The plan was decent, but their target’s alarm system was better. Of course, there was little to hide their approach, anyway. The parking lot stretching between the backside of a row of office buildings and the warehouse where normal companies would have handled loading and unloading goods was a wind-swept, empty space lit brightly by fluorescent lamps.
It took ten feet of them stepping into plain view of the concrete box before a groan and rattle signalled the opening of a garage door big enough to let a truck through. Instead of a car, however, they found themselves faced with a robot. It was smaller than its predecessors that Shouta had seen, but it had saw blades for hands that sprang to life with an ear-splitting whirr which made it impressive nonetheless.
“I must ask you all to step back a little!” Toshinori shouted over the din, spreading his arms and grinning as if he was trying to make room for some starlet walking through a crowd. You could almost believe he hadn’t been surprised, had Shouta not seen the brief twitch around his mouth when the door had clattered open.
Behind them, stone crackled and cracked and a wall pulled up between the police officers on one side and the heroes on the other. Cementoss lifted his hand off the ground.
“I can keep whatever they want to throw outside at bay and the police makes sure no one runs away. They’ll probably double down on defence, though!” he called.
“We will have a look at the warehouse!” Shouta decided.
As the robot descended on All Might, Hizashi and Shouta shot sideways. The door through which the robot had come wa still left open, which made sense. When both Cementoss and All Might were on the call, you might as well leave it since walls were not going to protect you for much longer. Still, Hizashi and him were not of the variety that could part concrete with ease, so Shouta grabbed Hizashi’s elbow before he could barrell inside to make sure they wouldn’t be trapped.
In the darkness laid an empty warehouse in shades and outlines. The ground of what must have been the second floor Watanabe had spoken off had been broken through and mostly removed, though jagged edges of stone with beams sticking out of them were still clinging to the wall where the room’s ceiling must had once been. A metal staircase ended in the air, leading nowhere.
Instead of any kind of storage, the walls were lined with large mounts and scaffolding. Shouta imagined that this was where the bigger robots had been propped up before they were deployed.
An explosion behind them suddenly threw the large, empty room into stark orange light. The bright burst revealed a trap door in the ground, concealed by darkness before but not particularly hard to spot now. Shouta understood that, too. If anyone had come in through the door, the robots along the walls would have been enough of a giveaway that something which needed thorough investigation was going on.
He turned around, watching Toshinori flip away from the burning metal husk and then stamping on his smouldering mantle. He gave a thumbs-up to Cementoss before he strode towards Shouta and Hizashi. Despite a good effort to hide it, Shouta saw that he was limping. Blood blackened the blue on the leg of his costume. The saws had gotten him in the left calf.
“Are you alright?” Shouta asked, frowning at the wound.
“Of course! Let’s push further ahead!” Toshinori called. However, despite his enthusiasm, he did halt at the door. “Did you see any more mechanical buddies waiting for us, my friends? Or another way to give us an unpleasant welcome?”
It was gratifying to Shouta that Toshinori did not actually charge in with as little foresight as it often seemed.
“No, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Trapdoor is in the middle of the room,” Hizashi answered.
With a nod, Toshinori took two steps into the hall, halted, then went on. Shouta made sure to follow directly in his footsteps, the soles of his boots spreading Toshinori’s blood, Hizashi close behind him. Unlike Toshinori, they could not tank a robot to the face quite so easily, so it was best to simply keep back while he prepared to take the brunt of a nasty surprise.
There was no handle on the trap door, so Toshinori jumped up into the air then came down hard with his heel. The heavy metal bent under his foot and one side rose, warped, just enough for Toshinori to push his fingers into the gap between the thick metal slab and the ground and pull the trap door open. Something cracked underneath, giving a metallic screech. Shouta figured whatever clever mechanism had controlled the door was now capitulating before Toshinori’s blunt brutality.
Toshinori put the door aside and they all looked down into a black hole, then at each other. Hizashi reached for his belt and shone a flashlight into the darkness, but the light revealed nothing, a white cone touching only more black shadows.
