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Never Fade

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There was something wrong with the gait of his run. Once he had lapped up leagues where grass grew only in patches and the wastes lived to kill, but now he was huffing through a perfectly ordinary woodland. Full of lumps and corners, his pack would not settle into the small of his back, and he kept stepping with one foot slightly twisted. It was strange—but he was not worried. This forest was peaceful, like the silence behind the wind in the heights. He could not help but be glad.

 

The slope caught him by surprise. One moment he was running unevenly, the next he was falling, rolling into trees and over rocks until he sprawled in an even place, the contents of his pack scattered over the ground. He pried his forehead up from the dirt, still grinning, and his eyes locked onto another face.

 

“Are you alright?” the girl said, crouching down to get a better look at him, one hand clutched around her staff. A guard stood poised behind her, quivering, but not with fright.

 

He coughed, squinted—there was something familiar about her medallion. An insignia like that carried a message, a direction for the life force each creature carried with them. The words were tumbling out almost before he thought them. “You’re a mage!” 

 

She laughed, and the tone was living like the vibrant green of new sprouts. “Sure am! Who are you?”

 

“Nana,” he said, and knew it was so. His sister had called it when she wanted him to come inside, when he had stood knee deep in the water of the field, a basket in his arms and a long braid trailing down his back.

 

“That’s a…a strange name.” It was the guard, a man in full plate with a chiseled jaw. If he had worn a helmet, it would have been easy to miss how young he was.

 

Gasping, the mage whacked his chestplate with the end of her staff. “You can’t say that to a stranger!”

 

The guard sputtered and stepped back, though not from the force of the blow. “I only meant—look at the notebook!”

 

Nana grabbed for it at the same time as the mage, but his hand was faster. The front cover had fallen open and there, printed in bold letters on the first page, were the words.

 

Hero analysis for the future—if found, please return to Midoriya Izuku.

 

“That’s what I meant,” Izuku said, handing the notebook into the open hand of the mage. “My name is Midoriya.”

 

The girl glanced down at the page, and when she looked up again there was a crease in her forehead. “Why didn’t you just say that?”

 

“I don’t know,” Izuku said, sheepishly brushing the dirt out of his bangs. “I forgot.”

 

 

Grabbing his shoulders, Uraraka set him down on a rock by the campfire and stepped back to consider him. “I don’t suppose—do you remember what happened to your shirt?”

 

Izuku shrugged. He did not. The cloth was tattered, but not worn thin, like it had been cut rather than ripped. It should have been green, but most of it had turned dark brown, stained by a substance he hoped was weird mud. It had to be. Who could bleed that much and live?

 

Sighing, Uraraka turned her palm in the air, fingers tilted at a strange angle. The tears in his clothes knit together and the wrong colors faded away.

 

“That’s so cool!” Izuku said, grabbing at his shirt to hold the cloth at a better angle. The dye was vibrant, as if he had bought it new. “Your powers are so cool! You’re so cool!”

 

Uraraka reached out her hand, maybe to pull him to his feet. “Come with us.”

 

Jumping up, Iida clanked across the campsite, waving his arms wildly. “This is unacceptable! You just met him!”

 

“We’re headed to the Kamino wastes,” Uraraka continued, still turned towards Izuku. “I have to do a research project—for my wizard studies. Iida swore to guard me, he can’t stop you if I want you to come. And he’ll be really nice once you’ve warmed up to each other.”

 

“This is foolhardy,” Iida insisted, but his voice was resigned.

 

“You want to leave him?” Uraraka asked, glancing sidelong at her companion, “Where else would he go?”

 

Izuku took her hand.

 

 

Racing across the shallow hills with the world painted in shades of purple grey, Izuku found his stride. Maybe the intensity of the moment had jostled the memory free, or else the familiarity of searching while he hastened. There was a story in the bend of grass and earth before him, visible even in the twilight, and Izuku could read it. Iida had come this way. Iida, who panicked if they did not gather the suggested amount of firewood each night, had willingly abandoned his post. Something was dreadfully wrong.

 

He was barely in the forest, the trees thinning and the underbrush all but vanished. That was how he saw them, two figures in a clearing, distinct against the absence of saplings and briers. Stepping forward, Iida swung a sword at his opponent’s neck, only to drop it when he was blown back by an invisible barrier. Before he could stand up, dark crystals coated his legs and side, pinning him to the ground.

 

Izuku made a fist with one hand, twisted his open palm across his fingers with the other. There was no time to question the movement or how he had known it. Iida’s attacker was stepping forward.

