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Of Magical Amulets and Bad Ideas

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     Shouto crouched on the thin ice, praying to whatever god above that watched a poor fool like him to not let him fall through. He'd told himself earlier this was an incredibly bad idea but no he had to prove that his luck wasn't as terrible as everyone, including himself, thought. He reached the final few inches and plucked the leaves of the rare winter plant he had to go through hell and back to pick. He leaned back lightly and softly placed the leaves into his bag letting out a relieved sigh. Then, steadying his balance he stood up and took the first few steps back to safety. He was nearly there, desperately ignoring the faint cracking behind him, when he took a wrong step and fell thigh deep into the freezing cold water.

   "Inko's bloody skull!" he cried, quickly scrabbling himself out of the hole and back onto stable ground and hopefully not onto another patch of thin ice. Regrettably, he might add, he could land in one of the icy snow falls and then freeze off all of his limbs just trying to get out.

   Fortunately, he landed on very much solid ground much to hit relief and he glanced up into the falling snow very dazed and very cold. He heard the faint steps of his loyal friend, Shadow Watcher, coming down off a snow drift to probably drag his frozen ass to camp if he had to. Shouto glared faintly as the purple-haired boy hid his smirk and grabbed Shouto's wrists and dragged him father away from the recently broken ice.  

 "We should change your name, Flare Spirit," HItoshi said crouching next to Shouto. He only called him Hitoshi for when he went down to the city with him, but what Hitoshi didn't know wouldn't kill him. Speaking of, the tired boy's face was solemn, but his eyes belied the joke to follow. "How about 'Froze in the Lake'? 'Lake' for short?"

   Shouto glared at him for that double meaning, stupid elements. Swearing,he glanced down at his soaked and stiffly frozen clothes. He should have worn his other winter gear. Yes, this set kept him warm and probably saved him from getting sick but he needed all the spare gear he could get. It didn't matter that he had a...survivable home to go to. His father was very negligent when it came to giving his son more than the bare minimum. Hitoshi's father, Shouta, (as his city name was), had traded them to Shouto for the rare Dawnfire flower petals he'd found last fall. His father wasn't too happy he went out to the tribes again. Teenage rebellion was a terrible siren.

 "Animal Skins?" his sister sighed at him in disbelief. "Of all the things why skins? You could have gotten food to get us through winter. Or maybe some herbs to make sure we can't get sick?" His sister than stalked towards him and hugged him angrily with tears in her eyes and Shouto felt terrible. He probably should have traded for supplies but they were worth far more than what he traded in and he knew that. But as usual Shota insisted in his grumpy generosity as he always did to Shouto because of his home situation. Well that and the two he cared for in a small cabin in the woods.

   Hitoshi wrapped his extra cloak around Shouto when he sat up to help fight the cold. "Why is it that you only go after the riskier plants. To make money?"

   "Well partially. That and see if one day i can beat my terrible luck. Maybe break the supposed curse i have." Shouto sighed out, rubbing his hands together to generate friction. The silver cuffs around his wrists were surprisingly temperate considering they were just dunked in freezing cold water. Though he should make sure he doesn't heat them too fast on the side of precaution. Not that he thinks they would melt, as they haven't yet. But just in case.

   It was a logical end to a rough day. Both he and his friend had been out since dawn, and all they had to show for it was a few leaves worth a bit, lots of bark, some wilting petals the survived the frost, and a squirrel that didn't escape fast enough. His dwindling spare funds had sent him back up the frozen mountain to forage for the camp nearby.

   "Well that was a waste of time." Shouto commented, ignoring the fact that it was his idea. As per usual his luck was a bare minimum.  He glared grumpily at the hole in the ice where he fell contemplating another thing to entertain his time with. "Let's do something else. Anything else. Just not more foraging. Literally anything but that." Shouto grumbled.

   Hitoshi tilted his head, the few beaded braids swinging lightly. He never quite had the hair to keep it in braids so he only did one on each side and collected beads instead.1  "What would you....?"

   "Let's go hunting." Shouto interrupted to save a whole back and forth. He may be slightly impatient. He lightly taps the bow on his back in significance.

   Hitoshi frowned, contemplating it. "We could try the Burnt Meadow. The deer should be migrating through there. Lark saw them there a couple days ago."

   "Then that's where we go." Shouto said not really thinking much on it. It was the Winter Hunt time. The leftover deer dealing with the food struggle much like the hunters will be scavenging and easier to chase down. Winter stock was getting low for him, thanks again to his father, so he needed to at least get something other than porridge and more porridge into his system. Anything other than porridge would make up for his terrible luck today. So to the east they went, leaving the frozen waters to only more frozen water just in powder form. Shinsou set a quick, and rather relentless pace down the valley of the frozen Musutafu. Shouto let his thoughts wander and finally warming up yet also cooling down at the monotonous motions of physical exertion.

   It was hard to stay angry at the beauty around him. yes, winter is cold and unforgiving yet it is also a beautiful phenomenon that people ignore. Even if the plant life of summer doesn't thrive, the winter life rises up and amplifies the beauty in their own way. The light shifting of snow from nature around them filled the peaceful silence becoming part of the scenery itself. The day slowly cooled as evening was arriving and Shouto tugged the second cloak a bit closer around him, puffing out a breath of frosted air.n Winter didn't bother him, no he preferred it to summer no matter how cruel Lady Winter could be. Burnt Meadow is where a very large summer fire recently raged but now it has a different type of burn. Frostburn. Due to it's en-sheltered area the Meadow is so cold it burns. But it is also one of the most traveled areas of the forest for any species. Pine trees lurked the meadow only about at knee height and it was filled with wild grass until the frost. But now it has the perfect amount of hidden shelter even with the tall grasses gone.

   Around a dozen deer lurked around, eating the bark off the low trees to garner what they can to survive. Ears flicking to check for sounds, they stood out with their reddish tints against the bright snow. It made sense for them to be on guard. Shouto forced himself to relax. Out of the two of them Shinsou has the straighter shot as he was logical versus instinctive like himself. But judging from the field they should both be able to take a deer which made Shouto's stomach grumble slightly in hope for a decent meal tonight.

   The boys circled the meadow to remain downwind of the herd, no sense in startling them early. Crouching behind a large, snow cored rock, Shouto slid the bow off his back a lightly prepared an arrow while keeping hid breathing steady. Along with his clothes, the bow was new as well and also clan-made, much like anything in his life that lasted for the actual time he needed then less. He lightly unbent his knees slightly and slowly drew the bow back but paused at a faint noise. Was that..rumbling? He scanned the mountainside lightly and zeroed in on where the noise was coming from. In the distance a small avalanche had started if the faint powder cloud was any sign. He glanced over to Shinsou with a questioning look which he replied to with a shrug. It isn't melting season yet so the snow shouldn't be loose enough to slide yet.

   The deer in the meadow became of the noise quickly too. They raised their heads and moved around nervously, stamping their feet and with the whites showing in their eyes. Shouto glanced at the mountain again. Oh that snow is closer then he thought and the air was starting to get heavy with the powder cloud exploding outward. He spotted faint colors of blue and purple in the clouds. That's odd, he thought, must be a trick of the light.

  The herd moved around a bit more in panic as if unsure of where to go, then turned as one and charged straight in their direction. Well shit... Shouto quickly re-pulled the arrow back and launched it, missing completely as expected. Hitoshi didn't do much better in the panic. Shouto quickly turned and sprinted after the herd, using his street agility and instinct to dodge objects well, hoping to try again. But as ha was a man chasing a deer it was no use even if he managed to catch a faint glimpse of their tails before the deer vanished. He huffed in exasperation as his luck and trudged back to where Shinsou stood staring at the avalanche. It knocked down tree in it's path tearing apart the forest in front of it and leaving little behind.

   "What even is going on?" Hitoshi asked no one in particular with a small shake of his head, "We aren't even close to melting season."

   As they watched the avalanche gained momentum as it passed into the edge of the large meadow, leaping over the small ravines here and there. It was beauty in it's most horrid state. The gales tugged at Shouto's clothes and snow stuck to him like a magnet. He brushed off a bit of the powder becoming aware of the danger they were currently faced with. He mentally slapped himself and then tugged Hitoshi away, "Come on, we better get out of the away before we become splinters like the trees!"

   They ran across the frosted ridge, sliding in the lightly packed snow, knowing if they fell in any sort of way they were doomed. Both boys dived behind a large rock face and watched as many animals, even ones in hibernation, darted past in fright just ahead of the speeding snow and ice front. 

  And after came three rich-looking riders like herders guiding the untameable avalanche down the mountain.

  Shouto stared blankly at them, his brain offering no explanation. The boys were the same age as Shouto and Hitoshi, yet wore fine silk cloaks and wool the was sewn into their stirrups, and longs stoles glittering with exotic markings. The horses the boys rode were military grade flatlander horses and not the mountain ponies Shouto was used to, but delicate legs and proud necks with silver embellished saddles to top it off. Shouto knew his horses, and these horses were worth a year's wages at the least. If he wasn't so shocked and generally stoic he guessed he would be drooling at the sight of such riches. This is worth a lifetime of his earnings. The boys rode with an arrogant pose, oblivious to the surroundings around them and only there for their own goals.

   Next to him Hitoshi went still, his tanned face slipping into a hardened mask he used down in the markets his eyes losing their sharp glint of wisdom. "Charmcasters," he exhaled, using the clan term for wizards. "I should have known." He glared slightly at the boys.

   Charmcasters?  Shouto thought ignoring the spike of excitement that flashed through him. In all of his questionable running around he's never been this close to one. Wizards didn't even think about spending an ounce of time around people like him. They lived in the large, ornate palaces surrounding Yuuei Castle, and attended the King at court. Many served as ambassadors to foreign courts much one purpose as a wizard carries many legends behind them and have the power to back many of them. The best among them was named the High Wizard, an adviser and magical guard of the current royal on the throne of Yuuei. He was warned by a good friend of his to stay away from those blue blooded wizards. They will treat you like the dirt they see you as and throw you to the wolves after.

   But, just like anything forbidden, wizards sparked curiosity in Shouto, but this was the one things he hasn't tested his luck against yet. Charmcasters weren't allowed in the Spirit mountains, except to their council house on Grey Lady 2, overlooking the vale. Nor would they venture into the gritty streets of Kamino where Shouto lived. If they needed something from the markets they would send a servant to fetch it. Who then in turn would send another servant to fetch it for them. It's like a game. In this way the three different factions of people achieved a vaguely balanced peace; the wizards of the Northern Isles, the Valefolk of the valley, and the clans in the upland.

   As the three riders drew closer to their outlook Shouto analyzed everything about them. The one in the lead had an explosive amount of spikes of pale blond hair that had no rhyme or reason to them. He wore an extreme amount of rings on his hands for how rugged they looked, and an extremely well carved pendant hung from a chain around his neck. With that much detail it must be a powerful amulet. His stoles were emblazoned with gold eagles, claws extended ready to attack at notice. Gold Eagles, Shouto thought, must be his wizard house emblem. 

   The other two weren't really notable, both blond haired and really too regal much like the lions on their stoles. Assuming due to the similar looks, they were probably related. They rode a little behind the rather angry looking blond and seem to at least respect him thought they didn't show any care for him otherwise. Both didn't wear a visible amulet unlike the lighter blond.

  Shouto would have been content to remain hidden as they rode past, but Hitoshi apparently had another idea. He slid out from the shadowy overhang, the irony of his name, and spooked the horses he basically stood directly in front of. Shouto noticed the faintly hidden smirk at the riders struggling to keep their seat Hitoshi gave only because he knew him for so long.

  "I am Shadow Walker," Hitoshi stated blandly in common, "of Erased Pines Camp." He skipped right over the traditional welcome and went straight to the meat of the problem. "This camp demands to know who you are and what your purpose is here on Shimura, as it is expressly forbidden by the Naeming." Hitoshi stood still, glaring at the three wizards opposing him and looking vaguely small compared to the boys on horses. What's going on with Hitoshi?  Shouto wondered, reluctantly moving away from the shadows himself to support his best friend. He didn't like that the charmcasters were trespassing either even with the irony of that statement. But the point is that he was savvy enough not to go up against hexes and the like. Of all things did Hitoshi have to stand up to this?

   The grumpy boy, must be a resting angry face, glared down at Hitoshi haughtily, then blinked for a moment, before resuming his overly grumpy demeanor. Do they know each other? Shouto contemplated as he looked between the two. Hitoshi didn't seem to recognize him.

   Even though Shouto was taller than Hitoshi, the wizards' gazes seemed to completely ignore him and they analyzed a bit then returned to his friend. Shouto glanced down at his shoddy clothes that were a mismatch of Vale street clothing and clan clothes. Well that's fair honestly nut now he can take advantage of that possibly.He was used to feeling invisible.

   Hitoshi wasn't unnerved by the glares the charmcaster sent him, "I asked you what you names were," he ground out. He tilted his head at the long passed avalanche, "that avalanche had wizard color strings in it." 

   Shouto blinked, now how did Hitoshi know that? Maybe he was bluffing?

   The angry boy with the eagle signet glanced at the other two, as if he was contemplating even deeming an answer necessary. His companions just shrugged nonchalantly, obviously having no ties nor opinion to the situation at hand. "Katsuki Bakugou of the Arsalan House," he grunted out with a sharp smirk as if he expected us to cow in fear, "we're here on orders. King Yagi and his fucking nerdy kids are hunting in the Vale. We are two drive the shitty herd down so the useless hunters will actually catch something for once."

  "The King ordered you to set fire to the mountain just so his men could hunt something?" Hitoshi asked incredulously, eyebrows raised.

   " I just fucking said that didn't I? Are you deaf?" Shouto bites down on the laugh that garnered. The boy was shouting so loud he was probably deaf himself. Not to mention the King ordering the forest to be set on fire just for a good hunt was one of the worst excuses he could come up with.

  "The deer don't belong to the king," Shouto drolled out. " We have as much right to hunt them and he does."

   "Anyway you are using magic underage which is, again, forbidden," Hitoshi states. "Not to mention you are also wearing an amulet which is, yet again to no one's surprise, forbidden." he said as he waved lightly towards the gleaming amulet around Bakugou's neck.

   Hitoshi must have struck a nerve, or well an actual one, because Bakugou's face twisted up into an even deeper scowl if that was possible. "That's none of you fucking business, you're from the shitty-ass clans," the boy growled lowly.

   "Well, Katsuki Jinxflinger," Hitoshi spit, resorting to using the clan insults for wizards, "if King Yagi want to hunt deer in the winter, he can come up into the mountains after them, as he always has."

   Bakugou raised his eyebrows and tilted his nose up, "Where he can sleep on a dirty as fuck floor shoulder to shoulder with a dozen filthy as hell kinsmen and go an entire week without so much as a hot bath and come home smelling of campfire and sweat and a case of the fucking night itches?" He bit out a rough laugh and his companions smirked a little. " I don't blame him for preferring the the much better accommodations in Vale then what you bastards provide."

   Well he's denseShouto thought, recalling the comfortable lodges with the sleeping benches, the tales spun around the fires in the evening, the shared food of a group of family. So many times has he comfortably fallen asleep in clan furs with the stories winding through his evening thoughts and dreams. Shouto knew he wasn't clan, but he sure as hell felt like he was welcome and belonged there. It was the one place he didn't fell he was only one step ahead of his inevitable death.

   "Prince Izuku was fostered in the clans for three years and from what i heard, he had a wonderful time." Hitoshi snapped while faintly jutting his chin proudly.

   " His clan-bred mother had some damn archaic ideas." Bakugou retorted with a faint sense of pride and his companions snorted lightly. "Me? I always knew Deku was going to be useless but having his head full of shitty ideas like clans and hunting? That's just fucking proof at this point."

   Suddenly Hitoshi pulled his hunter knife out and waved it dangerously, "Care to repeat such a treasonous statement, jinxflinger?" he stated coldly, just as cold as the weather around them. Bakugou hid his flinch with a glare and directed his horse back slightly to put more distance between himself and the glinting knife. " I'd say it's more likely more a jinxflinger to curse or put the prince under an illusion than fore Prince Izuku to have been harmed at the camp." Hitoshi pushed, knowing he was getting on the blond's nerves. Quietly, Shouto stepped up beside his best friend who was dragging them into a very dangerous situation. He lightly places his had on his own knife's hilt as a thinly veiled treat while remaining out o f the way of Hitoshi's throwing arm. But a blade against magic? Even two blades with one of them being highly skilled?

   "Step the fuck off, Eskimo." Bakugou glowered and glanced lightly at the knife. " My father says that those who go to camp, come back proud and opinionated and not court ideal. Obviously that can be a problem for the Future King when dealing with other Nations being nosy as all hell." he smirked deviously as if that wasn't an insult to the Prince's intelligence. Not that Shouto cared but it was the social standard of it.

 Hitoshi did not smirk back. "Are you saying that the blooded heir to the throne of Yuuei isn't savvy enough to handle court?" Ah great he's slipping into street slang. Another strike against us.

  "Watcher," Shouto bit, but Hitoshi slid a faint 'I've got this' look at him. Shouto sized up the three wizards as he would on the streets of his town when things got rough. All three had heavy, elaborate swords that are probably worth a small fortune and haven't seen much use to this day. Best way to clean this up quickly was to get them off there horses which a quick slash at the cinch strap should do. Get in close so they can use the swords at all and take out Bakugou. The others will cut and run for the looks of things.

   " One of the more sparkily wizards cleared his throat lightly, obviously not liking where this was going. He was well...the more..sparkily of the two? With rather well-shined everything from his hair to his boots. "Mon amie," he stated with a faint islander accent as he nodded towards the valley below. " Come on, we'll miss the hunt. Allons-y."

   "Hold the fuck up, Aoyama." Bakugou snapped as he stared as Hitoshi, red eyes burning. "Aren't you called Shinsou?" he ground out using Hitoshi's alias and last name. " It's Shinsou right? The fucking mind tricker in the streets? Fitting you use it in the streets as you're a damn mongrel; no family."

