cuts the air with a heated palm. She’s pulled out of his reach to stand behind this crazy fucker, eyes shaped like scythes and tapping her bloodied knife against her cheek.  

“It’s fine this way. More fun to watch.” Dabi answers. 

Katsuki snaps his head back and stares in helpless horror as a third pulse of heat trembles throughout the town, Dabi the epicenter, and the tavern, brick and all, is devoured by an inferno of blue hellfire. The force of it burns his eyes, fills his lungs with curdled air, and gives him a small taste of what he otherwise would be using to heal. Dabi’s warped cruelty only presses searing heat into the wound like a second knife. 

“What—” He gasps as another jolt of pain racks him, and Dabi lowers his hand, watching once more with that disinterested look. As if this fire, too, destroyed with a mind of its own. “What have you done?”

He knows what he’s done, because he can hear the screaming. Their voices reverberate through the stone, through the night, down into Katsuki’s chest where he quickly tries to shut them out. The face of the little boy flashes through his mind just as that fleeting, airy magic of his fades out with the thermal pulses. Something inside of Katsuki shatters along with the glass-paned windows, which only makes the smell and sound of hell all the more apparent.

The third law for novas is to never, ever, harm the defenseless. 

"What a waste of magic." Dabi straightens out the collar of his overcoat, all at once as bored and lifeless as he was before, and opens his cloak just enough for Toga to slip inside. “You’re siding with people who would rather chain you up and smother your power, so. Let them.”

Toga blows a kiss at him from within Dabi’s cloak, her magic making them both as invisible as the wind. “Bye-bye, Mr. Nova.”

They’re completely out of view when the guards arrive, and Katsuki crouches in the frozen slush with his blood freezing before it even hits the ground. Around him the storm, and the city, come to life, the sky burning blue. He hears shouting, disgust and pain from onlookers, and he knows he has to move.

They’re not even going to question if it was him. He’s got to move, now. But, where? Where could he fucking go? They’d chase him down like that kyrene he’d hunted this morning.

Giving up wasn’t an option. He's got to move before they get the wardens involved. Put as much distance between himself and them. If he was caught they'd try him and kill him, undeniably, and Katsuki wasn't going to lay down and let it happen. In the city he's a mouse in a maze, time ticking away until the moment he's caught in a dead end. Too tight, too much destruction if he tries to defend himself. They might all be rat bastards, but Katsuki isn't the monster they thought he was and he wouldn't give them extra ammunition.

But out there in that cold…

Well, he'll have to take his chances. The Chord isn’t somewhere anyone wanted to be in the middle of a blizzard, and that included the wardens. If he can find shelter first, he’ll lose them. 

 Katsuki heats up his hands and grits his teeth, pressing his palm harshly against the wound, choking down on the pain with the mantra of shut up, it's nothing, it's nothing playing over and over until the wound is mostly closed. That’s when the guards catch sight of him in the back alley. 

"The nova is here!" 

Katsuki runs.

Katsuki tears off through the street, his eyes on the city walls as he whips past home after home, light pouring out into the streets as the city awakens to the rising wails of mourning people. The metallic clang of swords scrapes behind him as he's chased.

He rounds a corner. Above him cloth banisters billow between the buildings, and in a moment of brilliance his fire snaps the chords holding them up. The tapestries sink down behind him, and a chorus of yelps follow as his pursuers disappear beneath a wave of heavy rugs. A small chirrup of victory rises in his throat.

Katsuki boosts himself up the side of a building, his breath steaming from his mouth in heavy white clouds. It's a bit of a jump to the edge of the wall and he slams down heavily, jostling the fresh wound with the impact.

"Fuck!" he hisses, scrambling back up to his feet. His whole right side is sticky with red, cold and crystallizing despite the impromptu treatment. On either side of the rampart a guard approaches him from each side. Fuck.

A sword sings through the air towards his face and he strafes to the right, driving his elbow deep into the other guards gut. He plants his heel, twists, and brings a kick up. The first guard grunts in surprise, and Katsuki can see how his eyes are too slow to follow him, as he’s forced to defend with his sword arm and Katsuki’s boot sends him flying. Hands paw at him from behind, clutch at his furs and pull him back towards the edge of the wall. He snarls, grips the hands on him and yanks with all of his strength till another guard is thrown over his shoulder, and smashes heavily into the ridged parapet. The stone cracks from the force, and the man’s armor whines from impact.

A whistle through the air has Katsuki moving before he’s thinking but the arrow still finds him, piercing his back, deep, through cloak and tunic. Wounds tend to burn and radiate, but this pain was singular, the pain so concentrated and cold Katsuki can barely move his shoulder blade. 

He’s been hit by an arrow like this before.  

Fuck, he’d forgotten about him. 

He whips around, looks frantically, and spies Monoma on a nearby balcony, blond hair whipping in the wind. His eyes glow faintly in the dark as he lowers his bow, an arrow of black ice extending from his fingers with wicked artistry. Below him in the streets the guards scramble to regroup and climb the wall. Katsuki swears. 

“You stupid copy cat motherfucker. Really? You fuckin’ shot me?” 

Monoma waves a hand around then, incredulous. “You’ve got a lot of nerve right now calling me names, Bakugou. We’re not in school anymore. Look around you.”

Bakugou does, if only to assess where next he could move, judge the drop from the parapet down to the ground, eyeball the time between the guards reaching him and the time it’ll take to disappear. If it had been that sleepy-eyed motherfucker instead of Monoma, Katsuki might have been able to talk his way out of this. Shinsou would have found a way to miss, or spin Katsuki’s escape as a failure, shrugging it off with an unnerving smile. Monoma, however, probably took joy in bringing Katsuki down a peg. They’d never exactly seen eye to eye on anything except for their mutual like for Shinsou and distaste of each other. Still, Katsuki’d thought he’d earned a little credit.

“You know I wouldn’t do this.” Bakugou spits, and as a guard tries to crawl up onto the walkway, he kicks out and connects with his helmet. The guard goes falling down onto a pile of abandoned rugs. 

“Doesn’t change my job, does it.” Monoma sighs, waving one hand in the air. “Besides, if I let you go that’ll look bad on all the upstanding novas in the city now who have to deal with this. Every time one of you get into something, it looks bad for all of you.” Then his eyes suddenly go dark, his smile still present, but grim with something like anger. “Shinsou’s going to get so much shit for this. He’s always paying for your mistakes.”

“I don’t make mistakes, bitch.”

“Unbelievable.” Monoma notches another arrow. 

Katsuki steps back until he feels the parapet against the back of his thighs. The cold from the first arrow seeps into his bones. The chill spreads through his spine, sapping at his magic, but if he melts it he’ll bleed out before he hits the ground. 

“Don’t you dare,” Monoma warns. "You'll die out there in that storm."

“Rather that than let them kill me for something I didn’t do.” Katsuki licks his chapped lips, turns, and leaps from the wall. 

The ground rushes up to meet him, the snow blooming around him as he lands. Behind him, Monoma curses and barks orders on the other side of the wall.

Katsuki disappears into the treeline, the red of his sash blazing against the black trees of the forest and the crystalline snow. He keeps one hand on his wound--uses just enough magic to keep it cauterized as his movements tear it open every so often while he forces through the pain and up the steep slopes deeper into the mountains.  

Monoma is a persistent bastard, if nothing else, and Katsuki is well aware he won't waste time sending forces after him.  Maybe a small, water-magicked group of guards to hunt him like an animal. It's a short window to disappear, and with every step feeling like another arrow driving into his spine, it grows shorter with every second.  

It doesn't help that he has to still jump over obstacles. There are branches lain on the ground from the heavy snows, some of them catching on his ankles as he treads through deep paths, impeding his rhythm. His hands are cold from catching himself with clumps of snow; his face feels numb from the biting wind cutting across his cheeks with each attempted run. Limbs catch him with splinters beneath his nails and scratches along any exposed skin open to the elements.

His magic comes in spurts to keep out the cold, but it's not enough. With every use a toll is exacted where his core grows colder, puts him in a very dangerous state.  He hurts. He aches. His fingernails have turned blue. He wants to be somewhere warm, somewhere nice and safe. Somewhere he can sit and heal and know no one is right there, waiting to catch him the moment he lets his guard down and allows some weakness to show.

Not that he has much of a choice, when his next step catches on a stone hidden beneath the blankets of white and his body goes crumbling to its knees. He tries to push up but his limbs refuse. The cold is stifling to any power strong in his limbs, makes him want to give up. To just face-plant and hope the bitter snow takes him before his pursuers get a chance to put him in chains. For a crime he didn't commit.  

But it's too late. He can already hear the crunch of snow under feet. Each step approaches with a slowed heartbeat, pounding through him with a will to get up and race away. To stand and fight.  

Monoma's not one of the nova but his power is enough that Katsuki knows when he's close. The blizzard moves to accommodate him while the sleet turns to needles that slice across Katsuki's face. To a smaller degree, Monoma can feel him, probably knows just how weak he is. Katsuki burns at the thought.

The low notes of an animal's call lift in the air nearby. Close. Too close.

He pulls himself up to his knees and sits in the cold-ass snow. Shivers tremble violently through his limbs and his teeth chatter ineffectually.  Every nerve crackles beneath his skin and physically pulses through him in agony. He can't even snarl when three white-faced foxes approach him from the edge of the clearing, his red eyes lifting to glare. They're nothing ordinary, their fur whipping through the air like smoke-eels, winding through the trees on the path they'd taken to reach him. Shards of ice stick out of their bodies through the veins that earlier today on the kyrene had been so blackened.

Fae.

He barely thinks about what he's doing as he holds a hand out to one. It cocks its head, the movement joined by the eerie noises of ghouls laughing, of the warble of ice breaking apart from below in the deep.

"You want it, right?" 

They know what he's talking about even if he doesn't say it.

"Lead me somewhere safe, and I'll give it to you." He promises, because anything said to the fae is a binding agreement. 

He doesn't know if they've agreed, but the flickering lights of torches appear over the crest of the hill, and all the time Katsuki has to think about it is gone. He rises and keeps going, urging the fire inside to stretch to his finger tips and chase out everything but the single-minded desire to survive.

"Bakugou!" Monoma's voice is torn apart by the wind. He keeps moving forward.

It's only a few more paces until he's sliding below a fallen log, and one of the foxes crosses his path with the lingering trail of smoke. It makes eye contact for a moment before it's body flickers out into the storm's frenzy. 

Katsuki follows blindly. He doesn't have any other choice if Monoma's going to follow him this far in. Fuck, he'd really banked on them giving up. This cold would kill anyone less than Katsuki. It was damn near ready to kill him.

Trees blur past, blood in his ears. Everything around is white and slanted as he climbs, presses between boulders and sees the mesmerizing orange of approaching torchlight. He stumbles, he thinks, because he's gotten woozy and he can't tell which way is up as a fox blows through him from behind. They're cold, wicked winds, and he slides down a bank to the edge of a ravine. The cliff-side sinks below as he skids to the edge. There's got to be a good thirty paces between the end of where he's standing and the rising face of the rest of the mountain. Even if he could make that jump, unlikely with his low power reserves, his hands wouldn't catch on the coat of ice flowing over the crags.

Pain erupts over his back, and he howls, sinking down as another arrow burrows deep. His breathing is labored, and his mind is uncomfortably blank as he faces his hunters, save for one treacherous thought. 

The fae usually like to trick him, or try to eat him. Now, those narrow faced creatures were nowhere to be seen, except for in the ephemeral trails of smoke weaving in and out of the clearing. 

"How the fuck is he still standing?"

"Careful, he's really wounded. Never know what he'll do."

"Fucking monster."

Imperial guards inch closer, movements jittery and tight, with Monoma just center of Katsuki. Unlike the rest of them, he's untouched by the snow. He'll, he even looks warm, his fur-lined hood sewn with small fire stones. They stare at each other, and Katsuki does his best to keep himself off his knees. The fae, tricksters that they were, were one thing but Katsuki'd rather die than fucking drop in front of Monoma of all people. 

"Don't fight anymore," Monoma warns, almost gently. He almost looks imploring, of all things. Katsuki snorts. Behind him the heel of his boot catches on empty air, snow and stone scraping over coal-black earth on the way down into darkness. "Let me take you in."

If they wanted to hunt a monster, they'd have to work for it.

Katsuki spreads his stance, and even that small action has the world spinning around him. Fuck Monoma, fuck this, dying like a dog in a backwoods fuckin’ snowbank.

"You know," Monoma tries again, but Katsuki can barely hear him over the howling of the wind groaning through the canyon behind him. "Shinsou and I always argued over which one of us would finally smother that smug face of yours in your sleep. He's going to be pissed I took it from him."

He's cracking a joke but there's absolutely no enjoyment in his face as he arms his bow. 

"Then take your fuckin' shot." 

Monoma grits his teeth and pulls his arm back.

Then, his eyes widen, and his arm lowers. His group also goes frighteningly still, and Katsuki whips his head back and forth between them.

"What the fuck! If you're going to hunt me, do your gods damn job!" He snarls and steps for them, but the effort ends with him nearly on his knees, clutching his side. 

"Monster ," he thinks he hears, but it's hard to know anything except the hammering of his heart.

"Yeah! What's fucking new!" He roars. “ Come at me!

The guards turn tail and practically kill themselves stumbling over each other to get away from him. Monoma steps back, stammering, his arrow dropping from his fingers. His throat goes tight, and Katsuki realizes with a sudden jolt of clarity, that the warden's not looking at him. He's looking past him.

Katsuki whips around, and is face to face with hell made alive. A beast of obsidian and fire clings to the cliff-side, massive claws carving into ice and snow like nothing, like wet clay. Jagged, misshapen scales jut out from its body and glow from beneath with a blisteringly white heat, thin translucent wings outstretched and shielding the clearing from the storm. Its horns are curved around its face in spirals of blown glass, luminescent with heat and fury.

Katsuki steps back as its jaws widen just enough to show that the inside of its mouth glitters with the same infernal light that fuels its eyes, its body.

He feels the first wave of heat smack him, and unthinkingly breathes out, " Oh. "

Then, Katsuki's light fades, and he crumples into the snow.

Chapter Text

Above him, the night sky is a disaster, stars spilling out and streaking across the blackness like they've been tossed from a glass. Katsuki clings to them, to the way they trail across the sky in long, dizzying lines as if to guide him somewhere. Is he moving in the same direction? It's hard to tell; his head is too heavy to keep up on his own, and something smooth and warm, deliciously warm, slides beneath his cheek. His full weight rests upon something large, burning up his front, and it rolls beneath him as he gradually becomes more aware.

Katsuki tries to push back, really, but his body doesn't respond. A dull, encompassing pain throbs throughout his body, leaving his muscles beyond sore. But he must make some effort to move, because someone's saying, "Not yet," in his ear, and whatever is carrying him has slowed a moment to readjust how Katsuki's body is leaning too far one way.

He mumbles something in response, but Katsuki is more than content to not think about it anymore, curling in closer to that warmth and let it seep into his soul. After a moment, the stars are blurring again against a royal blue night, and the last thing he thinks he knows is the red glow of eyes and the distant humming of a voice.

 

~*~*~*~

 

"C'mon, honey, I need you to look at me one more time, okay?"

This soft voice has been ordering him around for the past… hour? Day? Week? Katsuki doesn't know. He's been sinking in and out of an inky consciousness for who knows how long, and the sensation of a warm set of hands dragging across his wounded body has him simultaneously compliant and baring his teeth in protest. He's fighting a fever, that much he knows. It's the only kind of ailment that really breaks him, makes him sweat and truly fucks with him. You can’t fight a fever with your fists, can’t burn it away with magic. The constant discomfort makes him feel out of his mind with vulnerability, like now, where even if he wants to pull away and protect himself Katsuki can barely grasp hold of his own thoughts long enough to make a decision left or right. 

 There are times when he thinks he can focus long enough to bear through this insufferable affliction, between nausea and dizziness, where he realizes he's somewhere shielded from the cold. An oil lamp resides beside them and casts a warm glow over the tent’s loose canvas. Silken sheets are gentle across his pains, but there are no weapons in sight for him to grasp. Probably a good thing, in this state. 

Someone's tilting his face towards theirs and presses something cool to his forehead. It's blissful, and he stops resisting in favor of leaning forward to chase the sensation.

"There we go." She murmurs, thumb drawing over his cheek. The coolness helps him narrow in on his thoughts, let's him see her without a haze of deliriousness.

He knows her, always has. She's as pretty as she's always been, but her hair’s a bit longer and her eyes have lost some of their roundness. They've only gotten more brown since the last time they’d met on the banks of the Sleepless River, though none less fond and exasperated than every other time she’s patched him up. He breathes out a sigh of relief.

"Ochako?" Was that his voice? Slurred like a drunk, his tongue is heavy and dry in his throat. "Where did I… How did you—"

"Shh." Ochako pushes his sticky bangs back from his face, and he follows the movement like a touch-starved dog. "I've got you, okay? You can get pissed about it when you get better, but right now you need to rest."

“Mm,” is all he manages before she’s pressing him down into the pillows. He closes his eyes and a second later he’s drifting back into his fugue state. A deeper voice that is most definitely not Ochako is asking her something about the heat of the room, and vaguely he realizes that they’re not alone. He’s not sure what they’re saying anymore, but he does feel the room heat up significantly just before he blacks out again.

The next time he wakes, Katsuki’s a lot more coherent. It’s night, and the oil lamp is dead. The sun has yet to wake so the tent is in half darkness though the moon outside still reaches through the canvas in a faint blue glow. He groans a little and stirs, only realizing moments later that Ochako is pressed flush to his uninjured side beneath the sheets. She’s clingy, but noticeably less of an octopus than her usual amount on account of the numerous cuts she’s patched up. She still burns like a furnace, and for that he’s always been thankful. That’s probably why she’s let herself into the bed. He’ll heal faster with her near him, in theory.

He relaxes, and she responds by pressing her forehead to his shoulder. She doesn’t wake and instead mumbles something about honey-cakes. 

A shuffle of movement catches his eye. At the open folds of the tent’s entrance, the one place that lets a gentle draft of cold wander in, red scales shutter and settle like a bird ruffling its feathers. Katsuki sees the rigid spine and the muted glow of banked coals lighting those scales from beneath, but it’s clear from the way that the beast is curled that it too is trying to sleep, a massive muzzle resting over dangerous talons. Most of its bulk covers the entrance while its tail, also long and spiked, snakes inside the tent. The tail also emits a faint red light, and Katsuki figures that’s where all the extra heat is coming from.

Since when did Ochako have a fucking dragon

Dear gods

It’s all coming back to him now. His near death in the foothills of the Chord, the shots of ice to his spine, coming face to face with a demon. It couldn’t be that the beast he’d seen right before passing out was that very same creature, curled up like a lazy cat? A fucking dragon acting as tamed beast outside of a priestess's tent, playing fetch-a-friend like some trained dog?

In its sleep the dragon yawns, and Katsuki stops breathing as all of those sharp, vicious teeth, backlit by a glowing tongue, snap shut with a loud whoosh of smoke.

That looks like Future Katsuki’s problem.

 Too weary to address that a literal dragon slept twenty feet away, partially convinced this is all a fever dream, Katsuki tosses his head back into his pillows and succumbs to sleep again. 

When he wakes up next the sun is a little higher in the sky, and the dragon is gone. The tent is significantly colder in its absence and Ochako has also pulled away from him. He finds her out of reach sitting on a pile of cushions struggling to tie the laces at the back of her vestal garments, which spans the length of her spine. 

“You still haven’t learned to get dressed without help?” He croaks, and she startles, turning to give him one of her signature pouts. “I don’t know how many times I gotta tell you, Angel Face, if you can’t dress yourself don’t fuckin’ wear it.”

“I have to look good, Katsuki, I lead people.” She crawls forward and sits at the edge of the mattress, the front of her dress not quite in place with the back not fully done up. It covers most of her assets but it does give him a tantalizing and scandalous view of her collarbone. “So shut up already. If your arms are working, maybe help me out instead of making fun of me.”

He bites his lip, then tries to sit up. She watches him, her cheek to shoulder, as he gingerly comes to a sitting position. The movement is stiff, and it’s only now that he realizes she’s bothered to stitch his knife wound closed. 

“I thought I burned that.” He says bluntly, breathless with the effort.

“You did,” She deadpans. “But you didn’t clean out the curse, and it was poisonous as hell. You stopped the bleeding but you sealed it all in, so I had to...you know, open it again. It was a bitch and a half to pull out.” She nods to a glass vial sitting close to the dead oil lamp he’d missed in the dark, where the remnants of dark magic twists and flings itself against the glass prison. He winces when he thinks about how something so gross had been inside of him, and realizes with a hot flash of fury that Toga and Dabi had always meant to have him die. He’d either be killed putting up a fight (as he had) or rot from the inside while awaiting a trial. Either way, it’d protect them and their organization. “You’re welcome, Ochako.”

He scowls at her. “Should a priestess be talking like that?”

Ochako narrows her eyes. “I learned it from you.”

He tests his arms and moves his hand in a circle. She turns and shows him her back. Katsuki moves his hands over the laces of her spine, and if she cares about the slow pace she doesn’t say anything, breathing deep and even as his fingertips drift over her back. 

“How are you feeling?” She asks when his hands reach her neck. 

He shrugs, but even that comes at a price. “Like I was hunted for sport and thrown into hell’s personal fighting ring. Otherwise, I’m healing. The heat’s helped a lot. Woke up earlier with a little heater on my arm.” At the implication, Ochako’s ears go bright red as she pulls her hair out of his way. “Lucky your cult was nearby, I guess.”

“It’s not a cult,” She chastises harshly, moving one hand to swat blindly at his head. It’s a soft tap in comparison to what she’s done to him before, but he doesn’t want to really be abused in his tender state. “And you weren’t lucky. We’re a full three days by horse from where Kiri found you, apparently. If it’d been anyone but Kiri bringing you to me, you wouldn’t have… Kiri, he’s... He’s. Well.”

“A dragon?” Katsuki ties off the laces with a large bow before reclining back into a more comfortable position. “Took me a little while to piece it together, but he found me, right? How’d he know to bring me to you?”

“He didn’t.” She scoots closer. “He’s been travelling with me for a few months now. Two nights ago he— Yes, you heard me right, you were out for a full day with that fever, should have been longer, you beast. He took off in the middle of that blizzard. Came back a few hours later with you on his back. You were bluer than the moon, Katsuki.” She reaches forward to caress his cheek. He growls at her but otherwise let's her do as she pleases as she checks his face for signs of flush, the deep circles he knows are below his eyes. "Kiri said you were being hunted. Katsuki, he saved your life. You need to thank him."

Katsuki scoffs and rips his face away, glaring down at the bedding instead of her face. "What the fuck does he know?"

Ochako sighs, but pulls herself up to stand. Her vestal dresses and her tall boots really sell the whole priestess vibe, and he sees now that skirt has pearl stars sewn in to match the painted one on her forehead. "Well, Kiri's a dragon. He knows a thing or two about being hunted."

Katsuki glares up at her. He doesn’t have a comment for that. 

"I'll be back later. I've instructed my people to not bother you while I'm gone, but Kiri might show up to check on you. He hides when humans are around." 

A spike of anxiety rushes through Katsuki as she leaves towards the entrance. How could it not? He has no weapons within reach and all of his own stuff is back in Hind’s Landing, incinerated with the rest of the tavern. He's incapacitated, a damnable nova, and in the bed of one of the Order of Stars' head priestesses. It's not the first time this has happened but it is the first time he's been unable to run, and a nervous trickle of sweat runs down his neck as she vanishes into the snow outside. 