 

“You’re a knight,” the man slurred. The number of blades strapped to his back and sides and shins marked him a warrior, his use of magic something of a mage. “You’re a paladin—but you attack me without provocation. What of your creed?”

 

Reaching out with his free hand, Iida caught the hilt of his weapon and held it up as a ward. “You killed my brother.”

 

“Revenge?” the man asked, drawing a greatsword from his side. Both hands clutching the hilt, he swung it up over his shoulder. “I knew you were unworthy.”

 

Slamming into him at full speed, Izuku threw them both off balance. The stranger took a moment to steady himself, eyes locked on his new opponent. Nearly as shocked as the man he had surprised, Izuku drew a shortsword. He had forgotten he was carrying it. He did not remember deciding to charge.

 

“Who are you?” the man murmured, licking his lips. His teeth were pointed. “What quarrel have you? Leave before I am provoked.”

 

“You leave!” Izuku cried, and thrust his blade forward, only to be knocked to the ground by the same barrier. He scrambled to find his sword, his footing, but found himself caught by the crystalline substance. A blur moved in the corner of his vision, and Izuku moved too. Bringing his arm up, he caught the swinging greatsword with a shield of green light, gasped with shock in sync with his opponent. He did not remember being a mage.

 

“Impossible,” the man said. His tone was wonder where it should have been disgust. Setting his feet, he swung the sword again, hard and deliberate. The shield held. Lowering his weapon, he stood still, considering the spell. "In all my days, I have never seen a life force like yours." 

 

"I don't care," Izuku said, trying to hold the shield with one hand and feel for his sword with the other, "Leave my friend alone."

 

The man nodded. "You may live," he murmured, and turned to stalk the other way, the tip of his greatsword trailing on the ground. That had to be terrible for the blade, but it was certainly dramatic.

 

Iida was still stuck where he had fallen, chipping off the unnatural rock with the hilt of his sword.

 

"Wait," Izuku cried, "Come back here!" He tried to push his shield outward, catch it on the arm of the assailant, but it seemed determined to hover about a foot from his hand. He closed his fist, and the spell dropped. That was fine—he needed a different spell anyway, one that could help Iida. 

 

Twisting his legs, he dropped his sword and tried to push himself free of the crystals by force. It did not work, but beneath his hand, the stone was warm where it should have been cold. Izuku looked, and the rock was shrinking in the pale light under his palm. He could get out. He would be too late.

 

Someone screamed, probably Iida, and Izuku kicked harder. Weakened as it was, the rock budged just enough for him to scramble out. Grabbing his sword, he rushed across the clearing, only to lock eyes with a new stranger. 

 

“Stop!” someone ordered, “That’s my friend!” 

 

Izuku stopped, turning towards the commanding voice. There, picking himself up from the ground, was Iida. Broken rocks were scattered around him and crystals still clung to the edges of his armor. He was alive.

 

“This is your friend?” the stranger said, gesturing forwards with a thin blade. His hair was strange, half deep red, half pure white. A scar covered one side of his face. Distracted by his appearance, it took Izuku a moment to parse the meaning of the conversation.

 

“We’re friends?” Izuku shrieked, one hand flying up to cover his face. “Iida—Iida, do you mean it?”

 

He wished he could take the words back. Iida looked stricken, and his voice wavered. “You came all this way, and you didn’t know that?” 

 

Sniffling, Izuku turned back to the stranger, hopeful that he would be taken seriously even with tears streaming down his face. “Did you see another man here?”

 

The stranger blinked. “He’s gone. I had a spell saved—I can’t believe it worked.”

 

“Many thanks for your timely aid,” Iida said, “but I cannot help but wonder—how did you know we needed you?”

 

Reaching into his bag, the stranger drew out a round metal object, about the size of a hand. The glyph stamped on its surface was still glowing faintly. "I think my father meant for me to use it to send for help if I was in trouble," he explained, "but I couldn't stand and do nothing when your distress signal came through." 

 

Iida furrowed his brow, and Izuku knew what he would say before he opened his mouth. "How did you get a signal? We left our mage at camp." 

 

 

"The distress signal spell?" Uraraka said, rubbing her lip with one finger. "I don’t have it mastered, but I think the motion is like this." Pressing one palm against a fist, she twisted her hands.

 

Izuku nodded. "Yeah, I did that too." 

 

“You made a force shield, and you melted the rocks,” Todoroki added, counting each instance on his fingers, “That’s a lot of spells for someone who isn’t a mage.”

 

“You’re not a mage,” Iida interrupted, “and you disintegrated Stain.”

 

Todoroki shrugged. “I used a premade spell scroll. My father bought it—teleporting to a random location, in case you need to get out of danger. I guess it works on other people too.”