   Hitoshi froze. "That's my Yuuei name," he said, glaring defiantly at the boy. "My real name is Shadow Watcher."

  "Shinsou is a goddamn wizard's name," Bakugou said raising his tone slightly and crawling his hand towards the amulet. "Must be nice steali-"

   "I stole nothing," Hitoshi snapped. " I didn't choose it as i am clan. Why would i want a sullied jinxflinger name?" 

   Good question, Shouto contemplated, looking at the two boys having a staredown. When Shouto brought Hitoshi down to the markets to test his mind-numbingly good luck at reading between the lines he told Hitoshi to choose an alias. He said he would use the one Shouta offered second to him. but why would Bakugou know Hitoshi's second alias, did they stir the waters that much?

  Bakugou's temper obviously rose and it took a moment for him to respond, "So you fucking claim, Shinsou," Bakugou drawled out. "Maybe you are a bastard child of someone and needed to-"

  Hitoshi's arm flashed up, but Shouto just managed to knock his elbow lightly to put the toss off course but still carry a front of defense. It went flying directly bast the Bakugou heir and into a tree trunk behind him. Come on, Hitoshi Shouto mentally scolded tilting away from his friend's incredulous glare. Killing a wizard friend of the Prince would be just my luck but can we try not to fulfill my ultimate demise early? The charmcaster sat frozen for a moment, as if he didn't expect us to try to fight back at all or be worth his time. Then his face split wide with a viscous and bloodthirsty grin. He extended one of his surprisingly rugged hands toward Hitoshi, took hold of his amulet with the other, and began muttering a charm in who knows what language, stumbling over the words a bit.

   "Bakugou." the lesser oh-my-god-it's-too-bright lion wizard hissed, nudging his horse closer, "It's not worth it. The fire was one thing because it can be passed off as in accident but if you kill a-"

   "Shut. The Fuck. Up Monoma," Bakugou gritted. " . Am going to teach this sprung-up, whiney, useless as hell, fucking spineless tribe fucker some respect." he practically shouted out, He quickly restarted the incantation looking extremely annoyed he had to start over.

  Try and be a peacemaker and look where it gets you. I swear my Karma is beyond negative at this point. Must've been a serial killer in my last life. Shouto mentally grumbled with a slight sigh. He quietly unslung his bow and knocked an arrow, aiming directly for Bakugou's probably nonexistent heart. "Hey, Katsuki," he said. "How about this? Shut it or i shoot."

  Bakugou turned his rage at Shouto, while widening his eyes a little as if now realizing he was there. The shiny brothers, Monoma and Aoyama, were quick to grab at their swords only to stop when Hitoshi knocked his own arrow.

  "Smart move," Shouto says blandly, "I'm guessing jinxes are slower than arrows."

  "You just threatened to fucking murder me," Bakugou hissed. " Do you realize who i am ? I will hunt you down to your fucking shitty grave for that and my parents will re-kill you after i do, half-n-half bastard."

  "Why don't you run back and learn some real magic before you start making threats?" Hitoshi growled, jerking his head pointedly down the trail away from the camp. " Go on. You don't belong here. Get off the mountain. Now."

  Bakugou obviously didn't want to look weak in front of the other wizards but he realized he was kinda stuck. "Just remember you assholes," he bit, fingering his amulet and his hands lightly sparking, "it's a long way down this snowy as hell mountain. Anything can happen to idiots like you."

  Shit, Shouto thought. He'd been ambushed too many times in the streets and alleyways of Mutsufasu. He knew enough about about bullies to recognize the trait in Bakugou. This boy would hurt them in he could, and he would hurt them if could, and he wouldn't play fair doing it.

  Keeping his bow tight, Shouto nodded towards the blond who curses too much in his opinion. "You. Take off your your jinxpiece," he demanded. " Drop it on the ground."

  "This?" Bakugou touched the evil-looking amulet that hung around his throat. When Shouto gave a slight nod the boy snarled angrily. "You being fucking serious?!" he curled his fist around it. " Does a useless clanny even know what this it?"

  "I have an idea." Shouto said narrowing his eyes. He gestured again at the amulet with his bow. "Take it off and drop it on the ground."

  Bakugou sat frozen, the anger slowly drifting off his face surprisingly. "You can't even fucking use this, you know," he bit out looking between the two best friends. "If you even touch it, which you probably will you damn idiots, you'll be dead as hell. Completely dissolved." 

  "We'll take our chances," Hitoshi said, catching on quickly to Shouto's plan.

  The blond's eyes narrowed in anger again. "I should've fucking known," he sneered. "You're just a bunch of shitty useless thieves."

  "Use your head," Shouto puffed. "What would I, a non-wizard, do with truck  like that? I just don't want to have to be looking over my shoulder all the way home." 

  The less shiny Monoma leaned towards Bakugou and muttered quietly in Vale, "Better give it to him. You know what they says about the Inuit. They'll cut your throat and drink your blood and feed you to their wolves so no one will ever find your bones."

  Ow. The extremely glittery Aoyama nodded vigorously. "Or they'll use us in rituals. They'll burn us alive pour plaire à leurs dieux." Bakugou glared at the literal brightness of the sun somehow trying to convey he didn't understand a word Aoyama just said. Shouto gritted his teeth, trying to keep the amusement of his face and to not flinch at the literal star-level brightness the boy was made of. It seems like jinxflingers had their own reasons to fear the clan.

  I can't give it to them, you idiot." Bakugou hissed. "You know fucking why. If my mother finds out I took it, we're dead meat. She'll probably punish us through the damn afterlife too."

  "I told you not to take it," Monoma grumbles just as quiet. "I told you it was a bad idea. just because you wanted to show off to Prince Izuku..."

  "Well it's not like we're fucking allowed to have our own shitty damn amulets," Bakugou growled. "It was the only one...What are you fucks looking at?" he grumpily demanded, noticing Shouto and Hitoshi's interest in the conversation probably realizing for the first time that they also understood the flatlander language.

  "I'm looking at someone who's already in trouble and is digging his grave at this point," Shouto said dryly with a small smirk. "Now, drop the amulet."

  Bakugou glared at Shouto as if actually seeing him for the first time. "you're not even clan Scarface. Who the fuck are you?"

 Shouto knew better than to hand out his name to an enemy. "They call me Dabi." he said, searching around for a name at random. "Streetlord of Hosu."

  "Dabi, you say." the wizard tried to stare him down, but his gaze kept slinging away. "...fucking strange. There's something... you seem..." his voice trailed off almost as if he was distracted.

  Shouto looked down the shaft of his arrow, sweat trickling down his back. If Bakugou wouldn't give, he'd have to figure out what to do next. But, he had no clue so might as well jump for it. "I'll count to five," he said, holding onto his blank mask. "then I put an arrow through your neck. One."

  With a quick, vicious movement, the angry boy yanked the chain over his head and dropped the amulet on the ground. It clanked softly as it hit some packed snow, it's red jewels glinting in the light.

  "Just try to pick it up," the charmcaster said, leaning forward. "I fucking dare you."

  "Go on! Get out of here!" Hitoshi snapped. "I reckon you'd better think about how you're going to stop the avalanche. If you don't I guarantee the King won't be happy, whether he asked you to start it or not." Bakugou stared at him for a moment, lips twitching in burning rage and unsaid curses. Then he wrenched his mount's head around and drove his heels into the horse's sides. horse and rider charged downslope as if they were, in fact, trying to catch the avalanche.

  Monoma stared after him, then turned to Hitoshi, shaking his head. "You fools! How is he supposed to deter the snowfall without the amulet?" He wheeled his horse, and the two wizards followed Bakugou at a slightly less reckless pace.

  Shouto let out his breath and released the tension on his bow, re-slinging it on his shoulder. {"What was that about your public Vale name? Have you met Bakugou before? He doesn't seem like the type to come down to the markets."

  Hitoshi chuckled and jammed his arrow back into his quiver, "Where would i even meet a jinxflinger?"

  "Why did he say that stuff about your family?" Shouot continued ignoring the blaring social cues as he usually does. "{How does he know..."

  "How should I know?" Hitoshi bit, scowling a little at the air. "Just forget it, Let's go."

  Obviously Hitoshi didn't want to talk about it. That's fair, Shouto thought. He had no room to complain what with all the secrets he kept as well. "What about this thing?" Shouto crouched and studied the jinxpiece warily, afraid to touch it. "Do you think it was a bluff?" He glanced up at his friend, who was watching from a safe distance. "I mean, do you think they need this thing to stop the avalanche?"

  "Just leave it," Hitoshi said with a shudder. "Let's just get out of here."

  "That jinxflinger didn't want to give this thing up," Shouto mused. "Must be valuable." Shouto knew traders of magical pieces in Musutafu. He'd dealt with a few of them a time or two when he worked the streets. A grab like this could pay for the supplies he needed for a year. You're not a thief. Not anymore. If he said it often enough, it might just stick. But he couldn't let it lie. There was something bonechilling yes fascinating about the amulet. Power emanated from it like heat from a stove on a cold day. It warmed him where he was cold yet also didn't make him too hot, almost as if it evened out his weird temperature preferences.

   Using a stick, he lifted the amulet by its chain. It dangled, spinning hypnotically in the reflected light, a silver translucent stone carved into a snarl of serpents with ruby eyes. The staff was tooped with with a brilliant round-cut onyx larger than he'd ever seen, and the snake's eyes were blood red rubies. Shouto  had dealt in jewelry from time to time, and he could tell the craftsmanship was exquisite and the stones were in prime quality. But the lure of the piece went beyond the sum of its parts.

  "What are you going to do with that?" Hitoshi asked behind him, his voice already heading toward disapproval and worry.

  Shouto shrugged, still watching the spinning jewel and taking in it's vicious beauty. "I don't know."

  Hitoshi shook his head. "You should pitch it into the ravine. If Bakugou took the thing without permission, let him explain what happened to it and keep your hands clean."

  Shouto found himself unable to even contemplate throwing it away. It didn't seem like the kind of thing you'd want to leave lying around for somebody- maybe even a child- to find. Shouto shudders at the thought. He fished a square of leather out of his carry bad and spread it on the snow. Dropping the amulter in the center, he wrapped it up carefully and placed it in his bag. All the time wondering, How had it come to this? How had he and Hitoshi ended up in a standoff with wizards? What was the connection between them and his best friend? Maybe it was just the latest in a long line of bad luck. Shouto always seemed to find trouble, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.
   

Chapter Text

    Izuku shifted impatiently in his saddle and glanced around, squinting against the reflected light from the fresh snow.

   "Izuku..." his father calmly scolded automatically. It was one of the many times the King had to warn Izuku out of his nervous habits, much to the chagrin of both parties. It wasn't as if Izuku tried to do them it's just he didn't handle stress well. Ironic considering he had second claim to the throne and a large amount of political influence. Rarely the King even lost his patience and pulled out the room-stopping, "Midoriya Izuku!"

  So Izuku shaded his eyes instead, searching the surrounding forest. "Are they okay?" he asked, mostly to himself. "They were supposed to meet us here a half hour ago. Did something happen? They can't have gotten lost....or could they? Maybe one of the horses fell into a deep snow drift, or the snow blocked the main route so they had to go around, or maybe they forgot it was today, or even...."

   Lord Todoroki huffed loudly but hold his tongue due to the King's presence. Not that it did anything because Izuku quickly shut his mouth anyway. "Your Highness, let's wait a little longer. Katsuki will be sorely disgruntled and disappointed if he misses the hunt. He's been looking forward to it all week." The High Wizard barely hides the stern glare he uses on all children other than Bakugou. He rests his hand on Jumper's bridle as a silent threat.

   'Kacchan's been looking forward to the hunt?' Izuku thought. 'Not nearly as much as I have, he probably just wants to crush me in another showing of his skill while I just want to leave the palace for a while. He's probably still bitter about last night, still hates that I'm the only one who can say no to him and get away with it.' the green-haired prince kneed Jumper, and the kare tossed her head and freed her bridle. The mare snorted slightly, pacing slightly in place, as eager as the prince to leave.

   "Katsuki likely lost track of time," the Fire Wizard went on, coldly calming his own horse, a fearsome stallion. The breeze ruffled his red hair, making it look like a dancing flame. "You know how my adopted son is. Fiesty like his mother was."

   "Perhaps you could give him a pocket watch on his next name day, then?" Izuku bit quietly out of instinct, elicting a withering glare from the Wizard ang a light chuckle from the King though he scolded him lightly. 'I don't care!' he grumbled in his head. It was bad enough he'd been couped up in Yuuei Castle since solstice, closeted with tutors and overburdened with three years' worth of catch-up lessons on boring topics.

   For instance: A Lord can converse with anyone, of any age or station. At a table, a host is responsible for keeping all guests entertained. He should direct conversation away from politics and other diverse subjects and be prepared with alternative topics or sources of entertainment should the need arise.

   'Is court going to always be this dreadfully stiff?' Izuku wondered.

   Both Izuku and his father had changed during the three years Izuku stayed at the Mandalay Camp, now it seemed the Izuku was being sheltered more and more. His father was having issues with...something and has decided the Izuku wasn't able to anything besides be safe and protected. These days, Izuku couldn't help hearing the whispers that followed after the King. Some said the council was taking over. Others said the King was weakening and was losing track of his duties. Has it always been this way, or was Izuku just noticing it more because he was losing older?

   Maybe is was from the influence of those years at the camp. The camp was full of opinions especially from her grandfather Hizashi, the Patriarch of the Madalay Camp, and he never hesitated to express then to the budding, young royal during those tree year's with his mother's family.

   After the relative freedom of Mandalay Camp, Izuku found it a misery to force his feet into the pinchy shoes and elaborate dressage favored at court, and the sweat and itch under the layers of the tightly buttoned clothes his tailor had a habit of making. He was nearly sixteen, nearly grown, but most days Izuku was stuck with overly fancy boyish clothes and resembled a throw pillow at times much to his chagrin. But not today. Today, he pulled in his loose tunic and leggings and clan-made boots, layering his riding gear over it all. He'd slung his bow over his shoulder and slid a quiver of arrows into the boot attached to the saddle. When he'd led Jumper from the stables, Lord Todoroki has assessed him and then glanced at the King to assess his reaction. The King's lips had twitched in beamusment at the hidden insult to the Vale riding gear Izuku had refused to wear. 

   So here they were, dressed and eager for a hunt on a fine clear day, and it was being squandered waiting for the righteous Bakugou Katsuki and his two, probably unwanted, lackeys. Bakugou was a daring horseman and an aggressive, competitive hunter as he is with most things. Though he was just sixrteen, his bad guy with (hopefully) a soft heart attitude and his fairly good looks had half the girls at court swooning over him.

  Since Izuku's return to Yuuei, he'd avoided Izuku like the plague which was a welcome yet confusing change. No longer was the explosive blond being both possessive and cruel of the young prince. Instead the few times they ran across each other the blond was forcing down his temper and...being a nice guy? It just piqued the green-haired boy's curiosity which was no help to the blond's apparent goal in avoiding him.

  It was more than that, though. Izuku still wanted to repair their pretty much nonexistent friendship and hear the angry teen laugh and smile at his jokes again. It's twisted, but he still thought of the boy as his best friend. Izuku knew having an unequal balance of feelings for the already tenuous balance of three parties in court would screw him up if he ended up taking the throne. But a heart wants what it wants and Izuku's wanted to go adventuring with Bakugou through the castle again as a King and his High Wizard. 

  Izuku has a habit of not giving up on things, and this is no exception. Hence the fight last night.

  He'd looked forward to hunting with him, but he wasn't willing to wait forever. Time and opportunity were leaking away. Story of his life.

   Captain Iida Tensei and a triple of soldiers were mounted up and ready too, conversing quietly among themselves. Iida, the older one, was the captain of the Royal Guard, the latest in a long line of Ida's in that position. He'd insisted on providing escort on the day's hunt, over Lord Todoroki's objections.

  Now said man called over to them, "Shall I send one on my men after the boys, Your Majesty?" he asked.

  "You could all go, if it were up to me, Captain Iida," the High Wizard drawled barely restraining his bitter tone. "King Yagi and the prince will be perfectly safe. There is no need for you and your men to drag after us like the overlong tail of a kite. The clans may be Savage and unpredictable, but they're unlikely to try anything with me along." He grinned ferociously not unlike a barely restrained jackal and fingered his ring, a special made amulet, in case the point was missed. The High Wizard always enunciated his words clearly when unhappy, as if those he was talking to were half-witted.

   Iida, the ever brave knight, met the wizard's eyes unapologetically, his wind-borne face impassive. " That may be, but it's not the clans I am worried about."

   "Well obviously." Todoroki half-chuckled while glaring at the captain. "When you have repeatedly delivered young Prince Izuku right into their hands." Distate flickered over his face. That was another thing that ticked off Izuku: Lord Todoroki's blatant hate for the clans. At least with the rest off the populace it was behind closed doors when it came to grumbling about the clans, and especially not in front of the Prince, who had clan blood. Minus a few names here and there (Bakugou). After his mother died the whispers only gained as people raised questions and told tales about the clans.

  But, in fact, the King of Yuuei did not marry lightly. She had brought with her the support of the clans and counter-revolutionary the power of the Wizard Council. Which, naturally, the High Wizard did not like.

  "Lord Todoroki!" The King stated sharply, not withholding his tone like he did with most others. "You know very well that Prince Izuku is fostered with the clans as required by the Naéming." The Naéming was the agreement between the clans and the Wizard Council that ended the Shattering- the magical clamity that nearly destroyed the world.

  "But surely it is unnecessary for Prince Izuku to spend so much time away from the court," Todoroki said, grinning sharply. Has he never actually smiled normally before? "Poor thing. Think of the the dances and parties he'd missed.

  'Poor thing my ass,' Izuku mentally snapped. 'At least he'd missed Ettiquette and dreadful Foriegn meetings, a blood shame.'