He and her Order have a piss-poor relationship to say the least. They spend their lives nomadically in groups moving across the kingdoms with a head priestess at the lead, 'chosen by the stars' or some such bullshit healing the sick and blessing the land. Ochako is just one of these priestesses, but she's very powerful and a lot of people follow her. Over the years he’s done well keeping out of their way, but every so often their paths do coincide. Katsuki’s power is usually invoked to quell rebellions and crush monsters, and her people are usually there to clean up after his, and the Empire’s, mess. Since he spent most of his youth fighting for his life Ochako has learned a thing or two about patching up wounds. 

Having a wounded man in her tent or even her bed? Not the strangest thing for her followers to accept. They heal all sorts of illnesses, medical and magical. Most any time Katsuki comes to visit her she's got one hand in a salve and the other twirling with pink starlight.

But if that man was sinfully handsome and the walking equivalent of a meteor crashing into the earth? And the priestess was more than a little fond of him? Katsuki would be worrying too. Hell, he’d be locking her up in a temple or something, not that she’d ever let anyone tell her what to do.

There's not much he can do about his situation, though. He's taken stock of his aching pains and knows that even if he tries to stand his legs would just take him to the floor. His side might be the worst of it, but it feels like his back has been split apart by the ice and he sort of wishes she'd put him on his chest. Quietly, he grinds his teeth and tries to focus on healing.

His magic is practically non-existent. There's a tiny flame sitting in his chest, the little bit of fire that's kept him alive just barely, but it's nowhere near ready to heal or fight. Fuck, he's never been so wounded in his life. Not since… well, the mess that made him a nova in the first place. A brief, unfamiliar, taste of terror closes his throat, and Katsuki swallows hard as he tries to relax into the cushions Ochako has propped all around him. 

He's very, very vulnerable at the moment. Like a lamb to the slaughter, where any moment Dabi or Toga could come sneaking in, coated in the wind, and finish him off. By his side, his hands fist at the thought, mind replaying the explosion of blue power, the screams, the boy's face

He imagines the scenario again, but this time it's cream-and-blue colored tents and a star-kissed priestess.

Katsuki jolts upright and cries out when his stitches protest. He can't stay. He can't fucking wait around here for the League to find him alive, can't bear the idea of being so obvious about his weaknesses. Any moment these past two days could have carried the news of his 'deeds' to someone in her encampment, and in return the rumor that a wounded nova had been found nearly dead at Ochako's feet could have most definitely found its way to scorched ears. 

Katsuki stumbles on his feet, the silks she'd draped over him caught in his hands and covering his barely dressed body like a cape as he leans on the tent's center stake for support. Fuckin' hells, where did she put his clothes? The inside of her tent is mostly barren with the exception of her own chests, books, and jewelry. God dammit, she's hidden them on purpose to keep him bed-ridden, the fuckin' bitch.

Katsuki forces one foot after the other until he's outside, the ice beneath his toes radiating up his legs. He'll just find some of her acolyte clothing. He knows they hand them out to new followers and the needy all the time, and if he couldn't find any, well, he'd fucking mug one of these assholes if he had to.

He takes a wrong step and collapses into a snowbank, teeth chattering as he moans in pain. Fuck that really smarts. Is he bleeding again? a line of red curls over his side and drips into the snow. Gods above he's split his side again. Now, more than anything, he years for the heat that the dragon had brought. Katsuki still remembers the sinuous slide of his muscles beneath him, the searing heat of his scales that had kept Katsuki so undeniably safe. Like a slab of stone baked beneath the summer sun, that dragon. When Katsuki's warm, he's indestructible, unchallenged. And now, cowering in the snow with nothing but a blanket and his blood painting the ground, Katsuki is nothing but a ghost.

"Hey, whoa whoa whoa, what are you doing?" 

Katsuki snaps his head up. The exertion of just getting this far from the bed has left his breathing ragged, which is to say he hasn't gotten very far at all. A man carrying a stack of clothes rushes up to him and sets the items in his hands aside as he takes hold of Katsuki's shoulder. He's swimming in red; red hair, red eyes, Katsuki's red nova sash. 

Wait, his sash? And is that his fucking cloak draped over his shoulder?

Katsuki gives the man a second look. He's practically a mountain, in clothes that just barely fit him. Black leather pants that are definitely too sinful to be standard for the Order and a tunic made of rich blue fabric force all of his red to pop more vibrantly like fire. He's worried, voice low and deep as he frets over the newly opened wound in Katsuki's side with all the expertise of a sheep. If his eyes weren't open and aware, Katsuki would think that he'd fallen near a campfire with the sudden comfort he's bathing in, a bubble of heat that gently rolls over his wounds and instinctively closes up the damage that he's done to himself. 

"Are you," Katsuki shudders, and the man frowns a little. "Are you Kiri?"

"Oh, uh, yeah. Kirishima. That's me." A brilliant smile splits the man's face, and suddenly Katsuki is eye-level with a row of triangular teeth, all needle sharp at the points. Oh gods, oh gods, a fucking dragon was hiding in plain sight in the middle of camp. "Here, let me just…"

Suddenly, Katsuki's being lifted. Effortlessly, the dragon in the body of a man has an arm hooked beneath Katsuki and hauls him up as if he weighed less than air. 

"Oh no, you put me the fuck down right now you— you bastard, lying lizard! I'll—"

"Lizard," the dragon chuckles, and the vibration of it travels through his broad chest and into the nova. "Ochako was right. You are only nice when you're half dead." Katsuki chokes on his disbelief, arms snaking around Kirishima's neck in an attempt for balance as he’s escorted back inside the tent and placed on the mattress.

"Fuckin' hell," Katsuki snarls, right back where he didn't want to be with his heart racing in his chest. He tries to push past solid muscles and gets absolutely nowhere with a yell of frustration. "I need to leave! I need to find my fucking clothes and get out of this camp. I don't give a shit if you're a dragon—" Kiri's eyebrows shoot up, but he looks nonplussed and almost amused at the statement, and yeah, Katsuki also thinks that might be the most ridiculous thing anyone's ever said out loud, "—I can't stay here."

Kiri places a wide warm palm to Katsuki's chest and pushes until the rogue is securely enveloped in the bedding once more, fingers splayed over the dark markings that cover his heart. "And do what? Paint the hills red? Have every fae and demon in existence come to eat you? Finish off that hunter's work?" Katsuki's lip pulls back in blatant anger, but Kiri only smiles again. "You can afford a few days of rest, whatever it is."

"You don't fucking understand shit. I'm a nova," Katsuki snarls, hand fisting into the dragon's shirt and yanking him close, but he barely budges, "I'm a goddamn disaster waiting to happen to these people. Frankly, I don't want all that blood on my fucking conscience."

The dragon sighs through his nose, and thin trails of ashen smoke ribbon through the air. He's not moving a muscle, effectively pinning Katsuki down with as little effort as a cat might use to nap. "No one knows who you are. All they know is you had a hunting accident nearby and need to be kept close to the good lady. She's taking care of you. A few people have tried to get a look at you but I've made sure they find something better to do with their time than snoop."

Katsuki huffs, one hand gripping Kiri's wrist in a last abortive attempt to unpin himself. "And no one knows who you are either? No one but Ochako? You're just as bad as I am hiding out in a fucking human camp just waiting for some poachers to skin you alive." He spits vitriol, only thinking later how dangerous it must be to try to enrage a dragon. "They’d kill every one of these people to get to you!"

Kiri only smiles, eyes curling in half moons as he pats his hand once, twice, over his nova markings. "Well, they could certainly try."

Katsuki gapes at him, wide-eyed, and the dragon leans away, running a hand through a waterfall of red tresses. "I was bringing you a change of clothes. Please, please don't move while I get them, okay?"

Katsuki snatches his face away, grumbling but otherwise remaining still. While Kiri pads outside to retrieve the stack of clothes, Katsuki attempts a few shuddering breaths to regain some sense of control. By the time he's back Katsuki's torn a bit at his bandages, fidgeting. The worst part of healing has always been the waiting, and with a dragon keeping watch it's little wonder he’s about to lose it.

Kirishima drapes his cloak over the length of him and the nova notices that there are new patches in the fabric, undoubtedly from where the arrows had pierced. The dragon places the swaddled clothes beside the bed for whenever Katsuki isn't actively bleeding through his bandages, and it's maybe half a minute before the tent is sweltering. 

It's just the way he likes it, an absolutely unbearable heat that would send any lesser being running for shade or water, the kind of heat that coats the body with sweat and blisters the skin with proximity. 

"Can't do this with Ochako in here," Kirishima murmurs as he sits on the cushions beside the mattress. As his red hair fans out across Katsuki's cape, the rogue realizes with a start that even that part of the dragon sparks with heat. Katsuki imagines that if he reaches out and takes the locks in hand that he might actually burn, branding lines across his palms. "But this is good for you, right?"

Katsuki makes no comment. Kiri seems to take that as a yes, stretching out his legs across Ochako’s mismatched collections of pillows and shawls. Now’s as good a time as ever to really look at his savior. 

For human standards, Katsuki can’t decide if Kirishima is handsome or plain. He’s a rare coloring, with crimson tresses and off-set tanned skin, but his face is smooth and undefined save for the single scar that draws over his right eye. If he keeps his mouth shut, something Katsuki is already understanding to be impossible with his easy smiles, the only thing unusual about his appearance that would truly clue someone in to his weirdness would be his eyes. Even now, though, in the shadow of the tent they could easily pass for brown as long as one didn’t pay too close attention. The man — dragon— is broad shouldered and solid, and peeking out from the collar of his too-small shirt are the faintest little scars and freckles.

He could pass as a human, that’s a definite. Katsuki’s seen fae with less magic pull it off, and it's clear from the way that he talks that he’s spent ample time learning how to blend. 

"What's a thing like you doing camping out with humans anyway?" He asks, and Kiri tilts his head just enough to fix Katsuki in his peripheral. 

"A thing like me?" Kirishima responds, a little twitch to the corner of his mouth that Katsuki can't tell is amused or irritated.

"Don't be fuckin' coy. The last time anyone saw a dragon outside of the Chord it was a hundred years ago."

"Then they're really not looking hard enough." Kirishima shrugs. "I've been mingling for nearly two decades at this point."

"How old are you?"

"Two and a half decades." He smiles a little cheekily. Katsuki snorts. “We don’t really age all that differently from humans, though usually when we hit fifty years it slows down.”

“And this form?” Katsuki makes a motion to all of Kirishima; the scarlet hair, tan skin. “Is it a glamour?”

“No, it’s just me.” This time the tilt of his head shows more genuine confusion, as if trickery hadn’t even crossed his mind. “This form and the big lizard form,” Kirishima leans on one hand, cheek smushing up his smile, “Are both me. Sometimes I need to fit inside a tent, and other times I need to rescue novas in a snowstorm.”

“Hey, whoa, no one ever asked you to fuckin’ rescue me,” Katsuki crosses his arms. He ignores the offshoot of pain from the holes in his back. “I—”

“Yeah, yeah,” the dragon blows straight through Katsuki’s indignant denials, a heavy snort filling the air with char and heady incense. “You were doing just fine on your own. That’s why you nearly died on the ride back to camp. I had to—” He cuts himself off suddenly, red eyes widening. Then, his cheeks go ruddy, as red as the rest of him as he remembers something Katsuki had clearly blacked out through. “Well, you were really messed up. You’re lucky the inari led you to me in time.”

 “Wait, fuck the foxes, what did you do to me while I was passed out?” Katsuki tries to lean forward and snatch Kirishima’s shirt in his hand again, but the damned lizard learns quickly and leans far enough away that Katsuki can’t chase without popping his stitches again. He settles for slamming his hand on the blankets, a pathetic puff of smoke rising from the contact. 

“You can’t just say fuck the foxes, Bakugou, they’ll take you seriously. They still want the power you promised.” Kirishima is serious suddenly, his smile pressing into a grim line. “Power, I might add, that isn’t healing. You know that, right?”

Katsuki has more profanities on his tongue but at the stark realization that Kiri is right he pauses, tongue running over the backs of his teeth. His mind turns inward, past the hyper-awareness he has over each pulsing wound into the core at the center of his chest where his fire should have been. What he finds is that small flame.  In the warmth that is Kirishima his flame should have been emboldened by now, stoked by the residual heat. He’s healing, but it’s beyond sluggish. He feels…

Human. 

Oh, fuuuuck. Fuck, what if he never heals from it? He wants, no needs his magic back. Now that the idea’s crossed his mind he can’t let go of it. It was already bad enough imagining those fuckers coming to destroy him and everyone that gets in their way, but now, feeling as useful and aimless as driftwood, the idea gnaws at him, churns up his heart between rows of invisible teeth and spits him out in a garbled mess. Being unable to fight back is a whole separate kind of nightmare that is visceral and real, and Katsuki never, ever, wants to feel like that again. 

Oblivious to his internal turmoil, Kirishima stretches out and wraps his large hand over the vial of dark magic that Ochako left precariously along the floor. He holds it up to the light. The liquid inside sloshes a grotesque blue-black, catching in the sun like crude oil. Every so often it still moves on its own, throwing itself against the glass in an attempt to attack the hand that holds it. 

“I’m not sure what this is.“ Kirishima shakes it experimentally, and a high pitched hissing noise shakes the glass. Katsuki tenses. 

“Corruption,” Katsuki shrugs, hand instinctively covering the wound that had housed it. His other hand comes to his forehead, presses deep into the grooves forming between his eyebrows. 

“Yeah, but,” Kirishima hums to himself, “Corruption doesn’t work like this. Corruption comes from within and spreads out from a bad place in someone’s heart. This bad boy ate into you and carved up your magic on its own. Quickly. It only had you for two days, right? You should be thanking whatever god you prefer that this stuff didn’t reach your heart. It'll probably take you months to heal from this."

“You don’t think it’s permanent?” Katsuki tries to ignore the weakness in his voice, the scratch of worry as he twists the sheets between his hands. For a moment, he’s sure Kiri doesn’t notice it, so busy shaking up the liquid curse and baking it in the sunlight. Then Kiri’s placing it back on the carpet and turning to Katsuki with a gentle expression that’s not quite smiling but not quite frowning either, neutral and thoughtful. 

“It didn’t reach your heart, so you’re fine. I think you’re going to be without magic for a few months. If it were summer, less than that, but…”

“It’s colder than the Empress outside,” Katsuki sighs, turning over in bed. He rests on his uninjured side and processes the idea with one hand pinching his nose. “Just what I fuckin’ need.”

Kiri’s big hand hovers over his hip. He seems to have something to say on that matter,  but clearly thinks better of it with an embarrassing twist of his lips. Instead he says, “I’ll keep you warm for now.” Katsuki watches with a pinched expression as he’s pat like a dog, a movement intended to be comforting but only succeeding in pissing him off. “You should… focus on your wounds, first. Then you can worry about the extra things like magic.”

Katsuki scoffs, but says nothing. The ‘extra things like magic’ were his entire identity. His power, his reputation, his legacy. As a nova, that extra shit was all he’d ever been known, used, and abandoned for. Fuck, he was considered a different breed of human, lesser in the eyes of the masses, only useful in war or violence. The mere idea of… of not being a nova was like facing the sea at night with the moon missing from it’s heavenly cradle. Threatening to plunge him into a murkiness that he can’t light his way out of, the unknown swells around Katsuki like a tide. What would he be if he was just… nothing? Average?  What kind of fucking trade could he live from? Would they let him live a normal life? Burn his sash up and walk away?

All of that, of course, assuming that he could clear his name of mass murder.

Katsuki pulls his cloak higher and buries his face in the furs. 

What an absolute shit show he’s in. 

Chapter Text

“Hold still, Bakugou Katsuki.” 

“Ooh, we’re using full names, now, are we?”

Ochako lets out a truly exasperated sigh and presses the warm cloth into his side. He throws back his head involuntarily, trying not to show any sort of pain on his face despite how much it stings. She’s not being as gentle as yesterday, due to his own idiocy ruining her hard work. He’s better today thanks to Kirishima’s oppressive aura, but every time Ochako comes to check on him the dragon has to lower the temperature, and as a result, Katsuki’s irritation spikes as he feels more and more exposed and human in those moments where his weaknesses are more evident. 

At least today he can stand and move without help, though this is also slow going. Kirishima hovers at the edge of the tent usually, making half-jerks forward any time it appears that Katsuki might take a dive. He seems to understand that Katsuki, human and weak as he is, will still try to take his head off if he offers too much help beyond the fire. 

Ochako, love her, will put him in a choke hold if it means getting him to sit still and be treated. She’s done it before and she’s a single grumble away from doing it now. 

“It’s practically closed up. I can remove the stitches and seal the rest with magic.” She turns her head, and Kiri slink’s forward to hand her a pair of fine-nosed shears, heated slightly to disinfect. He’s still in his human form, but Katsuki knows that he’d slept outside again the previous night in his true massiveness. Again, the tent entrance had been filled up, blocking both light and cold, but Katsuki wonders absently if there’s more to the deed than it appears. Whether to keep Katsuki and the warmth in, or to keep something else out… well, the idea lingers in his mind every time the dragon’s huge form eclipses the light. He’s oddly friendly, for a dragon. But then again... he's yet to meet a mean dragon...

“It’s going to sting a little.” Ochako says, but she's already sliding the shears against skin and thread with no preamble. 

“What else is new?” He sighs, eyes following Kiri as he paces behind Ochako like a mothering hen. Each pace draws a dark line on the floor of the tent, and Katsuki snaps, “Sit the fuck down, you’re going to give me an anxiety attack. What’s up? Not good with blood?”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Kiri huffs and moves to sit on the other side of the bed, facing Katsuki while Ochako works quietly on his hip. Kirishima lounges, his manner of sitting more refined than a man of his size should act with one knee tucked under the other and his arms crossed in front on the mattress. He looks conspiratorial, like he and Katsuki are about to share a secret. Instead, he lowers his head to rest on his wrists, looking more like a pleading puppy than a man well over six feet, and lets out a long sigh. “I’m just getting stir crazy. I’ve never been comfortable sitting in one place for this long.”

“It’s about time we continued on,” Ochako explains, a warmed fingertip drawing over and sealing up the cut into his side. It’s like someone squeezed lemons on his side, and he bites down on his bottom lip. “Some people have been snooping around camp asking about a wounded man. No wardens or novas yet, but... when novas do come around…”

They start sniffing out magic like bloodhounds on the hunt. They’ll definitely sniff out Kirishima, if not pick up on whatever’s left of Katsuki. Fuck, the worst part about being so absolutely useless is how cut off from his senses he’s become. Katsuki runs a hand furiously through his hair. Kiri’s not the only one with the jitters. Katsuki might strangle himself in his bed sheets if he has to jump at one more shadow passing by. “Shit, just get me moving, Cheeks.”

“What are you going to do, Katsuki? I can’t just let you go. We can hide you.” She leans forward and presses her face into his shoulder. “I know, I’ll wrap you up in the priests clothing. No one would ever suspect that. Oh, you’ll hate it.”

“Harboring a fugitive is one thing but you ever try to get me to wear fucking habits and I’ll light your hair on fire, Sweet Cheeks.” Katsuki draws the line at ugly fashion. “I’ll figure something out as soon as I can walk without holding on to everything. Do you guys have any swords laying around camp for me to borrow?”

Ochako fixes him with an amused and knowing smile. “None that you’d be satisfied with. Don’t they all melt in your hand anyway? You get so heated up when you fight.”

“Something is better than nothing.” He shoots back. 

“It melts in your hands?” Kiri goes a little wide-eyed, humming quietly as he cleans under immaculately sharp fingernails. Katsuki easily imagines them carving through stone. “I mean, fire magic is easy for a nova with a heart like yours but that’s something else, buddy. Do you know what kind of fae it was that gave you its heart?”

Katsuki and Ochako both stop moving at the same time, a sore memory rising from the shadow of an innocuous question. Ochako isn’t smiling, her eyes downcast on Katsuki’s marking. Katsuki ignores her and sighs into his pillow. 

Death isn’t the easiest experience to forget, but it’s also one of the worst memories to call back once it’s over with and buried. Katsuki is a gods-damned pro at burying his problems and his feelings, but something about Kiri’s guileless, imploring eyes has Katsuki off guard. He's weak to them.

“Here’s a tip, Lizard Brains,” Katsuki smacks Kirishima’s forearm with as much gusto as possible, which is nothing at all with how his muscles tremble. “Novas don’t like talking about how they died. We don’t usually fucking remember it, but the few of us who do don’t like draggin’ that shit back up. It’s usually the worst day of our shitty lives.” Suddenly, Kirishima resembles a kicked puppy more than a man or a dragon, running a hand slowly through his hair. Katsuki’d never seen such a regrettable expression on a human face. No human besides Ochako has ever given a shit. “That being said, It’s not like I remember much, anyway.”

Kiri’s head tilts to the side. “It must've been very powerful to give you a heart like that is all I’m saying. Hard to miss that kind of creature...”

“Well, it was dark as hell for me. I got tossed off a mountain, down a river, and ended up in a lake. Drowned.” He grunts out, pushing himself from the bedding. His death had been worse than that, but he didn’t want to linger on the sharper details. Ochako sits back with a wince and eases him up, and Katsuki begrudgingly allows her that until he’s got his feet on the floor, one hand tight like a vice on Kiri’s shoulder for stability. Kiri doesn’t move, doesn't blink, not even when Katsuki’s nails dig in and cut into the flesh there. “Maybe an ifrit or something? Ochako said I evaporated the entire lake when I came back to life.”

Kiri looks thoughtful. He doesn’t respond after that, only a low humming coming from his chest Katsuki feels through his fingers that tells him nothing either way of what Kirishima thinks of that. He’d always been powerful, of that there was no doubt. That’s why he’d been thrown off the mountain in the first place. He'd been a threat to a local priestess, who hadn't taken it kindly at all how her star pupil had wanted to play and adventure with him, dreaming of futures beyond tents and selflessness, rather than to play at priestess. 

“Doesn’t matter now, didn’t matter then.” He adds softly. He can’t see her face, but he knows Ochako’s got a pain in her that squeezes all of her happiness out whenever they land on the subject, and Katsuki’d long learned not to talk about it in front of her or anyone for that matter. He coughs into his hand, and Kiri shifts beneath him. “The only thing that matters right now is food, and Ochako said they were making curry so either get out of my way or get with it and help me out, lizard.”

“Oh!” Kirishima is smiling again, and Katsuki tries not to think about the slow and smooth slide of his fingers as they move from Kirishima’s shoulder to his forearm. He’s standing but not once did he shake or dislodge Katsuki’s grip on him, an immovable rock with no qualms with being relied upon. “I can definitely help out with that.”

 

 

 

~*~*~*~

 

Kirishima’s idea of helping is leaving him sitting on a supply crate with his legs crossed, shivering in just his clothes outside the back of the food tent. His cloak would have tripped him up traversing rocks and ice. He’s close enough to smell the curry spices through the canvas, and the rich earthy scent of smoke wafts around the enclosure from the openings on either side, supplemented by a breeze just strong enough to carry to Katsuki’s empty, panged stomach. The food tent sits at the edge of the religious encampment, and Katsuki’s view from its backside is a frost-covered hill, the rising black mountains of the Chord, and a cresting ridge of evergreen trees. 