 

“You should have brought me,” Uraraka pouted, crossing her arms. “Iida I understand—you’re prone to random fits of foolhardy valor, but Izuku—you know I could have helped.”

 

“I know,” Izuku said, scratching the back of his neck. He would have thought to wake her if he had stopped to think at all.

 

Todoroki stepped between them and held up his hand. “Can you do this?” he asked, snapping his fingers. Sparks flew off his palm.

 

Izuku snapped and nothing happened. 

 

“You have to know what you want,” Uraraka said, grabbing his arm and moving it to a better position. The sky, just visible through the trees behind her, was beginning to turn pink. “That’s just a cantrip—anybody can do it—for lighting a candle or a campfire. Try again, but imagine you’re turning on a lamp in the dark.”

 

Closing his eyes, Izuku tried to imagine a lamp. Instead, he remembered standing with his forehead pressed to a glass, shoulders wedged against another figure in the window seat, trying not to breathe and fog his view of the stars. Something flashed up above—smearing across the dark sky like a sleeve rubbed over a drawing—but this running line was bright. Closer and closer the object fell until it crashed, exploding somewhere in the woods. Izuku could still see the throbbing light coming up behind the silhouette of branches.

 

“Stay here,” Kacchan said, jumping down and darting away from the window.

 

Izuku followed, across the room and down the stairs where Kacchan sat lacing on his boots. “It could be a dragon,” he whispered, “You have to take me too.”

 

Someone shouted, and Izuku opened his eyes to see a forest at dawn. His friends were—dancing? Stomping up and down on something vibrant.

 

The ground was on fire. 

 

Shrieking in terror, he tried to join them, nearly knocking over Iida in his fervor. Uraraka laughed. She was pouring a bucket of water on the brightest bits, stopping to summon more when it ran out. Even Todoroki smiled, focused as he was on vanquishing his corner of the flame. It was reminiscent of another time, another person whose face looked the same. Izuku had danced with her along the edge of a city block, to the tune of constant fireworks, the night Tokyo had celebrated the completion of the wall, jubilant in the knowledge that armies of undead constructs would trouble the kingdom no longer. 

 

“You’re staring at me,” Todoroki said. The fire was out. Izuku shook his head. The wall—he was sure he had read somewhere—it had been finished over a hundred years ago.

 

Uraraka jumped in front of him, shivering in excitement. “We have to try that again.”

 

Izuku did not get to catch up on sleep that morning. Uraraka walked him through a series of cantrips, most of them less explosive, and took notes on the results. Several feet from the campfire, Iida and Todoroki unfurled a map and sat discussing the paths they meant to take. By the time Uraraka found what she needed, Todoroki had explained that he was already delivering something to Kamino, and would like to accompany them until their paths split.

 

"Do we get to know what that was about?" Iida asked, fastening up someone's bedroll. "Not that you have to tell me, but I am intrigued."

 

"It's up to Izuku," Uraraka said, retying the cap of her inkwell. There would be no end of trouble if that spilled during the hike.

 

Izuku shrugged. "I don't mind. 

 

"Well, I'm not an expert," she continued, beginning to settle the rest of her spell components into her pack like a jigsaw puzzle. “I probably got my calculations muddled. Still, the way you cast spells, it's like your life force is nine times too strong.”

 

 

The sky was big here, divided only by the distant peaks shooting up like knives. Izuku sat on a ledge, feet dangling over the side of a narrow mountain. He should have been terrified—maybe he was. It was hard to discern other feelings—his joy swallowed everything else. 

 

Someone slapped him on the shoulder and ran. He sat languidly, watching the old man rush down the spiraling path, white beard flapping in the wind. Pausing at the next bend, the man looked back and forth, then back up the mountain. 

 

"Daigoro!" he called, and it was not a strange thing to say. That was Izuku's name. "Daigoro, come play with me!"

 

"Why?" Izuku shouted back, "Eijirou, you always win!" The words would have been more forceful if he were not already standing up. 

 

The old man darted around the corner, and Izuku raced down the narrow ledge after him, loose rocks scattering at his feet. Some of them clattered off the mountainside, plummeting towards a valley too far to see. Coming up towards the bend, he reached out a hand and caught the side of the mountain, swinging around the curve at high speed. His friend was gone. Eijirou had a habit of jumping from high places—he liked to feel the rush of air in his wings. 

 

A deep bellow rang from the valley below, echoing off the surrounding mountainsides. Izuku smiled, pitying those who found danger in a sound that had only ever brought him comfort.

 

...

 

“Do you hear that?” Uraraka squealed, jumping in place and pumping her arms up and down.