   Iida studied Izuku as he might a horse he was thinking of buying, the bluntly, as per usual, stated, "He doesn't look any the worse for wear to me. And he rides like a Mandalay warrior."

   That was high praise, coming from Iida. Izuku sat up a little straighter. 

  King Yagi put his hand on Ida's arm. "Do you really think it's that dangerous, Tensei?" He was always eager to bring any argument to a close as quickly as possible, even if it meant throwing a bandage off a boil. Iida looked down at the King's hand on his arm, then up into his face. His tight features softened a fraction. "Your Majesty, I know how much you love the hunt. if it comes to following the herds into the mountains, Lord Todoroki will be unable to accompany you. The borderlands are full of refugees. When a man's family is starving, he'll do whatever it takes to get them fed. There's armies of mercenaries traveling through, heading to and from the Yamanashian Wars. The King of Yuuei would be a valuable prize."

   "Is that all you're worried about, Captain Iida?" Todoroki growled, eyes narrowed.

   Iida didn't blink. "Is there something else I should be worried about, my Lord? Something you'd like to tell me?"

   "Perhaps we should go on," King Yagi said, decisively snapping his reins. "Katsuki and the others should have no difficulty catching up."

   Lord Todoroki nodded stiffly. 'Bakugou's going to hear about this,' Izuku thought. The High Wizard looked as though he could bite someone's head and spit out the teeth and Izuku wouldn't put it past him. He urged Jumper forward, claiming the lead. Iida maneuvered his great bay horse so he rode beside her, with the rest following after. Their trail climbed through glimmering snow plains, sparking here and there with color of the winter blossoms. Birds clungs impossibly to swaying bear branches left from the frost. Izuku drank in the details like a painter deprived of color. Iida looked about as well, but to a different purpose. He scanned the first to either side, his back straight, reins held loosely in his hands. His men fanned out around them, riding three miles to their one, scouting way ahead and monitering their back trail.

   "When does Tenya come home?" Izuku asked, trying out his hard-earned conversational skills on the straight-laced captain.

   Iida studied his face for a moment before answering. "We expect him any time, Your Highness. Because of the fighting in Yamanashi, he'd had to take the long way around Torino's Ford."

   It had more than three year since Izuku has seen Tenya- Iida's younder brother. After her three years at Mandalay Camp, he'd returned to court at solstice to find that Tenya was gone to Riot House, the military school at Torino's Ford. He meant to follow in his family's footsteps as soldier began to train early. He and Tenya had been fast friends since childhood, when despite their difference in station, a lack of other children at court had forced them together. Yuuei Castle had been lonely without him (not that he had time to be lonely). 'When I'm King,' Izuku thought, ' I'm going to keep my friends close by.' It was one more entry on a long list of good intentions.

   Now Tenya was on his way back to Yuuei, travelling the hundreds of miles from Torino's Ford on his own. Izuku envied him. even among the clans, he always traveled with some kind of guard. What would it be like, choosing his own way, sleeping when and where he liked, each day brilliant with possiblity and risk?

   The hunting party turned west, following a trail that stitched it's way along the side of the valley. Thought they were hundreds of feet above the Musutafu, the roar of it's Cascades floated up to them. They passed a narrow canyon, and it grew noticably warmer as the stone walls closed in on either side of them. Izuku shivered anyway, feeling a twinge of worry, a vibration in his bones as if the rich web of life around him had been plucked by unseen fingers.

  Jumper snorted and tossed her head, nearly ripping the reins from Izuku's hands. the gloom on either side of the trail seemed to coalesce into grey shadows loping alongside her, their bodies compressing and extending.

  Grey rabbits and wolves, the symbol of her house. Izuku caught a glimpse of narrow lupine heads and Amber eyes, ears twitching of the smaller shadows, and then they disappeared. Wolves are said to appear to blooded queens and rabbits to blooded kings at turning points: times of danger and opportunity. They had never appeared to Izuku before, which wasn't surprising since he was not yet king. 

  He glanced at his father, who was laughing at something Lord Todoroki had said. The King hadn't seemed to notice anything unusual.

  Had Izuku been riding out from Mandalay with her clan friends, they'd have taken his premonition as an omen, poking and prodding at it like a snake in the dirt, studying over it's possible meaning. Being of Lepus/Lupus lineage, Izuku was expected to have second sight, and this skill was respected.

   A voice broke through his thoughts. "Are you well, Your Highness?"

   Startled, Izuku looked up into Iida's worried eyes, blue as the ocean at midday. He'd come up next to her and taken hold of Jumper's bridle, inclining his head so he could hear his answer.

   "Well...um.....I...." he stammered, at a loss for words as per usual with nervous situations. He thought of saying, I have a peculiar feeling we're in danger, Captain Iida, or, By chance did you see any wolves or rabbits along the way? Even if the stoic captain took her seriously, what could he do?

   "I'm fine Captain," he said. "Its been a long time since breakfast is all."

   "Would you like a biscuit?" he asked, digging into his saddlebag the ever chivalrous knight. "I've some in my-"

   "That's all right," he said hastily. "We'll have lunch soon, right?" The canyon opened up into a pretty, upland snowbank. The deer heard had been seen grazing the bark there a week ago, but they were gone now. In this season they were likely heading to higher ground, and with the Wizard Lord Todoroki along, the hunting group couldn't follow. They were pushing clan boundries as it was.

   They stopped for their midday in the snow meadow, just outside the mouth of the narrow canyon. The meal was an elaborate affair, laid out on fancy cloths, with cheese and warm meats, fruit, and bottles of wine and cider. While the rest of them ate, two of Iida's soldiers scouted ahead, looking for traces of the missing herd.

   Izuku had little appetite. He sat, arms wrapped around his knees, still unable to shake that feeling of disquiet that pressed down upon him, pinning him to the ground. It was just noon, but the day seemed to darken, and the sunlight and shadow shadowthat dappled the snow dissolved away. Grey shapes prowled the gloom, returning each time she blinked them away. He peered up through the branch canopy overhead. Although the sky to the South was a clear blue, overhead it had gone a dusty paoe blue, the sun a bright disk swimming in a powder haze. Izuku listened lightly to the forest around him. A faint rumble was heard in the distance.

   "Is that just me or is there a rumble sound?" he asked the air around him. He spoke so quietly he didn't think anybody had heard, but Iida rose from his seat at the edge of the woods and walked to the center of the meadow, scanning the sloped on all sides. Frowning, he gaved at the sky for a long moment, then looked over at the horses. They shifted, stamping their feet and straining at their tethers. 

   Izuku felt a growing conviction that something was terribly wrong. The air seemed to catch in his throat, and he coughed.

   "Load up the horses," Captain Iida ordered, setting his men to clearing the camp and packing up the picnic things. 

   "Let's stay longer, Tensei." King Yagi raised a glass of wine his eyes full of humor, "Its a nice place to stay and prepare for the main goal, just relax for a while no need to play hero."

   Lord Todoroki sneered lightly the looked off into the distance, "I can't climb much farther without violating the Naéming and all that. But you go on, Captain Iida, and find our prince a deer. As much as I detest it, I will stay and keep guard of the King for you."

   Izuku stared at the scene before him- the blanket spread in the shining snow, the rugged wizard with bejewled uniform staring down a simple dressed guard as a quiet King watches with hidden laughter.

  It...really wouldn't work as a painting- too many different parts that don't work cohesively. This is what he had to look forward to as an heir. Bloody brilliant.

   "I'll stay with you Papa," Izuku said, plunking himself down at the edge of the blanket and looking the High Wizard in the eye, knowing instinctively that they were enemies.

   Iida's soldiers had continued to load the increasingly restive horses, though it wasn't easy. Now the tall captain stood over then. "Your Grace, I think we'd best go back. There's an avalanche close by, and it's headed this way."

   "An avalanche," Lord Todoroki said. He glanced at the stiffly packed snow and the lack of melt. "How is that possible?"

   "I don't know, Lord Todoroki," Iida said doggedly. "It doesn't make sense. But there is one, and it's upslope from us on Inko. I've seen them come down on people before they can get out of harm's way."

   "But that's only in early spring," King Yagi said, "Not in early winter."

   "Exactly." Lord Todoroki rolled his eyes. "You're an alarmist, Iida."

   King Yagi looked between the two, "To be fair, I do small smoke Todoroki. Perhaps we should listen to the captain."

   While they talked a powdery fog had fallen over the meadow. An odd wind sprang up, blowing upslope, carrying the cloud away from them, like some hidden beast inhaling. Izuku scrambled to his feet and walked into the clearing looking back toward Inko. As he watched, a dense, bluish cloud billowed skyward from the ridge above, underlit by a white and blue rush of reflective snow. A whorl of snow rose from the ground, a snow hurricane sixty feet tall. He could hear it now too, pithc punes snapping at the force, a throat roar of a sliding death wall.

   It was like one of those dreams where you try to scream and it tjaes several tries to make a sound. "Captain Iida!" His voice seemed small again the din of the roaring snow. He pointed. " It is an avalanche. Look!"

  Just then, a dozen deer exploded from the trees, bounded across the meadow, and raced into the canyon, oblivious to the would-be hunters in their path. Immediately after, Izuku heard the pounding of hooves, and three riders burst into the snowy meadow from the direction the deer had come. Thier horses lathered and wild-eyed, the riders only a little less so.

   "It's coming! Right behind us! A wild fire! Run!"  shouted the rider in the lead, and it took Izuku a moment to recognize the explosive, perpetually angry Bakugou Kasuki behind the powdery, hooded face. It was the missing Kasuki and his unwanted followers Monoma and Aoyama.

   By now everyone was up, the picnic forgotten.

   "Katsuki?" Lord Todoroki blinked at his adopted son. "How did you...? What did you...?" Izuku had never seen the High Wizard so inarticulate.

   "We were on our fucking way up to meet you and saw the goddamn avalanche," Katsuki gasped, his face pale under the dirt and good, his hair for once not exploding outward. There were deep cuts on his hands and what looked to be a nasty bruise on his right arm. "We fucking...tried to fight it, but..."

   Iida led King Yagi's horse, Spirit, over to his side. "You Majesty. Quickly now." Holding firmly to Spirit's bridle he watched the King get up wary for some reason. "Careful, he's spooked."

   Izuku squirmed up onto Jumper's back, murmuring reassurances to the mare. Only a hundred yards away now, the forest was slowly being plowed over. The avalance bore down on them, waves leaping around stronger trees and taking down weak ones in a mad rush downhill, travelling much faster than seemed possible in this season. The air choked Izuku's lungs, and he pressed his sleeve over his mouth and nose. Lord Todoroki stood frozen for a moment, eyes narrowed, looking from Katsuki to Aoyama to Monoma, and up at the on rushing snow. Then he caught his own horse and swung up into the saddle. Angling his horse closer to Bakugou's, he grabbed a fistful of his adopted son's coat and pulled him close, speaking to him with their faces inches apart. Katsuki nodded once, barely hiding his fear. Lord Todoroki abruptly released him and wrenched his horse awya, digging his heels into the stallion's  sides, leaving his son to follow or be swept up.

   Izuku stared at them, bewildered. Did the High Wizard expect his son to stop the avalanche on his own? Katsuki was powerful, but he didn't even have an amulet, and he'd not yet been to the academy.

   "Your Highness! Hurry!" Iida shouted.

   They all rode hard for the mouth of the canyon. If Izuku had hoped to find shelter in the canyon, he found it a mixed blessing. Flakes were no longer blinding them, but a fridgid cold wind roared between the walls, so think with powder he couldn't see the horse in front of her. It seemed to muffle sound, though he could hear people coughing and choking ahead of and behind him. The way was so narrow that at least they couldn't get lost, but he worried they'd asphyxiate before they emerged on the other side.

   Iida rode up next to him again. "Dismount and lead you horse, Your Highness," he said. "The air is clearer near the ground. Be sure to keep tight hold of the reins." He moved down the line, passing the word. Izuku climbed of Jumper, wound the leather reins, around her hand, and stumbled down the rocky streamed. Iida was right: the breathing was easier below. The skin on her face felt thick and frozen, like the skin on a seal. He was tempted to kneel down and curl his face into his knees, but Iida garried them along relentlessly. The air grew even thicker as they neared the exit from the canyon, and Izuku's eyes dtung, his vision blurred by tears.

   When he blinked the tears away, he was again surrounded by wolves and rabbits, the wolves the size of small ponies and the rabbits the size of a medium dog. They crowded I. Around him, snapping and growling, their wild scent competing with the thickness of the snow, their stiff hairs brushing his skin, pressing against his legs as if to force him on the trail.

   "Inko, have mercy," Izuku whispered. No one else seemed to notice. Was he hallucinating, or could they be real, forced to share the trail by the advance of the snow? Izuku was so focused on the pack that he nearly collided with Katsuki, who'd stopped briefly in front of him. The wolves and rabbits faded into fog. Somewhere ahead, he heard Iida swearing forcefully. Thrusting his reins into Bakugou's hand, he fought his way past the others to the front of the line.

   "Stay back, You Highness," Iida said, pushing him behind him. He could see that the trail beyond the exit was flooded with rushing snow. The avalanche had split around the ridge, pouring down the slope on either side of the canyon. They were trapped.

   "All right!" Iida said, his voice ringing through the canyon. "I want all of you down in the stream. Lie flat and immerse yourself if you can."

   Todoroki Enji forced his way to the front. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Why have we stopped?"

   Iida stepped aside, allowing Todoroki a clear view. The wizard stared out at the snow hurricane for a long moment. Then turned and called, "Katsuki, Aoyama, and Monoma! Come here."

The three boys shuffled forward until they stood before the High Wizard. They were shaking, teeth chattering, and looked scared to death. Todoroki yanked off his fine leather gloves and dtowed them in his pocket. He drew a heavy silver chain from his pocket, fastened one end around his wrist and the other around Bakugou's.

   "Aoyama and Monoma. Grip the chain here and here," Todoroki said pointing. They each took hold of the chain between Todoroki and Bakugou as if it were a poisonous snake. " Don't let go or you'll regret it." the wizard said. "But not for long." He turned to face the avalanche, held his ring between his fingers and began speaking a charm. As he spoke, the three boys staggered and gasped and cried out as if they'd been struggling by a heavy blow. The two in the middle kept a desperate hold in the chain, while all three turned paler and paler as if they were being drained dry. Beads of sweat formed on Lord Todoroki's face, then froze in the searing cold. The High Wizard's voice wound over and through the roar of the snow and the din around them.

   Finally, grudgingly, the avalanche responded. The waves flailed and rolled down away from the mouth of the canyon like a retreating tide, leaving a desolate, empty landscape behind. Todoroki kept at it, beating back the snow with sorcerous words until the snow was entirely gone, though it still looked as pale and Limbo. He slide the chain from his wrist and made one final gesture. The skies opened up and the sun shine down like a beacon from heaven.

   There was a following communal release of breath and a smattering of awed applause. Like marionettes cut loose by the puppeteer, Katsuki and the glitter duo collapsed the the ground and lay still.

   Izuku knelt next to Bakugou and rested his palm on his clammy forehead. He opened his eyes and stared up at Is you and if he didn't recognize him. He looked up at Lord Todoroki. "What's wrong with them? Are they going to be all right?"

   Todoroki dazed at them with a peculiar, cold expression on his face. "They'll recover; though I daresay its a lesson they'll never forget." Izuku tried to imagine his own father thrusting him into the middle of a spellcasting with no preparation or explanation. And couldn't. But then he wasn't a wizard.

   Iida has walked some distance out of the canyon and stood in the sun, kicking at broken branches. "Strange," he said. "I've never seen an avalanche like this before, that breaks even the thickest roots."

   "Lord Todoroki," King Yagi said, "that was truly remarkable. You saved all our lives. Thank you."

  "I am glad to be of serving, You Majesty." Todoroki said, forcing a smile and hiding his most likely hatred for. the throne. Izuku looked over at Iida. The captain gazed at the king and his High Wizard, rubbing his clean shaven jaw, a puzzled frown on his face.

 

Chapter Text

   All the way back to Erased Pines Camp, Hitoshi silently fumed, slender shoulder hunched and his deadpan demeanor even more stifling for any sort of conversation as Shouto found out after a couple tries. Instead they both waded through the silence and wrestled with the questions alone. Shouto knew nothing of wizardry beyond what he gathered through talking to people and what his sister warned him of. Did it come on in childhood or not until much later? Did it require amulets much like the one he carried now? Did wizards need schooling, or did charmcasters have an inborn knowledge of what to do? Most of all, how was it fair that some people had the power to make others do their bidding, to create fire that couldn't be put out, or turna cat into a hawk, if the stories could be believed....

   To break the world beyond repair.

   The clans had magic too-of a different sort. Hitoshi's godmother, Chiyo, was the Matriarch of the Erased Pines Camp, and a gifted healer. She could take a dry stick and make it bloom, could make anything grow in her hillside fields, could heal by touch and voice. Her remedies were in demand as far away as Shiketsu. The clans were known for their leatherwork, their metalwork, their tradition of creating amulets and other magical objects.

   Bakugou had made much of a fact that Hitoshi had no named mother or father. How did he know that, and why did he care? The way Shouto saw it, Hitoshi didn't need genetic ties, he had Shota, Hizashi, and Chiyo. He was totally embedded in the clan, surrounded by aunts and uncles who doted on him, cousins to hunt with, everyone was connected by ties and tradition. Even when Chiyo was away, there was always a hearth welcome to him, food to share, a bed to sleep in. Compared to Hitoshi, Shouto was more of an orphan, with only his sister and a friendly trader they stayed with and a father who only cared to visit every two weeks or so at the empty, cold house. He stayed more often at a house he had no right to more often than his own home. The more he thought on it, the more Shouto sobered up from his jilted emotions. Both magicless and basically homeless. Without prospects. His father had often told him he'd never amount to anything.