The dragon himself is inside, collecting what Katsuki hopes is the largest plate of meat and rice he can carry in those big strong hands of his. Kirishima had waited and watched for when the food tent was mostly emptied out, where even if people did take notice of him they’d be less inclined to cause a scene, Katsuki assumes. 

Outside, The nova’s stomach twists and churns on nothing, making inhuman noises that Katsuki hadn’t thought were possible. Until, finally, red re-enters his field of vision. 

Kirishima balances a tray on one hand and drags a heavy wine barrel through the slush and mud with his other, effortlessly shifting what had to be seventy-five pounds of liquid weight without even an ounce of struggle. He pulls right up in front of Katsuki’s perch on the box, and any shivering Katsuki suffers through eases immediately. Already the rich aroma of curry powder greets Katsuki, and he greedily takes the bowl that Kirishima has fixed for him with quivering hands. He casts a silent prayer up to the unforgiving stars that his strength doesn’t fail him as he grips the bowl. Katsuki doesn’t know what he’ll do if he drops it, but he’s damn sure he’d rather starve himself than let Kirishima spoon feed him like a baby. 

Because, Katsuki knows somehow, that is something the dragon would do without hesitation. 

He breathes in the steam, open-mouthed, and lets the hot air sink into his lungs. For that single breath, Katsuki can almost imagine he’s healed as it spreads through his bloodstream into every end of his body. Enlightenment achieved, Katsuki takes the wooden spoon Kiri extends to him and manages to carefully put food on his tongue. 

Katsuki tastes it, chews thoughtfully, and swallows. Kirishima leans back on the top of his barrel with the grace of a cat. Honestly, his bulk should be too much for the barrel —he greatly outsizes it— and yet he sits with legs out-stretched and arms bent behind him in a perfect line. He’s watching with a gentle expression, waiting for Katsuki with a patience the nova’s never known. 

“Is it not spicy enough?” Kirishima asks when he realizes Katsuki’s been staring.

The problem is that the curry is just the right amount of spicy. Katsuki puts enough pepper and curry in his meals to set the air on fire, and when Kiri had offered to fix his plate he’d already resigned himself to a meal of tasteless gruel. 

“No, it’s fine. Just fuckin’ weird that you knew how I liked it.”

Kirishima’s default expression flickers into a mild frown, but it's such a quick movement Katsuki almost misses it before another sunny look is taking over. "I figured you’re fiery enough to handle it. It’ll warm you up a little." The dragon reaches out to take the bowl, saying “If you want me to, I’ll take it—”

“I didzh’t shay zat,” Katsuki growls around his spoon, a man possessed. He swallows and cleans the spoon off before continuing more clearly. “Just thought it was weird. A lot about you is weird.  A dragon who wants to be with humans?” Katsuki snorts.

“You guys aren’t that bad.” Kirishima laughs, but before he elaborates on that the wind between them soars with a frightful gust. The dragon tilts his head, eyes following some nameless path to the top of the hill behind him. 

The three foxes nip at each other in a playful writhe. They dance beneath the sweet-scented pine boughs with flashing silver fur and ice crystals, their unusual chatter no louder than the snapping of branches. No matter how they continue to move, gossamer thin trails of white tangle between tree trunks. 

“Came to tell you something,” Kiri translates, pulling his long legs up into a crossed position on top of the wine barrel. “They say you look like shit and that it’s time to pay up.”

Katsuki snarls in annoyance and holds up one palm. All the heat and power he’s managed to collect between Kiri’s overwhelming presence and his dinner solidifies in his skin and sets off with a chorus of pops that ricochet back to them from the faces of the mountains. After a few seconds, only smoke lingers. “Little shits! You didn’t take me anywhere safe, anyway! Kirishima did! Our little deal ain’t over until you bring me somewhere!”

The inari pause mid-movement at his words, tails still curled in midair jumps and twists as if time has stopped for them. Only the wind blows through their fur and ashen trails, disrupted like their plans. Two can play at that game, you shitty floor mats. 

They burst apart in a tempest of snow and ice, a last ditch revenge against Katsuki that snatches at his clothes and cools his dinner considerably. He grimaces. Kirishima just laughs quietly to himself and tries to hide it behind his hand.

Katsuki wraps his mouth around the spoon, disappointed that it doesn’t taste as good as before, and narrows his eyes at Kiri. The dragon focuses in on him once more. “What’s so funny?”

Kirishima shakes his head in response, moving one hand through his messy red hair until it’s somewhat gathered behind his neck, where he ties it off with a thin ribbon. “It’s nothing… just. You know. The inari brought you to me .”

Katsuki sputters and chokes on his food, coughing painfully into his hand as the words are spoken. Within seconds, Kirishima’s hands are on him, one hovering over the freshly healed wound on his side while the other grips the upper part of his arm to keep him stable on his seat. The nova manages to bat him off within a couple seconds, snarling through his teeth. 

Despite that, Kirishima maintains the same friendly demeanor he's worn since Katsuki met him, completely unfazed by his attempts to dislodge him. He says, "didn't really think about that, did you?"

"Shut the fuck up, Lizard Brain! I was a bit preoccupied in case you didn’t fucking notice! You know, with dying?" 

The dragon looks cheerful standing there —at the complete opposite spectrum of Katsuki. It's a little off-putting when both of them fully understood the dangers that lurked around every corner, dangers that the two of them, so completely different in culture and being, both uniquely faced. We don’t have time to be friends, Katsuki hisses to himself. Or whatever this is. 

Kirishima doesn’t let him go, just lets him readjust himself on the box and his heart calm with hands clenched tight on his elbows. The dragon is close enough that Katsuki can feel his breath, sees it cloud and billow around them, and closes his eyes. The warmth is there, again, and it’s easy to grasp. Why is a dragon this way? Why does he share himself so easily with others even at the risk of his own safety? If their roles had been reversed, and Katsuki the dragon, he would have booked it as soon as he’d discovered the nova were near. Hell, he’d be as far away from humans as physically possible. Yet, when Katsuki opens his eyes again, Kirishima is still there watching and waiting for him. 

“You’re telling me you’ll be my safe place? You’re gonna protect me?” The edge of Katsuki’s lips raises in a sneer, but Kirishima only seems emboldened by the movement, his own lips curling in a crooked line. All of his sharp teeth are on display for Katsuki and Katsuki only, as the rest of the camp ignores them on the other side of the tent. 

“I’m saying I could be.” Kirishima’s voice swoops down low, scratching like gravel in a way that Katsuki feels. “How many people do you know with a dragon underneath them?”

A big fat none. Not even the Emperor himself.

The nova’s mind sparks with imagination. Katsuki’s more than intrigued by the idea than he should be. He sees himself on a throne of coiling fire and cutting scale, seated in living, breathable power. Molten glass horns beneath his palms, bending a powerful neck whichever way he wants, leading, twisting, fighting… he’s dreamt of dragons since he was a boy. Granted, the dragon he'd dreamt of was a different color, but...

Kirishima sees him thinking about it, and another surge of sweet-scented smoke plumes over Katsuki’s face. In the low evening light, his eyes glitter like precious jewelry. Maybe he’s seeing it, too.

“What’s in it for you?” Katsuki asks, because nothing in this life has ever come to him easily or freely. It’s a tempting offer no matter how roughly it rubs against his pride. More than preserving his ego, he wants to live, and having an entire country hunting him down in this damnable countryside was an ample motivator to… tolerate help. But he knows better. He can count on one hand the people he can truly, irrevocably trust with his life and Kirishima’s not on it. 

“Do I need a reason?” Kirishima asks, voice no louder than a secret and saturated with simple sincerity. 

No, Katsuki figures, he doesn’t. Then he thinks that every dragon he’s ever met might be as blindly, idiotically naive and sincere as a newborn calf. Not that he’s met a lot. Kirishima makes three. 

Katsuki’s been betrayed before by wide, guileless eyes, as green and eternal as the sea and just as cruel. Kirishima might not need a reason to act, but Katsuki needs reason to trust. Before he can say that though, a jolt of power sparks through him, causing him to drop the bowl of rice where it lands shamefully in the slush by Kirishima’s boots. The dragon must sense it too, because his head snaps up.

Shinsou,” Katsuki groans quietly. He’d know that black sensation anywhere, like oil from a shattered lamp oozing out over his hands and down his spine. 

When he’d been younger and more prone to aggravation, Shinsou’s slimy aura would set Katsuki’s off like a match at even the briefest of touches. The guy knew how to slip between the cracks in a person’s heart, find their weaknesses and exploit them, both magically and verbally. Between fights and festivals and a lot of forced manual labor over many, many years, the two of them managed to meld and accentuate their powers in a way Katsuki’d never been able to do before with anyone. He’d found a friend in Shinsou, damn near an equal, and someone Katsuki could trust. The question now is, did Shinsou trust in Katsuki? Or did he think he was responsible for the destruction in Hind’s Landing? 

Katsuki turns. He slips from the box and looks through a sliver in the tent's folds, and as he does Kirishima presses up against him from behind, resting his chin on Katsuki. Inside the tent their view is obscured by a table of food and a few of the acolyte workers, but after a momentary shuffle they pull aside and make room for the nova and his warden. Shinsou is marked by the black sash he has wrapped around his head, pushing up locks of hair the fae color of violets. His eyes, like Katsuki’s, are as red as the dawn and ringed with dark hollows. The man never sleeps. His clothes are muted and dark grays, somewhat detracting the sharp glint of the black scabbard that hangs at his side, wrapped and held in place by a white cloth that snakes around his waist. 

Fuck him, he looks warm and snug in all that gray fur and leather. Monoma, too. Not that either of them are weak to the cold beyond the normal human standards, but it still grinds Katsuki’s teeth like a whetstone. 

“W-what can we do for you, Warden?” someone asks, and Katsuki curses under his breath as Monoma turns to face them. Shinsou’s unblinking gaze sweeps over the room, and every man and woman under it visibly jerks as if touched with a hot poker. An unfortunate side-effect to his powers that even Katsuki’s not completely immune to. Shinsou isn't even trying to reign it in, pushing his power out like the whiskers of a cat, brushing up against each and every life force in his small radius. 

“I smell horses. Lots of em.” Kirishima warns, and Katsuki thinks, they’ve got an Imperial squadron. To some degree Kirishima’s warmth is receding despite how close he’s come. Maybe in an attempt to keep their presence hidden? Won’t do a lick of good against Shinsou, though. Once, Shinsou had sensed Katsuki in the deepest heat of summer half a kingdom away, and that was without actively looking for him. It had just been a particularly boring evening beneath the moon, and Katsuki had been particularly fired up about a battle. Perhaps with Katsuki so weak he’d completely skip over him, and he certainly believed that could be the case here, but there was no hiding Kirishima. 

“We don’t mean to intrude on your dinner,” Monoma answers, hands clasping together while Shinsou slowly prowls, disinterested. “We’ve come to investigate rumors of a wounded man, a nova. He’s been accused of heavy crimes to the south and might have looked for help here.” He has a smile on his face like candy in the hands of a stranger. The sight of his bow slung across his shoulders has Katsuki unconsciously leaning his back into Kirishima’s chest. Disarming as his smile is, Katsuki knows better than to think Monoma has come to diffuse any tensions. 

In his experience, the blonde is almost always the cause, not the symptom. Especially when Shinsou is standing next to him, eyes slowly raking over every inch of the room, even the uninteresting parts. He moves around, and toys with the spoons and forks at the table in front of Katsuki’s view. Kirishima takes in an instinctive breath and pulls them both back a step. 

“No idea about a nova, but…” someone else in the tent responds, and Katsuki watches as Shinsou moves from tableware to plates. He’s listening but it damn sure doesn’t look like he’s in any kind of hurry to do something about it. 

“But?” Monoma prompts, his voice smug with that cheeky grin. For a moment, everyone is quiet. Even Shinsou pauses in his mindless perusing of dining sets to look up and blink at the group. Nothing comes. No one dares speak, and that friendly smile flips a little.

Whatever edge is there sharpens when the tent opens at the front and Ochako comes stalking in. Her head is thrown back high and her shoulders are squared; she looks every bit the leader she is. Confident. Intimidating. Unbreakable. Her vestal garments are both regal and clinically cold. Ochako is a force that comes in and commands attention. Her presence certainly has Monoma and Shinsou fixated, both taking in the cut of her limbs and firm fighting stance, something Katsuki had taught her years before for his own peace of mind, and what magic she dares to show off. 

Her voice clips through the air. “Does anyone mind telling me why Imperial soldiers are huddled in the center of my caravan?”

Shinsou breaks code and stands tall —taller than Monoma, and certainly Ochako. He's unfairly tall, and all that much more intimidating.

 "We're looking for a nova. Last seen with a dragon protecting him, of all things." Simple and to the point, exactly as Shinsou prefers his explanations. But there's something about the way he says it that eats at Katsuki. Like it's an official line fed to him from an official document and not simply a statement of fact.

 “A blonde guy like him,” He adds, thumb jerking in his Warden’s direction, “but he’s got eyes like mine.” 

Ochako's eyes narrow and he wonders if she can sense it. Shinsou's mindtouch. 

Katsuki should know better than to doubt her or her intuition. She answers, "There's no nova here, and I'd think I'd know if a dragon was in my camp." 

Shinsou crosses his arms and shifts his weight. It's such a Monoma move, Katsuki scoffs. He narrows in on her, pushes out his presence and says, "are you sure ? Dragon's are great at hiding in plain sight, and this is the last camp for miles. The nova was in horrendous condition when he escaped us, and I hear there is quite the healer in your ranks. Mix that with a little bit of heat..."

Ochako stays calm and controlled, just the barest of shakes as his magical touch feels her out. "Who I keep in my camp is none of your concern. We're all healers, we don't have borders, and don't discriminate on who we heal. Even if someone like that was here, I wouldn't let you disturb him." 

They stare at each other for a long while after that. Shinsou is an unstoppable force, Ochako an immovable object, and Katsuki knows first hand how neither tend to back down once they've gotten their heads wrapped around something. It shows now in this moment more than anything. Katsuki can see Shinsou's calculating eyes looking for a weakness in her defense, sees those infamous wheels turning over and over again. But Ochako hasn't flinched even the slightest bit. She meets his flat look the same way she faces every obstacle in her life. Her head high and her eyes straight forward.  

But stubborn as they both are, one of them eventually gives. Katsuki is only slightly surprised it's Shinsou that concedes. A small smirk tilts the other nova's expression. "We can't just leave it at that. We're going to have to search camp."

"You can't just—" Ochako's hands clench at her side, but Shinsou only gives her a tight shrug.

"You're in the Empire, Sweet Cheeks." Katsuki watches Ochako flinch at the nickname, a fire sparking in those deep brown eyes that he recognizes. "You're subject to the law like anyone else while you're here. So instead of putting up a fuss, how about you show us where to start? Hmm?" Shinsou cocks his head imploringly, one eyebrow tilted up.

Ochako chews on the inside of her cheek and tilts her chin downward. "Then… I'll show you to the… infirmary. You can give those people a look."

Shinsou holds out an elbow for her, and after a brief moment of consideration Ochako takes it. At her touch Shinsou's presence shrinks back considerably, his night meeting Ochako's gentle starlight. The moment his presence is gone, Kirishima let's the barest bit of his own warmth back out into the mix, reminding Katsuki he's right there, up against his back and watching this exchange with a scrutiny that rivals Katsuki's own. 

"Time to go, Kirishima, I'm taking you up on your offer," Katsuki pushes back against the dragon, speaking quietly. Katsuki grits his teeth and his nostrils flare. Fucking ...he has to stifle a growl in the back of his throat, but the sting of it is still there. That fucker, always playing games. "They'll buy us some time."

"They?" Kirishima asks.

"Shinsou and Ochako. He called her Sweet Cheeks." At Kirishima's obvious confusion, Katsuki explains, "It's something I've called her our whole lives, but those two have never met. He knows I'm here and he knows she helped me. Don't worry about Ochako, Shinsou's not here to hurt her." Shinsou's doing what he has to do to look interested to the Imperial soldiers, and Ochako leading him away to the infirmary on the other side of camp is just what Katsuki needs to slip away. 

Kirishima doesn't say anything, instead helping the unsteady Katsuki up the hill into the scattered woods, where the long tree trunks help mask his silhouette in the fading twilight. He huffs angrily, and runs a hand through his hair as his body starts to ache again. Fuck, he wants to be whole again. Fuck Monoma for being such a good shot. 

"Stay here. I'm going back to get your things." Kirishima says, but Katsuki snatches his hand just as he pulls away. The words get caught in his throat as the nova tries to grasp at his worries, but Kirishima returns his touch with a warm smile. "I told you I'd protect you. I'm not going to take it back. Besides, it's bad news for them to sniff around me, either."

Katsuki still can't find the words to stop him when Kirishima takes back his hand with an almost apologetic look, promising to be back quickly as he turns and takes off. He leaves Katsuki standing there in the tree line, watching his return to the camp with shivering limbs and a sudden desperation for warmth. It's too late to reach out and tell him not to risk it, and it's far too late to think he has any chance of catching him. For a split second, he imagines how easy it would be to leave. To turn and climb this mountain on his own, silently padding through fields of endless white and deadened trees toward some far off destination to recuperate in the peace and quiet of some hot spring or warmer northern town. The rogue also knows how impossible that is when his entire body feels like solid ice and his limbs are heavy with the burden of moving forward anything more than a step. The realization hits him that even if he had the energy and the strength, Kirishima would find him out there one way or another to fulfill that oath. Probably wouldn't even be mad about being left behind.  

Katsuki looks at the small little camp the dragon once called shelter and thinks, if only he hadn't fucked around with the League, if only he hadn't had friends just as trapped as himself in the system… Maybe then, hiding in the ass-crack of the Empire, Katsuki could've found a place to recuperate while the redhead enjoyed the company of human strangers. Maybe then, the two of them could have remained separate, and Katsuki blissfully independent as always. If only he hadn't been cornered so thoroughly. Fuck, when did he get so weak?

From his place on the hill he sees the glint of armor in the campfire's light as they search for him among the blue canvas tents. Shinsou is bright in the darkness, and Ochako leans in to his ear to say something Katsuki has no hope of hearing. Horses neigh and stamp restlessly, perhaps knowing of the dragon that slips around unseen nearby.

It was too late, now, though, for any regrets or wishful thinking. That dark presence lingers on his radar, setting his nerves on edge and prompting him to seek refuge elsewhere. He can almost imagine it urging him on, somewhere further north.

The heat of Kirishima's power rolls into his space from the scene below. He sees him, all red-on-white with Katsuki's cloak once again draped over his shoulder and small leather pack clutched in his hand. The dragon offers a soft touch as he all but drapes the cloak about his shoulders and hooks it on. Then, He looks Katsuki in the eye and says, "Alright. Where should we head first?" 

Katsuki doesn't answer. He simply turns on his heel and releases one last huff of white air into the wind. Ahead of him is the treacherous spine of mountains that the fae and fauna call home, and behind him are the Imperial wolves. 

But Kirishima is there, for better or worse, a few seconds later to guard Katsuki at his side.

 

Chapter Text


 


The first thing Kirishima does is get naked.

“What?” Kirishima fixes him with a sharp look, his shirt already halfway over his head. “You didn’t think I’d ruin my only pair of pants shifting, did you? No, thanks.”

“Whatever,” Katsuki manages through chattering teeth. They’re far enough away from the camp to allow for this, and Katsuki’s taking shelter from the night’s gentle snowfall beneath the pines. The wind rocks them, subtle creaking overhead that does little to distract him from Kirishima’s strip-down. “But let’s get something straight, dragon! We’re only going to stick together until I get my powers back.” Katsuki's put thought of their partnership and Kirishima's offer to the back of his mind. Survival first. At worst, Katsuki imagines spending the winter with Kirishima, but hopefully, if they keep moving north through the Chord they’ll come across a hot springs that’ll give him just enough of his heat back to have him get by without a babysitter. 

Kirishima laughs, but it’s a little flat as he tosses his shirt to Katsuki, who stuffs it into their pack with no mind to fold it. “I get it, you hate being helped. Shut up and deal with it, already, man.”

The nova snorts and crosses his arms. 

It’s odd enough to see someone standing completely naked in the shin-high snowbanks, but nothing lately has quite made sense in Katsuki’s life anyway. Besides, already the snow is sinking into the earth and muddying the ground beneath them as it melts in a defined circle around Kirishima. He looks unconcerned as he takes the rest of his clothes off. Katsuki takes those off his hands, too, and tries his best not to stare. 

That’s easier said than done, as it turns out. Katsuki’s initial impression of Kirishima’s looks hadn’t included the cut of his body. He’s hot, and Katsuki’s realizing in more ways than one. There’s not a single muscle on Kiri’s human form without a purpose, and Katsuki finds himself irritated discovering muscles he didn’t even know existed, particularly in the corded planes on his shoulder blades. Perhaps they don’t on normal humans. His attention fixates for a moment on sharp hip-bones, the right of which has a long vicious scar. The rogue can’t even begin to imagine what might have been strong enough to cause it. Do both his bodies share scars and weaknesses?

Kirishima pulls the ribbon of his hair loose, drawing Katsuki’s eyes back up to his neck. He traces the line of his spine, tongue moving slowly behind his teeth, when he realizes something is off. The bones in Kiri’s spine are too pronounced. They push at his skin, and the skin is discolored. Red. A real red like someone crushed clay and rubbed it into his back. No…that’s what forming bruises look like, all splotched like ink drops on a new canvas. 

Kirishima twists, wrenches his body into an arch, and it’s everything Katsuki can do not to toss himself forward to catch him. 

The dragon doesn’t need him; he catches himself on one bent knee. He’s shifting, and Katsuki watches with thinly veiled awe and horror as the body before him stretches. It looks painful from the way that Kirishima’s eyes have clamped shut, the jerking movements. Bruises bloom and darken like wine stains all across his changing form. Where tan skin moves over a bony frame, patches of hardened red scales appear. They jut out in jagged collections, like clusters of crystals.  Fire pulses like veins along his arms and spines as the scales quickly appear and spread, covering up the white hot ore veins. His long hair melds with the thick armor coating him, his eyes burn in the night. 

Before his eyes a dragon takes shape and thrashes against the earth. A tail like a mace whips out and scores a thick gash into the trunk of a nearby evergreen, and when it connects with a boulder it slices through like a knife carving ice, with clean lines and shattering crunch

Katsuki goes breathless, unconsciously stepping forward. He’s seen this body before, a few times. A body like this has guarded his tent for the past three days but nothing compares to the way it unfurls in front of him with real magic. Kirishima’s scales flutter along the ridge of his spine. The translucent membrane of the beast’s wings reflect the white light of the ground as they fold along his sides.

When Kiri lifts his massive skull, neck arched like a snake ready to strike, and exhales, a long, pained breath of fire turns the clearing from white to muddy black in an instant. The trees shudder and curl under the new pressure. His muzzle is still scrunched up even as Katsuki approaches, and it’s not until he’s right beside his face that Kiri opens those large owlish-eyes. Fuck, they’re bigger than Katsuki’s fists. Infernal light radiates from them, narrowed slits for pupils and unblinking. 

“I don’t bite.”

Katsuki starts, snapped out of his observations and realizes that Kirishima’s talking with that mouth, a mouth completely unsuited for words. Its a voice that’s sweet and accented, a lot of the sounds guttural and throaty. It’s a lot of quick trickery, practiced, between clicking teeth and tongue meant to sound as close to human speech as possible. He must have really spent a long time perfecting it.