 

A shadow passed over them, swift like a vulture circling above, but far too large. Izuku looked up, and there, circling the sun, was a comforter he had forgotten.

 

Todoroki blinked, shielding his eyes from the light with one hand. “That’s a dragon.”

 

“We need to find cover,” Iida said, but no one moved. 

 

Bellowing again, the dragon swooped down, flapping its wings to push away. The wind picked up, and it was hard to tell if he was being pushed along, or if his flight always moved the air like that. In the light, his scales glinted orange and red and familiar.

 

“Eijirou!” Izuku shouted, “Eijirou, come down to me.” 

 

The dragon swooped low again, then he banked hard, curving in the air until he was barreling back towards them.

 

"Alright," Uraraka said, bouncing from one foot to the other, "Maybe we should run now."

 

"You speak Draconic?" Todoroki asked.

 

It took Izuku a moment to realize who the question was for. "I don't," he answered, and then stopped himself. Did he?

 

The dragon landed right in front of them, sending a tremor through the ground and the air racing back. Somehow it was startling even though they had watched him approach. Izuku held his breath. This creature was much smaller, much younger than the one Daigoro had known. Between their lives, Eijirou must have fallen and been reborn. Izuku wondered if he knew him, who he knew him as. Did dragons take old memories into a new life?

 

“Hey idiot! Why did we stop!” Perched on the dragon’s shoulder, slapping at scales like a child pulling on his mother’s skirt for attention, was a second face Izuku knew.

 

The dragon barely turned his head. “He said my name." 

 

Scowling down at the party, Kacchan slid from Eijirou’s back and landed in a crouch on the long grass. Crossing his arms, he stalked around his friend, still glowering at the newcomers. 

 

Then he saw Izuku.

 

The tension dropped from his face, replaced with an expression Izuku had never seen on him before. Kacchan sprinted the distance between them, colliding with enough to knock the breath from Izuku’s chest. Throwing his arms around his neck, he hid his face in Izuku’s shoulder, gripped him like he might evaporate.

 

“I ran,” he said, unnaturally quiet. “You were dying, and I ran to get help.”

 

“I’m okay,” Izuku said. He was not, but for a different reason.

 

Kacchan took a long, stuttering breath. “Deku—you stupid jerk—I won’t leave you again.”

 

 

In the blue dark, the lamp Kacchan held above his head had been the only warm thing in the whole world. Its light caught on the scales of the old dragon as their color faded away.

 

"Hold this," Kacchan said, shoving the lamp into Izuku's arms.

 

He caught it, held it up as Kacchan walked around the creature and out of sight. An owl called into the dark, just louder than the thrum of the night bugs, and he waited in anticipation. They both knew that dragons did not die forever, that by the corpse of each old one, an egg would grow.

 

An eternal ten minutes later, Kacchan came back around the giant slumping figure, clutching an ethereal sphere. The light from the lamp played off it, splashing in iridescent fractals to the ground. Eyes wide in wonder, Izuku reached out to touch it.

 

“Get back!” Kacchan ordered, turning to pull the egg out of reach. “This is my dragon. I’m going to raise it and be a hero—like All Might.”

 

For all the wonder, Izuku could not deny that something had shifted between them that night. He lasted the next twelve years hoping in the logic that if Kacchan could change once, he could change again .

 

 

“Deku!” Uraraka called from several yards away, “Come over here! I need your help!”

 

Racing across the prairie grass, Izuku tripped and fell on his face. He could not see with his eyes full of dirt, but he heard Eijirou snort from somewhere nearby. Picking himself up, he turned to Uraraka.

 

“Your friend—Bakugou?” she explained, “He was tossing and turning all last night, so this evening I offered to put him to sleep with magic. I think he didn’t want that—he just glared at me—but Kirishima took me up on it. You’ll have to cast the spell though.”

 

“Me?” Izuku sputtered.

 

Grabbing his hands, Uraraka moved them through the right motions, explaining as she went. “Sleep is a simple spell, but it takes a lot of power. You need more than one person to cast it on a dragon.”

 

Izuku nodded. “We’ll do it together.”

 

“No silly,” she said, “You count for nine.”

 

...

 

Drawing his sword, Izuku jumped to his feet. One moment he had been the only waking soul for miles, the next a strange figure stood in the middle of their camp, staring at him over the fire. 

 

“Who are you!” Izuku demanded, whispering as forcefully as he could manage. This was his watch. He should have noticed.

 

“Peace,” the man said, drawing back his hood to reveal a mop of wild golden hair, “I must have startled you—but I mean no harm.”