   They were about a half mile from camp when Shouto realized they were being followed. It wasn't any one thing that caused him to think so: when he turned to inspect the winter froze forest around him, he heard footfalls behind him that stopped abruptly. A squirrel continued to scold through a pine tree long after they passed. Once he swung around he thought he saw a flash of movement. Fear shivered over him. The wizards must have doubled back after them. He'd heard how they could make themselves invisible or turn into birds and strike from out of the air. Ducking his head just in case, he looked over at Hitoshi, who seemed absorbed in his own gloomy train of thought.

   Shouto knew better than to allow the enemy to choose the time and place to attack. Just as he and Hitoshi rounded a curve of a hill, he gripped Hitoshi's arm, pulling him off the trail, behind the massive trunk of an oak tree.

   Hitoshi jerked his arm free, "What are you...?"

   "Shhhhh," Shouto hissed, putting a finger to his lips and gesturing for Hitoshi to stay put. Shouto padded back the way they came, making a big circle so as to come in behind any pursuers. Yes. He glimpsed a slight figure clothed in winter forest colors gliding from shadow into sunlight up ahead. He sped up a little, lengthening his stride, thankful the packed down snow absorbed the sound of his footsteps. He was almost there when his quarry must have heard him coming and cut sharply to the right. Not wanting to allow the charmcaster time to conjure a jinx, Shouto launched himself, crashing into the intruder and hanging on as they rolled down a small slope and splashed right through the thin ice of Crooked Back Creek.

   "Ow!" Shouto banged his elbow against a small boulder in the creek bed and lost his hold on the charmcaster, who twisted and wriggled and seemed incredibly slippery and soft in unexpected places. Shouto's head went under, and he sucked in a lungful of freezing water. Coughing, half panicked, he pushed himself top his feet, slinging his wet hair out of his eyes, worried he'd be jinxed before he could act.

   Behind him, someone was laughing, gasping with merriment, scarcely able to speak. "F-F-Flame Spirit! It's still too c-cold for s-swimming."

  Shouto swung around. Hitoshi's cousin Watching Owl sat in the snow by the shallows, her mop of dark waves plastered around her face, her wet linen blouse clinging to her upper body so the light fabric was rendered transparent. She grinned at him shamelessly, her eyes travelling up his body in turn. He resisted the temptation to duck back under the frigid water. His face burned, and he knew it must be laming red, It took him a minute to get his voice going. "Momo?" he whispered, mortified, knowing he would never hear the end of this.

   "Maybe we should change your name to Hunts Owl," she teased.

   "N-no," he stammered, raising his hands as if to ward off a curse.

   "Jumps in River? Red in the Face?" she persisted.

    That was all he needed. Clan names constantly changed to fit until you were grown and thought to be stable. You might be Cries in the Night as a baby, Squirrel as a child, and Throws Stones as an adult. It was always confusing to flatlanders. Though Momo had asked him to come up with a nickname for her as she had no flatlander name like Hitoshi yet that's what he called their mutual friend. Both he and Hitoshi decided on Momo

   "No," Shouto pleaded. "Please Momo...."

   "I'll call you whatever i want," Watching Hawk said, standing and wading to the other shore quickly. "Hunts Hawk," she decided. " It can be our secret name."

   Shouto stood there helplessly, waist-deep in the icy water, thinking she was the one who needed a new name. He and Owl and Shadow had been friends since he could remember. Every summer when he was small, Fuyumi  had sent him up from the city to live at Erased Pines. They'd camped together, hunted together, and fought endless battles against enemies together throughout the Spirit Mountains. They'd studied under the ancient bow master at Hunter's Camp, chafing at the requirement that they build a bow before shooting it. He'd been with Momo when she took her first deer, then burned with envy until he got his. When he did, she'd taught him how to slow smoke the meat so it would last through winter. They we twelve at the time.

   They played hare and wolf for days on end. one of them -the hare- would set out through the woods, doing his or her best to throw the other two off, by walking over solid rock or wading miles in a streambed or detouring through one of the high-country camps. If one wolf found the hare, then they'd walk together until the third player found them. Hawk was great to travel with. She found the best campsites; sheltered from the weather and defensible. She could build a fire in the middle of a rainstorm and find game at any altitude. Many nights they'd shared a blanket for warmth. The three of them had tasted hard cider for the first time at the Falling Leaves Market, and he'd washed the sick from Momo's face when she drank too much.

   But these days he always felt awkward around Momo, and she was the one who changed. Now when he walked into Erased Pines Camp, she was likely to be sitting with a group of other girls her age. They would watch him with bold eyes and then put their heads together and whisper. If he tried to approach her, the other girls would giggle and nudge each other.

   He'd once owned the streets of Kamino, and people made sure to get out of his way. He'd had his share of chances with girlies, not that he took those chances often, as a streelord could have his pick. But for some reason, Momo always put him off balance. Maybe it was because she was so damnably good at everything and a genius at that. When they were younger, wrestling in the creek would have been prelude to nothing. Now every word between them cracked with meaning and every action had unintended consequences.

   "Owl! Flare Spirit! What happened? Did you fall in the creek?" Hitoshi had appeared at the top of the slope.

   Momo squeezed water out of her leggings. "Flare Spirit threw me in," she said to her cousin, a little smugly.

   "I thought you were someone else," Shouto muttered.

   Momo swung to confront him, her face darkening. "Who?" she demanded. "Who did you think i was?"

   Shouto shrugged and waded to shore. That was another thing. Where once they'd finished each other's sentences and all but communed mind to mind, now Moo had become unpredictable, given to bizarre fits of temper.

   "Who?' she repeated, hard on his heels, intent on prying it out of him. "You thought i was some other girl?" she bit than snapped her mouth closed in confusion at herself.

   "Not a girl." Shouto stated, oblivious, and yanked off his boots and dumped water out of them. At least any of the mud from the avalanche had washed off. "We ran into some charmcasters in Burnt Meadow. They spooked the deer, and we got into an arguement. When i heard you following us, I thought you were one of them."

   She blinked at him. "Charmcasters," she said. "What would charmcasters be doing up here? And how do i look like one, anyway?"

   "Well you don't," Shouto stated, "my mistake." He looked up, and their eyes met, and he swallowed hard. Momo's cheeks colored a deep rose, and she turned to Hitoshi.

   "What words did you have to say to a jinxflinger, cousin?" she asked.

   "None," Hitoshi said, shooting a warning look ad Shouto.

   "We would've taken a deer if not for them," Shouto felt compelled to say, then was immediately soory when Momo looked at him and raised her eyebrows. Momo always said that a deer in the smokehouse was worth a whole herd in the woods.

   "So what happened?" Momo asked, leaning forward. "Was something falling? I heard an unnatural roar for this time of season."

    Shouto and Hitoshi looked at each other, each waiting for the other to speak. "They caused an avalanche on Shimura," Shouto said finallt. "The charmcaster."

    "So you confronted them?" Momo pestered on looking from one to the other. "And then what?"

    "Nothing happened. They left." Hitoshi said blandly.

    "Fine," Momo huffed, angry again. "Don't tell me anything. I don't care anyway. But you'd better tell Chiyo about it, at least. They shouldn't be in the Spirits at all, let alone causing out of season avalanches." Shouto shivered. The sun had gone and he was covered in gooseflesh. Worst time to get dumped in the river was winter. In past days, he would have found shelter and stripped after building a fire. He glanced over at Momo. Not anymore.

   "Let's go on to Erased Pines," Hitoshi said, as if he could read Shouto's mind. "They'll have fire going."

    The sky had clouded over, a chill wind funneled between the peaks, but the brisk six mile walk kept Shouto's blood moving. Momo's lips were blue, and Shouto thought of putting an arm around her, to warm her with he awkward half unnatural heat, but it would have been to stilting on the narrow rocky trail. plus she might only snap at him again.

    The dogs greeted them when they were still a half mile from Erased Pines. It was a motley pack; rugged, long-haired sheepdogs, wolf mixes, and spotted flatland hounds bought at market. Next came the childeren, from solemn round-faced toddlers to long-legged ten year olds, alerted by the dogs. Most had straight, dark hair, dark eys, and pale skin swathed in furs, though some had blue, green, or purple eyes, like Hitoshi, or wavy hair, like Momo. There had been considerable mixing of Valefolk and clan over the years. And Valefolk with blue-eyed, fair-haired wizard invader from the Northern Isles. But almost no direct mixing of wizard and clan. Wizards had not been allowed in the Spirit mountains for a thousand years.

    Questions flew from all directions, in a mixture of Common and Clan. "Where have you been? How did you get all wet? How long are you staying? Flame Spirit, will you sleep in our lodge tonight?" Even thought Shouto came often to Erased Pines, girls a year or two younger than him still dared each other to run up and touch his dual-colored hair, so different from their own. Momo did her best to shoo them off. one especially aggressive girl yanked out a strand of his hair, and Shouto stomped after her, scowling, pretending to chase her. That sent her and her friends scurrying into the woods, their laughter sieving through the trees like sunlight.

   "Whats's in the bag? Do you have any sweets?" A tiny girl with a long braid made a grab for his backpack.

   "No sweets today," Shouto grumbled. "And keep off. I've got a bag full of blisterweed." Excruciatingly conscious of the amulet in his bag, Shouto protected it under the curve of his arm. It was as if he had a large poisonous snake in there, or a goblet too fragile to touch. By the time they came within sight of the camp, they had a large following.

   Eraser Pines Camp stood sentinel at the pass  that led through the southern Spirits and the flatlands beyond. It was larger, as clan camps went; perhaps a hundred lodges of varying sizes, built far enough apart so they could be added onto as families grew. The camp was centered by the Common Lodge; a large building used for markets, ceremonies, and the feasts for which the clans were famous. Close by the Common Lodge stood the Matriarch Lodge. Hitoshi and Momo lived there with Hitoshi's godmother, Chiyo, Matriarch of Erased Pines, and a fluid mix of friends, blood relations, and children fostered from other camps. Erased Pines prospered as a center for commerce, given it's strategic location. Handwork from camps throughout the Spirits flowed into the camp, where brokers shopped it's famous markets and funneled clan-made goods to Shiketsu, to Ketsubutsu in the south, and to Yuuei down in the Vale.

   Relation between the clan the the King might be strained these days, but that did not staunch the thirst of flatlanders for upland goods; silver and gold work, leather, precious stones set into jewelry, and decorative pieces, handwoven yard goods, stitchery art, and magical objects/ Clan goods never wore out, they brought luck to the owner, and it was said that clan charms would win over the most resistant of sweethearts. The Erased Pines Camp was known for remedies,dyes,healing, and handwoven fabrics. The Mandalay were famous for magical amulets and their warriors. The Hunter clan produced smoked meats, furs and skins, and nonmagical weapons. Other camps specialized in nonmagical jewelry, paintings, and other decorative arts. 'Too bad it wasn't market day,' Shouto thought. On a market day they'd have gotten no attention  at all. Which would've been fine with Shouto, who was growing tired of explaining his sodden clothes. It was a relief to duck through the doorway of the Matriarch lodge and escape the relentless rattling tongues.

   A fire blazed in the center of the lodge, hot and smokeless. The interior was fragrant with winterberry, pine, and cinnamon, and the scent of stew wafted from the adjacent cooking lodge. Shout's mouth waters. Chiyo's house always smelled good enough to eat. The Matriarch lodge could have been a small market, all on its own. Great bundles of hers hung from the ceiling, and casks and baskets and pots lined its walls. on one side were paints and dyes and earthenware jars of beads and feathers. On the other were medicinals; salves and tonics and pungent potions of all kinds, many rendered from the plants Shouto had gathered.

   Hides stretched over frames, some with designs painstakingly drawn on them. Three girls about Shouto's age huddled around one of them, their sleek heads nearly toughing, brushing paint onto the leather. Hangings divided the room into several chambers. From behind one curtain, Shouto could hear the murmur of voices. patients and their families often stayed over so the matriarch could tend them without leaving the lodge. Chiyo sat at the loom in the corner. The overhead beater thudded as she smacked it against the fell of the rug she was weaving. The warp stretched thin and spring-light, since weavers worked a season ahead. Chiyo's rugs were sturdy and beautiful, and people said they kept enemies from crossing your threshold.

   Still shivering, Momo disappeared into one of the adjacent chambers to change into dry clothes. Chiyo laid down her shuttle, rose from the bench, and came toward them, skirts sliding over the rugs. Somehow, Shouto's resentment and frustration faded, and it was a better day.

   Everyone agreed that the Erased Pines matriarch was beautiful, though her beauty was deeper than appearance. Some mentioned the movement of her hands when she spoke, like small birds. Others praised her voice, which they compared to the Musutafu, singing on its way to the sea. Her aged hair fell, beaded and braided, to mid back and neatly tucked in bun at the top. When she danced, it was said the animals crept out of the forest to watch. She was a crooner, who could speak, mind to mind, to animals. Her touch healed the sick, soothed the grieving, cheered the discouraged, and made cowards brave. When pressed, Shouto had trouble describing what she looked like. She had unnatural beauty in her soul that often seeped through the cracked of her old visage. She was whatever you needed her to be to find the best in yourself. He couldn't help comparing her to his sister, who always seemed to see the worst in him.

   "Welcome, Flame Spirit," she said. "Will you share our fire?" The ritual greeting to the guest. Then her gaze fastened more closely on Shouto, and she raised an eyebrow. "What happened to you? Did you fall into the Musutafu?"

   Shouto shook his head. "Crooked Back Creek."

   Chiyo looked him up and down, frowning. "You fell into the muddy ice ponds as well, if I'm not mistaken."

   "Well. Right." Shouto looked down at his feet, embarrassed that he'd been so careless with Chiyo's well built clothes.

   "He can have my flatlander breeches," Hitoshi offered. He studied Shouto;s long leg. "Though he'll show some ankle, I guess." Like most clan, Hitoshi owned a minimum one or two pairs of leggings sand one pair of breeches to wear into town. He'd be happy to give up the breeches. Hitoshi wore the uncomfortable flatlander garb under protest anyway.

   "I think i have something that will work." Chiyo crossed to the assembly of baskets, bins, and trunks that lined the wall. She knelt next to one of the bins and dug through clothing. Near the bottom she found what she was looking for and pulled free a pair of worn breeches in a heavy cotton canvas. She held them up and looked from Shouto to the trousers and back again.

   "These will fit," she proclaimed,  and handed them to him, along with a faded linen shirt that had been laundered into softness. "Give me the boots," she commanded, extending her hand, and for a moment Shouto was afraid she intended to take them back for good. She must have seen the panic in his face because she added, "Don't worry. I'l just she what I can do to clean them up."

   Shouto tugged off his dirtied boots and handed them over, then ducked into the sleeping chamber to change clothes. He stripped off the wet leggings and shirt and pulled on the dry breeches, wishing he could take a warm bath. As if his unspoken wished caught the ear of the maker, Momo pushed the hanging aside and entered with a basin of steaming water and a rag.

   "Hey!" he hissed with a jump, glad he'd got his trousers on. "You could knock." Which was stupid, really, because there wasn't any door. She'd changed out of her wet trail garb into skirts and an an embroidered shirt, and her wet hair was drying into its usual intriguing tangle, Shouto still had his shirt off, and she kept glancing at his chest and shoulders as if she found them fascinating. Shouto looked down to see if he'd got dirt smeared under his shirt as well. But he was clean there, at least.

   Momo plopped down on the sleeping bench next to him, setting the basin on the floor between them. "Here," she said, handing him a chunk of fragrant upland soap and the rag. Rolling his breeches above his knees, Shouto soaped the rag and washed the dirt and grime from his bare feet and lower legs, rinsing in the basin. then he began scrubbing his arms and hands. The silver cuffs around his wrists kept turning when he tried to wipe them clean.

  "Let me." Momo picked up a boar-bristle brush, gripped the cuff on his left wrist and took the brush to it. She leaned in close, getting that familiar frown on her face that said she was concentrating. She'd used some kind of scent; she smelled like fresh air and lavender and vanilla.

  "You should take these off if you're planning on getting this dirty," she grumbled.

  "That's helpful," he said, rolling his eyes. "You try to get them off." he tugged at one of them to demonstrate. It was a solid three-inch-wide band of silver, and too small to slide over his hand. he'd had them on ever since he could remember.

  "You know they've got magic in them. Otherwise you;d have outgrown them by now." Momo used her fingernail to dig out some dried muck. "Your mother bought them from a peddler?"

   He nodded. It must've been during some prosperous time in the past, when his dead mother had access to money to spend on silver bracelets for a baby. When they weren't living hand-to mouth his sister always said.

  "Your sister's got to remember something," momo persisted. She never seemed to know when to leave off. "Maybe you could find the peddler who sold them to your mother." 

  Shouto shrugged. they'd had this conversation before, which he mostly got through by shrugging. Momo didn't know Fuyumi. His sister never came to the camps in the mountains, never shared songs or stories around a fire. Fuyumi didn't like to talk about the past, and Shouto had learned long ago not to go searching for it from other sources, if the bimonthly bruises had anything to show for it. The clans, they were all about stories. They told stories about things that had happened over a thousand years ago. Shouto never tired of listening to them over and over. Hearing a familiar clan story was like sliding into your own bed on a cold night with a fully belly and knowing you'd wake up safe in the same place.

  Momo released one hand and picked up the other. Her fingers were warm and soapy and slippery. "These symbols must mean something," she said, tapping the cuff with her forefinger. "Maybe if you knew how to use them, you could, I don't know, shoot flames from the palms of your hands."

  Shouto was thinking he was just as likely to shoot flames from his rear end. "They look clan-made to me, but Chiyo doesn't know what the symbols mean," Shouto admitted. "And if she doesn't know, nobody does."

   Momo finally dropped the subject. She rinsed off his hands and wrists and used the hem of her skirt to dry them. pulling a small jar from her pocket, she uncorked it and smeared something onto the silver with her fingers. He tried to pull away, but she had a tight grip on his wrist. "What's that?" he asked suspiciously.