“I know that, fuck,” Katsuki snaps. Kiri wouldn’t eat him now. He’d had plenty of opportunity to do so while Katsuki's been laid up in camp. What did these fuckers even eat in this form? Cows and sheep? He tries to remember, but his experiences with dragons were almost strictly limited to their human form, or glamours. 

To that end, he reaches out a hand and draws it over the smooth side of Kiri’s jaw, his nails catching on the slightly raised edges of the dragon’s darkened stone armor. Nothing disrupts this moment, not even Katsuki’s born and bred survival instincts. The cold isn’t even an issue anymore, nor the slick slide of his boots in the mud. Entranced, his inspection moves from Kirishima’s face, down the undular throat, rippling shoulders and on to his wings, which flutter and twitch reflexively when Katsuki brushes against them with his knuckles. 

“If it’s like this, it’ll be easier and faster to move.” Kiri says, an unusual note in his voice as he endures Katsuki’s scrutiny. “Don’t know how I feel yet about being a pack mule, but… well, it’s what the situation calls for.”

Katsuki hums in response.

“You’re, uh, awfully quiet for someone getting to see a dragon up-close for the first time.”

“Not my first dragon,” Katsuki murmurs. Kiri must be surprised, because the scales along his tail flutter like leaves in a strong wind. The dragon keeps quiet, though, shifting his stance to let Katsuki continue to move down his length. “I knew some, before… But I never got to see this. They were both secretive about this form. Wanted to be as human as possible.” 

“Am I… up to your standards?” That odd note comes back, and Katsuki suddenly knows what it is; embarrassment, self-consciousness.  

Katsuki snorts softly. A dragon, embarrassed. Like anything a human could say about him could matter

Hell, Katsuki can’t even think of standards. Not with this raw power coursing under his fingers, the smoothness of dragonscale and sharpness filling his palm. His only singular thought is how utterly beautiful Kirishima’s scales are under the faint light of the stars and the waning moon. He’s had real rubies, held them up to the light, and seen less luster. The way that the scales extend out like untamed fur despite being impenetrable and hard is breathtaking. From a distance, he might even appear deceptively soft, but that would be the last mistake anyone makes. The flexing muscles beneath Katsuki’s touch would personally see to correcting that. 

He doesn’t say any of that, and he notices Kiri watching him from over his shoulder nervously. Maybe his opinion did matter. 

“You’ll do,” Katsuki flashes a rare smile, the ridiculousness of the situation coming over him. A nervous dragon. “In a pinch.”

Oddly enough, Kiri manages to offer return it. It doesn’t show in his teeth, but in the way that his eyes curve like bows gives Katsuki the impression that he’s pleased.

The smile is lost the moment Katsuki asks his next question. “Are we flying?”

“Ah,” Kirishima’s head lowers and nearly touches the dirt. The light of his horns dims a bit. “Even if you were dressed right, had a saddle… I couldn’t do it.”

Katsuki stops moving. “You what?”

“I, uh… can’t fly.” 

When Katsuki doesn’t answer immediately, Kirishima’s face disappears entirely from view. One wing stretches out for Katsuki to look at. He presses his fingertips into the membrane and quietly growls when he realizes that, yeah, this wouldn’t be strong enough to carry a beast as big as Kirishima.

“Downed dragons are dead dragons,” Katsuki says. It’s something that he’d been taught years ago, by someone he’d trusted. Learning how to fight monsters he’d never even hoped of meeting, Katsuki’s still convinced it's sound advice. Logical. He thinks that if anyone knew how to kill a dragon, it would be one of their own kind. 

Kiri snaps his whole body around in one quick movement, and Katsuki suddenly finds himself backing up into a tree to keep out of Kirishima’s way. His mouth sparks with unspent flame, tongue smoldering like a brand, hot and dripping.

That might have been the wrong thing to say.

“I’ve been doing just fine for twenty years. If you think I can’t protect you just because I’m on the ground, you’re dead wrong. ” Kirishima hisses out. “I’m still a dragon.”

Katsuki lowers his chin and stares straight into Kirishima’s eyes. Someone else might have raised their hands in defeat, but Katsuki wasn’t afraid of this dragon. At least, he wouldn’t show it.  

“Protect me? That’s what you’re worried about? Let’s get something straight, real quick, lizard.” Katsuki snarls and pushes his hands against the dragon’s snout. “Not my fuckin’ problem if you can’t fly. The only person who’s ever had my back is me, so don’t take it personally if I say I couldn’t give a damn about your wings. Whether you're a human or a dragon, I’ll take care of myself. I’m the only one who ever has. Got it? You’re just a partnership, a convenience.

Katsuki expects some anger, maybe a disgruntled look, but instead Kirishima’s defensive hunch relaxes just a smidgen. He does seem irritated, and his eyes have narrowed to thin slivers of orange as he sizes Katsuki up again, but he doesn't seem like he's ready to throw in the towel or make Katsuki his dinner, either.  

Then he says, “You’ve got a problem, you know?” 

It’s said so plainly, so without inflection it almost seems kind. Katsuki’s grip tightens on the bridge of Kirishima’s nose, confused at the sudden flip in expectations. “What’s that? Enlighten me, fuckface.”

“You,” he punctuates the word with a heavy bloom of smoke, “have never let anyone in, not in your entire life. You’re fine keeping people around, as long as it’s at arms length. Convenient.

Katsuki doesn’t say anything, hands warming up. He doesn’t like the way Kirishima’s eyes look like they’re laying him bare. Like it’s an observation. He’s used to being insulted, he’s used to being able to fire back. He’s skilled at the fight, but Kiri makes him feel like it’s impossible to dispute it. He’s right, and Katsuki doesn’t know how to handle the sincerity, the almost gentle way that his words flay him open. 

“What’s your point?”Katsuki says. 

The dragon shrugs, a human motion pasted onto a monstrous form. “Just saying, it’s big talk for someone who only managed to get this far by getting help from not only one , but two of his friends. One of whom is an enemy. Stars forbid it if you seem like you care or let them know you needed it.”

Kirishima makes a sharp sound, a laugh, Katsuki realizes, and turns so that he’s not pinned against the tree anymore. He lowers one shoulder and curls his neck low. Katsuki stays still, mind churning, and when he doesn’t come up with anything Kirishima pops him in the shoulder with his snout. “Are we going?”

With gritted teeth and seared pride, Katsuki places a boot on Kirishima’s elbow and hauls himself up onto his neck. He almost immediately slides off, Kirishima dipping to catch him. A wave of déjà vu fogs up Katsuki’s head, half-dead memories of his rescue reminding him, again, how much he’s needed to depend on others. Friends, strangers, dragons. He’s fucking powerless, even as his magic climbs in Kirishima’s presence. The irony of that still chafes.

“Fuckin' hell. This won’t work, wait,” he sighs, exhaustion settling in his bones. Katsuki places their pack in the hollow between his thighs and Kirishima’s neck, and quickly unwinds the red nova sash at his waist. It loops around Kirishima’s throat like a silken collar, but he doesn’t seem to mind even when Katsuki winds it tight around his hands and forces them closer. His forehead presses against the burning hot form, his frustration and tiredness bubbling up to the surface. “Wouldn’t want to freeze my ass off, anyway.”

Kirishima doesn’t add a word, but he does bring the curve of his wing-bones higher. Their added weight against Katsuki’s thighs is both support to keep him in place and irritates him with how perfectly comfortable he is on Kirishima’s back.  

He has a long winter ahead of him.

 

~*~*~*~

 

Travelling on an animal bareback might be one of the most unpleasant experiences a human being can endure. It looks sexy, sure, to be able to control a horse or big cat with nothing but might and mane. It might even display a level of skill others might not have. 

The truth of it is that it depends entirely on the rider’s leg strength and faith in himself. His ability to squeeze the ever living daylights out of his mount’s ribs and pray that he doesn’t run out of stamina before sweat has him sliding off. If you do manage to hang on long enough to reach wherever you’re going, forget standing . The stress of keeping one’s body vertical on a living, breathing, sentient mass of muscle turns one’s legs into jelly, and gives one riding sores like something out of a torture chamber’s manual book. 

Riding with Kirishima is only different in two ways. First, the only lifeline Katsuki has is his sash, but even then the usually soft fabric cuts into his hands the tighter he holds and is a poor excuse for reigns. Two, Kirishima is, thankfully, much more than a sentient mass of muscle. He’s an intelligent being, who might be over-aware of Katsuki’s limitations. 

Over the first two days of their journey together, Kirishima makes multiple stops. Katsuki spends those stops pretending he isn’t slumped against Kiri’s neck, trying to catch his breath. The speed isn’t anything he can’t get adjusted to, in fact it’s a little amazing how swiftly he moves. It’s just sheer effort holding on. With his side still fucked, it’s a miracle Katsuki manages it each and every time. On top of that, he's sure this is Kirishima's slow pace.

The rogue also pretends not to notice how Kirishima’s wings come up to brace him when he slides. It’s easier on his pride if he pretends. 

When they camp —which is, essentially, Katsuki finding a place to lay out and reflect on his choices in life— Kirishima hunts. The first night he manages to catch a fox, a real one, and Katsuki says nothing of the way that it’s charred to hell and back. At least he’d managed to skin it before Kirishima’d gotten torchy. 

The second night, Kiri scares a deer right over a ledge, by accident. Katsuki let Kirishima handle that, the thing too heavy for him to manage skinning in his current state, and looked away when Kirishima practically inhales it for dinner. 

Kirishima on both nights manages to corner Katsuki within his own body, pinning him with a flank and shielding him with a wing, one massive snout tucked under to fill the space with smoke, Katsuki’s personal sauna. He grumbles, hates being treasured, but he’s already had that talk and he doesn’t want to be that fucking ungrateful two days in a row. 

Besides, it does make him feel better. The bruises on his ass thank him every morning. 

It’s the third night when they find the river; Katsuki’s been angling for it since they’d left. It might be the most obvious route to take north, but he figures with Kirishima’s speed he doesn’t have much to worry about.

They’re curled up together on the Merciful River, and Katsuki has their pack spread out before him on the rocks near the water. The chill of the water, ozone-sweet and mulchy, keeps him awake after his dinner and their new furs cushion his ass. Behind him, Kirishima stretches out on the boulder and runs his claws along the side, marking deep grooves. Katsuki doesn’t say anything about it, though the tracker in him warns about leaving too many signposts. Kirishima can’t do anything about the melted snow, but it’s quickly returned by mother nature, and when he sharpens his claws he tends to file down the whole stone with it. If anything, it’ll be taken as a warning.

Their little knife, snatched from outside Ochako’s tent, is only good enough for quick slices. It won’t do well in battle, but hopefully it won’t come to that before Katsuki’s magic returns. His change of clothes and Kiri’s are rolled up tight and placed at the bottom. A little flask for freshwater shines dull and scratched on top of the clothes. He’ll need to refill that. They have some money, too, just in case, with the face of the emperor and his flame on one side and the empress’s ice on the other. There's also a little pouch of herbs that when Katsuki inspects it are a mix of cooking spices and medicine. Ochako's personal stash. Well, she won't be happy about that, but he'll put them to good use.

“We’ll follow the river north, to Mirror Lake.” Katsuki says, counting out the coins in their little pouch. “Someone I know up there might be able to give us a break, maybe even a bath that won't freeze us to death.”

Kirishima doesn’t say anything, but Katsuki feels him shift and press closer.

“You know where that is, right?” Katsuki turns to look over his shoulder. "Mirror Lake?"

 “That’s where the three rivers meet, right? The Sleepless, the Silent, and the Merciful come together at the foot of the mountains.” Kirishima inspects the claws on one hand, facing away from Katsuki as he blows a short stream of fire onto them. The talons temper like glass, like steel waiting to be hammered. "I know where that is." His voice is oddly muted when he answers. Katsuki raises an eyebrow, but if Kirishima's bothered by his stare he doesn't look it. He switches to his other clawed hand and starts in on the manicure.

"...Not that I give a shit, but you're quiet tonight." Katsuki turns about-face and starts stuffing their belongings back into their pack.

Another pause, then a sigh. "Just tired. It may seem like nothing, but raising my temperature that high for three days while on the run drains me." Kirishima snorts, amused. " And you're heavy."

"Excuse me for being a grown-ass man." Katsuki growls. "Told you, you don't have to—"

"I want to, Bakugou." It's still new for him, hearing his name so deep and flame-touched. It's a pleasant and tentative rasp on his ears, but still it somehow manages to fill Katsuki with familiarity, like a stray cat curling up in his lap for the first time. "I want to help you. I know you don't get it, why would you, but this is just how I am. I've never been able to just sit back and watch as people around me get hurt or taken advantage of. It's just my nature to protect.”

“Well, it’s fucking weird. I can't do that,” Katsuki admits, stretching back into Kirishima’s side. Maybe it's the travels that wore him down enough to loosen up his tongue, but it feels easy enough to grumble, "I learned not to trust people the hard way."

Kirishima blows out another line of smoke, polishing the slick golden slide of his nails against the chilly stone. "When you became a nova?" 

Katsuki frowns and closes his eyes. After a long pause, he finally relents and says, “I don’t remember the dying part that much, but I remember getting tossed off the mountain. My own village taking me and throwing me over a waterfall. Sacrificed to the fuckin’ river.” Katsuki’s not sure why he’s even talking about this, the sting of betrayal hot in his chest at the mere mention of it. “So, give me some slack. I can’t afford to fuckin’ trust anyone unless I want to get stabbed in the back. Or shot with arrows.” 

Kirishima moves and snakes his head around so that they can make eye contact, finally. “You know, Ochako could have easily turned you in to those soldiers. It definitely would have made it safer for everyone in her camp. She could have been imprisoned for helping you, considering your crimes.”

“I didn’t fucking do anything!” Explosions pop at his palms.

“Not that anyone knows that. But she trusts you, she knows you wouldn’t do that, and she risked her neck for you. She risked my neck for you. I’m just saying there are good people out there, people who do good things.” The dragon snorts, “And you know she’d never turn on you. You know Ochako would never do that. You trust her."

"Oh, yeah, I trust her. I trust her guilt." He tosses their hunting knife into the dirt, and Kirishima flinches. "See, Lizard Brains, she's from the same village as me. Feels responsible for what happened to me, and in a way she did have a hand in it. She’s so guilty about it she can barely look at me without thinking about it. Probably couldn’t even stand me as a person in the beginning,” Katsuki laughs mirthlessly, "just put up with me to make up for whatever bullshit cloud is hanging over her head. So yeah, I  trust her. I trust her because I know her nature. I know she can't do that to me again because she couldn't live with herself."

His voice bounces back to him from the rocks, and for a long while only the bubbling of the river talk and the chatter of distant fae are his answer. He huffs, runs a hand over his face, and clenches his hands open and closed until the anger in him isn’t so close to the surface. 

 Kirishima narrows his eyes at him, and then lowers his head to his talons. "You don't believe that. Not really." 

"What do you know of what I believe?" Katsuki challenges immediately.

"I know you clung to her in your sleep.” Kirishima says, unblinking, and Katsuki stutters on an indignant denial. Kirishima talks over him before he can even start. “I know you melted when she touched you. I know even though you were in so much pain you could barely see straight, you’d only really stop tossing and turning when she was with you."

Once again, Kirishima has personally stuffed Katsuki’s own words back down his throat, leaving him to struggle and claw inwardly for something, anything, to deny what he’s laying out. He doesn’t want to believe that any of that is true. He knows it is, though, he knows it. No matter what fucked up circumstances came together to make Katsuki, that’s all they were; fucked up ideals and backwards villages, and children just trying to survive. He can’t hold on to his hatred like that. At least, not for her. 

The dragon smiles again, eyes curling in amusement before completely closing for the night. “The truth is you’ve been a lot of mean talk… and a lot of soft action. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep in mind that we’re not all here to fuck you over.”

Katsuki doesn't know what to say to that. A part of him is still desperate to argue, but that soft fatigue Kirishima just railed him about is there again, melting him back into scale and heat with a defeated sigh. So, he stays quiet and turns his head away from Kirishima. The dragon hums to himself before his wing folds around the nova again and shuts out all the cold light.

Katsuki can argue in the morning, when he's at his peak. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

Katsuki is awake when the day and night meet.

At first, it’s a slow start. Something shivers and vibrates beneath his cheek, and vaguely the rogue becomes aware that it’s not the rasp of Kirishima’s breathing, but that of his growl, hissing and sputtering out like a busted steam valve. He’s only gotten a chance to hear it once before, on a visit in the capitol where such things are commonplace, but it seemed unlikely even to his sleep-addled brain that Kirishima could have taken him all the way there through the night without ever waking him.

Katsuki jerks up with a hiss of his own, tender and sore from the previous day’s ride. His hand flies to his side where no sword waits. He curses, looking around camp for the imminent threat. 

When he doesn’t immediately see one he smacks a hand against Kiri’s side. “What the fu—”

“Shh,” Kirishima hushes, going from a curled ball to a lithe and stretching line. The dragon edges to the river, head cocked to the side as he scans the opposing bank and up the winding waterway. “Do you hear that?”

Katsuki tilts his head, listens. “What the hell are you hearing?” It wasn’t a question of if there was a sound or not —Katsuki knew better than to doubt a dragon’s senses.

“Crying,” is all he says, before tearing off down their side of the riverbank. 

“Hey!” Bakugou shouts, following a ways behind him, but their levels of speed are so vastly different he might as well not even be moving. “Don’t fucking leave!”

Kirishima doesn’t even pause, scaling boulders and dodging trees until he's so far away on the horizon it’d be more dangerous to call out to him than to sit and fucking wait. Katsuki brings his hands up to his eyes and presses, irritated and still sleep-fogged. Now, he’s also really fucking cold. 

Something soft brushes up at his side, and silver fur fluffs beneath his hands as the three foxes, who Katsuki had assumed had left out of frustration back at the camp, re-materialize around him. Their presence isn’t a comfort —they’re cold, and the wind whips through them despite the clear and gentle morning— but Katsuki still manages to growl out, “Good morning to you, too.”

They nip playfully at his sleeves. One bends and snatches his pack from the ground by the strap and darts off in Kirishima’s direction. Alarmed, Katsuki’s hand puffs with smoke, but the little thief stops only a few paces away, turns to look at him with wide watery eyes, and waits for him to catch up.

“Yeah, fuck it. Fine.” He grumbles and snatches his cloak tighter. 

Kirishima had made the riverbank look so easy to climb, practically slithering over it. Katsuki’s feeling better after three more days of healing, but in honesty it just feels like he’s traded out older wounds for the new. Still, he’s not as winded as he goes, sliding through the pebbled shoreline and supported by a fox once or twice. When he does catch his breath, one leg straddling either side of a downed, white-washed log, he finally hears what Kirishima's been alarmed by.

Loud splashing, hissing, and wild growls. Katsuki jolts from his seat and pushes through the last bit of a tall embankment. Down the river, Kirishima is half submerged, wings snapping out, useless but intimidating and doubling his size. Something long and dark is beneath him, one back foot clutching the edge of it and rocking it unsteadily as he tries to keep himself between it and the two anzus trying to claw through him.

Bodies somewhere between lion and eagle, the anzu aren’t a match in terms of size for Kiri. They’re covered in oily black feathers, and sparking blue light flashes through their power veins, sickly and bubbling like the keryne he’d hunted before. They’re usually solitary creatures, but these two are oddly coordinated, swiping at Kiri and dodging when he spits fire uselessly along the water they take cover near. He’s managed to singe one of them, taking a whole wing down on one in blackened precision, but these fuckers are big and fast even on the ground, and apparently pain-proof. They want what Kirishima’s protecting desperately , darting in when he turns his head to follow one attacker and raking claws across his side when he tries to focus on the other. For whatever reason, he’s not doing long streams of fire, just short vicious bursts.

Katsuki gets closer and hears the sobbing. Kirishima has his body shielding a wooden boat, and a small bundle of white is curled up defensively in its hollow. 

Shit, it’s a kid. Katsuki slides down the hill, shoves down his discomfort. The fox still has his pack, and the knife with it, so he’ll have to make due with rescuing the kid barehanded. Kirishima’s trying not to bake her in radial heat.

“Hey, Lizard, I’m behind you!” He shouts. Kirishima’s tail twitches in response, slamming down into the earth with a forceful thud. The anzu nearest him jumps back to avoid being crushed as Bakugou comes closer, edging into the lapping maw of the river, while its broken wing trails blood behind.

When he’s up against Kirishima’s flank he slaps it twice, one foot stepping into the boat beneath him. His weight doesn't even budge the dragon's hold. From between Kirishima’s legs, the anzu are much larger and violent than they’d appeared from above, venomous spittle and ear-splitting screeches assaulting Katsuki and spinning his head. The corruption that spills out from their rotting sides spoils the air. It must be driving them mad, because Katsuki for the life of him cannot fathom any reason picking a fight with a monster like Kirishima. He’d never be that hungry, or insane.

The little girl is curled up so tight Katsuki can see the bones of her spine pressing through her threadbare shirt. She flinches and jerks away as soon as he cups her shoulder, and Katsuki’s amazed that even basking under all of this dragonfire, she’s ice cold to the touch. 

“I’m going to take the brat, Kirishima.” Katsuki slips his hands under her small form, ignoring her yelp as he hefts her up into his arms. She doesn’t like that too much, shoving at him, her broken nails clawing at his throat, but even in his current state it’d be downright depressing if a little girl got the upper hand on him. “Don’t get fucked up by that gross shit pouring out of them. Burn it all up.” 

“Oh,” comes Kirishima’s dangerous reply, “I will. Just move.” 

Katsuki doesn’t need to be told twice. It was one thing to have a dragon beneath him, but another danger entirely to have an infuriated one above him, practically bubbling like a lava vat. 

With one hand holding the back of the little girl’s head to his throat and the other tightly wrapping the edge of his cloak around her tiny, wracked frame, Katsuki steps backwards out of the boat. He keeps his eyes on both beasts, but with his hands on their prize, Kirishima is free to abandon the boat making his footing unsteady and uses the full width of his body to spread the distance between them. They intend to follow him onto the land, and Katsuki knows that once they do Kirishima will not hesitate to evaporate them.

The further Katsuki gets from the fight, the brighter the dragon glows. His ore veins, the glowing lines of power that pulse through his arms and spine, burn with so much heat that even Katsuki is balking. The river sizzles when it rushes up to meet him, fills the air with delicious steam. Katsuki turns his back to it the instant it’s safe to do so, shielding her from the mirage heat, and its precious few moments after that Kirishima is setting the river aflame.

Katsuki takes her back to the fallen tree trunk and sits her down. She tries to dart from his grasp, nearly falls off the back, but he holds fast. “Hey, hey! I’m not here to hurt you.”

She’s not listening, hiccuping sobs and tears coating gaunt cheeks. She’s freezing, her fingertips are blue like the beds of her red —red?— eyes. Whoever she is and wherever she’s come from, they’d only given her this over-sized tunic to keep warm with and not thought to feed her enough to have it attempt to fit. Her body is covered in scratches, wrapped loosely in bandages, and it looks like her long hair might have been cut or yanked out near the back of her head. “I-I’m — don’t touch me— it’s—”

“Shh,” Katsuki soothes, running a thumb over her cheek. The movement smears dirt and salt in a line along her face. “We’re not gonna do any of that. I’m not in the business of hurting kids.”

Kirishima is behind him now at a good distance. The little one’s eyes widen in a brief moment of fear, but she doesn’t move. Might be frozen, metaphorically and literally; something like Kirishima could catch her in an instant for fun.  

Katsuki knows what his companion is doing. He’s making sure that he's giving her space. He sits down in what he probably thinks is the most non-threatening position a dragon can assume, and waits for Katsuki's okay.