“Don’t jump,” Shouta said, glancing at Toshinori.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of handcuffs a police officer had handed him on the way, pulling off one end of his capture weapon with the other hand. Quickly, he tied the band around the handcuffs and then lowered the capture weapon foot by foot, keeping an eye on how much give he had to grant it by counting the times he moved his hand on the bindings.
“Ah – fishing for information!” Toshinori said and Shouta rolled his eyes at him.
There was a quiet sound of metal against stone.
“About twelve feet deep,” he said.
“I can take us down,” Toshinori answered. “My body absorbs landing hard better than yours.”
Again, Shouta was picked up by Toshinori, Hizashi holding on to his other arm, and they jumped. Shouta folded back his legs so he wouldn’t hit his feet on the concrete. As Toshinori let go off them, Hizashi’s flashlight revealed more concrete walls with loose wiring bundled by plastic straps and old, strained brass pipes. Wooden crates lined the room. There was no way further.
“Cover your ears, gentlemen!” Hizashi announced.
Shouta had barely enough time to follow the advice before his friend let out a shout. It reverberated through the room and he saw Hizashi standing very still as he paused, listening.
“There’s a hallway here,” he said, swiping the cone of the light over to a stack of crates in a corner.
“How did you hear that?” Toshinori asked with genuine awe.
“My ears are mutated to deal with my voice or else I’d go deaf! It might just be noise to you, but I learned to read the echo!” Hizashi announced.
They filed towards the boxes, Hizashi by Toshinori’s side with the flashlight, Shouta bringing up the rear with his gaze on Toshinori’s broad back, one hand already on the bindings from which he had untangled his handcuffs. As if lifting toy blocks, Toshinori pushed the crates aside to reveal a narrow hallway.
He took one step forward as suddenly lights flashed on all over the room, blinding Shouta. Reflexively, he squeezed his eyes shut, but they flew open again as a metal claw grabbed him around the waist.
Through the blind spots of glaring white in his vision, he saw metal arms stabbing out of the ground and the ceiling and the walls, some of which had already grasped Toshinori and Hizashi. His friend had been lifted by one leg like a spider and Toshinori was holding off one hand attempting to crush his skull.
Shouta tore his gaze from the sight, had to, instead focusing on the construct that was tearing at him. As long as he was wrapped up in metal fingers he couldn’t do anything to help them and dividing his attention would only serve to distract him from solving his own problem.
As the claw lifted him into the air, Shouta spotted one of the brittle, rust-stained pipes that covered the walls. Stretching, he grasped it with both hands. As he’d expected, the claw tried to break the resistance to its movement this created and jerked him in the opposite direction. Shouta hung on even as his shoulders burned from the strain and finally, with a crunch, the pipe partition was torn from the wall, rusty metal breaking as it lost support and ended up in his hands.
He shoved the pipe down into the gap at the base of the hand that he had spotted, where the major joint and hinges sat. Again, metal creaked, and the claw stilled and slackened a little, some program probably trying to account for the sudden resistance in its movement.
It was enough for Shouta to finally slip through its pointed fingers, his sides burning with future bruises. A second hand reaching for him he dodged, now prepared.
Two dozen arms of varying lengths and sizes were guarding the room. He looked for Toshinori and Hizashi, but both were already on the ground in a corner, where Toshinori staved off the arms reaching for them with another one he had torn out of its anchorage. Shouta vaulted over a writhing metal snake as he ran towards them.
“All Might, can you keep the arms under control?!” he shouted over the clanging of the metal.
As he answered, Toshinori slapped away a claw making a grasp for them with the ripped-off one he was holding, his arms straining hard.
“We’ll go in,” Hizashi said. He seemed to have had the same thought as Shouta. They’d been working as a team so often, it didn’t surprise Shouta anymore. “This looks like self-defence, all bolted down to the ground. Someone might be down the hallway trying to keep their asses save.”
“If you meet more robots, turn back,” Toshinori warned them.