  "Polish," she said simply, rubbing the silver with a dry rag until it shone. She rubbed polish onto the other cuff. Shouto submitted, though he really didn't want to call attention to them these days. "Are you coming to my renaming feast?" Momo asked abruptly, her eyes still focused on her work.

   He was surprised by the question. "Well, I'd planned to. If I'm asked." It had never occurred to him that he wouldn't be. Momo's family was prominent among the clans, since she was niece to the Eraser Pines matriarch. Momo's coming-of-age would be celebrated with a huge party, and Shouto had been looking forward to it.

  She nodded briskly. "Good."

  "It's still a month away, right?" For Shouto a month was an eternity. Anything could happen in a month. He never planned more than a day or two ahead.

  She nodded again. "For my sixteenth name day." Finally letting go of his hands, Momo dropped her own into her lap. She extended her bare toes out from under her skirts, studying them. She wore a silver ring on her right small toe.

  "Have you decided on your vocation?" Shouto asked. Among the clans, boys and girls to the age of sixteen were expected to train in all skills, from hunting to tracking and herding and use of weapons to weaving and metalworkig and healing and singing. At sixteen they were reborn into their vocations and began apprenticeships. Everyone was required to have a trade, though clan notions of a trade were more flexible than in the city. For instance, storytelling was a trade.

  When Shouto realized Momo hadn't answered, he repeated his question. Momo looked up at him. I'm going to be a warrior," said said, giving him a steady eye as if daring him to object.

  "A warrior!" He blinked at her, then blurted, "What does Chiyo say?"

  "She doesn't know," Momo mumbled digging her toes into the rug. "Don't tell her." Chiyo might be dissappointed, Shouto mused. Having no daughter of her own, she probably hoped Momo would follow her as matriarch and healer. Even though Momo wasn't exactly the nurturing type.

  "How many warriors does Erased Pines need?" he asked.

  "I want to go to Mandalay," Momo said, hunching her shoulders.

  "Really?" Momo was aiming high. The Mandalay warriors were legendary fighters and hunters. It was said they could survive in the woods for weeks on wind and rain and sunlight. That one Mandalay warrior was a match for a hundred soldiers. Personally, Shouto thought they were an arrogant lot who kept to themselves and never cracked a smile and tried to make you think they were privy to secrets that you would never know.

  "Who are you supposed to fight?" Shouto asked. "I mean ,it's been years since we've had a war in the uplands."

  Momo looked annoyed at his lack of enthusiasm. "They're spilling enough blood down south," she said. "Refugees have been flooding into the mountains. There's always a chance the fighting will spread up here." She sounded almost like she hoped it would. in the chaos following the Breaking, Shiketsu, Ketsubutsu, and Isamu had broken away from the Fells. Now the flatlands to the south were embroiled in an incessant civil war. But there had been peace in the north for a millennium.

  "Chiyo and Shouta are worried," Momo went on when Shouto didn't respond. "Some wizards are saying that they let go of power too easily, that it's time to return to having wizard kings. They think wizard kings could hep protect us against armies from the south." She shook her head, looking disgusted. "People have such short memories."

  "It's been a thousand years,"Shouto pointed out, and received a scowl in return. "Anyway, King Yagi would't let that happen," he added. "nor would the High Wizard."

  "Some people say he's been weakening as a king," Momo whispered. "Like a sickness of some sort. Some say wizards are gaining too much power."

  Shouto wondered who "some people" were, who had all these opinions. "Anyway. aren't you afraid of getting killed? Being a warrior, I mean?" He couldn't help thinking of his mother. How different his life would be if she were still alive.

  Momo snorted lightly. "Don't tell me there's not going to be any war, and then warn me i might get killed." The thing was, Shouto knew Momo would make a great warrior. Though she hadn't Shouto's muscle, she was better with a bow than he was. better at woodcraft. Better at tracking. She could look over a broken landscape and know where the deer lay hidden. She was better at anticipating the moves of a possible enemy. She'd outfoxed him all his life. And there was nothing she liked better than stalking things. He looked up to find her watching him, as if eager for a response.

  "You'll make a great warrior, Watching Owl," he told her, grinning. "it's perfect. Good choice." He took her hand a squeezed it. She beamed at him, blinking back tears, and he was amazed that his approval mean so much to her. He was even more amazed when she leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. She stood, picked up the basin, and ducked out between the hides.

  "Momo?!" he called after her, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation for this, any of this. But by the time he got the word out, she was gone. When Shouto returned to the common room, Momo was gone, and Shouta, who must have gotten back from his trip,  and Hitoshi were sitting knee to knee on the floor, talking. If they weren't arguing, they were close to it. Shouto faded back into the doorway, embarrassed, not wanting to interrupt. but he could hear everything they said.

  "Did you expect me just to stand by while they tore down the side of the mountain?" Hitoshi was saying, his voice trembling with roiling anger. "I'm not a coward." Shouto was shocked. No one ever spoke that way with Shouta.

  "I expect you to remember that you are only sixteen years old," Shouta replied calmly. "i expect you to use common sense. There was no point in confronting them. What did it accomplish? Did your bravery put the fire out?" Hitoshi did not reply, only looked furious. Shouta reached over and patted to boy's shoulder lightly. "Let it go, Walker, as I have," he said. "This isn't like you. A grudge against wizards will only get you into trouble."

  "They weren't much older than me and Shouto," Hitoshi countered stubbornly, "Haven't you said that wizards have to be sixteen to go to Torino's Ford? And didn't you say they aren't allowed to use magic until they got some training?"

  "What wizards are allowed to do and what they actually do are two different things," Shouta grumbles. He stood and moved to one of the many cats lurking around the lodge, petting the fussy thing. "Who were they? Do you know?"

  "The one was called Katsuki," Hitoshi said. "Bakugou Katsuki."

  Shouta's hand stilled on the cat's spine when Hitoshi said the blond wizard's name. "Are you sure?" he asked, without turning back to Hitoshi.

  "Well, pretty sure." Hitoshi sounded confused, as if he caught something in the other man's voice. "Why?"

  "He's in Arsalan House. That's a powerful wizard family," Shouta said. "And not one to cross. Did they ask your name?"

  Hitoshi lifted his chin. "I told them my name. I said I was Shadow Walker of Erased Pines Camp." He hesitated. "But he seemed to know me as Hitoshi."

  Shouta closed his eyes and shook his head slightly. His next words surprised Shouto. "What about Flame Spirit?" he asked. "Did he speak? Do they know his name?"

  Hitoshi cocked his head, thinking. "I don't think so," he said. "I don't remember him introducing himself." he laughed bitterly. "they probably won't remember anything but his arrow, aimed at their black wizard hearts."

  Shouta swung around, facing Hitoshi, sending the poor cat running at the quick action. "He turned a bow on them?" he said, his voice scathing on the word bow.

  Hitoshi shrugged. "The one called Katsuki, he had an amulet. He was jinxing me. Flame Spirit made him stop." Shouto held his breath, waiting for Hitoshi to tell Shouta that he had taken the amulets, but he didn't.

  Shouta sighed but nodded, looking troubled. "I'll speak to the King. This has to stop. He needs to enforce the Naeming and keep wizards out of the mountains. If he doesn't, the Mandalay warriors will." This was astonishing, Shouta talking about what the king needed to do. He made it sound as if speaking to the kind was an everyday thing. He was the clans' representative, but still. Shouto tried to imagine what it would be like, meeting the king. Your Exalted Majesty. I'm Shouto Plantslinger. Former streetlord of the Raggers. Please don't mind that I look like your High Wizard I am only related by blood and nothing more.

  Shouta and Hitoshi had moved on to another topic. Shouta leaned backward resting against the wall while still watching Hitoshi. "how are you feeling?"

  Hitoshi rolled his eyes and canted his body away. "I'm well," he ground out stiffly.

  He eyed the boy for a long moment then gave a long-suffered sigh. "Have you been taking the flying rowan?" he persisted. "Chiyo has more if you-"

  "I've been taking it," Hitoshi interrupted. "I have plenty." The boy stewed for a bit more under his father's gaze and then abruptly stood up. "I'm going to find Flame Spirit." He said with finality and turned toward the doorway where Shouto was lurking.

  "Tell him to eat with us." Shouta called after Hitoshi. Shouto was forced to beat a hasty retreat, ducking bakc into the sleeping chamber, so that was all he heard. But for the rest of that day, all through the evening meal, and sitting by the fire afterward, the conversation weighed on his mind.

  He studied Hitoshi on the sly. Could he be sick? Shouto hadn't noticed anything before, and he noticed nothing now, save that Hitoshi seemed less animated, more somber than usual. But that was hard to teel and could be left over from the afternoon's confrontation and the argument with his father. Shouto knew rowan, also called mountain ash. He gathered the wood and the berries, both of which were used in clan remedies. The woood was also said to be good for making amulets and talismans to ward away evil. Flying rowan was especially valuable at clan markets. It grew high in the trees, and Shouto had learned better than to try to pass of regular rowan as the treetop kind. To the clan, anyway.

  Shouta had asked if Hitoshi was well. Had someone hexed Hitoshi? Were he and Shouta worried that someone would? Was that why Hitoshi had a grudge against wizards? Shouto had wanted to ask but then they would know he'd been eavesdropping. So he kept his questions to himself.

-----

Chapter Text

   It was late afternoon when Izuku finally climbed the curving marble staircase to the king's tower. He ached all over; he was filthy and smelled of smoke. The rest of the party had already gone to clean up themselves and left the green-haired boy to clean up before dinner. Izuku had moved into new quarters since returning from Mandalay Camp; larger, more elaborate, befitting of a prince heir who was almost sixteen and so of marriageable age. Originally he'd been assigned a suite of rooms close to the king's quarters, shrouded in velvet and damask and furnished with massive canopied willow bedstead and wardrobe. It felt crowded even when Izuku was by himself. Izuku had begged his father to reopen an apartment at the far end of the hall that had lain barricaded and unused through living memory.There were many closed-off apartments in Yuuei castle, since the court was smaller than it had been, but not many in such a prime location, with easy access to the king.

   Some longtime servants said the apartment had been abandoned because its walls of windows made it cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Others said it was cursed, that it was from this very room a thousand years ago that the Demon King had taken his very own sister hostage, the incident that led to the Breaking. In this version, Inko herself had ordered the apartment sealed, vowing to never set foot in it again. Legend has it that the ghost of Inko sometimes appears at the window on stormy nights, hand extended, her loose hair snaking about her head, calling for her adopted brother Shimura Tenko. That hardly makes sense to Izuku. Who would wait at the window for a demon, let alone call his name even if he was her brother by all but blood?

   When Izuku's father had finally given in, and the carpenters broke down the barricades, they found a suite of rooms frozen in time, as if the previous occupant had meant to return. The furniture was huddled under drop cloths to protect it from the brilliant sunlight that streamed through dusty windows. When the drapes were removed, the fabrics gleamed, surprisingly vibrant after a thousand years. The last occupant's possessions lay as she'd left them. A doll dressed in an old-fashioned gown gazed out from a shelf in the corner. She had a porcelain head with vacant green eyes and long flaxen curls. Combs and brushes cluttered the dressing table, their bristles frayed by mice, and crystal perfume bottles stood arrayed on a silver mirror, their contents evaporated long ago. Gowns from a lost age hung in the wardrobe, made for a small willowy girl. Some of the fabrics crumbled under Izuku's curious fingers. Carved wolves and rabbits graced the stone facing the hearth. Bookshelves lined the public rooms. More books lay piled on the stand next to the bed. The ones in the bedroom were mostly adventures, stories of far away kingdoms and legends and exploration, written in a Valespeech with archaic phrasing. In the public rooms were shelved biographies and treatises on politics, including A history of the High Country Clan and the first edition of Adra ana'Doria's Rule and Rulers in the Modern Age. Izuku himself was just plodding through it under the strict eyes of the masters.

   Inko or not, the suite had been occupied by a young girl, probably a princess. 'Perhaps she'd died,' Izuku thought, 'and her parents kept her room preserved as a shrine.' The idea gave Izuku shivers as his fear and curiosity duked it out in his mind. Since the apartment was in one of the turrets, it was smaller than the rooms originally assigned to Izuku. But it felt spacious, since he had a view of the town and the mountains on three sides. He'd dragged the bad into the space between the windows, and when it snowed. he felt like he was an elf hunter like the one in the mural Aizawa bought for him all those years ago. On clear night he opened the windows and sat on the sill, pretending he was riding a sailing ship though the clouds. Best of all, he'd discovered a sliding panel in one of the closets, which revealed a secret passageway. It sneaked within the walls for what seemed like miles. The passageway led to a stairway, and the stairway led to the solarium on the roof, a glassed garden that was Izuku's favorite place in all of Yuuei Castle, even though it had fallen into disrepair while he was gone.

   When Izuku pushed open the door to his rooms, he was greeted with the explosively happy face of his loyal room-keep and eyes in the castle, Kirishima Ejirou. Kirishima was a formidable friend, tall and broad, with strength that could rival a lower palace guard. Kirishima wasn't really his room-keep though, as Izuku wouldn't allow his loyal friend to do menial work that he could do himself. Not that it stopped the guard turned hand-in-waiting and spy, because from the smell of it he'd already drawn Izuku's bath on the burner and laid out fresh undergarments in the bed.

  "Your Highness!" Kirishima all but clobbered the green-haired prince, probably wanting to hear the story from one of it's sources. When it comes to large events word spreads fast in the castle. "I heard there was an avalanche, but you look as if you went through a hurricane instead! Did'ya get anything anyway? Or was it that awesome?!"

   'Right,' Izuku thought, 'Kirishima would think running from an avalanche would be awesome with what him being an adrenaline junkie and all.' 

Izuku merely sighed at the question which anyone who knows him would know it meant 'I'll explain later after I can think.' Izuku's gaze fell on the silver tray just inside his door on which Kirishima left messages and mail and calling cards. Suitors had begun buzzing around like flies on a carcass as Izuku approached his sixteenth name day. On any given day there'd be five or six elaborate gifts of handiwork or heirloom jewelry, vases and works of art, plus dozens of engraved invitations and letter on embossed stationary, mostly proclamations of love and promises of shared thrones, and proposals that ranged from bland to indecent. As the younger child, he was expected to be a marriage pawn rather than an heir as far as anyone knew. Which mean an heir wasn't expected either which opened the door for either gender to tie the two lands together in order to make deals and influence on decisions.

   Thought, in all honesty some of the gifts were too elaborate to accept. A pirate princess from across the Indio had sent a cunning model of the ship she proposed to build for him so he could sail away with her. The king's secretary had answered on Izuku's behalf, politely declining. Izuku kept the model though. He liked to sail it on the pond in the garden.

   Truth be told, even if Izuku was playing shadow heir he still would've had no intention of marrying anyone anytime soon. The king was young, he would rule for many years yet, so there was no need to rush into the confinement of marriage. If Izuku had his way, his wedding would be the culmination of an entire decade actually falling in love, not just bartering on the marriage market. Which made him think of the awkward childhood promise he made to Bakugou. Really, Izuku was not good at wording things as a kid.

   Centered on the damnable silver tray was a rather plain envelope. "Who's this from?" he asked, picking it up.

   Kirishima shrugged. "I don't know, Your Highness." Izuku rolled his eyes at his red-haired friend, "Sorry. It hard to remember to call you Izuku. Anyway, It was outside your door when I came back from the midday." Kirishima said in a decidedly exasperated tone, probably from Izuku trying to constantly stop all the rank nonsense the court seems to have its hear set on. Izuku sat down in the chair by the door, still studying the envelope whilst Kirishima fought against Izuku dodging all his efforts to at least get his riding coat off. Izuku's name was written on the front of the note in a neat, upright hand that was naggingly familiar. He tore it open and unfolded the page inside, after relenting his coat to the flustered Kirishima.

   Izuku, I'm home. Come find me if you get this before dinner please. I'll be in the usual place. -Tenya

  "Tenya's home!" Izuku cried, surging to his feet, knocking a bit of formerly trapped snow on the floor. He gripped Kirishima's elbows and danced him around the room, ignoring the loud squawks of surprise. He felt rather like a tugboat towing one of the big ships in Ice Cliffs Harbor.

  "Izu- Izuku! Hold on!" Kirishima cried trying to find his balance again from the impromptu tug-of-war with gravity. Wrenching his arms free, he started knocking off snow from Izuku.

  "Nope!" Izuku said, giddily pulling away, thinking of all the adventures he'd get away with now. "Hang on, Kiri, I need to go find Tenya. I need to find out what he-"

  Kirishima planted himself in front of the door. "Izuku you look like you got ran over by the deer not that you were hunting them. If he sees you in this state he'll probably think you a thief and kick you out of the castle. Hilarious, but not what you want right now."

  "Kirrrrriiii!" Izuku definitely did not whine. "Come on. It's just Tenya. He won't care about-"

  "He's kept this long, he can keep a little while longer. Your're expected at dinner in two hours and as much as I would prefer we cold all go to dinner a mess I'd like to keep my job." Still grumbling, Izuku stripped himself of the rest of his clothes after shooing a bemused Kirishima off. He climbed into his bath and had to admit it felt wonderful. The warm water did sting his many cuts and scrapes, but did wonders on his ever tense muscles. It took all of the two hours for Kirishima to finally force Izuku into the stuffy things the court called clothes. At least it was a bit more formfitting rather than choking this time. It emphasized his usually hidden trained physique due to his body type. Probably one of the remade outfits Tsuyu, his sister, made for him out of their father's clothes. Kirishima kept vigil as Izuku coaxed his damp curls in their usual presentable mess, then set his gold circlet on top. To finish, Kirishima quickly gave Izuku an ivy necklace with a sun charm; a gift from her passed mother from the Mandalay Camp. Glinting Ivy was his clan name. She called him Glinting Ivy, she said, because of the glint of knowing in his eyes. And his clinginess and need to have seen everything.