She’s shivering in his hands now, so he warms them, gently. When she realizes what he’s doing, baleful apple-red eyes tilt up at him through whisper-thin eyelashes. He takes her in, all forty inches of her with cuts and bruises, and feels anger beating against his breastbone like a caged animal. 

“You’ve got a name, right?” He asks, bending down to eye-level. 

“...E-Eri.” She’s fixated on Kirishima over his shoulder, specifically on  his sharp mouth.

Katsuki lets out a soft breath through his nose before pushing her hair out of her face and eyes. She whimpers right at the moment he feels a bump.

When her hair is out of the way, he sees a small ringed hump, or horn, on the right side of her forehead, and even the slightest brush of his palm sends electricity coursing down his arm. He swallows hard, fights through the initial gut reaction to toss her away, and catches sight of two blue and gold cubes pinched into her earlobes. His heart drops to his stomach. 

The little girl must sense it, because she’s squirming again. Katsuki lets her go, and before she loses her nerve he wraps her in his cloak, ignoring the cold for the moment. 

“My name is Katsuki,” he says, then angles a thumb over his shoulder, “And that idiot lizard over there—”

“Hey!”

“—That’s Kirishima. He’s a big softie, so don’t cry, okay? Hell, he won’t even hurt me and I deserve it.”

She still doesn’t offer anything but sobs and darting eyes but Katsuki doesn’t miss the way that she buries her face into his fur collar and shudders, drying her face and hiccuping. 

Katsuki and Kirishima exchange a glance, both unsure. In that brief moment, though, the stress of her ordeals must have overcome her, because the sudden movement of her body collapsing backwards forces Katsuki to throw himself over the log to catch her.

“Shit,” Kirishima slinks up and gingerly pulls at Katsuki’s tunic until he, and the girl with him, are upright again in the snow. She’s completely unconscious, but her small frame still trembles with tears. 

Katsuki’s grip tightens. The thinness of her wrists and the almost non-existent weight of her body in his arms is somehow heavier than all the shit he’s been through in the last week combined, and Katsuki can’t bring himself to let go. 

 

Chapter Text

The first thing they have to do when they make it back to their little camp is to get her out of her wet tunic, so they do. Katsuki’s efficient and swaps out her shitty rag of a shirt for Kirshima’s plush blue velvet one, and it swallows her whole. He doesn’t have any replacement bandages for her, but as far as he can tell they’re mostly drying in Kirishima’s heat, anyway. His companion is quick to fill him in that she doesn’t smell of blood or sickness, and quickly Katsuki moves on from that.

“Alright, Lizard. You can’t be too close or it’ll hurt her worse. Fuck, what happened to her?” Katsuki curses as he lays her out along the deer skin. Kirishima responds by skirting away until Katsuki’s only feeling the cool, like the beginning of spring has come only to this part of the river. It wouldn’t do shit for him if he were trying to heal, but at least this way her body will readjust properly to its own heat without going into shock.

She’s still out cold, but responds when he sits down beside her. She curls against his thigh with a whimper, and Katsuki does his best to wipe the hopeless look from his face while Kirishima watches worriedly from the side. It’s eating the lizard up being forced to hang back at the edges of the rocks. Katsuki can tell, because he twitches and paces whenever he hears a new sound or noise.

“Calm down," he barks, "when she’s got her color back I’ll let you in. For now just keep the heat coming and an eye out for any more shitty birds. They wanted her somethin’ fierce.” 

“Something was wrong with them,” Kirishima answered, prowling in a line back and forth. “They were… gross. Same kind of gross that Ochako pulled out of you.”

“What’d they have to say about her?” Katsuki nods to the little one, to Eri, and places a hand on her forehead. The rogue is careful to avoid her horn as he checks her temperature. He’d be relieved if she had a fever, but unfortunately it’s the opposite. She’s chilled right down to the bone, and lucky to be alive.  

“Just that she wasn’t ‘mine’,” He accents his words with a flick of his tail, sending snow shooting across the hardened ground, “and her father sent them.”

“Well, that just means that whoever he is? They’re more scared of him than they are of you.” Katsuki runs a hand over his mouth as he thinks. What kind of ‘father’ couldn’t afford to dress his kid properly, or sent violent demons like the anzu to collect his kid? The better question was how he got messed up monsters like that to obey. 

Tracing a nail lightly over one of the dice earrings she’s been pierced with, Katsuki’s mind flashes with blue fire. Fuckin’ League dice. 

“I’m not completely sure since I’m so fucked up right now,” He growls, “but I think her earrings are enchanted.” It’s a logical guess, since he’s held others like them in his hands before. They’ve always been imbued with some kind of energy, like a low buzzing in his ears that drains at his concentration more than anything. It’s never been a powerful or toxic sort of hex, but a hex all the same. 

Kiri takes a single step forward, remembers he’s been quarantined, and throws himself onto the ground like a two-ton sack of potatoes. “With what?”

“No idea,” Katsuki says, and privately thinks but it can’t be anything good. 

Katsuki stands and wads up the old rag she’d been wearing and dips it in the river. Then he brings it over to Kirishima, sopping wet still, and says, “Do you think you can warm the water? Without drying it out? But don’t let it get too hot. She needs to be lukewarm where she’s most cold. Too hot and it’ll hurt her.”

“I think I can manage that,” Kirishima reaches out with one scaled paw and gently grasps the tunic. It disappears in his closed grasp, so great is his reach. “How do you know how to do all of this?”

Katsuki shrugs and waits with his hips cocked, unconsciously leaning in to the dragon’s side where the heat is scorching from this close. “Ochako’s had to bail me out of a few nasty winters. I was reckless as hell when I was in school.” 

“Some things don’t change.” Kirishima gives him a leering look, and Katsuki ignores the way he bumps his shoulder knowingly. 

”When we met back up again for the first time after my death, six years later, her caravan set up shop on the Sleepless River. You could see the golden light coming up from their tents all the way from the capitol walls. That was unusual for that time of night, so Shinsou and I were sent to find out what was up after patrols. Turns out some of the kids in her camp had gone missing in the local woods, so the two of us had to track them down. I landed myself in the river grabbing one and got frostbite for my troubles. Ochako helped me warm up, and I healed pretty quickly after that.” Now Katsuki’s face is fully pressed into his scaly arm, sighing in contentment. “Some of those kids though, the ones we found… they weren’t so lucky.”

“You think she’ll be okay? Eri.” Kirishima asks, making a low krrrrring noise between his teeth. He passes Katsuki the warmed shirt, and without replying the nova goes back over to Eri. Curled over her prone form, he drapes the shirt over her toes, where it's needed most, and collapses again on the furs.  

“I think she’s safe from the cold now,” he says, “but I don’t know if she’ll be okay. Guess that depends on what she’s gone through."

Even from this distance, Katsuki is aware of how Kirishima’s gaze sweeps over the banadages, how the distant look in his eyes is a hint for how he’s remembering her terror. 

In Katsuki's experience, any child willing to run from their father might have a reason for it. 

His hands clench at his side. 

This kid was going to be bad for his health, he could feel it.

 

~*~*~*~

 

It isn’t for another hour that he sees her skin return to a normal color, her nail-beds and fingertips going from a deathly white blue to a pinkish hue. In that time Katsuki’s had his own brand of restlessness overtake him, prowling the pines for dead branches or dying ones that Kirishima can dry out. Together, they make a little fire on the stone, a rock circle keeping the burning twigs contained.

With this fire set, Kirishima makes an executive decision to go hunting and check on their trail. The pair of rabbits he brings back are cleaned, cut, and speared by the time Eri opens her eyes. 

Kirishima notices first, raising his head up comically high with a sweet chirrup, and Katsuki turns. Eri’s bunched up in his cloak, disoriented, but otherwise moving. It’s a few minutes before she really rouses, her eyes focusing in on Katsuki’s hunched over back as he stokes the flames with his bare hands. She’s not fleeing, so that’s a good sign, but neither he nor Kirishima make to speak to her, in case the peaceful lull placed on her is broken. 

Then, a quiet rumbling noise fills the little camp from right around her stomach, and Katsuki has to hide a laugh in the crook of his elbow. 

He holds out a rabbit leg to her, and the smell of it even has his mouth watering, some of the precious herbs from Ochako’s private stash rubbed into the meat. He’d wanted something more substantial than the taste of fire for his meal.

“Hungry?” He tilts his head, wagging the skewer. 

At first, she doesn’t move. The cloak tightens around her, and even that simple action seems to shock her, a little jolt running through her as she realizes she’s still in his cloak. Her eyes are twice the size that they should be as they flit between Katsuki’s face and Kirishima on the other side of the fire pit. She’s assessing the danger but she must realize that if they’d wanted to hurt her they would have done so by now.

One tiny, unsteady step at a time, Eri drags herself and his cloak to the edge of the fire. Katsuki breaks off the end of the stick so it's less for her to hold, and she takes it from him like a rabbit would not, with a swift strike and desperate touch. She gobbles it up, not a single word or noise between them, until she’s gnawed it down. She mostly picks around the bones, not sure what else to do with it, before Katsuki takes it and chucks it at Kiri. With frightening speed, the morsels are snapped from the air with a loud whoosh and click. They'd be nothing more than a toothpick for him, but Eri’s face is slack like Katsuki’s shown her a magic trick.

“Still hungry?” Kirishima asks, tongue working the side of his mouth. “You can have more, you know.”

Eri blinks, returning to herself. Katsuki rubs his hand over his mouth to hide his burgeoning smile, because he’s not smiling, and doesn’t say a word as she picks another piece from their dinner. This time around she’s more delicate. Cautious, less starved.

The rogue takes that to be as good a sign as any to start asking questions. 

But, fuck, where to begin? Hey, where’d you get the earrings? Is your father a monster? How the fuck did you get out here in a rag? When was the last time you ate? Who are you?

There are so many questions, too many things to consider, that Katsuki blanks out. He just growls quietly to himself, frustrated. 

Kirishima seems to understand him, and crawling low on all fours, scoots across the rocks until he’s within bopping distance. As he waddles his haunches sway, more akin to an overfed cat than any monster, and it really ruins his whole apex predator vibe. Still, his head stays low to the ground and he keeps a good few paces between her and him for her own comfort before asking, “Do you like rabbit? They’re small for me, but I really like the stew they make.”

Eri shrugs her shoulders and with a quiet voice she replies, “It was good.” Her tiny voice is scratchy and parched, and Katsuki immediately rummages through their bag for the water flask. At last, a real response.

Oh, Kirishima’s pleased. His tail drifts and churns up the snowmound behind him, casting diamond powder into the bright morning air. “What kind of things do you like to eat, Eri?”

She looks down at her hands, considering it. Her long hair falls over one side of her face until she finds her answer. “I don’t know.”

Kirishima’s mouth opens for what, Katsuki assumes, is a gentle response—

“I’ve eaten a lot of different things, but my father called them all ‘scraps’.”

—and snaps shut immediately. His emotive tail slams into the earth, hard, and a large crack splits the rock in one giant scar. Katsuki looks away and unclenches his hands, molten hatred pouring over the metal walls he's tried to build around his heart. He's apparently got some cracks in his armor he needs to fill.

Their reactions have caused her some distress. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

Katsuki rounds on her. "You don't apologize. You didn't do anything wrong. He's an idiot who dropped his tail too hard, don't fuckin' mind him and eat more." He jabs a finger at their remaining food. She flinches, unsure, until he's practically shoving another skewer into her hands. "Not a request."

"What he's trying to say is," Kirishima softly explains, "We would really like it if you'd eat more."

"And show me your hands and feet," Katsuki grunts.

"My feet?" Eri asks, sticking her legs out.

"Yeah, bend your toes for me." Katsuki leans his face into his hand. She does what he asks, and he's satisfied when he sees her move them all. "Anything numb? Not working? Hurt when you stood up?"

"No?" She doesn't know why he's asking, but as long as she doesn't feel pain then Katsuki's satisfied. 

"You tell me if something hurts." He orders, and she understands with a jerky nod. 

Reaching forward with his hands, Katsuki touches the banked coals of the fire and rearranges the logs that have broken apart. The flames lick deliciously at his skin while he rebuilds their small house, adding new twigs to the fire and making it so that more air flows between the pieces. Kirishima backs his body up and moves to Katsuki's side.

"What do we do now?" The big lizard snakes his neck around Katsuki as he idly holds an embered branch between his palms.

"We keep going north." Katsuki answers simply, but he looks back over to Eri and asks, "Unless you've got somewhere to go? Any mom we can take you to?"

She ignores him at first, watching the fire snake around his palms as he thinks. When he snaps the branch in two, she wakes up from her trance with a jolt, eyes flying up to his scowling face.

"What? Never seen magic before?"

“Only m-m-monsters…” she stutters, and Katsuki feels a twinge of irritation spike through him. “...are you a monster?”

“He’s not.” Kirishima must be getting very good at reading Katuski’s moods, or perhaps he’s just that good at defusing tensions between people in general, because he’s quick to burden Katsuki with the weight of his tail, pressing him into his seat as he answers for him. “He’s what you call a nova. They’re not monsters.”

No… Nova… ” Eri tries. 

“That’s right,” Kirishima practically purrs, tail curling tighter around Katsuki’s waist. Katsuki frowns. “Sometimes bad things happen to people, and the fae, or dragons like me, well… we’ll give those people our powers to make it better. Bakugou’s one of those people. Now he uses his powers to help others, right Bakugou?”

There’s an imploring and insistent edge to the glint in Kirishima’s eyes, so Katsuki grits his teeth and says, “Yeah, something like that.”

That’s the first he’s ever heard of dragons creating novas, though. For a lot of people the fae are monsters, and dragons among the fae, but for Katsuki, who grew up with one painfully human dragon, he’d likened them to something else… something smarter than the everyday demon or ghost. Higher. Having met with Kirishima’s stark intelligence, his loving nature, it’s hard for Katsuki to consider him as anything less than a person.

People don't give themselves away like that. They just fuckin’ don’t. To give your heart to someone, your very fuckin’ essence handed over… well. It just didn’t happen. At least, it only happened to Katsuki once and look where that’d fuckin’ gotten him. He sure as hell didn’t give all of himself back to anyone. It's easier for him to blame it on a demon than to imagine something kinder like Kiri...

Kirishima’s still talking, his weight pinning Katsuki’s movements as he tries to explain to a little girl, in the kindest way possible, how the fae take pity on dead humans and turn them into something else. Something different, unwanted, inhuman—

He snarls, and suddenly throws Kirishima’s tail from his body. The effort makes his muscles twinge, but something ice cold floods into Katsuki as he stands, shoves away from them both. He’s got to go, he’s got to leave this conversation before he says or does something really scary, so he makes for the tree line with stomps and simmering rage. 

“Bakugou?” Kirishima asks, scales rattling in alarm as he twists and watches Katsuki leave. “Bakugou, where are you—”

"For fuck's sakes…" he whispers under his breath, wiping clammy hands down his face with disgust. "I'll be right fucking back, just going for a godsdamn walk. I need to cool off." He tries to keep his tone as neutral as he can get it when it feels like there's death in his veins. It's not like the usual heat. It’s more of a cold fury.

Katsuki is used to anger, but this burst of emotion comes with lacerating pain. This is why he’d closed himself off, but apparently Kirishima’s empathy is contagious, worms deep between the cracks Katsuki’s tried so desperately to pave up. It’s exhausting, feeling, and everything about this feels so wrong, especially that the things he's mad at —the culprits that deserve all this shaking wrath— aren't even here to fucking receive it. Disembodied ghosts, memories of people who could barely be considered human rear their ugly heads calling him monster, dangerous. He knows Kirishima doesn’t mean anything by it, fuck, doesn’t he know, but he’s this close to blowing up at him for calling him —and, gods, Eri, a child— anything less than human. His heart’s thrumming, aching, pulsing like tribal drums with enough adrenaline to rouse the dead from their rest. A heart that isn’t his. Hands clench tightly into fists at his sides, his blunt nails drawing red crescents where they nest sharp into his flesh.  

It's not his fault, his logical mind says, but the words have brought on unpleasantness that Katsuki desperately wants to destroy. How could Kirishima —empathetic and caring Kirishima— have told a child that the fae created monsters out of the deceased? Like it was nothing out of the ordinary? Just another fucking game they played when they got bored of fucking up some other shitty bastard's life?

Children are not scapegoats.

Gods, it makes him furious. Makes him glad he doesn’t have his fucking powers so he can't set this whole fucking place asunder, even as the thought makes his stomach clench in disgust. 

He lets out a groan and rubs his knuckles over his eyes with a deep breath in. It releases as a growl, directed at the stick that snaps some paces away, his crimson glare piercing straight into dragon scales.  

Kirishima raises his large paw from the branch he'd broken and took another cautious step closer, as if Katsuki were something volatile even in this reduced state. Katsuki looks for Eri behind him and frowns when all he sees is a bare back and power veins glowing at low light. "Where's the brat?" 

"I told her to stay right by the fire and think about if she wants to tell us anything. She's okay for now." 

Katsuki growls. "That's not okay, Lizard! What if more of those fucking anzu come back and try to take her again? One of us should be watching her and I told you I would be back in just one godsdamned—"

"Bakugou," Kiri says slowly, halting his advance, "I'm sorry."

"You're sorry? The fuck are you sorry for?!" He gripes, the ice in his chest being dislodged by a measure of disbelief. "You're not the one who should be sorry. It's those godsdamn fae and their fuckin'... ugh!" Letting that groan linger in the air, Katsuki cross the distance between them and places his hand against Kirishima's heat. It grows warmer to accommodate him. That extra couple degrees helped melt whatever anger still clings to him, softening his tension until Katsuki is once more leaning into his side. 

Kiri looks at him with those kind eyes of his.  "You're allowed to be angry," he says, tail swishing with a soothing rustle through the fallen snow. "What happened to you was awful and I know it must be frustrating for you to hear it so dumbed down, but she needs to know. She needs to know she’s not a monster. I think...I think she might be one of you." 

That brat? A nova? The idea makes rage boil just beneath the surface again, straining at his exhausted senses as he looks to the dragon in mortified confusion. "The fuck'd you figure that? She didn't have a mark." He'd been focused on finding wounds, but he'd have to be fucking blind to miss a nova's mark; they sit black as night over where a person's heart should be, and tell the story of how they lost it for all the world to see. 

No mark, no death, no nova. Simple as that.

Kirishima shrugs beneath him. "Her heart's not hers, the same way yours isn't. She's got as much magic in her that you do, and if you were at peak, you'd know it."  

Katsuki feels his anger bristle again, but it deflates just as quickly. How could she be a nova without a mark? The hell kind of creature had given her a heart without leaving an epic behind? Without her being dead? His mind is too fogged from Kirishima's heat to ask that, though, too clouded with his own feelings to worry as much about her. 

Instead, he looks the lizard dead in the eye and says, "What about me? Look at my heart like you did hers and tell me if it was a fae or a demon that made me?” Kirishima looks away and Katsuki can do nothing but sigh. "Don’t wanna say? No worries, I already fucking know. Just some demon playing around with a dead boy’s body. We're inhuman little spawns, only good for destroying things. Unwanted, unloved, just fuckin’ toys for—"

"It's not…!" The dragon pauses to carefully comb his words. "The radiance... that’s what its called, the transfer...it's not entirely what you think. Maybe sometimes it is," he states, "it’s not supposed to be warped like that. It’s supposed to be done together. It’s supposed to be a choice, but when you see someone dying... Most of the time the fae really do just want to help…" 

"Bullshit," Katsuki spits, standing up from his heat. "Next you'll be telling me that demons were trying to invite Eri over for dinner." 

"Oh, no, you really should look out for demons. They're meaner than you are, most times." 

For some reason, Katsuki laughs at that, and can't help slapping his scales. "Fuck you, Kirishima. This is serious."

"I am serious," he continues, voice tense. “Listen, giving your heart to someone, or something… it’s hard. It’s powerful, and meaningful, and full of purpose. It’s supposed to be a relationship. It’s supposed to be about trust, and care, and strength. It’s a thing dragons have been doing for centuries and I didn’t— We didn’t know it’s become so—” Kirishima cuts himself off, frustrated, “A lot of these seem to happen when people are dying, yes, but… that’s because the fae can’t help it. They see people hurting and they… they…”

Kirishima’s voice mutes out, lost among the quiet snow and watchful forest. Whatever retort Katsuki has for his rambling suddenly also goes quiet.

Kirishima chokes up. Katsuki can’t even lift his face, afraid that he’ll see something entirely too human on Kirishima’s stone-scale expression. Slowly, he runs his hands along the scales of his long throat, idly scratching at the edge of the underplates until the sweet crackle of fire in Kiri’s chest is calm again. What the fuck am I doing? He wonders silently, moving his face from Kirishima’s shoulder to the side of his throat. 

“They don’t know any better.” The dragon whispers eventually. “They don’t know how people treat you guys. If they did, if they knew what kind of life their novas would have to live… maybe death would have been kinder, but…” 

“They see people hurting… and they can’t just sit back and watch.” Katsuki says. His tongue works slowly behind his teeth, his mind moving along with Kirishima’s words as their weight sinks into him. Like you, he thinks, they can’t hold themselves back from saving someone. 

Suddenly, Katsuki is all too aware of the dragon’s chest beneath his hands, the slow-simmering flame that roars and makes its home in a hearth of black and red stones. He is, suddenly, all too aware of the lack of heartbeat.  

You couldn’t stop yourself, either.

Katsuki pushes back and takes in a deep breath. This isn’t a topic that he's equipped to handle. Katsuki feels like this is something really private, really intimate, and he’s not sure he’s ready or capable of touching this part of Kirishima without breaking him. For a beast like Kirishima, suddenly his companion seems as if he’s formed of glass, fragile and tense and all-together too precious and weak for hands like Katsuki’s. His hands clench, nails raking over stoneflesh and catching on nothing as he looks for the words to say. 

He’s not supposed to know this. He can’t understand it, it hurts too much to think about. But in all of that, Katsuki imagines, that Kiri might be the one hurting the most. When he touches him, he feels Kirishima’s pain on his skin like a fresh layer of snow, cold, almost weightless, but something, for him, that cannot be pushed to the side. 

“Alright, Kiri,” Katsuki says, reaching up to wrap a hand around Kirishima’s big horns to lead him down. Kirishima places his wide face in the palms of Katsuki’s two hands and waits, cattish eyes wide and vulnerable and waiting. “I get it. We’ll… we’ll fuckin’ come back to this later, okay? I’m saying I hear you, but we’ve got a lot of shit on our plates right now. You feel me?” A small nod, but the storm still lingers in his eyes, the ache still fresh in Katsuki’s hands. “If you wanna talk about this we can, I’ll let you bend my ear, or whatever, but right now? There’s a little nova girl out here with some cursed earrings. It’s really fuckin’ cold out here, and I’m still a wanted man. I’ll try not to lose my temper and you’ll… well, you’ll just keep being you.” He takes in a deep, grounding breath and lets it eke out of him. “I feel like I’m half out of my mind will all the crazy shit that’s happened to me this week and I’m this close to losing it. Probably would have without you. So, you think we can both keep this shit together long enough to get somewhere safe?”

“Yeah,” there’s a fond smile there in the curl of his eyes, “yeah, ok, but what’s the plan for that?”