 

Izuku’s train of thought came to a screeching halt. The man’s cloak clasp, the fastening of his gauntlets, the specific leather of his boots—he knew them like the folds of his own palm.

 

“You’re All Might,” Izuku whispered, this time in awe, “Oh my gosh, you’re—you’re really him.”

 

“Try to contain yourself,” All Might responded. Yes, that was right. The two of them were having a conversation.

 

Dropping his sword, Izuku clamped both hands over his mouth to stifle his scream of joy, knowing that if he woke his friends he would die of embarrassment.

 

“Young Midoriya,” All Might said, fiddling with the hem of his robe, “I changed my mind about something—and I never got the chance to tell you.”

 

“Can I be a hero?” he blurted. The words came from a dark chasm of his psyche—he had not known they were hiding there until they spilled out.

 

All Might opened his mouth to speak, but instead he coughed, doubling over and gripping his sides as he wheezed like a dead tree ready to topple in the next storm. 

 

Reaching to steady him, Izuku gasped as his hands found no purchase on All Might’s form. “You aren’t here!” he said, trying desperately to keep his voice down, “Where are you really? Are you alright?”

 

All Might found his balance, reached one hand to wipe at his mouth. The back came away bloody. “I’m in a safe place,” he explained, “This illusion—it was the only way I could think to reach you.”

 

“What happened,” Izuku insisted, almost as afraid of ignorance as he was of the answer.

 

“I traded my life force for a death blow,” All Might said, and he smiled even with his teeth stained crimson. “Afterward, I had strength enough to warp back to Tokyo, where the wizards were able to sustain me. I will live, so long as I stay here.”

 

Dread, cold and clammy, grappled Izuku’s stomach. “Someone stole your life force and tried to kill you?” 

 

“No, my boy,” All Might said, cupping his cheek with a phantom hand, “I saw a hero dying, and I gave it away.”

 

 

Izuku ducked under the enemy blade, spun and stabbed the construct in the spine. That was enough to destroy its balance. It crumpled, hit the ground and melted into a toxic looking sludge. Izuku was already moving to the next one, following the memory of a motion he did not recall learning. 

 

He knew though. The other life forces inside him carried knowledge as well as power. Whenever he rose to a challenge, Izuku found a skill he had not put in the effort to foster. Fighting with a sword—that had come from All Might.

 

The thought distracted him—what an awesome situation—and his enemy tripped him, raised a glaive to stab him while he was down. That would have been the end if Kacchan had not pushed it off balance, struck its head so hard with his club that it went rolling to the earth. This construct crumbled to dust, fading back into the shadows it had come from.

 

“Get up,” Kacchan said, “Todoroki needs us.”

 

Izuku fumbled for his sword. “Kacchan—you saved me.”

 

“It was self preservation. Auntie Inko would kill me if you died.”

 

Racing to reinforce the rest of the party, Izuku shouted his question, loud enough to be heard over the battle. “Who is that?”

 

 

“What will you do, after your quest?”

 

Izuku stared at the dying embers of the fire. He was already an hour into his watch, but Todoroki had not gone back to sleep when the shifts changed. 

 

“I’m not sure,” Izuku said, “I think I had better remember what my quest is first. You?”

 

Leaning back against his satchel, Todoroki gazed up at the sky. The view of the stars would have been breathtaking if there were not so many clouds. “I don’t think I’ll go back.”

 

“You don’t like home?”

 

“Yeah,” Todoroki said, and then he sat up again, started fiddling with the lace on the end of his sleeve. “But that’s not what I meant.”

 

Izuku bit his lip. “What’s wrong?”

 

“My father is the king of Tokyo,” Todoroki began, “The others know this, but you forgot everything, so I thought it was worth mentioning.”

 

The last log snapped in two, ready to crumble to ashes in a moment. Izuku reached over to the woodpile and added another. “You’re right—I didn’t know.”

 

Plucking a strand of dry grass, Todoroki began twisting it around his finger. “For my quest, I’m delivering a letter to this sorcerer. We ignored him for over a century, but a month or two ago, All Might was injured. He had to retire, and so my father had to start worrying about All for One again.”

 

Izuku startled. One of his lives knew that name.

 

“I haven’t opened the letter,” Todoroki continued, “but I know what it says. There is no reason for a prince to come all this way just to deliver a message. And I’ve heard that noble blood is a spell component in some dark magic.”

 

“No!” Izuku said, forgetting to whisper, “No, you can’t do this!”

 

Todoroki shrugged. “You want me to run? All for One will destroy the world if he is not stopped. This might appease him. What else could I do?”

 

“You could sleep,” Izuku said. 