 


 

 

   When Izuku finally entered the dining room, it was already crowded. A string quartet tuned up in one corner, servers with trays circulated through the room, and the usual court grazers swarmed about the side table laden with cheeses, fruits, and wine. He quickly scanned the room for Tenya, though he didn't really expect to see him there. Unlikely that he would be invited to mingle with aristocracy. Across the room, Izuku saw his well, er, all but adopted brother? Aizawa Shouta, Patriarch of Mandalay Camp. He stood with a small group of other clan, wearing the flowing, elaborately embroidered robes they reserved for special occasions. He went over and took his something or other "brother"'s hands, bowing his head over them in clan fashion "Good day, Aapiyaga Aizawa." he said in clan.

   "Best to speak the lowland language, here, little Ivy," Aizawa said with a bitter smirk. "The flatlanders might think we are cursing them if not."

   Izuku bit his lip from saying the many wishes he had out loud. He wants to go back to Mandalay, or join Aizawa on his travels, not be displayed like a jewel in an ill-fitting setting. He finished greeting his brother and turned away. A dozen youngling courtiers had claimed space by the fireplace. Since Izuku's return, more and more nobility were sendng their offspring to court, putting them under the nose of the second heir, hoping to make, if not marriage, connections that would benefit the family in the future. Bright-eyed Togata Mirio sat in a chair by the hearth. The eighteen-year-old wizard heir to Fortress Nighteye, an estate along the Precept River toward Ice Cliffs, he was easygoing, optimistic, and honestly one of the easiest to get along with of his kind. He preferred to spend his time hunting, dicing, playing at cards, and dreaming of adventure, avoiding the realm of politics. Next to Togata was Toga Himiko, who had parked his wheeled chair next to the fireplace. Toga was also the heiress to a powerful wizard house, but in an accident in childhood had left her...slightly around the bend. She is adamant about having some sort of disability yet at the same time switches between them week by week. This week is apparently being lame, as she was sitting in a wheelchair.

   Izuku didn't know Toga that well, thank Inko. She'd been away at school at Torino's Ford for three years. Even when she was at home, she seemed to prefer the company of her horror novels. Her acid tongue drove off those who might otherwise pity her. Her parents must have dragged her back to court for the season. Izuku's cousins Itsuka and Ejirou Kirishima were there, and Izuku's sister, Tsuyu, whose royal status forced her out of her room stand nearby. Bakugou leaned against the fireplace, flanked by his two...lackeys ( the best way to put it) Monoma and Aoyama. As per usual he had the eyes of the room, especially any single girl's eyes in the nearby area. Izuku had to admit, he'd cleaned up well for once; he wore a black silk coat and grey trousers that set of his lion stoles. His hands were bandaged and he still looked rather pale against the light of the fire. As Izuku watched, he set an empty wineglass on a table and grabbed a full one from passing server. Ever vigilant, Tsuyu leaned in and murmured something to him. Whatever it was, he didn't like it. He shook his head, scowling, and turned back to the fire. Tsuyu had a habit of trying to keep Bakugou under control no matter how much it failed.

   Kirishima was energetically trying to drag a story out of the grumpy blonde if the sight in front of Izuku was any tell. "So, were you scared of the avalanche or were you super manly and fight it? Cause you would totally do that if I know you." the red haired boy pesters. "I heard you were one of the people who stopped it, is that true?" this and other such questions were quickly fired off. Never get examined by Kirishima, he will get your story out whether you like it or not.

  Bakugou on the other hand seemed to be fighting answering Kirishima what with the blush on his face that was most likely from the alcohol which is heavily out of character. Usually he would be bragging his, pardon, ass off as soon as he saw someone he could at least stand to talk to. Apparently his tongue finally started to work, "Well, good it came out all fucking in the end. Would anyone want some more damn wine?"

   "Didn't I hear one of the guards saying you came late to the hunt? I'm almost positive that what he said." Kirishima said leaning a bit forward with a bounce as his eyes glint. "How did you get between the king and the avalanche, hmm?" Good question Kiri, Izuku thought, proud of how good Kirishima has gotten at helping him keep eyes and ears in the castle. Kepping next to the wall, he sidled closer.

   Bakugou seemed to think it was a good question too. He took a long swallow of wine, thinking about it. "Well like the awesome fucking people we were when we saw the avalanche from below, we took a shortcut, hoping to catch them and..." Bakugou looked up and saw Izuku, taking full advantage of the distraction. "Here is Prince De- Izuku now," he said, sweeping down in a slight bow. Izuku extended a hand. Bakugou grasped it and raised it to his lips, then lifted his head and gazed into Izuku's eyes, sending a whisper of power through his fingers. Izuku flinched and withdrew his fingers, fighting the instinct to cringe away. Young wizards sometimes leaked magic, but from experience and Bakugou's face, that was not accident.

   Izuku, in a rare show of rebellion against the blond, stepped on his foot and smiled at him in a way that said that wasn't an accident either. Bakugou hissed and curled his hands, probably trying to keep from actions that would cast a negative light. Tsuyu narrowed her eyes and the young wizard heir and straightened up a little, to emphasize her height. Izuku winced he'll probably pay for that later, and to be fair, he did save my life, he deserves to celebrate. and he's probably in some degree of pain.

   "Kacchan's being too modest," Izuku said, in a kind of backhanded apology. "The avalanche came down on us like a downhill stampede. We were trapped in a narrow canyon with waves on all sides, and I thought for certain we would all be buried alive. If not for Kacchan and his father and the Leblanc brothers, we would have. They stopped the avalanche completely."

   "So you were manly! Alright! Now i wonder how the avalanche started, since we are not in melting season?" Kirishima quickly switched from honestly excited to detective at astonishing speeds.

    Bakugou flushed harder and backed away a bit glancing to and fro slightly trying to look for an escape. "Father thinks the clans might have something to do with it," Bakugou said. "They're always damn keen on keeping people out of the mountains."

    "Wizards," Izuku bit. " They're keen on keeping wizards out of the Spirits. But the clans would never set fire to Inko."

    Bakugou bit back a retort. "I stand corrected, Your Highness." he growled softly. "You are familiar with their ways and I am not." he forced a smile. "It's a mystery, then."

    Well I'm dead, Izuku thought, goodbye world, you didn't really give me a good life but I appreciate the thought.

    "Well, I don't trust them," Toga declared, breaking her silence. She glanced about to locate the Mandalay delegation before she continued. "They slip around like thieves, and they're always muttering to each other in that foreign language so you never know what they're saying. And everybody knows they steal babies and replace them with demons, as they say." She smirks, as per usual, causing drama around the court.

    Izuku gritted his teeth and let out a breath. "Childeren are fostered with the clans for their own good, to teach them the old ways. Besides the clans were here first. If there's a foreign language spoken in Fells, it's Valespeech."

    "Of course, your Highness," Toga hummed. "You would know as you were fostered there. I only meant that Valspeech is the more civilized tongue as we use it at court." she said at closed off the argument there.T eh quartet had completed its warm-up, and now the first strains of the real music floated over them.

    "Would you care to dance, brother?" Tsuyu asked and Izuku quickly nodded, grateful for the distraction. He took her hand and led her out to the dancefloor. He placed a hand at her waist and cradled her free hand with his other. They circled the floor, floating on the music. Raised at court, both were excellent dancers though Izuku stumbled here and there when it came to some of the less similar styles than camp dances. "So are you alright? You seem to be pushing Bakugou's buttons more, not that I mind you standing up for yourself, but something must be wrong?" Tsuyu's quiet, thoughtful voice broke Izuku's reverie.

    "Well i suppose so...it's difficult...I mean...Augh!" Izuku shook his head, clearing his thoughts. "It's just.. I don't want to be tied down in marriage and i miss being, well, not an item to be won. The camps were wonderful, they treated me like I was human and not something that can instigate deals and connections. You know I've always disliked court and now that Tenya and Kacchan can't hang out with me....it's just..dull."

    Tsuyu nodded along, letting her brother vent, as was her job. Izuku was the shadow heir right now due to her failing health and she had to support him where she could. "I'm not going to say it will get better, but maybe you are putting to much pressure on yourself? You don't have to be the perfect Prince, Zuzu."

    Izuku huffed and lowered his gaze to look at his shoes, "I know, I know. It's just... I have to be a good prince so the transition of heir will go smoothly. I want to be a good prince."

    "You don't have to be perfect to be good." she said looking up into the rafters. "It's just as dad says, the important thing is to be there for your people, not as a figurehead but as a real, tangible being."

    Izuku smiled and spun her around. "How do you always know what to say?"

    "It's the big sister's job to do that, kero." she said and smiled happily. Izuku felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see a less frazzled looking Bakugou.

    "Can I step in?" the blond asked and Izuku nodded, stepping away. "No, not with her, with you Deku." Tsuyu glanced between the two boys and took her leave after giving a slight warning look at Bakugou. Izuku turned and let Bakugou take his waist and they began circling the floor again. Neither of them said anything for some time and Izuku was getting antsy. Did he want something? Is he going to publicly embarrass him as revenge? Is he going to do an incredibly rare thing and maybe apologize? Should I say something?

   "How are your hands?" he blurted, then looked away, embarrassed.

   "They're alright." Bakugou said not really giving any inclination for more talk. Izuku tossed around a couple idea then pulled up a brave face.

   "What happened this morning?" Izuku asked nervously. "Did something go wrong that made you late?"

   "Ground Zero came up lame. We had to pull a shoe, and it took longer than expected."

   "You must keep a dozen horses at court. You couldn't ride another?" Izuku bit. Nooooo stop, he cried mentally, 'what are you doing Kacchan obviously has something going on, he's not even cursing! You're going to get yourself killed!'

   "Ground Zero's my best hunter. Besides, like I said, it took longer than expected," he said curtly.

   "Your father was hard on you today."

   Bakugou grimaced. "My father is hard on me every day." And then, in the manner of someone who's intentionally changing the subject, he asked, " That's a new suit, isn't it?" When Izuku nodded, he added. "It's good on you, makes you look less.....Dekuish."

   Izuku glanced down at himself, Well it was kind of a compliment he guesses, if a bit of an insult. He sighs and accepts it for what it is. They circled silently for a moment then Izuku interjects, "Well yours makes you look less I-survived-an-avalanche-two-hours-ago-ish." For a moment Bakugou stares at him, then burst out laughing with a small grin.

  "You still suck at flattery, even being raised in the fucking court." he says with a smirk

  Izuku rolls his eyes, "Oh leave off, I can't compliment you without hidden jibes just as you can't and you know it." This is what he misses from Bakugou. Not his over-the-top possessive behavior but his willingness to joke around with Izuku. It's been long missing but every once and a while it will appear. "So you'll be going to Torino's Ford in the fall?"

  Bakugou nodded, his smile fading.  "I wish I could go now. Those extras damn ought to send wizards at thriteen, like those lazy ass soldier pledges." Bakugou would be attending Mezzanote House, the school for wizards at Torino's Ford. There were half a dozen academies, clustered on the banks of the Shiketsu River, on the border between Shiketsu and Ketsubutsu. There should be a schools in training where Izuku could learn something more useful than table manners and pretty talk.

   "The clans believe it to be dangerous to put magic into the hands of young wizards," Izuku recited from his brain, which is probably from some book or word of mouth.

  Bakugou grimaced. "The clans should know when to fucking step off. I know your mother was clan, but I don't understand why they insist that everythig remain the same.It's like we are all frozen in time, paying for a shitty ass crime that nobody else remembers."

  Izuku tilted his head and stood his ground. "You know why. The clans healed the Breaking. The rules of the Naeming are intended to prevent it from ever happening again." He paused then couldn't resist adding thanks to his lovely devil's advocate nature. "Didn't you learn that in school?"

  Bakugou dismissed schollwith a wave of his hand. "There's too much to fucking learn in a lifetime, even for someone like me. Which is why those shitheads should give us our amulets at birth, so we can begin training as soon as damn possible."

  "They'll never do that because of the Demon King."

  The song came to an end, and they drifted to a stop on the dance floor. Gripping his elbows, Bakugou looked down at his face. "What about the Demon King?"

  "Well," Izuku began nervously, now not distracted. "They say the Demon King was something of a prodigy," he said. "He took up wizardry, and dark magic, at a very young age. It destroyed his mind.

  "Mmmm, well that's what the clans say."

   It was an argument they had a hundred times, packaged in different ways. "They tell stories because it's the truth, Kacchan. Shimura Tenko was a madman. Anyone who could do what he did...."

   Bakugou gritted his teeth and shook his head, his eyes fixed of Izuku's. "What if it's made up?"

  "Made up?" Now Izuku actually worked up enough bravery to show his low temper. "Don't tell me you've joined the Revisionists."

  "Think of what the story gets those fucking asswads," he growls lowly. "Wizards carrying around all this shitty guilt, afraid to assert their own damn inborn gifts. The clans controlling the objects that give us out fucking flying ass shitty powers. The royal family, forced to dance to whatever to shitheads damn well play."

  "Of course the clans control the amulets and talismans," Izuku countered. "they're the ones that make them. It's the decision power between green magic and high magic that has kept us safe all these years."

  Bakugou hissed and ground out. "Just fuckin.. De- Izuku please. Just listen for one fucking minute you idiot. Who know is the Breaking actually happened? Or if wizards were the cause.

  He glowered at Bakugou as the other rolled his eyes. "Never fucking mind, why do I bother. Come on." Taking Izuku's elbow, he drew him into a windowed alcove overlooking the illuminated city. Bakugou leaned against the wall and curled his fingers into Izuku's green locks, playing with them as he did when they were kids. Izuku ignored the way his pulse went haywire, and his face grew a god-awful crimson. It was quite clear from day one that Bakugou had no idea how embarrassing this was and really, he was quite dense. As much as Izuku might have a possible crush on his old friend he wouldn't actually trust Bakugou with his life, been there done that. Nor would he ruin his best friend's chances, but that's another story.

   So in light of that, Izuku gently pulled away, turned and stared over the city. It sparkled below, perfect from a distance. "Did you hear this theory about the Breaking from your father? Is that what the High Wizard thinks?"

  "My father has nothing to do with this," Bakugou huffed. "I have ideas of my own, you know. He just..." He rested an arm next to Izuku's and power sizzled through his skin onto Izuku's. He was cut off by a rising clamor in the dining room. The band shifted smoothly into "The Way of the Royals." Izuku and Bakugou steeped to the doorway of the alcove in time to see King Yagi sweep the length of the room, dancers arting before him, sinking into curtsies and bows. Behind him came the Queen's Guard resplendent in their Grey Wolf livery and led by Iida Tensei.

  The king turned in swirl of his cape and faced the room. He was dressed in silk finery that emphasized...well...everything. King Yagi smiled out at the assembly. "In a moment we'll all go to dinner. But first we will recognize the heroes in the hall tonight, This day by their valor they saved the lineage of Yuuein royals." He extended his hand without looking, and someone placed a goblet in it. "Would Bakugou Katsuki, Todoroki Enji, Leblanc Aoyama, and Leblanc Monoma come forward?"

  Lord Todoroki stepped out of the crowd and knelt stiffly in front of the king. Bakugou hesitated a moment, hidden in the alcove, looking to either side as if he wished to escape. Then he sighed and left Izuku to join his father. Aoyama and Monoma came up an d knelt as well. Severs circulated through the crowd, distributing glasses to those who were without. Izuku accepted one and stood waiting.

  "Today these wizards saved me and the Prince Izuku from a disastrous avalanche through the use of extraordinary and accomplished magic. I therefore toast the unique and historic bond between the line of Yuuein royals and high wizardry that had long protected and sustained our realm in this time of war.I would also like to thank the Captain of the Royal Guard for keeping calm and directing us to safety." The king raised his glass as did everyone else in the hall, and drank. "I would also like to welcome back to our court a young man who has been like a son to us. After three years away, he has returned for the summer and will serve us on temporary assignment to the King's Guard." king Yagi smiled at the assembled soldiers, singling out a particular one. "Iida Tenya, come forward."

   Izuku stared, amazed, as one of the tall soldiers stepped forward and knelt before the king. Iida Tensei drew his sword and handed it to Yagi. " Do you, Iida Tenya, swear to protect and defend the king, princess heir, and all of Inko's decendents from our enemies, even to the loss of your life?"

  "My blood is yours, Your Majesty," this strange, tall Tenya said in an unfamiliar deep voice. "It would be my honor to spill it in defense of the royal line."

  The king tapped Tenya on each broad shoulder with the flat of the blade. "Rise, Corporal Iida, and join your captain." The new corporal rose, bowed again, and backed away from the king until he stood side by side with his brother, who did not loose a smile. Izuku stood transfixed, his hand at his throat. Tenya's blue eyes were the same as he remembered, as was the straight black hair that flopped over his forehead. Much of the rest of him had been remade.

  "Now," the king said, "let's in to dinner." Izuku had no chance to speak to Tenya during dinner. He was seated at the head of the table, between Bakugou and his father. The Leblanc brothers sat in positions of honor on either side of the king, with Tsuyu on the far side. Also within speaking distance were the Mandalays, and a wizard/court physician whose name Izuku could not remember. As captain of the Royal Guard, iida Tensei had a place near the foot of the table, but the Guard itself was stationed at the far end of the room, near the entrance to the ballroom. Izuku's eyes kept straying to Tenya.

  His face was thinner, the bone structure more prominent, any trace of the baby fat worn away by time at Torino's Ford. He had his brother's intensity packaged in a rangier body, but he'd also added a new layer of muscle. Now and again he saw flashed of the boy he remembered. He stood a bit self-consciously, back straight, one hand on the hilt of his sword. Once he caught him staring at him, but he looked away quickly when their eyes met, spots of color showing on his cheeks. He felt flustered, disconcerted, almost angry. What had happened to the Tenya he knew and cared for while he was away? If they did meet, what could he possibly say to him? Sweet Anna's teeth,you're tall?