Katsuki rubs his face with both hands, running one over the surprisingly smooth snout. Kirishima’s blowing smoke trails between them, his purring so slight Katsuki can only feel it between his hands when they press harder. “Well, even if her dear ol’ dad doesn’t send any more monsters after her, she’s going to have plenty trying to eat her to take that heart for themselves. What do you wanna do?”

“We can’t take her just anywhere,” Kirishima says, immediately.

“No shit,” Katsuki snorts,  “I didn’t waste the entire morning keeping her alive just to toss her out at any random fuckin’ village. The fuck do I look like to you? No, I was thinking we take her up the river with us.”

“To your friend?” Kirishima asks, and lets Katsuki mount him without a complaint.  

“My teacher,” Katsuki corrects. “He’s an asshole, but he’s good at taking in strays. Knows how to handle nova brats, at least. She’ll be safe there. Any complaints?”

“No, I trust you,” Kirishima says.

Katsuki’s heart thumps once, twice, and doesn’t stop until he sees Eri by the fire looking up at their approach. He tries to wipe off the embarrassed red flush across his cheeks because, honestly, why the fuck does he feel so embarrassed over such a simple thing?

“Sorry, Eri, I found him.” Kirishima states, and Katsuki slides to the ground. “Were you scared we left?”

The little girl looks down, runs a hand through the front of her hair and tugs on the locks in front of her eyes. “Not really. You left all of your things here. You’d have to come back for those.”

Katsuki gently raps her on the head with his knuckles, and she opens her mouth in protest. “That’s wrong. We didn’t come back for the things. We came back for you.

Her little mouth screws up into a worried line, hands on her head. “Are you… okay?”

Katsuki blinks, sighs, and puts his hands on his knees as he brings himself down to her level. “I’m fine. Just got a little heated about something Kiri said, nothing you did. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to travel with other people, and it can be overwhelming.” 

“Oh. I get it,” she replies. “Like too much noise.”

“Or the wrong kind of noise. Listen, Eri, do you know what a warden is?” He waits a moment for that worried line to settle into a confused frown before he continues. “No? Well, they’re like knights.”

In an instant, life flares into her eyes, turning muddy red into an excited pink. “Knights… like heroes in stories?”

He catches Kirishima’s glance, that idiotic dragon’s smile of his, and relents. “Yeah, kinda like that. Well, I went to school to be one of those. I’ve got magic, and a big scary dragon. So what I’m saying is… it’s my job to protect you, and that’s what I’m gonna do, okay? If you don’t want to tell me where you came from, or what happened to you, you don’t have to. I am gonna do my job either way. I might be a little scary sometimes, and we might see some scary things, but both me and Kirishima are going to do our best to get you somewhere safe. Can you let us do that?”

After a while, she nods.

“Good. Now, we’re going to pack up camp. Let’s get the hell out of…”

 Tears begin to well up on her faint lashes, and Katsuki holds back a groan. What the fuck did he do now?

“I… I had a k-knight,” she begins, and Kirishima steps closer to hear, “I was in a really dark place for a long time with other m-m-monsters but I...and he…” She disappears into the fur of Katsuki’s cloak once again. “He saved me from my father, but when he put me in the-the boat, the birds,” the anzu, Katsuki guesses, “He got hurt because of me. I don’t know what happened to him after that. What if you get hurt, too?”

Oh, gods, this is why he’s got shutters around his heart. He feels weakness coming on like a snowstorm, suffocating and deep.

“Well, I’m not worried.” Katsuki rumbles and takes her face between his palms, squishing her cheeks until she looks to him through a layer of saltwater. “I’m meaner, bigger, and way scarier than anyone else and my dragon might be a godsdamn pushover, but no one but you and me get to know that. Are you gonna tell them?”

“N-no?”

“Right, so there’s nothing to worry about. They’ll take one good look at Kirishima and go running for the hills. Try saying it, Ki-ri-shi-ma.”

“K-Kirishu— Kiri,” She settles on.

The dragon preens, arching his neck. “Kiri is fine. And that’s Bakugou Katsuki, but that’s probably too hard to say.”

It is, evidently, by the way that she stumbles over it. Unlike Kirishima, who’d learned and reinvented the common language for fun to work around his tongue and teeth, a child as small as Eri might have trouble with the trickier consonants. “Kazu— Kacchuki—”

“Kacchan,” Katsuki demands.

“Kacchan,” Eri mulls over it, “Okay. Kacchan.”

Kastsuki ignores the small snicker of amusement from his dragon and lifts Eri up into the air. The cloak still drags just barely over the ground until he drops her into the depression between Kirishima’s bony shoulder blades. She's disgruntled being so high up from the ground, but Kirishima makes sure to protect her with his wings the same way that he did for Katsuki while the rogue collects their things and banks their low-smoldering fire. 

The camp sufficiently destroyed, all traces of dragon and human elements removed, Katsuki hauls himself into place on top of Kirishima. Eri rearranges herself and get comfortable with the pelts draped over her and his cloak returns to his shoulders to tent around them both. It's a delicate balance, and it takes her a bit of awkward worrying until she finds her spot again, but it seems that she's willing to go this far and trust them. After a moment, she leans her barely-there weight into him.

"Alright, Kirishima, let's get moving. We've been here way too long." He exhales slowly and takes the nova sash into one hand, the other he hands to Eri to hold, just in case. 

"Your dragon, huh?" Kirishima responds smugly, and Katsuki gives him a hard kick to the side. Unfazed even a little, Kirishima just jumps forward and follows the river.

Chapter Text

Travelling with a child is no easy feat of patience. Katsuki wasn’t sure he’d had any patience before but he must have some to be putting up with the glacial pace they’re making. 

Kirishima can’t even pretend to run with Eri on his back. Katsuki’d already been under the impression that Kirishima had been taking pity on him before, but even that pace would be difficult for her. As it is, Katsuki, a full-formed jackass with years of training and skill, struggles with staying lateral on the smooth curve of Kirishima’s spine. His legs are gelatinous every time they pause to breathe, which is often now with the young lady.

 Eri’s a champ, though, refusing to make noise unless Kirishima makes an unusually large jump or quick twist. At one moment, while Kirishima tenderly picked his way over a cascade of fallen timber, Eri turned to Katsuki with one hand on his tunic to hold.

Katsuki wasn't sure if she’s just that quiet usually, or if some childish intuition had tipped her off to Kirishima’s insecurity. Either way, she asked the question as quietly and as close to his ear as possible.  

“Kiri doesn’t fly?” 

“No, he doesn’t,” Katsuki said. Eri nodded, turned forward, and left it at that. 

Kirishima heard, anyway, Katsuki knew, but only the velvety krrrrr between Katsuki’s knees really gave it away. 

All in all, though, Katsuki’s almost back to physical prime. He almost feels like himself again whenever he’s not squeezing Kirishima’s lungs for all their worth, and he finds himself on more than one occasion wishing for a bow to help with the hunt. Kirishima’s insufferable, always bringing back big game or nothing at all with a dejected look to his scales. In rare moments, he manages to catch the smaller creatures, but Katsuki’s more than aware that his size cannot be hidden from hares or foxes. For once, being that small might be the best advantage they have.

Well, even if he does bring back the big game, Katsuki’s at the point now where he can skin them if he so desires. If he doesn’t, he covers Eri’s eyes and ears while Kirishima cleans up what he and the girl don’t take. Kirishima’s stomach is a miracle by itself. They have no way of preserving meals in their current situation, anyway, so there's no need to waste.

Katsuki’s never seen that level of hunger before, but when his size and power are considered, it’s only natural he’d eat half the mountainside. 

Katsuki, and Eri, would both probably prefer a real meal. And a bed. And a bath, gods. Katsuki could —probably has before— kill a man for a bath right about now.

That's not to say that travelling with Eri is easy, though. He finds out just how true that is on night three.

They've reached the first split in the river. The eastern-stretching branch flows down from the underbelly of the capitol city, Firelight, whose gray-stoned bulk crosses intricately over the water's face with a network of canals and aqueducts. Even from here, the sky opens up with warm oranges and reds from the streetlights at the crest of the horizon, a city sprawled out just beneath. They're going the opposite direction, to the west up to Mirror Lake, into the unconquered barbaric lands of the Chord and the foothill kingdoms who, yes, have signed alliances and accordances with the Empire's heavy handed ruler, but prefer to do as they always have which is what they please. The further in they go the less common tongue will be used and hostility will increase, especially towards Katsuki. The past couple of years of Katsuki's life in the military had been nothing but rebellion after siege after decimation, in the name of unification and perhaps peace. He's not entirely sure he'll be welcome, but that's never been the case anywhere so long as he wore the red sash and burned with his touch.

They camp there on the inlet between the two rivers after crossing what has to be the shoddiest bridge Katsuki’s ever seen. Kirishima is forced to wade through the water as Katsuki, Eri in his arms, gently hops from one broken plank to another with nothing but a prayer and Katsuki’s acrobatic excellence. 

 The site is signposted by a half-buried statue of a horse rearing its head, almost as massive as Kirishima but trapped beneath the earth. Snow lays laden upon its back, as if the very weather is what sinks the poor thing. While Katsuki sets about a dinner that doesn't equate to charcoal, Eri sits upon Kirishima's back and stares intently at the horse's cracked expression.

"I remember this." she says. "The boat was here. Mirio took me down the river," she points in the direction of the capitol and brings her hand to the delta where they stand. Mirio is her knight, and she’s only addressed him by name since first speaking about him. Katuski thinks that she doesn’t want to forget his name. In case she does, he commits it to memory, though something seems familiar about the name. He might have been in school with them, but only Shinsou paid any sort of attention to others. Katsuki barely puts in the effort to learn the names of his allies. Extras, he'd called them.

“They caught us here,” her lips tremble as she speaks. 

Kirishima turns his head around and noses her until she’s slowly wrapping an arm around it. His face is so wide her arms barely reach behind his jaw. “I don’t hear anything we need to worry about, not even humans. We'll be okay."

Eri only nods into his scales, and Katsuki thinks that's the end of it.

That is, until, he’s kicked awake in the dead of sleep by little feet. They’d made standard little pallets on the dried earth within a circle that Kirishima makes with his body, nose to tail. Katsuki has his cloak as his sole comfort but leans fully on Kirishima’s ribs while Eri, still warmed by the dragon’s air, is snuggled under two deer skins and multiple fox pelts beside him. Somehow in the night she must have tossed and wriggled her way over to where he's stretch out, and now she’s doing her damnable best to fight someone off in her dream. 

Kirishima —for all he’s fucking worth with his huge and monstrous form— is fast asleep. His luminous scales expand and contract with each measured breath.

Katsuki supposes that makes him alone in this.

He reaches over and, as gently as a man like him can, shakes her shoulder. She twitches awake, eyes wide and searching the endless night sky for some faceless demon, or perhaps not so faceless, until she settles on Katsuki’s. In an instant her eyes are flooding up, but she turns her whole body away from him before she lets them fall, pulling the furs up to her chin.

 He’s not sure if he should be disappointed, if this feeling in his chest is rejection or why it even matters to him. It can’t be helped. He’s not warm like Kirishima, doesn’t even try to be. He doesn't know how to comfort. He’d been born with a permanent scowl, and as handsome as his face might be it means shit to a five or six year old like her if it isn't kind. It certainly wouldn’t be the face he’d want to see immediately after a nightmare.

He’s just turned himself back to Kirishima when he feels something press along the length of his thigh. Eri’s brought herself and her covers over, pressing her back into his warmth while letting out a few sniffles, drifting back to sleep. Katsuki’s throat seizes, as if any sound he makes could send her crawling away, and only exhales into Kirishima’s side a few tense moments later.

He looks up to see one red eye on him, unflinching and curled like the moon.

“What?” Katsuki challenges through a hiss, “If you were awake, you should have said something to her.”

“I didn’t need to,” the dragon says. Kirishima closes his eyes and settles back in. 

 Needless to say the situation for all of them is stressful, new, and comes with a variety of challenges that require a precision balancing act that, largely, is on Kirishima’s shoulders. Eri clings to him even when Katsuki is the one holding her in place on his back, and he catches her lovingly petting his scales as they ride. It soothes hers. Something about Kirishima just puts them at ease, Katsuki included. Usually he hates those smiley-friendly types, but Kirishima’s also not afraid to snap a man in half to get shit done, and Katsuki can appreciate the unrelenting, unwavering personality of his to keep moving forward. 

Annoying, but admirable, all the same. 

The nightmares remain a semi-consistent occurrence, but Katsuki drops the pretense of sleeping separate very quickly.

Kirishima’s leer catches him on night five as he forcibly hauls Eri over to him by dragging the deer skin she sleeps on to his side. She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t move away either, a conflicted expression clouding her face. 

“What, Scales-for-Brains? If she’s just gonna fuckin’ wake me up anyway, might as well start her out over here.”

“Oh, I didn’t say anything, Kacchan.”

He’s got just enough power for a loud, harmless explosion, which he wastes across the flat expanse of Kirishima’s nose. The noise makes Eri jump, and he realizes she’s cut herself off from a laugh. Her two guardians exchange quirked-eyebrows, a silent conversation, because this might be the first time she’s made an attempt, even involuntary, to smile. Rather than ruin it by pointing it out, Katsuki grumbles and sinks into his spot over Kiri’s heart. 

 

~*~*~*~

 

Mirror Lake exists on a point of crossing between three separate lands; the towering dragon-glass mountains of the Chord and their fae-rich hills, caves, and the barbaric hinterlands, the still-resistant kingdoms that do their worst to keep their in-fighting at least between the Chord’s Silent and the Empire’s Sleepless rivers, and of course, the Empire to the east. The current royal family has been in power for only a fourth of a century, newly risen and minuscule in the grand timeline but carving out their place in history with a resolute supply of blood, iron, and taboo nova magic. Quickly. The Todorokis, however, have had their hand and money in Firelight for generations, and it wouldn’t be the central power that it is without them.

Despite aggressively not getting along with one another, trade still makes the world move, particularly along the banks of Mirror Lake and the bridges that keep three warring worlds connected.

Katsuki’s all but forced Kirishima to be hyper-vigilant. The closer they come to the lake, the more risk of exposure to society, to hunters, to problems. Civilization nears with every step and there’s an itch in Katsuki’s skin to have Kirishima shift back into his human form just in case they’re ambushed by a hunting party. But if they are ambushed, Kirishima in his full form is better protection, and that fact alone forces Katsuki to sit pretty on his back and gnash his teeth in resentment at the whole fucking situation. 

When they reach Halfpoint Bridge, aptly named for being the exact point between the delta behind them and Mirror Lake, Katsuki’s glad for his decision. 

They find the bridge destroyed, a monster Katsuki’s only heard of in stories sifting among the wreckage. 

Kirishima crests a hill, his body weaving between trunks and cast in half-shadow while the weakened sun blanches the river white. The water is low, trickles fine and stutters between the pylons and wooden boards of the rubble. Katsuki tries to cover Eri’s face in vain the instant he sees the red, the bodies that bloat and contaminate the water, trails of scarlet painting a gruesome scene beneath stall wares —silk ribbons, intricate, broken weaponry from the Chordal Tribes, feathers— that float atop the rippling water. She makes a surprised little yap that he smothers with a large hand, and Kirishima flattens himself to the ground beside a bowed pine tree, eyes downward.

“Lizard Brain, is that what I think it is?” Katsuki’s voice drops low. 

“What is that?” Eri whispers in horrified awe from between his fingers.

“Well, it was a wyvern,” Kirishima answers. "Now, it's a noumu."

Something akin to a dragon, but with scales dull like smeared charcoal and muzzle stained red. It’s a lesser drake, to be sure, lacking the intelligence and front forearms that Kirishima’s kind monopolizes, but with all the viciousness and murderous intent that a monster its size could afford. And it is big, nearly the size of Kirishima with his wings out. Ridges line its back like stalagmites as it hops from one rubble pile to the other on twisted feet, wings flapping frantically for balance as it picks apart what’s left of the bridge merchants. Its power veins glitter in the daylight, oozing a sickly liquid down the sides of its underbelly like fresh wounds. 

It’s mostly retained its original form, but Katsuki sees where the warping has deformed its wings and feet. Dark inky lines run along the membranes and charred edges crinkle and flake away with each flap like burned paper. Its eyes are nearly closed from the weight of sapphires clusters breaking through its skull, sharp and painful. 

Its chest is open, torn apart by more crystal spines, with more viscous liquid and crystalline structures in the cavern where its heart should have been. 

 “I have to go down there,” Kirishima stands suddenly, and the snow he disturbs covers both Katsuki and Eri’s feet. The nova sash pulls loose from his neck and Eri gathers it quickly in her hands to focus on something other than the dead bodies.

“The fuck you are!” Katsuki hisses, yanking at Kirishima’s heavy head by his downward pointed horn. “You wanna get us all killed!”

Kirshima’s claws churn at the earth, a warning growl rippling out from his barely parted mouth. Liquid fire drips and sizzles along the ground. “There could be survivors, Bakugou, I can’t just—”

“I’m sorry, I thought you were protecting us. What happens if it comes for us while you’re down there?” 

Katsuki regrets it almost as soon as the words leave his mouth; it’s so pathetic, what he’s said.

The dragon must think so, too. Kirishima's head swivels, his body curling to face Katsuki in that predatory way with a determined and grim look to his face. His sharp teeth grit together and fall in line with one another. A heavy plume of smoke cloaks Katsuki, and this time it's filled with defiance, not comfort. "What happened to being a knight?"

A sting of annoyance lances through him, especially when he notices Eri’s watchful eyes turn up. He sighs, swallows down the bitterness he feels with herculean effort, and says, “Listen to me, even if you went down there to save survivors, they wouldn't make it. That thing’s bite could cleave a human in two. Someone probably escaped and alerted the guard at Mirror Lake, anyway, and the last fucking thing we need right now is—”

The wyvern.

Kirishima’s back is turned, he’s blindsided but Katsuki sees it. It’s too close, practically on top of Kiri with its deformed body eclipsing the light. Somehow, it’s appeared right behind them, catching both him and Kirishima unaware with its talons outstretched like a hawk hunting the field. It’s as if time has stopped, the powerful rushing stroke of its wings lifting high, dragging a gust of icy air up against the hill. Kirishima’s name catches in Katuski’s throat. Katuski’s chest burns like the air in his lungs has been stolen from him, a forest fire of ash filling, coating, squeezing out all the breath he has left as hooked, sapphire talons close in on the dragon’s arched spine.

Kirishima’s eyes narrow into thin slices. Then, quick as an adder, his whole body snaps into motion, rows of eviscerating teeth clamping shut on the damned thing’s ankle, catching on raw bone and scale.

The wyvern’s screech shakes the very ground with fury, and Katsuki bursts into movement. He drops, snatches Eri up, and before Kirishima’s body completes its full cycle of movement, takes cover behind a tree just as Kirishima’s tail shatters across it. Every sharp extended scale ruffled in violence cuts across the wood, splintering it above their heads with a thousand thunderous cracks.

Katsuki shields Eri with his body from the debris, his pounding heart and her hummingbird pulse nearly indistinguishable as he peeks up. Kirishima has left the upper half of the tree broken. It creaks and shudders—

“Shit!” Katsuki throws his arms up and catches the weight of the tree between his two scarred palms. The bulk bears down on him, his shoulders locked tight as he heaves upward. The fracturing wood sends ricocheting vibrations up into Katsuki’s arms, and below him Eri lets out a little yelp. 

“Move!” He snarls. Katsuki’s knees are buckling, and the rapid increase of Kirishima’s power isn’t doing anything for them except for curl the leaves of the trees and blast Eri from behind with a wave of unbearable heat.

Eri looks left, right, but hesitates to move. She waddles between them while the tree’s weight gets heavier and Kirishima’s violent snarling erupts with his fire. 

Thankfully, a burst of wind pushes against her and Katsuki, taking away her choice as one of the fae foxes appears in a wisp of white smoke and tugs at her blue tunic with its teeth. Before Katsuki’s eyes, Eri’s form fades out with the wind, much in the way Toga had back at the inn, how a lot of wind users evaporate when the going got rough. He’s not sure where the fae takes her, but it’s out of the way for now, and he’s at his limit. With a sharp twist, Katsuki groans and rolls out from under the collapsing tree trunk. 

The sound distracts Kirishima only for a moment, but it costs him a strip of scales as the wyvern’s talons score along the long curve of the dragon’s throat. The wyvern’s body is probably the size of a horse, with a wingspan twice as long that shakes the earth with each forceful, downward thrust of air. Kiri outweighs it, out-classes it, but they’re not fighting on equal grounds.

Despite that he doesn’t let go, bears through the searing pain that Katuski almost feels himself. He bellows around his grip on the drake’s leg, shakes vigorously, and tosses his entire weight over the edge of the hill into the river below. 

“Kirishima!” Katsuki watches as the wyvern sinks from the air with his dragon, hits the surface of the river with an uproar of panic as the glacial waters sink in around it. Kirishima stands and rakes his claws through one distorted wing, tearing its sails into ribbons. 

Katsuki lets out the breath he’s holding captive. Focus, he can handle himself. He’s got to find Eri, make sure those fucking inari aren’t playing games. 

It takes him seconds to lock on to the pair. Eri’s teetering on a section of the broken bridge, the fox curling around her to support and keep her upright while the wind stirs the water. Even from where he stands he can see the alarm in her eyes, and he’s already moving her way while she frantically seeks him out. 

The wyvern is up on its feet again, screaming. Kirishima burns so hot the river water is bubbling.

When Kirishima stands on his back legs, wings open and beating uselessly at the air, everything shudders in fear. It's like a roar all its own, rumbling in powerful gusts that easily overtake the pathetic shrieks of the wyvern coming in for the first strike. It's a hard sight to ignore while Katsuki makes his way in hastened steps over the snow. Hard to keep his eyes forward on Eri when Kirishima's low, rumbling snarl has adrenaline pumping through his veins in unsteady heartbeats. Katsuki’s chest aches, answers that war call with something primal and hot and familiar. 

It had sounded like the anzu had been nothing. Obstacles for Kirishima to clear away like dead brush after a harvest. This is different. Now Katsuki gets to see it, Kirishima’s fight. Two anzu are a walk in the park compared to a wyvern, though, especially when it hardly flinches at the heat licking off Kirishima, protected by a similar armor of scales. When it rights itself in the water, boiling white from magma rolling from Kirishima’s mouth, it stands there with nary a care but for its opponent. Katsuki and Eri aren’t even a passing thought.

Its jaws snap in an attempt at an attack. A front that Kiri answers with a swipe of his claws for its neck. The dragon strikes with such speed that Katsuki has to pause for a second to even register the movement. For something so large, he dances through the bubbling water as gracefully as a cat. He manages three quick swipes in the time it takes the blonde to haul himself onto the platform where Eri’s crouched and shivering. When Kirishima bares his teeth and gnashes for the flitting wyvern, Katsuki has to tear his eyes away from the kick landed right at the edge of his jaw, Kirishima reeling with an animalistic groan.

“Kiri!” Eri cries out.

Kirishima looks over unthinkingly, and the wyvern’s mouth catches quickly on Kirishima’s raised hand. The dragon lets out an agonizing scream, and Katsuki watches as one glowing claw breaks from his hand and drops into the water. 

The wyvern turns its beady black gaze on them, and Katsuki’s snatching Eri up into his arms before it takes its first leap for them. With Kiri reeling, the monster connects bodily with the structure, and they just barely manage to dodge its collapse after scrambling onto a destroyed merchant stall. 

Eri whimpers in his ear. Katsuki nearly teeters over into the water, but the fox appears for a moment with a corrective bluster of wind that pushes him back upright. 