 

Quickly, he reached for the motions Uraraka had taught him, covering Todoroki’s face with his palm until his friend fell limp. Izuku eased him to the ground. Standing quietly, he slipped the satchel from from Todoroki’s shoulder and stole away, heart pounding as if he was commiting a murder instead of saving a life. 

 

 

Racing through Kamino, Izuku remembered the crisis that had taught him how to run. Carrying the remnant of his master’s notes and an extra life force, he had fled this barren country, stopping only when he reached green grass and a clear stream. 

 

Now he was going the other way.

 

 

The spindly, ink black tower with menacing spires did not seem welcoming to visitors, but Izuku knocked on the door anyway. After a moment, it opened to reveal a man as dry as the desert around them.

 

Izuku gulped and held up the letter. “I’m Todoroki Shouto—I have a message for All for One.”

 

 

His cell in the tower had no window, only a sprawl of unintelligible lines on the floor. Izuku curled up in the cleanest corner, wondering absently if All for One used his tower like a notebook. Maybe he would do that too, if he lived long enough to have his own house. What a way to ensure you never forgot your grocery list.

 

All for One was engaged in a heated argument on the other side of the hall. The cadence of his voice carried, but the words were too muddled to make out. Hopefully he would not decide to murder whatever henchmen was unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of his tirade.

 

Belatedly, Izuku thought of the sleeping spell. Todoroki was a lot smaller than a dragon—and Uraraka had said that excess power spread the magic over a larger area. Maybe Iida never woke for the third watch to find him missing, maybe everyone had slept through sunrise. It was hard to think of them—Izuku would be devastated if his friends abandoned him, but he did not want them to follow this time.

 

...

 

“Wait!” Izuku cried, unable to get out another word between his ragged breaths as he ran, chasing after the traveler who had left town half an hour ago. 

 

The man obliged, stepping to the side of the road where clover bloomed between clumps of moss. Izuku kept on, winded but determined, until he approached the stranger and came panting to a stop.

 

“Well?” the man said. The shadow of his hood covered his eyes, but his smirk was visible.

 

“That sword—“ Izuku managed, still struggling for

breath, “the sheath—peeling—paint was—blue and—and gold. I recognize it—I know who—who you are.”

 

The traveler crossed his arms, and for a moment Izuku was terribly aware of how small he was in comparison to this stranger. Then he laughed, voice full as the branches of an oak in a field, and Izuku knew it would be alright.

 

“You recognized the sheath of my shortsword?” All Might said, pulling back the hood of his cloak. “Your fanaticism is too much!” It would have sounded harsh if he had not been smiling so widely. Izuku wanted to save this moment the way he saved chocolate, wrapped and hidden in his bedroom, ready to be savored piece by piece.

 

But he had not run all this way just to gawk.

 

“Can I be a hero?” Izuku blurted, “Even if I’m not anyone—if I don’t have any training—can I still save somebody?”

 

 

Something snapped, and Izuku whipped his head around. There was nothing, only him and Kacchan gathering hazelnuts deep in the woods. So why did the hair on his neck stand on end?

 

“Can’t believe I’m stuck with you," Kacchan mumbled, kicking a pebble. It flew into the side of a tree and clattered down to rest in the underbrush. Izuku could hardly blame him. With his dragon, Kacchan could fly whenever he wanted. Every other moment must pale in comparison. 

 

The forest shrieked, and Izuku turned again to see a hulking figure hunched only a few yards off. He had never seen an owlbear before, but he could still distinguish this creature's flat face and beak attached to a body which would have been a grizzly's if it were not so large. 

 

"Hide," Kacchan ordered, dropping his basket and racing off. 

 

Stepping halfway behind a tree, Izuku tried desperately to breathe slower, to force down the water in his eyes. He had to keep quiet, but it was hard when everything happened so quickly. Kacchan was probably running to fetch Kirishima—hoping that a young dragon could best an owlbear—but it was autumn and his footsteps were too loud in the leaves. He was not nearly far enough away when the monster jerked its head up.

 

The owlbear charged. Izuku blinked and he was running too, diagonal against the course of the beast. He was not faster than it by a long shot, but he had started a lot closer to Kacchan. He would have an instant to intercept. Drawing his pocket knife from its sheath in his boot, he dove forward onto the ground, held the blade steady with both hands just as the owlbear stepped onto its point at full speed. Shrieking, it jerked back. The knife came up with its paw, driving in deeper when it put its weight on the limb again. Izuku had just enough time to scramble to his feet, grinning at his success, before its face turned sideways to bite him. His ribcage cracked like a nut in its beak.

 

...