  "Your Highness?" The words were spoken loudly almost in his ear, and Izuku jumped and turned toward Bakugou Kasuki. "You're hardly eating your food, and I feel like I'm talking to myself," he said as dessert was set before them. There was an obvious edge to his voice that said he was irritated, as per usual.

  "Sorry," Izuku said. "I'm afraid I'm a little distracted. It's been a long day, and I'm tired. He poked at his pastry wishing he was young again andcould be dismissed from the table early.

  "It's no wonder you're weary, Your Highness, after the scare this morning," Lard Todoroki said, smiling. "perhaps a walk in the garden after dinner would restore you. Bakugou would be happy to accompany you."

  "Oh!" Izuku said. "Well, that's really kind of you to think of me, Lord Todoroki, but I really..."

  Bakugou hissed through his teeth. "You keep staring at the door. Are you that eager to leave? Or is it someone in particular you're looking at?"

  Now Izuku was irritated. "I'll thank you to mind your own buisness, sul'Bakugo. I'll look wherever I like."

  Of course." Bakugou said and jammed his fork into his dessert. "It's rude is all I'm saying."

  "Katsuki!" Lord Todoroki glared at his son. "Apologize to the prince."

  "Sorry." Bakugou gritted, staring straight ahead, amuscle in his jaw working. "Please forgive me, Your Highness." Izuku felt hemmed in by wizards, oppressed by the tension between Bakugou and his father. It was quite wearing. When the dinner ended, the band reassembled. There would be dancing into the small hours, relentless drinking and flirting, underscored by a series of lame entertainments. In the card room awaited the dance of the would-be suitors. It was time to escape

  He pressed a hand against his forehead. "I'm off to bed," he said. "I've a nasty headache." He pushed back his chair. When Bakugou and Lord Todoroki made as if to rise, he said, "Please, sit. I'd like to slip out quietly."

  "Are you sure you're alright?" Bakugou asked, glancing at his father, then back at Izuku. "Why don't I escort you back to your rooms?" As if Izuku needed help finding his rooms, but they often used that as an excuse when they were younger to run off and play.

  He stood. "No, you're the guests of honor. His Majesty will be disappointed if you leave. Thank you again for everything." King Yagi was looking at him, one eyebrow raised in inquiry. Izuku shrugged and again touched his forehead, the universal sign for a headache. The king nodded, waved goodnight, and turned back to Monoma, who was still looking thrilled and amazed to be sitting next to the king. Izuku walked the length of the dining room to the door. Hesitating, he looked back and saw the Mandalay watching, a faint smile of Aizawa's face.

  As he passed Tenya and his fellow soldier, he did not look to the left or the right, but muttered, "The usual place, soon as you're able."

Chapter Text

   Shouto put off leaving Erased Pines as long as possible. It was late morning the next day when he said good-byes and descended Inko, following the Musutafu toward the Vale. He'd sold or traded everything but the worthless pondwort, which would have to wait for the Flatlander markets. Coins jingled in his purse, and his bag bulged with trade goods; fabric and leatherwork he could sell at a profit, pouches of clan remedies, plus enough smoked venison to make a meal. And the amulet, hidden at the bottom and a constant presence he was aware of. He still mourned the deer he might have taken, but all in all, he'd done well for this late in the season. He hoped his stomach would agree.

   On the way down the mountain, he stopped off at several solitary cabins to see if there was mail to go or goods to be carried down to market or orders for supplies that he would carry up the next time. Many of the cabin dwellers were clan who preferred life away from the bustle of the camps. There were also former flatlanders who liked solitude or had reason to avoid the notice of the king's heavy-handed guard. Shouto earned a little money by carrying news and mail up and down the mountains and acting as agent for those highlanders who didn't care to visit the Vale.

   Kurogiri was one of those. His cabin stood where Broken Back Creek poured into the Musutafu. He'd lived on the mountain for so long, yet he still looked like he belonged down tending a bar in the Hosu district. His eyes were a dull amber, cloudy with age yet still shined of long earned wisdom. He didn;t run the most productive still for no reason after all. Though Kurogiri could navigate the trails and ledges of the high country like a ghost, he never went to Yuuei if he had a choice. So Shouto carried orders and containers and money up from the Vale, and product down. The containers were full when he carried them downhill and light and empty when he carried them up.

   The best part: Kurogiri had books; not as many as in the temple library, but more books than any one man had a right to. What a wisened old man who made alcohol for a living needed with a library, but the old man encouraged him to take advantage, so he did. Some days he staggered down the mountain with half his wight in books. That was another mystery; Shouto should have read them all twice over by now. But Kurogiri always seemed to have new ones.

   Kurogiri was stiff and cranky and probably dealt with life by siphoning off his own product. But he was fair to Shouto, and told the truth, and always paid on time, which was rare. No one had dared steal from Cuffs, streetlord of Musutafu. But since he'd left that life, Shouto had been cheated more times than he cared to remember. Kurogiri was also a nonjudgmental source of information. He knew everything, and, unlike Fuyumi, wasn't biased in any sort of fashion, not that he didn't trust his sister but it was nice to see it from a free point-of-view.

   The hillside cabin was empty, as was the distillery shack behind, but Shouto knew where to look. He found Kurogiri sitting by Broken Back Creek, which he did daily every season out of the year usually doing a crossword. It was an excuse to get away from the temperate distillery and doze in the outside beauty, His German Shepard, named creatively Dog, curled up at his feet. As Shouto walked up the creek bed toward him, Kurogiri dropped his crossword and jerked around as if startled. Shouto cringed as the partially blind man raised his hands as if for protection, his face pale, and his eyes wide under his wiry brows.

    "Who's there? Is that you Shouto? You are the only one I know with hair that mismatched." he snapped, his badly pressed sleeves flying down his thin arms. Like usual, he tried to dress nicely but with only clan castoffs and Musutafu finds it was probably quite difficult.

    "Yeah, Kurogiri, it's me." Shouto called. Dog raised his head and woofed in approval, then rested his head on his paws, twitching his ears to drive off flies.

    "You shouldn't sneak up on folks like that." he scolded, ever the gentleman. "It's not proper even with the lack of court out here." Shouto rolled his eyes. He'd come along the water, same as always. Everybody was acting strange today. Shouto crouched next to Kurogiri, touching his shoulder so he'd know where he fully was, and the man started slightly.

   "How's the crossword going?" Shouto asked, trying to distract the surprisingly nervous man.

   Kurogiri squinted his dull amber eyes like it was a hard question, then reached down and flipped the large paper into view, "Doing as good as someone who is half blind can."

   "Want me to draw it out bigger?" Shouto offers. He often would draw out the columns and words in a larger format for Kurogiri, it was good practice and also earned him some time away from home.

    Kurogiri considered this for a moment. "No thank you. I'll try my best with what you've given me."

    Shouto settled himself back against a tree and extended his legs for a small break. "Need anything to hold you over 'til spring?" he asked, patting his backpack. "I have dried peppers and a bit of jerky i can give you."

    Kurogiri snorted. "No you don't, and I'll be fine with the drink and the bread i have.

    "Anything for Musutafu?"

    Kurogiri nodded. "It's set aside in the dog run." Their business concludd, Shouto stared out at the rocks rising above the layer of ice on the creek. Kurogiri seemed jittery and unsettled. He kept titling his head this way and that, as if to pick up a scent or a faint sound on the breeze. "You still have your cuffs?" he asked abruptly.

   "What do you think?" Shouto muttered. Like he could get them off. Kurogiri took Shouto's arm quickly and dragged back his sleeve, fingering the silver band as if to read the runes by touch. The old man grunted and released Shouto's arm, still looking as if he was pondering a tough question. "What's with you?" Shouto pushed, yanking down his sleeves to hid the cuffs again.

   "i small dark magic," Kurogiri said, in a typically incomprehensible old man fashion.

   Shouto thought of the amulet in his carry bag, but decided there was no way Kurogiri could know it was in there. "What do you know about magic?"

   "A little." Kurogiri mumbled as he rubbed his neck. "Not enough and too much."

   He tried again. "What do you know about wizards, then?"

   Kurogiri sat motionless for a long moment. "Why do you ask?" Shouto stared at him. Mosy adults answered questions with questions, but not Kurogiri. When Shouto didn't answer immediately, the old man clamped a hand down on his shoulder. "Why do you ask?" Kurogiri repeated harshly.

   "Ow, take it easy." Shouto said, and Kurogiri let go. "Hitoshi and I had a run-in with some wizards up on Inko," Shouto said, rubbing his shoulder. He told the rest of the story to Kurogiri.

   "Bakugou, you say?" Kurogiri scowled and glanced down at the creek again. "Theo's bloody, bloody bones." Kurogiri has been born on the mountain known as Theo, spiritual home of that legendary king of Yuuei. So he favored Theo when it came to swearing, even though most swore by Inko. Shouto asked him about it once, and Kurogiri told him Inko was too powerful a word to be flinging around.

   "Do you know him?" Shouto asked.

   Kurogiri nodded. "Know of him. His adopted father is the High Wizard, and you know who that is. Your father's heart is as cold as the Musutafu, and you sure know that nobody should get in his way."

   Bakugou Katsuki had mentioned his father's office, Shout just didn't make the connection. "Forgot my father had adopted the kid of two dead wizards he knew. About the same time he decided to finally kick me out. At least he finally got rid of his bastard-magicless child and replaced him with someone who actually knew magic."

   "Well you know him." Kurogiri lifted his crossword again and tapped the page. "If your father has influenced him in any way he'll be just as power hungry and unsatisfied with life. Considering that, your father is probably trying to be High Wizard without all the tethers and restrictions put in place by the Naeming. Some say he wants the throne as well."

   Shouto grimaced. "Of course he does. At least I'm not his by name anymore, not that he wanted me anyway, but the throne? Won't that throw the kingdom into too much upheval and cause a war?"

  Kurogiri hid a dark chuckle. "For a street rat, you have no idea what's going on, do you?" He shook his head in amazement. "You've got to keep your ear to the ground and your nose in the wind if you want to survive in these times." Shouto couldn't picture how that physical feat could be accomplished. He could never figure out how Kurogiri seemed to know everything that was going on ever since he stumbled on the man's doorstep at the age of seven, when the man stayed up on the mountain all the time. It was a mystery. Shouto struggled to contol his impatience. He already knew his father was a terrible person, no need to remind him. "About wizards," he prodded Kurogiri. "How do they get magic?"

   "It's in their blood," Kurogiri said, stroking Dog's head. "It's like they get raw talent, but they aren't really powerful until they are taught and learn to store it up and control it with an amulet. If fact, they are more dangerous until then, like a wild colt that doesn't know its own strength."

   Shouto thought of Bakugou Katsuki, face dark with rage, gripping his fancy jinxpiece and muttering charms. "Why? Do they have to say spell or something to make it work?"

   "That's part of the schooling," Kurogiri said, nodding. "Bakugou is the last of the Arsalan House and is now adopted in probably the most powerful House, Todoroki, since the fall of the Shimuras."

   "Who are the Shimuras?" Shouto asked. "I've never heard of them."

   "Never mind, That house died out years ago." Kurogiri looked at the sky and shook his head. "Looks like it's going to storm. Might as well pack it up."

   "Kurogiri," Shouto plundered on. He knew from experience that things people didn't want to tell you were likely to be the most interesting. "Who were the Shimuras? Why did they fall?"

   The man sighed. "you can pester an old man nearly to death." Kurogiri grabbed his bottle and took a light swig, wiping the back of his mouth after. "It all happened a thousand year ago and it doesn't matter anymore." he replied. When Shouto said nothing he sighed again and let out a bitter laugh. "You know, most boys your age aren't interested in digging up old bones and stories." Shouto still said nothing. Kurogiri dropped his head  and gave up. "So a thousand years ago there was this powerful wizard house. Named Shimura House. Signia was a set of scales and wizard crest was a twined serpent." Shouto blinked at him, then dug in his bag, unearthing the parcel containing the serpent amulet he'd taken from the jinxflinger on Inko. He weighed it in his had, recalling what Bakugou said, 'If you touch it, you'll be incinerated.'

   Kurogiri turned his dulled eyes on Shouto. "What do you have there?" he demanded, extending his hand as if he could feel the heat of it too. "Give it over."

   Shouto hesitated. "i don't know if i..."

   "Give it here, now." The old man's voice rang out, startlingly loud and compelling. It was as if Kurogiri had been possessed by some other, irresistible being.

   Shouto pressed the leather bundle into Kurogiri's hand. "Be careful, Kurogiri. It might-" The man tore open the leather wrapping and pulled free the jinxpiece. Shouto leaned away, tensing against any possible explosion. None came.

   Kurogiri ran his aged hands over the amulet, and his face went slack with shock. "where did you get this?" he whispered.

   "Bakugou had it." shouto hesitated, unsure how much to share. "He tried to use it to jinx Hitoshi. I took it from him. I don't think he was supposed to have it."

   Kurogiri laughed, a harsh bitter sound. "Brave Theo's heart. I would guess not."

   "Why? What is it?"

   Kurogiri kept stroking the carving with his thin fingers as if he couldn't believe what his senses were telling him. "It's from the Shimuras, all right. Thier treasury of  magical artifacts was legendary. An armory, more like. No one ever knew what happened to it after the Breaking." The vein in his neck pulsed dangerously. "I'll wager that demon Katsuki had no idea what he had." He nodded once. "And now you have it." Kurogiri extended the amulet toward Shouto. When Shouto hesitated, he said impatiently. "take it, it won't bite." Shouto took it warily, weighing it in his palm. It felt pleasantly heavy and warm, vibrating with power. Shouto could feel it in his breastbone and in the cuffs at his wrist.

   Warring emotions tracked across the man's face, finally fading to an expression of alarm. Once again he gripped Shouto's arm, his nails slightly digging into the flesh. "Does Bakugou know who you are? Does he know you have this?"

   Shouto shrugged uneasily. "i didn't tell him my name, if that's what you mean." When Krogiri didn't look reassured, he added, "Look. I'll give it back, if it's that important. All right?"

   Kurogiri let go of his arm and drummed his fingers on his thighs, furiously thinking. "No," he said finally. "don't give it back. It's too late for that. Keep it hid. Keep it safe. Better that Arsala  House don't have it." he grinned sharply. "Stay out of ther way, the Bakugous and Todorokis."

   Shouto had never seen a Bakugou before now, and doubted he would again unless Katsuki returned to Inko, Hopefully he wouldn't. "Fine," he sighed, rewrapping the necklace and stowing it back in the bag. What good was asking question if you didn't understand a word of the answers? "You were saying? About the Shimuras?"

   "If you want to hear a story don't interrupt." he scolded again and returned to his story voice. "The wizards came from the Northern Isles. they landed on the east coast and conquered the rest of the Seven Realms with their high magic. Clan magic couldn't hold against it. It's green magic, subtle stuff, not good in a fight. Strongest magic for sure, but made for healing, not destroying. The  Clans have it because they are in harmony with nature. The matriarchs and amulet-makers are the few who have learned to draw on it. The wizards chose to like in the Vale. They married into the royal bloodline and reigned as well, but they weren't bound as they are today. The succession  was given to the nonmagical heir at the time. The trouble started during the reign of Inko, the kindest woman who ever lived." Shouto nodded. Kurogiri had finally strayed onto familiar ground.

   "Inko was the blood heir to the throne and her adopted brother, Shimura Tenko, was set to be her loyal High Wizard. See, her father wanted a magical heir on the throne even though the council wouldn't allow it at the time he still wanted one and Tenko was his second chance. Tenko was used to getting what he wanted, and what people usually try to deny; was rather forced into taking the throne or risking his sisters life due to his father, and when the council issued the denial he took his own sister hostage and proclaimed himself king. The council couldn't stand for it, so the other wizard houses marched on Shimura and laid siege to his hold. Anyone could see it was a lost cause, but not this boy. He was a longtime student of dark magic, and he thought he could conjure a sell that would end the siege and scare the council off. Inko tried to talk him out of it. She wanted to let her brother run free and take her father's wrath at her own failure in magic for herself, but he was protective and wouldn't listen." Kurogiri smiled sadly. "the boy was too loyal to her, after she protected him from their father time and time again. Too much power and too little knowlege. They only were able to hold out for three months."

   Shouto was stunned. Stories about Inko usually included her protecting the throne from a demon. Not two siblings trying to protect each other. Kurogiri stared into space, his shaded eyes like the sunset over the eastern sea you often see in paintings that hid the secrets of the water below. Shouto was goos at reading people, he had to be, but he could never read Kurogiri.

   "So? What happened?" Shouto asked dutifully.

   Kurogiri flinched, as if he'd forgotten Shouto was there. "They killed him of course. After. They took him to Arsalan House and tortured him for days and forced that young girl to listen to his screams. But it was too late. The damage was done.

   Shouto blinked, caught by surprise. "What damage? what are you talking about?"

   He raised his thin eybrows. "the Breaking, of course. You've heard of that?"

   "I've heard of the Breaking," Shouso growls irritably. "What's that got to...." His voice trailed off and he stared at Kurogiri, wondering if the old man had sipped a little too much product. "Hold on. You're talking about the Demon King?" He whispered the last two words, which people tended to do, and resisted the urge to make a sign against evil.

   "His name was Tenko," Kurogiri sighed softly, his whole body slumping into a puddle of badly ironed cloths and shadowy features. The sun went behind a cloud, and it was suddenly colder on the frozen creek bank. Shouto shivered and curled his right side in one himself. Kurogiri's unfortunate Shimura Tenko was the Demon King? Not possible. The Demon King was the monster in every scary story. The devil you wouldn't name for fear of calling him to you. The one that waited in the dark down a crooked street for bad childeren to come his way.

   "That's  not true!" Shouto burst out, fueled by confusion and a lifetime of stories. "the Demon King stole Inko away on her crowning night and threatened her life for the crown. Her tortured her with dark sorcery so she would be too hurt to escape. When she refused to give up her crown, he broke the world."