The wyvern prepares for another strike, but Kirishima’s there a moment later dragging it back into the river by its tail. When its body hits the water, the splash is hot and nearly knocks the three of them over, but Katsuki keeps his grip tight on the stall, and Eri holds tight to him. 

For the most part, Kirishima looks okay. He’s viper quick and throws his weight into the downed wyvern before it can completely free itself from the water. His claws tear through its other wing like paper while his mouth makes a lucky strike and buries into the soft part of the thing’s throat. 

He breathes. The force of the dragon’s magic crackles through the wyvern’s scales with deadly tenacity, sending rivulets of fire bursting around the individual scales. Red blooms within the blue of the wicked cavern of corrupted crystals in its lungs, burns it up until all the gray flesh and cobalt stone lose their shine beneath a fine layer of soot and char.

The wyvern wails and thrashes, but Kirishima’s not letting go, not letting up. Katsuki’s blood pounds in his ears in time to the beat of his dragon’s wings, until at last the wyvern’s struggles cease, the water stills, and it wheezes out one last defiant cry.

The fire stops then, but Kirishima still doesn’t let go. He watches the wyvern for signs of life with a manic gleam to his eyes, deep pants expand his lungs while his neck bleeds and he clutches one paw to his body protectively. 

Neighing in the distance forces Katsuki to look up. Across the water coming from the capitol’s horizon he sees a troupe of the guard heading for them, and wardens in their mix, surely. Any news of a wyvern would at least warrant that. The horses get one good look at Kirishima, burning like a star along the water’s edge, and nearly throw their riders. The company don’t come forward, but they notice him and Eri on the rubble and shout.

“Kirishima.” He calls. When he doesn’t get a response, when he sees Kirishima’s teeth sink deeper, he barks, “Scales-For-Brains, drop it. We need to go.

It takes a few heart stopping moments for Kirishima to obey. Katsuki wasn’t completely convinced that he was going to do so, compelled to keep his teeth in for whatever draconian reason, but he finally relents. Keeping his gaze sharp on the company of regrouping soldiers on the opposing bank, Kirishima backs himself up to the edge of the rubble and cools himself until Eri can settle in her spot.

“You okay?” He asks her, quietly, the blood still dripping from his teeth. 

She doesn’t look at him directly, but she does rub her face into the back of his neck and gasps in surprise at the red of his blood as she accidentally draws her hand against his wound. “Kiri, Kiri—”

“I’m fine. Just… let’s get out of here.” He’s quick to assuage her, and turns when Katsuki’s weight sinks onto him. “Hold on as best as you can.”

The dragon hobbles at first, taking tentative steps on a ruined paw. Still, the wardens are on the other side of the river with a wyvern’s body between them, and no bridge to cross, so Kirishima escapes well enough into the shelter of the Chordian firth. 

The moment Katsuki feels its safe enough to do so, he leaps down from Kirishima’s back. He removes his cloak for Eri and starts to muss up the snow where Kirishima’s blood drips. “Focus on healing your wounds and stopping the bleeding. Don’t want them fucking following us.”

“Bakugou, I— I can—”

Katsuki snarls, almost as well as Kirishima can, the moment the dragon’s voice lifts in protest. “You shut the fuck up. You can’t carry me the way you are right now. I don’t need your goddamn magic, I’m not the one who wrestled a noumu.”

That defiant snort blows across the snow. “I had to—”

No!” Katsuki doesn’t know why he’s angry, but he is. He’s furious, his blood is boiling, his adrenaline still sings through his veins as Kirishima follows behind him a step. “I know what you had to do! I don’t want to fucking hear it right now.”

“Be nice, he’s hurt for us!” Eri pipes, but when he fixes her with his gaze she shrinks like a mouse.

“I know that!” He snarls again, hands heating up. She winces again, and he sighs in frustration. “I just— Fuckin’ Kirishima,” He grumbles. He can’t put this anger into words, so he looks pointedly away and shoves the dragon forward. Surprisingly, it works. “Let’s just go. We’re close. I’ll take care of the trail.”

After that, no one talks. Eri’s much too rattled between yet another near death experience and Katsuki’s intensive glare. Kirishima clenches his jaw and moves along with his hand tucked, limping forward on the wrist of it, and Katsuki simmers, only speaking when he needs to give directions. 

He knows the way from here, and it’s not but an hour or two before they spy the far-off light of the lake market reflecting along the water’s face. The sun nears the end of its daily travel and sets the water on fire. The Lake expands before them nearly as wide as the sky, and a nostalgic ache echoes through Katsuki at the sight of its darkening surface. When he’d first come here, there were no hutches or buildings to blot out the banks, but now they teem and spoil with voices, no doubt in response to the news of the attack on the bridge. Thankfully for them, his teacher is the anti-social type. His cabin rests higher in the groves near the base of the mountains, and due to his awful personality he rarely gets visitors.

So, when the stone gate becomes visible between the varying view of pines and oaks, and the small dusty courtyard within, Katsuki is relieved to see it blissfully empty, silent, save for one familiar figure, who sits on the steps of his front porch with his face in his arms. Sleeping. 

 Kirishima stops a good ways away, but Katsuki pushes past him. “It’s fine.” Stepping through the arched doorway, Katsuki is hit immediately with vertigo as his master’s power-suppressing wards affect him even without anything to suppress.  

His teacher lifts his head to the sound of Katsuki’s voice, long black hair pushed back out of his eyes with a low hmmm as he sizes up his new company. A cut up legendary beast, an exhausted little girl, and an alleged mass-murderer. 

Aizawa doesn’t even blink as Kirishima steps gingerly over the courtyard wall. The dragon curls up warily beside a cobbled well and places his head along the stone wall to rest.The older warden doesn’t look like he’s surprised to see Katsuki at all, still as gaunt faced as before with deep, entrenched circles beneath his eyes from insomnia. He’s dressed in baggy black clothing with an artisan-crafted blade like Shinsou’s beside him on the steps. 

“This is no time to be taking a power nap, Old Man,” Katsuki says, stopping short before him. He hates the tiredness in his voice. “Haven’t you heard? There's a godsdamn wyvern around.”

“The way I hear it, a dragon took it out before the wardens could get to it.” Aizawa’s red gaze slides over to where Kirishima pants in the grass, Eri carefully working her way to the ground over his folded wing. “Pathetic.”

Katsuki bristles. His fists clench. He’s not sure if he’s the one being insulted, if Kirishima is, or if there’s a difference at this point, but Aizawa’s face returns to Katsuki’s with a maddeningly familiar and mocking smirk as he says, “the wardens. For taking so long to assemble.”

Katsuki releases some tension in his shoulders as Aizawa stands to full height. Like Shinsou, he’s tall, lanky, but every bit as deceitfully powerful as Katsuki’s purple haired friend. Makes sense, as Shinsou’s father.

“You gonna help us,” Katsuki asks through gritted teeth, “or not?”

Aizawa raises an eyebrow and strokes his stubble thoughtfully. “Are you going to ask politely?” When Katsuki’s grimace deepens, Aizawa only sighs through his nose and looks down. Eri’s waddled closer, dragging Katsuki’s cloak through the dirt and worrying the torn fabric between her tiny fingers. “Oh, you and your priestess friend finally did it, huh?”

Confused, Katsuki says, “Hah?”

“Had a kid.” The teacher nods downward. 

Katsuki’s hands pop immediately, a blush creeping up the back of his neck. “Are you out of your fucking mind?! Where the fuck do you get a stupid idea like that?”

Behind him, Kirishima smothers a laugh in the well he’s resting his head on, but the sound only echoes into the depths until it's a chorus of laughter. Eri covers her face in the furs, and Aizawa smiles more genuinely as he comes back down to her level. He shakes her hand very gently. “Well, I guess not. That priestess is way out of your league, anyway.”

Before Katsuki can commit to the rumors branding him a murderer, Aizawa turns to open his door and encourages Eri inside as a warm draft of air slips past. “Come on, then. Before the wardens see you.”

“And Kiri?” Katsuki asks, benching his immediate plans to kill his former teacher. He’s got a monster-sized problem to hide.

“Kiri?” Aizawa tilts his head.

“The dragon,” Katsuki corrects, a thumb jabbed over his shoulder. “His name is Kirishima.”

“You know his name, do you? Not just an extra this time?”

“What do you want from me?” Katsuki asks, exasperated.

“A please. ” The teacher hums again and addresses the drake directly this time. “Kirishima, if it hurts too much to transform there’s a stable behind the house. Head inside for now and stay out of sight. Try not to spook my horses too badly. If they break their pens, Katsuki’ll have to hunt them down.” There’s a brief pause, “On second thought, spook the horses.”

“Oh, fuck you. Shinsou’s assholery is passed down through the generations, huh?” Katsuki’s defeat sigh is all he has left in him. 

If Kirishima is surprised to find out Aizawa knows about dragon magicks, he doesn’t comment. He only hauls himself up, gives Katsuki one lasting look that Katsuki’s not clear on, before his serpentine form slithers around the edge of the house. 

“You know about him?” Katsuki asks. “You know he can…” Aizawa fixes him with a knowing glare. Irritated, Katsuki pushes past him into the house.  “Fuckin’, of course you do. Shit.”

It’s quaint and warm inside. What he lacks in natural lighting, Aizawa supplements with crystal lanterns and candles that cast torchlight across the kitchen and den. Eri has found her way to the rug in front of the hearth, her hands and toes outstretched towards the fire as she nervously takes in the new room. Katsuki drops their bag on the couch behind her. A gray kitten watches Eri from the kitchen table, tail flicking, and disappears out of view as Katsuki lags into the chair beside it. The day is catching up with him, his eyelids sinking over his view as he runs a hand soothingly over his temples. His legs are restless, and it’s only now that he notices the cuts and scrapes across his hands from catching the tree. Nothing as bad as Kirishima's wounds, he thinks.

“Are you or the girl hurt anywhere?” Aizawa moves around him into the kitchen and finds glasses of water for them both. Eri doesn’t move from her place but she readily accepts his help drinking the water. Katsuki’s done with his glass in an instant. 

“Eri?” Katsuki asks.

“Fine,” she answers, “but Kiri is…”

“He’ll be fine,” Katsuki grunts.

Eri’s frown deepens, “You don’t know that! He’s really hurt!”

He’ll be fine,” Katsuki repeats, “He’ll eat something, sleep it off. He’s a fucking dragon, he’s unbreakable. His claw will grow back.”

Eri looks like she’s ready to cut him open —That's new, the nova thinks, almost proudly— but Aizawa distracts her with another glass of water. His teacher ignores him and says, “Eri, you must be tired. I’ll start a bath, okay? Do you think you can take one by yourself while Bakugou and I make dinner?”

Katsuki watches her expression harden at him before she finally turns and nods to Aizawa. She follows him, only pausing to dump the heavy cloak and nova sash in Katsuki’s lap before waddling after Aizawa deeper into the house. 

Katsuki frowns and covers his eyes with his hands. As the silence finally settles around him, he seethes. Just like that, he’s angry again. Only this time, his anger makes more sense, untangles itself from the rush of the fight. It was Kirishima’s own damn fault for getting torn up like that, fuckin’ idiot. He’s the one that went and got hurt, let the wardens see them. They’d be lucky to get healed before the wardens come sniffing around. Fuck

Monsters, wardens, problems. 

He stands suddenly and moves to the counter, grips the wood as he thinks. His sash and cloak drop unceremoniously to the floor, ignored.

This is objectively one of the safest places he could be, and yet he feels even more cornered than before. Facing Kirishima’s innate stubbornness and watching him nearly eat it as a result has Katsuki dealing with feelings he doesn’t want to face or name. All he sees is Kirishima’s bright flashing smile in his mind, and his blood dripping as red as his hair into the fresh fallen snow. Unbidden, he slams a fist into the counter-top and nearly screams in frustration as the pain registers, something he’d never have to feel if only he’d had his fucking magic. 

If he’d had his powers none of this would have happened. He wouldn’t have had to watch from the sidelines, could have joined that fight and wrecked that thing before anyone suffered. Before Kirishima— Before Kiri—

Through the window above the counter, he sees Aizawa’s stable-house. The front half of the building is open to the yard, a row of narrow bodied stalls with horses lining the left side of the building while a giant ball of garnet stone curls up into the open corner on the right, where his teacher dresses and tacks his mounts. He barely fits in the space, but somehow he manages to even pull that ridiculously long tail in under him, much like a cat in a deep sleep, while the horses whinny and stamp in their little prisons. Katsuki can tell from the way that he’s breathing that he’s attempting to sleep, but it’s labored.

Katsuki doesn’t understand, but he suddenly wants to join him. Fuck it all, fuck explaining anything to Aizawa, fuck his pride, fuck their stupid argument about protecting and being protected. Katsuki’s tired, and he knows it's because he’d been scared, which is the worst of all. Not scared of the wyvern, or the fucking wardens but because…

Because what? Kirishima?

“She’s settled,” Aizawa’s voice startles him. Katsuki faces him slowly. When Aizawa sits down in the chair Katsuki joins him without a word, leaving his bravado in pieces on the counter. Finally, it was just him and his teacher, and the two of them didn’t have the most compatible fucking personalities, but just like Shinsou, Aizawa Shouta was one of those people that Katsuki could just be around. 

“Thank you,” he says, finally. He doesn’t have to drag that out of himself now that it’s just the two of them, but his voice is terribly small. “Fuck, I’m… You know I wouldn’t show up if I—”

“I know,” comes Aizawa’s simple reply. He crosses his arms. “I’ve heard. About it all, Hind’s Landing, Uraraka Ochako. Shinsou’s been reporting in.Told me to look forward to your arrival, you and a dragon.”

“Fuck me, he didn’t—”

“He sure did.” Aizawa laughs. “Sent you right to me, huh?”

Katsuki groans out loud and remembers back to when he and Kiri had been watching Shinsou and Ochako’s conversation from outside the food tent. North, he’d felt that in him like a command, despite the river route being the most obvious path to take forward. 

“That bastard compelled me? Used his bullshit mindtouch on me? Ugh, I’ll wring his skinny little neck the next time I see him.”

“The hell you will.”

This time, it’s not Aizawa who answers, though he does raise one single eyebrow in surprise as someone closes the front door behind them and shakes snow off in the threshold. Katsuki closes his eyes, teeth gritted in a defeated grimace as Shinsou Hitoshi, the real fucking devil in the flesh, strolls into the kitchen with nothing but a yawn to show for it. He pulls at a third chair and straddles it backwards as he joins them. His oily magic is dampened by the wards, but Katsuki still feels it on the edges of his mind like inquisitive fingertips, poking and prodding.  

 

“You look like shit, man,” the dark nova supplies helpfully. 

“How the fuck did you catch up to me so fast?” 

There’s a mischievous glint in his eyes as he smiles. “Well, I knew where you were going, so. Monoma and I left that company behind after finishing the ‘search’ at the Order’s caravan and headed to the capitol. A little bit of magic goes a long way when you’re smart about it, not that you’d know anything about being frugal with your power.”

Katsuki suddenly has a murderous headache. It’s always difficult being stuck between the father and the son. Two mocking smiles, two pairs of intelligent red eyes that are always looking down on him. Fuck. “And where’s that piece of shit Monoma? Gonna shoot me when I stand up?”

“He’s cleaning up the mess your dragon left us at the river. Don’t worry, though, he’s trying to stay on my good side so he’s keeping the wardens busy and stupid for you.”

“You have a good side?” Katsuki’s voice is flat.

“Only for blonde idiots, apparently.” He hums. Katsuki wonders just how many blonde idiots Shinsou knows, because by his count its only one and it ain’t him. “Speaking of your dragon, though, Katsuki…”

Shinsou slams something heavy down onto the table between the three of them. Katuski doesn’t flinch, but he recognizes what Shinsou’s brought to him in an instant.  It’s not glowing like a brand anymore, because Kirishima is no longer funneling fire into it. The sharp black talon up close really is made of stone, a wicked curve of dragon glass nearly the length of Katsuki’s arm. Seems like it was snapped free from the quick, and he’s relieved he doesn’t find anything else of Kirishima attached to it except for the glass. One of Shinsou’s people must have found it in the river when investigating the wyvern.

Shinsou fixes Katsuki with an impenetrable glare, for once no amusement or mockery in his expression. Just thinly veiled anger.  

“Your dragon? He’s dying, man."

Chapter Text

“He’s a dragon,” Katsuki scoffs.

“Yeah, he sure is.” Shinsou spins the hunk of black stone on the table, then watches it drift to a stop, pointing at Katsuki. “ but they’re only invincible some of the time.”

Katsuki leans back in his chair and sighs. Across from him, Aizawa looks about three seconds from falling asleep during the conversation, but stands with a yawn instead. The familiar sounds of a kitchen in use settle in around the two nova as his teacher starts dinner, pots clanging accidentally, water pouring from a jug into an abnormally large wok. 

Shinsou leans forward on his arms, the fire from the den illuminating him from behind and casting his usually pale friend in a healthier light. The fire only seems to darken the shadows around the room, but Katsuki is incapable of telling if its just the fire or if Shinsou’s power is at play. The purple-haired fiend removes the black sash around his forehead and runs a hand through his hair. 

“Why am I telling you this? You’re the one who grew up with one,” he drawls.

Katsuki rolls his eyes. “The only reason I knew Deku was a fucking dragon was because I accidentally cut off his finger in sword practice, and he grew it back to make me stop crying.”

“You cried?” Shinsou sits up suddenly, mockingly holding a hand to his chest in alarm. 

“Oh, fuck off, you sleepy-eyed motherfucker, what’s your point? I don’t know shit about dragons. The dragons I lived with didn’t want me to know what they were! I saw Deku’s dragon form maybe once, and I thought it was a godsdamn hallucination. I know they’re powerful, I know they shift, I know the green ones are liars.” Each item in the list is punctuated by Katsuki marking down on his fingers. 

“That’s objectively not true, but I’ll let you have that since your green one lied, like, once.”

“It was a pretty big lie.” Katsuki’s hand on the table tightens and the wood beneath it starts to collapse. 

His friend only tilts his head further, and the firelight catches on his red eyes. They’re a familiar shade of red to him, eyes he’s known since he was young, but they’re somehow not the right shade of red for his mood. Shinsou’s eyes are like rubies stolen from a prince’s treasure chest in the dead of night, confirmed only by the light of the moon. Katsuki prefers something… brighter, somehow. His mind wanders for a moment to cherry-sweet scales flourishing against a backdrop of black and white mountains, of sunlight that catches and sets the edges alight of each scale, of red eyes and warmed brown skin...

Shinsou narrows his eyes in, and a smile peeks at the corners of his lips. 

Katsuki reaches across the table and forces Shinsou’s head into his arms, earning nothing but laughter as he musses up violet tresses. “Get out of my head, you shitty little leech.”

“You are so easy to mess with,” Shinsou murmurs through his sleeves, “Dad, listen, Katsuki’s got a crush on the—”

“Hey!”

“Dad, he doesn’t like the color of my eyes anymore. They’re not red enough. My heart’s gonna break—”

“—That’s it, clench your teeth—”

“Enough.” Aizawa snaps, and Shinsou’s mindtouch is forcibly pushed down until even the shadows surrounding him seem to recede. “If you want to horseplay you do it after dinner! Why do I feel like I went ten years into the past?”

“Because Katsuki never grew up.”

“Says the guy invading my privacy.” Katsuki kicks Shinsou under the table. 

“I can’t help it!  I’ve literally never seen you like this before. Without your powers it’s like the door is wide open and you’ve asked me over for dinner. Oh, please, Mr. Nova, let me tell you all my troubles."  Shinsou falsettos. 

“I would never ask you out,” Katsuki snarls. “Not in a million years.”

“But you will tell me your troubles,” Shinsou says, his smile as wide as the river and twice as devious, “won’t you?”

The heavy thunk of Aizawa’s cooking knife across the counter is a stark reminder for the two of them to shut the hell up. Shinsou continues to leer at him from behind his hand, pressed over his mouth while sitting up and pushing his messy hair out of his eyes. “What is it with you being attracted to dragons? That’s two in a row.”

“I’m not attracted to dragons,” Katsuki replies, the energy to fight draining from him more and more the longer he’s forced to endure Shinsou’s company, “I like power. Dragons just happen to be the most powerful, apparently."

“At least you admit it,” his friend nods, agreeing, “but you bring up my point. Dragons are very powerful. They sit at the top of every food-chain, and they’re normally unbreakable.

Katsuki motions to the shattered claw resting between them. “Then what’s up with Kirishima? What makes him so breakable?” What’s hurting my…

Katsuki puts a stop to that line of thinking before Shinsou can latch on to it, but by the flicker of a smirk on his friend’s face, he isn’t entirely convinced he’s managed it. Shinsou makes a contemplative noise low in his throat, a clicking sound as he thinks. Then, he says, “A broken heart, man. If you can break a dragon’s heart, you can break anything.

“Hah?” Katsuki almost manages a double take, casting his gaze between Aizawa as he slices up a deer shank on the counter-top and Shinsou. “That’s ridiculous.

One perfectly manicured eyebrow lifts, a knowing and searching look to him as Katsuki parses out the truth of that statement. “I don’t mean like a girl dumped him and he never got over it. You know that’s not what I mean.”

“You mean his power. The fact that he’s given it to someone and made a nova.”

“Oh,” now there’s genuine surprise clouding Shinsou’s face, as if he’d never expected Katsuki to piece that part of the puzzle together. Katsuki snorts. “You can tell?”

“I mean, he and I met after Monoma eviscerated my power stores, so I’m not completely sure, but..." Katsuki shrugs, absently gazing towards the window, “Just… a feeling I got. He’s really defensive about the whole thing.”

“Well, with the way you talk about it, I’m sure he would be.” Shinsou ignores Katsuki’s glare, “It’s not like I care, but every day that I knew you, you hated your own skin. Didn’t give a shit about anything except fighting, winning, and Deku. Most times, fighting Deku."

Katsuki looks away, not caring for the way people around here know him. Shinsou isn’t wrong. He’d been so infuriated after his turning, so utterly betrayed and angry about humans he’d never ever considered any of the fae, much less the thing that made him a monster, something to care for. Katsuki had willingly spent years of his life solely focused on feeding his fire, becoming so unbearably powerful that never, ever, could anyone or anything take his life from him again. He’d never again stand at the edge of a cliff and have nowhere to run. At least, that’s what he’d vowed to himself as a child… only to be cornered two weeks ago by a former classmate, hunted and once again labeled the problem. The scapegoat. 

Somewhere along the way, something inside of Katuski had broken. He had stopped looking at people like people and saw them only as enemies, stepping stones, obstacles with opinions. The military academy had been nothing but a requirement to survive through, to excel at, to earn freedom. He’d never once considered that the other nova around him hadn't been exactly as angry as he was, being taken from their dreams and childhood and thrust into forced military service, feared and misunderstood by everyone.

Hated.

Eri’s dauntless expression of hatred flashes in his mind, but he shoves it away. That has nothing to do with what he is, only who he is, and he deserves it. He’ll own up to having a shit personality. 

“Okay, so what you’re saying is that he’s missing his heart.” Katsuki pinches the bridge of his nose. “And that makes him vulnerable.”

Shinsou hums and leans forward onto the table, hands folded together before him.  "Sure. You could say that," the violet nova shrugs with an indifferent tone, "but anyone without a heart is vulnerable; dragon, fae , human...Mix that with the fact that he’s probably been pouring out heat for your sorry ass this entire time? You can’t pour from an empty cup, man."