 

Izuku flipped through the pages of his spellbook, frantic with anguish. The diagrams mapped out on every page told a different story than they had when he wrote them. Like charcoal over a leaf left a shape with color on the wrong half of the paper—so his brother had found the inverse of every good he tried to record. Healing spells backwards turned skin to dust, magic that boosted crop production wrecked his homeland with drought. A safeguard meant to dampen the power of a rogue sorcerer had heightened it instead, and now there was no one in the kingdom who could stand in his brother’s way.

 

If only he had more time—if he had taken his head out of his studies and used the time he had. Surely he could have helped him, or at least, noticed the thing he was becoming.

 

Water dropped onto the page he held open, and Izuku clutched the book close to hide it from the rain, only to remember that he was indoors. Even now he had been too engrossed in the spell he was staring at to notice that he was crying. Absently, he rubbed at his face with the back of his hand. What hope was there now? All for One’s newest spell was original, but impossible to reinvent. It sucked the lifeforce of those who opposed him, destroying them even as it increased his own power. Izuku could reverse that, but what was the use?

 

What fool would create a spell that gave his own magic away?

 

...

 

Startling awake from the memories, Izuku looked again at the diagram on the floor and found that he could read it. It was too complicated to decipher in an instant, but the fueling portion, built to suck the life force of anyone within a hundred miles, was incredibly blatant. He had spent two centuries casting the same spell backwards.

 

Shaking magic into his hands, Izuku set about changing the lines. With his right hand he drew, and with his left he erased. It should have been done with a compass and ruler, but he had no time. The voices in the hall were getting closer. Just as he drew the last line and jumped to his feet, the door opened for a man in dark robes with only a semblance of a face. Striding forward, he grabbed Izuku by the shoulder

 

All Might rushed in after, illusion flickering with the movement. “If you think for one second that my wounds will stop me from—stop—that isn’t Todoroki!”

 

“You say that like it matters,” All for One muttered. Drawing a long knife from his side, he slit open his own arm. Then he stabbed Izuku through the chest.

 

The world erupted in light, spiraling in flakes like snow made of gold, like windblown strands of clouds in the sunlight. All for One screamed as the spell drained him—instead of drawing souls from the surrounding villages, it took the ones he had stolen and cast them away. Devoid of the power he had grown to depend on, All for One began to fade. The edges of his form flaked off, melting away into the shadows like his constructs had. In half a minute the light dimmed to its regular intensity, and Izuku and All Might stood alone in an empty room.

 

Izuku crumpled to the ground.

 

In an instant, All Might was hovering over him, trying to staunch the bleeding wound. “Young Midoriya,” he pleaded, “It will be alright.” It was not convincing. His voice wavered as much as his hands as they fazed through Izuku’s chest.

 

“I know my Mom,” Izuku whined, glad that memory had come at last. It hurt so much to breathe.

 

“You’ll see her again,” All Might assured, half distracted with a useless attempt at triage. He looked ethereal, clothes spotless even as he crouched in a growing pool of blood.

 

“No,” Izuku muttered, vision blurring, changing like the sky at dusk. “You—keep her safe.”

 

 

The first soul explained it later, once Izuku had learned to dream. The main portion of the spell was built to summon a dead man from beyond the grave, and All for One's blood directed it towards his nearest kin. Though they had been bursting out of him instead of running towards him, the thousands of life forces traveling through the mechanism had still powered it, would have fulfilled their master's plan, were it not for one fatal mistake. His brother's most recent body was not the one he had been born in.

 

Waking without that knowledge, Izuku could think only of the word told to him by the dragons. Giving up your life was the only sure way to get one that would never fade. 

 

Looking around, he saw only the empty room. All Might was gone. Good—somebody needed to tell the king about All for One. Izuku stood up, felt his chest automatically. His shirt was ruined again, stained and ripped through, but he was whole. Blood still coated the floor. The door was open. 

 

Stepping out of the room, Izuku ducked just in time to avoid getting his head chopped off by a stray construct. Full of adrenaline, he darted down the hall, not quite as afraid as he was glad to be alive. Rounding the corner at the end, he almost slammed into Eijirou in human form. 

 

And Kacchan.

 

“What happened to your shirt?” Kacchan demanded.

 

Izuku could have cried. He did—but only a little. “I’m glad to see you guys too.”

 

Kacchan punched him in the face.

 

Stepping back, Izuku steadied himself against a wall. When he looked up again, Eijirou had Kacchan in a chokehold.

 

“Deku—you idiot!” Kacchan growled, “You’re gonna die! I’m gonna kill you right here!”

 

Eijirou rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “Dude—at least wait until we escape the tower with the creepy mage.”