After he had said it, he pushed both of them into the small hallway, blocking them from attacks from behind with his own body, then charged forward, wrapping his arms around the stem of the claw trying to push past and make a grab for Hizashi’s neck. The last Shouta saw of him, looking over his shoulder as they ran, was a claw ripping up Toshinori’s costume and mantle, digging bloody trenches into his back. Another one hit him in the stomach hard enough to make him double over. Shouta turned away and focused forward, trying not to think of Toshinori talking of his lung. Toshinori would do this. He had to. However, Shouta’s constricting stomach reminded him why he preferred the solitary hit-and-run style to combination missions like this. Logic dictated this course of action, but it had never felt quite right, leaving behind other people with something or someone that he knew was deadly.
Rounding a corner, they found themselves stopped by a door, the glass pane of it too milky to make out more than dark shapes behind. Shouta nodded at Hizashi, covering his ears with his hands as he stepped backwards. His friend turned the dials at the speaker system on his neck.
Though he had directed the sound forward, Shouta still found his ears ringing. When the high-pitched scream stopped, he saw the glass covered in cobwebs. Hizashi waited for him to lift his hands before he kicked the door in, glass shards falling like rain.
“Keiji, you have to-”
Whatever the voice in the room behind the door was going to say was drowned out by another shout from Hizashi. No more planning for these people. Shouta ignored the persistent noise to assess the situation as he climbed through the door’s frame. There were only two people he could see. One, a woman, sat at a broad computer terminal with several screens. The other, a white-haired man, was standing over a pile of metal which shivered and moved like water as he raised his hands, attempting to form a wall.
A metal shaping quirk. That would explain why the robots in the park that he’d gotten a closer look at hadn’t had normal welding seams. Shouta opened his eyes wide and the metal stilled, frozen in form.
Hizashi had already moved in on the woman, slapping her hands away from the keyboard, and Shouta slung his weapon around the man, pulling him over with a sharp tug. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but he’d watched too many of their robots rampage through the city to play nice.
“Stop your security system,” Shouta demanded, looking over his shoulder.
Predictably, he got only a defiant stare as an answer. Hizashi, who had handcuffed the woman already, glanced down at her black head of hair.
“If we throw you in there, can they differentiate between you and us?” he asked conversationally. “We will have to get out of here, you know. We could use bait.”
To many peoples’ surprise, Hizashi tended to be more severe of the two of them when it came to punishment. His playful personality had lured many an unsuspecting villain into thinking him harmless.
The woman chewed on her lower lip.
“Just shut the computer off,” she said, grudgingly.
“If you’re lying to us, we won’t hesitate to send you to battle your creations in our stead,” Shouta added, though he knew he wouldn’t and neither would Hizashi. Holding the bindings on the man tight as he gave her a chance to correct herself, he then nodded at Hizashi, never taking his gaze of his captive. His eyes stung.
The distant noise from outside subsided. They pulled the captive villains to their feet, careful, at least, to march them forward without shoving them into the edges of glass still hanging on to the frame of the door. As he pushed the man roughly forward, Shouta’s thoughts had already moved on from him, though. All he wanted to know was the end of the battle he’d had to leave.
Toshinori stood in a tangle of robotic arms in the main basement hall they had fallen into. Loose metal parts, torn wires and broken joints were strewn between the thick silver trunks they had grown out of. He scanned Shouta and Hizashi first before his gaze fell on the two captives and there was a brief moment when he had to catch his breath, but he pushed himself up to a heroic pose in no time.
“Good work, you two!” Toshinori boomed.
There was blood running from the corner of his mouth and cuts and bruises all over, but Shouta found himself lulled in for just a moment by the brilliant smile on his face. He’d never much liked All Might, but there was a strange flutter of affection for him specifically, the beaming oaf that his boyfriend portrayed on the battlefield, this man who, stupidly, made your heartbeat slow down a little because it really did feel like everything was all right and nothing in the world could truly hurt him and, consequently, you as long as he stood in the way of danger. In silence, at least, Shouta would concede just a little to the effectiveness of Toshinori’s strategy.