“How’d you know about it?” Katsuki asks. “Him healing me.”

“I could feel his power back at the camp.” Shinsou sets his expression into a grim line. “Even when he pulled back, he was still feeding it to you. I’ve kept an eye on your location because I could feel that connection clear as day, and with the way Monoma shot you, you should still be flirting with death. He pulled his shots but there’s only so much he could do to immobilize you without killing you. Because you are an asshole. Man, you healed like summer’s been beating down on you. That’s a heat only a dragon like him,” he points a finger in Kirishima’s general direction, no doubt overly aware of his location, ”can give.”

Katsuki releases a heavy breath and tips back in his chair. His eyes sting as the firelight and the kitchen stove cast a warm amber glow over the home. He’s supposed to feel comforted. He’s supposed to feel safe, but all he has now is a heart full of confusion and cascading frustration. The idea makes sense, in retrospect. If he’d known Kirishima had been dying in the process of healing him, would he have stopped him? Hell, would he have even taken him with him to begin with? 

Why? Why is Kirishima doing this? Why would he heal Katsuki without asking for anything in return?

Because I want to, Kirishima’s traitorous voice whispers in his ear. 

Why would he be willing to use up what little power he might have left to heal Katsuki? Someone like Katsuki, who’d rarely done a good thing in his entire life? Some shitty kid who’d been so troublesome he’d been sacrificed to faceless gods? Someone who’d carved the right to exist out of a life of violence and warfare, who deserved every harsh whisper and frightened gaze. Who’d been rude, callous, demanding, hated?

Do I need a reason? 

Selfish, unwanted…

Bakugou?

Katsuki slams his hands hard on the table, kicking his chair back as he jerks to his feet. “Fuck that! Kirishima isn’t dying!”

The silence is nearly tangible on his skin, his palms stinging from the impact. Aizawa watches him from over his shoulder while only the sound of the bubbling pot interrupts Katsuki’s distressed breathing. Shinsou offers him a pitying look, one that sets Katsuki’s teeth on edge, before peering around him.

"Oh, you must be the little one." Katsuki’s face drains of all color as he turns to look at Eri. How much did she hear? All of it? The last bit? Did she even understand?

Her eyes are downward, lip worrying between her teeth as she fiddles with the edge of her tunic. Unlike during their journey, the girl that stands behind him now looks like a completely different person. Without layers of dirt and grime, her pale complexion glows in the dim lighting like porcelain on a wooden table.  Her long hair still needs to be brushed out, but washed clean it tumbles down her back like fresh snow. 

“Eri,” Katsuki mumbles unknowingly, picking up his chair with a slowness he’d reserve for a skittish animal. 

From the counter, Aizawa turns to look at their newest member with that seemingly uninterested gaze of his, but Katsuki knows the truth; there’s no one on this side of the river that cares more about kids, or little nova brats, than Aizawa Shouta. 

"Eri, have a seat. Bakugou, take over dinner for me." 

The scents wash over him as he stands above the wok, trading places with his teacher. Katsuki channels his frustrations into the stew stock that Aizawa’s crafting, the smell of dried herbs and rich, earthy spices brightening the air but doing little for Katsuki’s mood. Aizawa bends over to run his hand over the little girl’s head. She’s wrapped in a dark shirt, one of Aizawa’s or Shinsou’s, and it once again drags across the floor as she follows him and clambers into Katsuki’s righted seat. Her eyes barely peer over the edge of the table. 

Across from her, Shinsou puts on a crooked smile and waves. She looks at the wood level to her gaze and a frown tugs at her expression. 

“Hmm,” Aizawa’s voice is gentle and musing. “Let me go get the comb.” There’s a knowing look sent to the both of them from over her head that makes it quite clear that their conversation is over, then he leaves for his room. 

Silence settles in his wake over the remaining occupants. So, too, do Shinsou's shadows. They're not as dense as they once were, but their touch settles in Katsuki's periphery like a curtain soft against his senses. Nothing more than a gentle brush, but Katsuki knows he’s checking to see if Katsuki’s returned from his meltdown properly. 

If Eri feels the darkness, she doesn't react. She only twiddles her fingers in her lap without glancing up.  

Shinsou is the only one willing to break the tension. "How was your bath?" Eri flinches at his deep voice, glancing up just to look back down. She stays quiet and calm, and completely closed off. Keeps her head down when the violet nova tilts forward and folds his arms on the table. "Must be nice after all that traveling." 

Eri makes an effort of furrowing her brow and keeping her mouth tightly shut. The mage takes no offense to her lack of response, merely drums his fingers atop the table’s surface in a hypnotic rhythm, one lone finger at a time. Nail hitting wood with each subsequent thud, thud, thud, thud.  Tilts his head and dims the lights under his shadows enough that the ambiance clutches at his targets with a viscosity resembling oil in a lamp. Instead of catching blaze, it weighs them down —dense and heavy. 

“Eri, how did you get those earrings?” Shinsou asks, and Katsuki stops stirring. Though his tone is conversational, there’s a hint of something a bit less innocent in his voice. A feeling that shivers up his spine and has Katsuki incredibly on edge. 

Katsuki knows Eri well enough by now to know that the look on her face, though it tries to stay impassive and unreadable, is one tight with fear.

Shinsou tries again, “Katsuki here told me you were a stubborn one. That’s a good thing, you know. He survived on instincts just,” drum , “like,” drum , “you

“Shinsou!” the rogue snarls, body curled and tense. With the snap of his voice, the shadows shrink back again, the candles flaring. “She’s not here for you to poke and prod, she’s here to eat.”

His friend blinks, almost as if he hadn’t noticed what he’d been doing, and stretches out his fingers much like a cat would. Owlish and cowed,  Shinsou rubs the back of his head with his hand before mumbling out a rare, sincere, sorry.

“Eri, sit up for me.” Aizawa’s voice comes with another recession of darkness as he returns to the kitchen, silver comb in hand. The shadows brushing up against Katsuki’s mind feel like a massive lead blanket being lifted, and vaguely he wonders what Shinsou's power would be like without the wards, what normal humans must experience with no protection to Shinsou's aura. “Hitoshi, go prepare the bath for Katsuki.” 

Shinsou regains himself quick enough to retort, “he can prepare his own bath. Can’t you, Katsuki?” 

“He can,” Aizawa purrs in that steady, unfazed way of his, “but I’m telling you to. Now, go, before I make you cook the meals.” That’s enough threat for both of them to have Shinsou rising from the table with his hands raised in surrender. He acquiesces from the kitchen without a word and only a final look at Katsuki from the doorway. Good. Shinsou needs time away from them to clear his head of his own shadows. 

In his absence, Aizawa sighs and lightly places a hand onto Eri’s shoulder to pull her back against the chair. Dipping fingers beneath the long folds of her freshly washed hair, he pulls them up from their place snug between wood and back with a gentle tug before letting them sit idle in front of him. Some strands fall back to her shoulders, but he ignores them in favor of the comb secured to the front of his robe. Then Aizawa sets about removing the knots from the ends of her hair with the meticulousness of someone who has years of experience dealing with long, complicated hairstyles. 

Sometimes, Katsuki forgets that Aizawa raised children. With how blunt and sallow he can be in tone and speech, it’s hard to imagine him speaking to someone so young with anything but the testiness of an adult weighed down by responsibility. It’s even harder for him to reconcile that gentleness with the teacher he remembers sparring him until he could barely stand, frowning at how patient and calm he is in taking care of something as mundane as hair. It makes him wonder if there’s a memory down amidst all the rage and barriers of this man looking at him like he was a fragile piece of glass, ready to break with a single wrong touch. 

He’s not sure, but a part of him aches to remember. Especially when Aizawa moves from one knot to the next and says, “you’re tough, kid.”

Eri is a stalwart of stubbornness. She keeps her mouth shut and eyes forward without even a shake.

He continues, “kids like you don’t usually make it for long out here. How long were you alone?”

When Eri, again, refuses to answer Katuski does in her place. "We think maybe a day or less. She would have frozen if we hadn’t found her.” In the reflection of the window, Katsuki can see the way that Aizawa flips the comb through her locks, as well as the angry look she flashes his way. Be pissed at me all you want, brat, but Teach ain't the enemy here.

“It must’ve been pretty frightening for someone your age." Aizawa continues as if Eri herself had spoken, "Sad, even. Harder still when a punk like Katsuki is the one that finds you.”  

“He didn’t,” she finally pipes up, answering in a quiet huff, “Kiri saved me.”

“Oh, same fucking—” Aizawa shoots him a glare that has Katsuki turning back to the broth with a huff of his own. Behind him, the soothing sound of the pot bubbling provides a din to fill the silence before Aizawa continues. 

“My apologies. Katsuki didn’t tell me the details.” The blonde grits his teeth, ignoring his first name used in the mouth of his teacher and manages to keep himself from throwing another bark their way. Aizawa’s voice stays steady and calm. “I’m quite interested in Kiri. I still have to thank him for helping you. That’s quite a nice thing to do.”

“Kiri is a nice guy, he's not scary,” Eri pouts around the words, implying that someone else is. Her arms cross over her chest and eyes shift steadily downward. The layer of knots thick at the bottom of her hair slowly slide back into place in silken strands, a waterfall of white down the brown bark of the chair. There’s only one nest left before the teacher can move up to the middle of the mess and soothe more of its length into place. Aizawa takes his time working toward it as she says, “he’s good. A good dragon.”

“A very good dragon,” Aizawa agrees, like they’re talking about a dog instead of a beast that could flay them both with a single swipe. “Would you like to help me thank him with a fire later?”

“A...fire?” 

Aizawa nods to himself. “Yes, a bonfire. We hold them only on special occasions for people like Kiri. He’s a fire dragon, so he’ll heal if he takes the fire in. He’ll feel better, like you did when you got in the bath.”

She turns enough to look back at Aizawa and he gives a soft nod of his head before readjusting  to stare at the table, contemplation clean in the little pinch of her nose. The topic’s loosened her enough to say, “I wanna make him a fire, too. The biggest fire we can.”

“We’ll make HItoshi and Katsuki cut enough wood for the biggest fire,” he agrees with just a twitch of a grin at the edge of his lips. “Put those meanies to work.”

“Good.” 

Aizawa chuckles at her grunt, sifting his fingers through the ends of her hair to get the last few knots before he soothes the comb through the strands high at the back of her head. “I thought you might like that. I certainly do.”

 When she makes no motion to agree further, he settles his expression and shifts into his work again, braiding down the length of her back.

The room stays quiet as he works. When Katsuki finally finishes the broth and faces them again, Aizawa sends him another pointed look and keeps his hands working deftly to undo the damage done to her hair. It’s while he’s pulling strands away from her face that he brushes her blue earrings and freezes. He plays it off with a calm reach for the other side and holds both tangles in the fingers of one hand and the comb in the other.

Twisting them together with the final length of hair, he calmly exchanges a look with Katuski, who only can nod once. They both know what those earrings are about, but unlike the son, the father is more than willing to wait for his answers.   

Shinsou chooses that moment to come waltzing back in with one hand on his hip and the other on a towel. He chucks it at Katsuki’s face. “Bath’s ready.”

Not skipping a beat, Aizawa releases a silent sigh out his nose. “Good grief. Better eat quick if you want the water to stay warm, Katsuki.”

The blonde rolls his eyes, but goes about setting stew into four bowls he finds in Aizawa’s cupboards.  “And you call me a meanie.”

“With that attitude, you can eat when it’s cold.”

Katsuki growls.“You better be grateful I fixed your lousy excuse of a meal at all, Old Man.”

“Eternally,” Shinsou teases. “I would marry you for your cooking.”

“You won’t get my blessing on that.” Aizawa points the comb between them. 

“Thank the fucking gods, I couldn’t stand being any more a part of this family than I already am, fuck,” Katsuki grumbles. Shinsou smiles and Aizawa fights one of his own.

Nostalgia eats heavy at his empty chest, for a brief moment lifting the weighted air in his lungs, but it numbs the moment he looks at Eri’s averted eyes. When he serves her a bowl, she takes the spoon from him, and pointedly does not look at him for the rest of the evening.  

Dinner goes by quietly, after that. 

 

~0~0~0~

 

His teacher’s bathing room is spacious, with broken blue tiles arranged in a mathematical mosaic along the path leading up to the tub. It’s the type of bowl tub that has a space built below it for stoking a fire, and Shinsou’d already taken care of that for him by the time he’d sunk his weary form beneath the water and leaned back on the rim. He hadn’t fought that morning, and yet every muscle in his body trembles beneath the heated water as if he had. The walk to Aizawa’s hadn’t been that demanding, so perhaps this was the adrenaline finally releasing it’s hold on him.

Below him, a log in the brick-space beneath the tub snaps apart, the cracking of timber pleasant and echoing briefly as the stoked flames transfer heat up into the bowl, and further into Katsuki, who lets the energy warm him to his core. His core, his center flame, is starting to regenerate on its own now that he's no longer in need of healing, so all the heat he collects from this point on is pure power stored away for darker times.

Ah, so that’s how it is.

He’d been puzzling over what Shinsou had said earlier, thinking about how something as powerful as Kirishima could have continued to live happily with his heart in someone else. Without his core, he can’t regenerate his power on his own, so he must have just been storing heat up year after year like a squirrel stores away nuts and berries for the winter. 

And then, he’d gone and wasted a huge chunk of it bringing Katsuki back from death’s door. 

Again. 

Kirishima’s saved him like this before, hasn’t he? It just makes sense. How could he have known so much about him? Healing Katsuki in the same way that he heals himself, knowing how Katsuki likes his food spicy, exceedingly patient for Katsuki’s outbursts and ill manners. 

Katsuki doesn’t know why the thought occurs to him now, but it does, like a strike of heat lightning in the dead of a dark summer night. He can’t even be angry at Kirishima, more surprised that years of repressed rage and frustration towards the thing that brought him back to life haven’t come surging up to the surface. Imagining his redheaded companion in the place where the shadowy form in his memory stands isn’t bringing him to fury, like it should. All that settles inside him is a quiet, calm acceptance. The surface of his bathwater is more upset than his mind is considering it. For years he’d imagined this monster cast in all black pouring fire into him, lording over him with its power, mocking him, reviving him and forcing him to live in a world that didn’t want him. 

Alone. 

It makes sense that Kirishima is his dragon, in a way, but as much as Katsuki tries to force Kirishima into the mold that his mind has made of his own imagination, Kiri doesn’t fit. His friend is far too warm and kind to be anything but himself, and the dissonance between the persona that Katsuki’s mind had created to deal with his childhood trauma and years of loneliness, and the real, living breathing person is absolutely too much to think about after the week they’ve had. 

It makes sense. But what if? 

What if he isn’t? What if he is? If he is, why hasn’t he told Katsuki? Why did he leave him? Why, why, why circles around in his mind, a whirlpool of questions that spins his thoughts about in a vicious cycle of doubt.

Katsuki cups his hands and splashes his face, tiredly letting them drag across his expression. When he feels the tell-tale prickling sensation of oil sliding down his spine, he sighs. 

“The fuck do you want now? Can’t I take a bath in peace?”

“You’re so loud,” Shinsou answers. The scrape of a small wooden stool across the tiles, thnkthknkthnk, bounces around the room until Shinsou’s pulled up to the side of the bath. As he pushes up the sleeves of his sweater he sighs out, “Rather come in here and distract you from all that than have to get dragged down with you.”

“I appreciate it,” Katsuki says, lying. 

“I know. Now sit forward. Let me get a look at your back. I want to see what Monoma did.” Gently, a hand pushes at his shoulder blade, and much too drained to continue picking fights, Katsuki allows him. He leans, lets the water rise to his chest as another of Shinsou’s hands methodically traces down phantom lines across the defined planes of Katsuki’s back. “Wow… It looks like a tattoo. Spiderwebs, or something. Like the rest of you is dark, but you’ve got these white lightning bolts where the ice went through you.” 

“Yeah, ‘pulled his shots’ my ass,” the rogue snorts, eyeing Shinsou over the dip of his shoulder. His friend looks in awe, as if Monoma’s handiwork is nothing short of a piece of art.

“I’m telling you, if he wanted to kill you, he’d have used a different arrow. I can tell these were just the normal ones.”

“I’d hate to see what else he’s got if those were just the normal arrows.” 

“I’ll be sure to tell him he had you on the ropes, then.” Shinsou pulls Katsuki back down, hands working gently over aching muscles before rising over the nova’s throat. Katsuki follows the movement, a spike of anxiety he struggles to squash with someone’s hands on his pulse. Shinsou doesn’t linger there long, leading Katuski’s head back so that they can look each other in the eyes while Shinsou pours soap into his hands. “C’mon, stop thinking. You think way too loudly to keep this up all night, so just relax for a second and let me wash your hair.”

“If it’s bothering you, then get the fuck out.  I can wash my own damn hair,” Katsuki grumbles without much bite. The heat and that familiar pressure against his scalp are enough to ease back on the bitterness thick in his veins. It’s hard not to lean into long fingers when Shinsou has learned from years of persuasion and gentle prodding just how to lather him up good and send calm waves cascading down his spine. Harder still when he’s so close that he can smell lavender clinging to where his collar rests open in the humidity of the baths. “Fuck, it’s been forever since we did this? School dorms?” 

“Six years ago, but who’s counting,” Shinsou replies. He works diligently to make sure every strand gets its due attention. Twirls spikes together and then soothes them out before kneading all ten digits into his scalp until Katsuki is swallowing back a sound of contentment. Shinsou must sense it, because he grins as he takes his hands back and folds them between his knees. He leans forward enough that there’s nary an inch between them and eases his hand along his spine, holding the other soft on his shoulder with a coaxing push. "Now that I'm usually with the prince, I do this a lot more frequently, so trust me."

"Spoiled little fucker," Katsuki says, but he bends to Shinsou's movements, in need of a little pampering himself. Katsuki obediently ducks his head beneath the water while Shinsou shifts closer with another scrape of wood on tile. He must ditch the chair along the way, because his heat is right there as Katsuki leans forward into the pleasant wash of the waves. His weight is right there against his back, hand steady on his shoulder to still his dip. Long fingers breach the surface by his bangs and pull water back through the suds accumulated there. Blue gives way to black, Ash and grime coming free as Shinsou works out all of the proof of a hard two weeks travel. He’s methodical, makes sure that every strand is free of soap before he pulls Katsuki above the surface and promptly settles back against the side of the tub, all the while Katuski’s doing his best to actually clear his mind and return with an empty head. It’s not easy, never has been, but with Shinsou’s little shadow compulsions pulsing at the edge of his thoughts, encouraging him to empty out his mind, and the noise-proof nature of the water sloshing in his ears,  it’s a little bit easier. He’s exhausted, has been all his life, but tonight might be just one of those nights where he actually lets himself let all of his defenses down. 

Pushing his hair back out of his eyes, Katsuki draws his palm down his face and blinks light back into his world. Shinsou is still there, one hand playing gently with the surface of the water while the other rests lazily on tile. The Blonde can’t help drawing back to the edge, grabbing the soap and wading back into the pool to watch patterns ripple to life before him, only to break inches later.  It’s distracting enough that he manages to not think, for a moment, where the exits are, or how much time they have left before they’ll have to set off again. If he’s leaving with Kirishima, or if he’s going to leave him behind. If Kirishima’s worth to him is enough to keep going with the dragon by his side. 

He's a liability. A weakness. If he can't protect himself… 

Why?

Because I wanted to, his voice rings true in Katsuki's mind.

Katsuki shoves it away, shoves these thoughts into a box in his mind, slams it shut, and sits on it. He needs to relax. He can think about this shit later.

His vision tunnels between him and Shinsou, until he’s counting ripples instead of seconds, and settling into the caress of the waves against the surface. Shinsou’s smirk eases into sight as he leans close again. “I’m surprised you weren't able to relax at the Order's camp.”

Katsuki rolls his eyes, arms supporting himself from behind as he shifts to let the water lap at his stomach. “Why the fuck is that? Was nothing to be relaxed about with you fuckers on my heels.”

“Sure there was.” Crimson gleams in the shadows, almost ruby against the sapphire of the tiles. “You know, I always wondered how someone who claimed he needed no one would manage to spend so much time with a priestess of all people, but she really is something else. Prettier than when I saw her for the first time, back when we were kids. Nothing like the old hag she worked for. Didn’t get to properly meet her until the other day, but I’ve got to say, I see the… appeal.” 

Katsuki considers that tone for a moment before his eyes narrow with accusation. “You fucking swine. She’s a priestess. You don’t even like women!”

“Like that ever stopped you,” the violet haired man grins from ear to ear, completely self-satisfied. “I thought your type was dragons, but apparently it’s anyone strong enough to kick your ass,” Shinsou accuses with a little flick of water his way, “Maybe we have that in common. She wouldn’t let me leave the camp until she’d kicked my ass halfway to the capitol city in a sparring match, right there in the mud. For disrupting the peace in her camp, or something." 

Katsuki bares his teeth. “Good. You deserved it, asshole. Consorting with a priestess, gods above,” He splashes a wave at the man, reveling in the way he backed off the tile to escape being soaked. His expression settles into a narrow grin. “I can’t believe you. She’s not even blonde.”

Shinsou blinks at him, eyebrows rising up below his fallen bangs. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

Katsuki eases closer to the edge of the tub and rests his forearm on the cooling tiles, pointing a lazy finger at himself. “I like badasses,” he clarifies, then jabs that same finger into Shinsou’s chest. “You like blondes. Monoma, that plain guy, what's his name…"

Shinsou raises his eyebrows, amused, "Ojiro."

"Yeah, him. He was blond. And me, obviously."

“I don’t like you,” Shinsou retorts lethargically, feathering his hand through strands of blonde and shaking a handful of water droplets free from the unruly mess. “and you’re a blonde.”

“Yeah, and you’re not much of a badass,” Katsuki hums, “but that never stopped us before, did it? I remember a bunch of stupid shit back in the dorms.”

Crimson meets crimson in the mere distance between them, filled only by the scent of sandalwood and lavender. The humid air of the bathing room is sticky suddenly as it becomes clear that the dark nova also remembers, clandestine meetings between practices and late night 'studying'. Heat flares into his eyes, and Katsuki's pulse quickens in response. Shinsou’s fingers are still in his hair, a presence heavier than his shadows that folds between the strands, coaxing Bakugou closer and calming his inhibitions. He twirls a matted strand between his fingers and gives a little, teasing tug. As Shinsou leans across the narrow distance, though, another log splits in the fireplace and sends up a rush of smoke— the scent of cinders and ash, the scent of power and burning scales— and Katsuki finds himself reeling back and out of his grasp. He reaches up and removes the hand from his hair, face turned so that Shinsou's kiss just barely feathers across his cheek. 

Shinsou smiles against his dampened skin, his shadows feeling and deciphering Katsuki's emotions. Maybe he'd have better luck at that task than Katsuki would. He pulls away, resting his hand on the tub with an easy, judgement-free smile. 

"You must really like this dragon." He says. 

Katsuki swallows hard, and closes his eyes. Fuck, does he? 

Shinsou swats a splash of water into his face that catches him off guard, Katsuki sputtering and cursing and eyes flashing open into a hard glare. A chuckle leaves Shinsou's throat as he stands from the tiles and lightly runs a departing pet through his blonde locks. “Guess you should give that question swirling around your head a little more thought, then.” He shrugs with the hint of a smirk.

His deep chuckle echoes in his wake as he leaves the rogue to it, and Katsuki submerges below the surface of the water to drown out the sound as well as his own thoughts.