 

Kacchan pushed off his hold and stood growling for a moment. Then he stalked forward. “We’re not done,” he warned, grabbing Izuku’s arm to tow him down the next corridor.

 

 

“We would have all come,” Iida explained, “but only one of us knew how to ride a dragon. Flight is a lot faster, and we figured time was of the essence.

 

Izuku sat by the same campsite he had left, devouring a loaf of bread. Uraraka had already fixed his shirt, and now she poured frantically through her spell book, trying to find magic small enough to heal a single bruise. Izuku wanted to laugh. The only mark on him had come from Kacchan.

 

“We would not have been so pressed for time,” Todoroki murmored, “if someone had not put us all to sleep.”

 

Kacchan looked up, caught Todoroki’s gaze, and nodded. “I’m gonna kill him.”

 

“We had better hurry,” Eijirou interrupted, “All for One will send something after us.”

 

“All for One is dead,” Izuku announced. The rest of the party turned to stare at him—were they shocked at the news, or did a mouth full of food make him unintelligible? 

 

“How do you know?” Uraraka asked, face perfectly sweet. Izuku was not fooled—she had to be livid that he had used her own spell against her.

 

“I watched him disintegrate,” Izuku explained, “One of his spells didn’t work how he thought, and it killed him.”

 

Iida shook his head. “I’m not one to talk—but what you did was extremely foolish. You’re lucky you didn’t die too.”

 

Izuku laughed, harder than he should have, and took another bite of his bread.

 

 

Knuckles half an inch from the door frame, Izuku stopped. There was something in the placement of the stepping stones, the color of the house’s paneling, like a tree left to grow for a decade—almost familiar enough to recognize. This could be his home, but it could have been Nana’s. What if he opened the door and found someone he did not know, a descendant he never got to meet?

 

Still, Kacchan would have stopped him if this were the wrong place.

 

He knocked, stepped back so the door would not hit him when it swung, and waited. No one came. Sighing, he walked away down the path—then he hurried back and turned the handle. The door opened freely.

 

He did know this place. He had run down those same stairs the night Eijirou fell from the sky. Wandering through the empty rooms of the first floor, he came to the kitchen. No one was there either, but the window and door were open and food lay half prepared on the counter. He ran his hand absently over the back of the solitary chair at the table against the wall. There should have been three.

 

“Are you sure? I’ve been told that coughing up blood is a symptom of severe pneumonia.”

 

Izuku held his breath. That was her.

 

“I told you,” All Might insisted, “I am not sick—it’s because of an injury to my ribcage.”

 

Moaning softly, Izuku slumped into the chair. He had forgotten to tell All Might that he was not dead anymore. There was no way he could walk outside and stare both of them down—he was embarrassed right now just thinking about confronting either one of them.

 

“Your bones seem fine to me,” Mom said. It was the voice she used when Izuku tried to leave the table with his vegetables hidden under the rim of his plate. 

 

“The mages healed them,” All Might explained, “But when they broke, they punctured—maybe I should not explain this over tea.”

 

Mom huffed. “I asked.”

 

“The short version is that my internal organs are permanently damaged. I can’t eat everything I used to, and sometimes—“

 

“Can you eat this?”

 

The voices paused, and Izuku could hear a bird singing from the woods nearby. He had grown up hearing that noise. 

 

“I told you,” All Might sighed, “I can’t eat any of this food because I am merely an illusion. My body is in Tokyo.”

 

“But could you, if you were here? Can you eat bread?”

 

“I, well yes, but—“

 

“I’ll get you some more then,” Mom said

 

Something scraped—maybe a chair against the patio. “That’s not necessary,” All Might insisted.

 

Mom rounded the corner of the kitchen door holding an untouched plate of food. “It’s about the principle!” she called over her shoulder, bustling over the threshold and slipping off her shoes. 

 

Standing quietly, Izuku took one step forward, then another. He had crept like this before, in the pitch black after a nightmare. Mom always wanted him to come to her, but never woke up without a fright. Walking closer, he reached out a hand to tap her shoulder. Then he drew back.

 

Glancing up from the floor, Mom jumped and dropped the plate. “Izuku?”

 

“Mom!” he managed, voice breaking.

 

She was hugging him before he could come up with any more words, sobbing violently with her face pressed into his sternum. Izuku slowly wrapped his arms around her, resting his chin on her head.

 

All Might appeared in the doorway. Too tall to see under the lintel, he sat down on the doormat and peered up at them, tears silently streaming down his face. “Midoriya, what—“

 

“You were right,” Izuku acknowledged, “I did get to come home.”