   "He was a boy," Kurogiri muttered, fluffing his dark hair. "They just wanted to save each other."

   "He was a monster," Shouto countered, shying a rock against the ice and breaking it. "She destroyed him. " He'd seen the frieze in the temple at Musutafu. It was called The Triumph of Inko and consisted of a series of scenes: Inko cornered holding her crown away from the Demon King. Inko, beautiful and terrible, holding the world together with green magic as the Demon King tried to shatter it. Inko standing over the Demon King's lifeless body, a sword in her hand. If it's carved into stone, it has to be true right?

   "They killed him," Kurogiri said. "And that released a destructive power like the world has never known, before or since.: He sighed, shaking his head, as if it hadn't been the Demon King's fault at all. "Afterward, the wizards meant to marry Ino to one of their own, to take advantage of the mess the kingdom was in." the old man sat up straighter, his eyes oddly clear and focused. His usually quavery proper voice ringing out like a temple orator's, and his highland accent fell away. "B ut they had their hands full. The world was breaking, crumbling into chaos. Earthquakes shook their castle down. Flames erupted from the ground. The oceans boiled away and forests turned to ash. Night fell and stayed for months, lit only by the fires that burned day and night. The air was too thick to breathe. Nothing they conjured would stop it. Finally they had to turn to the clans for help."

   Disappointment flamed within Shouto. How had they strayed so far afield from his original question about wizardry? He'd asked a serious question and had been repayed with a dreamer's tale. He'd waited half the morning on the creek bed, the unwilling victim of an old man's fantasies. Now Fuyumi would be disappointed in him for being so late. "Thanks for the story and all," Shouto said politely, "but I've got to go." He scrambled to his feet and slid his backpack over one shoulder. "I'll pick up the bottles at the dog run."

   "Sit!" Kurogiri snapped. "You got the story started and now we have to finish it." Fuming, Shouto sat back down by the riverbank. He'd never signed on for a monologue. When Kurogiri was satisfied he'd held his audience, he continues. "The clans recognized the royal lineage so Inko acted as a go-between. Think of what that must've been like. Negotiating with the clans on the behlaf of your brother's murderers." he smiled sadly. "But Inko had grown up. She was strong and smart as well as beautiful. She reclaimed the power of the Lupus-Lupine line. What grew out of those talks was the Naeming." Kurogiri ticked of the tenets of the Naeming on his thin fingers. "In exchange for healing the world, the clans put wizards on a short leash. High magic and wizards were forbidden in the Spirits. They're confined to the Vale and the fltlands. The clan speakers have temples in Musutafu, and the royals got to goto temple once a week to learn the true faith. The Wizard Council chooses the most powerful wizard in Yuuei as High Wizard and head of the council, but he is magically bound to the land and to the royal line, and ruled by them. The heirs are fostered in the camps as children." Kurogiri smiled faintly. "And wizards aren't allowed to marry into the royal line anymore because that gives them too much power."

   "Inko agreed to that?" Shouto asked rhetorically. Guess they put the royals on a short leash too.

   Kurogiri nodded, as if he read Shouto's mind. "The ruler of Yuuei is both the most powerful and least free person in the entire kingdom. they are a slave to duty once they come of age."

   "But they are the ruler," Shouto hissed. "Can't they do whatever they want?"

   "Inko learned the price of following her heart and hopes," he stated simply. He paused, his face settling into a sorrowful mask. "So she bent her knee for the greater good, and sat on the throne she didn't want."  

   Shouto frowned. The stories always ended with the destruction of the Demon King and the triumph of Inko. "So she didn't marry a wizard, then?"

   Kurogiri shook his head. "No, she ended up marrying someone else that wasn't going to upset the fragile balance now in place." After the rich details of the story so far, he seemed rather sketchy on that point.

   Shouto stood again, then hesitated, shifting from one foot to the other, compelled to say something. "You know, Kurogiri, I'm practically grown. I'm too old for fairy stories."

   For a long moment the man didn't respond. "Don't ask for the truth unless you're ready to hear it."  he said finally, staring blindly out at Broken Back Creek. "Just remember what I said. Keep that amulet hid, and stay out of the way of Bakugou and Todoroki. They've got too much power as it is. If they find out you have it, they'll kill you for it."  

   

Chapter Text

   The city of Musutafu nestled at the edge of the Vale, a fertile valley where the Musutafu river shouldered it's way between the Rocky cliffs of Inko and the rippling cape of Alex, her brother peak. It's a bit confusing for foreigners, having the river the same name as the cityscape, therefore most bluebloods just refer to it as Yuuei. The Spirit-dwelling clan often refer to the residents of the Vale as Flatlanders to make it even more of a headache. The Valefolk in turn, look down on the city of Nabu and the plains of Shiketsu to the South. The Vale gleamed like an emerald set high in the mountain; protected by the frowning peaks said to be the dwelling place of long-dead upland royals. It was warmed year-round by thermal springs that bubbled under the ground and broke through fissures in the earth.

   Tree flatlanders, citizens of Shiketsu and the kingdom of Ketsubutsu beyond Southgate, whispered the Spirit Mountains we're haunted by demons and witches and dragons and other fearsome things, that the very ground was poison to any invader. Highlanders did nothing to dispel that notion.

   Shouto's teacher, Anakuro Hirooki, claimed that before the coming good the wizards and the breaking of the world, the Seven Realms we're one great kingdom ruled from Yuuei. Grain from Shiketsu and Kiyashi and Ketsubutsu filled her bread basket. Fish from the coasts, and game from the Spirits, and gems and minerals from the mountains added to her prosperity. The royal and their court we're patrons of the arts, and the city built music halls, libraries, temples, and theaters all over the kingdom. Though it had fallen on hard times in recent years, the city of Musutafu still hung raggedly on the bones of its glorious past. It was studded with elaborate buildings that predated the Breaking. Yuuei castle had somehow escaped the wide-spread destruction, as had the temples of the speakers and other public buildings.

   So, when Shouto rounded the last curve of the Spirit Trail and looked down on the city of his birth, an urban forest of Temple spires and gold-leafed domes greeted him, gleaming in the last rays of the dying sun. He couldn't help thinking it looked better from a distance.

   Looking over was Yuuei Castle, with it soaring towers, a monument of marble and stone. It stood isolated, surrounded by the Musutafu, untouchable as those who lived within its walls. The City of Light, it was called, depite its long winter nights. There was even a period of time, around solstice, that the sun never rose at all. But on every other day, the sun flamed over Eastgate in the morning and kindled Westgate at the end of the day.

   The Spirit Trail snaked down into the city and emptied into the first of a series of squares, the legacy of some long-ago royal architect. Connecting the squares was The Way of the Royals, the broad boulevard that ran the length of the city and ended at Yuuei castle. Shouto's did not follow the Way of the Royals. Like it or not he had business in Hosu. He turned off in a series of ever-narrowing streets, burrowing deeply into the part of the city the bluebloods never dared travel to. As he left the Way behind the buildings grew shabbier. People swarmed the streets, pinch-faced and wary-looking, prey and predators. Garbage mouldered in the gutters and spilled out of bins. The air reeked with mingled stinks of cooking cabbage, wood smoke, privies and slop jars dumped into the street. It would be worse come summer, when the heat thickened the air into a dangerous soup that have babies the croup and set old people coughing up blood.

   At Hosu Market, Shouto managed to unload the pondwort for a decent price, considering it was worthless. He could have sold it at Musutafu, but he didn't want to risk it so close to home, where someone might remember him. 

   Leaving the market, he put on his street face and strode quickly and purposefully past the fancy girls and grifters and street-corner thugs that would be on you at any sign of weakness or fear. "Hey, boya," a woman called, and he ignored her just as he ignored the glittery nobleman who tried to entice him into an alley. Hosu was an infection thatfestered under the seemingly healthy skin of the city. You didn't go there at night unless you were big and well armed, and surrounded by big, well-armed friends. But daytime was safe if you used your head and kept aware of your surroundings. He wanted to coear out of Hosu before it got dark.

   To be fair, some might call Shouto's own neighborhood a dangersone place. But in Musutafu he knew who to watch out for and where they stayed. He only needed a few steps on anyone to disappear into the labriynth of streets and alleys he knew so well.  No one would find him in Musutafu if he didn't want to be found. His destination was The Smokey Keg, a decrepit tavern that clung like a mussel to the river's edge. The bank underneath had been undercut by centuries of spring floods, and it always seemed to be be in immenent danger of tipping into the river. His timing was good, the common room was just filling up with the evening trade. He'd be out of the way before things got too rowdy. Shouto's handed Kurogiri's bottles to Manual, the tavern keeper, and received a heavy ourselves in return.

   Manual stowed the bottles in the back bar, out of reach of his more aggresvie customers. "Is that all you have? I'll have this lot sold in a day. Goes down smooth as water, it does."

   "Have a heart. I can only carry so much you know." Shouto's said, pulling his usual innocent streetboy face and working his aching shoulders with his fingers. Every tavern in Yuuei clamored for Kurogiri's trade. Kurogiri's could triple his production and sell it all, but he chose not to.

   Manual eyed him speculatively, then groped under his apron for his purse. Extracting a coin, he pressed it into Shouto's hand, closing his fingers over it. An old princess coin, by the shape an weight of it, called a "girlie" on the street. "Maybe you could speak to him. Convince him to send more bottles my way."

  "Well I could try, but he has a lot of long-standing customer, you know...." Shouto's shrugged his shoulders. He'd spotted a plate of meatbuns on the sideboard. Eri loved meatbuns. "Uh...Manual. Got any plans for those buns?"

   Shouto left The Smokey Keg with a pep in his step, a girlie richer, and four meatbuns wrapped in a napkin. It was shaping up to be a good day after all. He turned down an alley, heading for the bridge over the Musutafu river that would take him into Musutafu district. Why can't the author fix this? It's a headache remembering which is what. He was nearly through when the light died in the passage, as if a cloud had passed before the sun. He looked ahead to see that the exit from the alley was now corked with two bodies.

   A familiar voice reverberated off the stone buildings to either side. "Well, now, what have we here? It my little look-alike from across the river."

   Shit. It was Dabi and the Hosu street gang. Shouto spun around, meaning to beat it back the way he came, and found two more grinning lackeys blocking his escape. This meeting wasn't random, then. They'd been laying in wait for him, had chosen this place on purpose. There were six threats altogether, four boys and two girlies, ranging in age from a year or two younger than Shouto to a year older. He'd have no room to maneuver in the narrow alleyway. no way to protect his back. It was a mark of respect, recognition of his name is Hosu. That was one way to look at it, cup half-full type of deal.

   In the old days, he'd have his seconds with him. He'd never have allowed himself to get in a fix like this. He thought of saying he wasn't in with the Musutafu bunch anymore, but that would just mark him as an easy victim, someone without protection or turf of his own. Shouto's hand found the hilt of his knife and he pulled it free, palming it, though he knew it would do him no good. If he was stripped of his purse and badly beaten, that'd be a lucky outcome.

   Shouto put his back to the alley wall. "Just passing through," he said, lifting his chin, feigning a confidence he didn't feel. "Meaning no disrespect."

   "Yeah? Well, I mark it different, Cuffs." Dabi and his gang formed a loose semicircle around Shouto. The streetlord was dark-haired and blue-eyed, his face damaged by burns from who knows what and old scars from past messes he was in. Dabi wasn't big, and he wasn't much older than Shouto. He ruled by virtue of his skill with a blade and his willingness to cut your hear out while you slept. Or any other time. A complete lack of conscience made him powerful and he had a love of starting fires to boot. Dabi's blade glittered in the light that leaked from the street. His hands and wrists were scarred; he'd been badged as a thief by the bluecoats before he smartened up. He was the best blade man and damage causer in Hosu, and the only one better in Musutafu was a girlie with a special love for dangerous chemicals, Ashido Mina, who'd replaced Shouto as streetlord.

   "You've been doing business in Hosu, and we want a whack of the takings. You've been told," Dabi stated. The rest of the mostly likely very deadly people jostled forward, grinning.

   "Look I'm not the bag man," Shouto said, falling into his old patter flash from the streets. "Who'd trust me with that kind of plate? I just deliver. They settle up on their own."

   "Product, then," Dabi countered, and the others nodded along. Like Dabi would be sharing.

   Shouto kept his eyes on Dabi's balde, adjusting his stance accordingly. "kurogiri won't pay a tariff or a dawb. And if I short anybody, I'm gone."

   "Fine by me," Dabi said, giving a too wide grin. "He'll need somebody to take over. No reason it can't be us."

   Oh yeah? Shouto thought with bitter amusement. Kurogiri is particular about who he partners with, I would know as it took me two years to talk him into it. But nw is not the time to mention that. "All right," he said putting on grudging airs, as if giving in. "Let me talk to him and I'll see what we can work out."

   Dabi continued to give that really freakishly-wide smile like Inko's bones that's a devil smile if Shouto has ever seen one. "Smart boy," he said.

   That must've been some sort of signal, because suddenly they were all over him. Dabi's blade slashed up toward's Shouto's face, and when he parried that, those on either side seized his arms, slamming his wrist against the wall until he dropped his knife. Then an older boy, a southern islander, took to smashing Shouto's head against the wall, and Shouto knew he'd be done, maybe for good, if the boy kept that up. So he went limp, dragging him to the ground. After gaining some sort of leverage Shouto shot up only to waver under his pounding head, still feeling the effects of a similarly painful wall. Dabi kicked him hard in the ribs and somebody else punched him in the face. Nasty but not deadly, but yet enough to knock him sideways with the rest of his loss of balance. Finally he was yanked upright by the arms and held there while Dabi patted him down. Shouto resisted the temptation to spit in his face or kick him where it counted. He still hoped to survive the day.

   "Where's your stash?" Dabi growled, turning out Shouto's pockets. "Where's all those diamonds and rubies and gold pieces everybody talks about?"

   It would do no good to tell Dabi that the legendary stash never existed, sae in street tales. "it's gone," Shouto stated. "Spent, stolen, and given out in shares. I got nothing."

   "You got these." Dabi scraped back Shouto's sleeves, exposing the silver cuffs. "I heard you were a fancy boy, Cuffs/" Seizing Shouto's right forearm, Dabi yanked at the bracelet, practically dislocating Shouto's wrist. Furious, the gang leader pressed the tip of his knife into Shouto's throat, and Shouto felt blood trickling under his shirt. "Take 'em off. Now." The cuffs had been Shouto's trademark during his time as streetlord of Musutafu. Dabi wanted them as a trophy.

   "They don't come off," Shouto said numbly, knowing with a certainty that he was about to die.

   "No?" Dabi breathed, his face inches from Shouto's and blasting hot air in the dual-haired boy's face. Dabi was alive with anticipation, his stitches tightening at the seams as his face takes on an irregular emotion. "That's a shame. I'll take off your hands, then, and see if they'll slide over the stumps." He looked around at his audience, and the other street runners laughed in a ragged sort of way. "but don't worry, Stumps. We'll give you begging rights this side of the bridge. For a cut of the takings, that is." his laughter was shrill and slightly mad, like an out-of-tune song.

   Dabi withdrew his knife from Shouto's throat and continued the search, giving him time to think about it. He found Shouto's purse and cut it free, taking a little skin with it. Stuffing the swag under his shirt, he grabbed Shouto's carry bag and began sorting through it, tossing his trade goods on the ground. Shouto's spirit sank even lower. There was no way Dabi would overlook Manual's purse. And no way Shouto could make up that kind of money. Then again, it wouldn't be a problem after he bled to death. But it wasn't Manual's purse that Dabi pulled out of the bag. It was Bakugou's amulet in its leather wrapping.

   "What do you got here, Cuffs?" Dabi asked, his eyes burning like hell's flames with interest. "Something pricey, I hope?" He unfolded the leather and poked it with his finger.

   Silver light rippled through the alleyway, burning Shouto's eyes, temporarily blinding him. With an ear-splitting blast, Dabi and the Hosu gang were flung back against the opposite wall like rag dolls, smacking the stone with a solid thud. Shouto went down hard, his ears ringing. he rolled to his knees. The amulet, apparently undamaged, lay on the ground just in front of him, still emitting an eerie silver glow. After a moment's hesitation, Shouto dropped the leather wrapping over it and slid it back into his carry bag. As he scrambled to his feet, he heard shouted orders and boots pounding over the cobblestones at the extremely more deadly end of the alley.  He looked back. A clot of blue-jacketed soldiers jammed the entryway. The Royal's Guard. Shouto had a history with the Guard. Time to be gone. He glanced at Dabi, who had heaved himself upright, shaking his head dazedly, surrounded by his cronies. No way to get his own purse back, but he still had Manual's, and the Guard might slow the Hosu gang down. It was a chance to come away alive. He'd take it.

   Shouto sprinted down the alley, away from the guard and toward the river. behind him, he could hear screamed threats and orders to halt. he thought about taking refuge in Hosu Temple at the west end of the bridge, but decided he'd better try and get clean away. He cleared the alley, ran past the temple close, fought his way through the line for the bridge, and pounded his way across. He didn't stop running until he was well into his old turf. Then he took a circuitous route, careful to make sure no one was following. Finally he turned on Cobble Street, limping over the uneven pavers. Now that he felt safe, he surveyed the damage. he hurt all over. The skin stretched tight over the right side of his face said it was swelling, and he could scarcely see out of his right eye. A sharp pain in his side suggested a rib was broken. his hair was matted with blood, and there was a goose egg-sized lump rising. His hair probably looked like a bad dye job to cover up his half white hair. At least only half his face looked terrible, if he was burned like Dabi was then he'd be screwed two times over right now. Then again, could be worse. Ribs could be wrapped, at least, and nothing else seemed to be broken. There was no money for doctors, so anything broken would stay broken, or heal any way it pleased. That's how it worked in Musutafu. unless Shouto was fit enough to climb back up Inko and put himself in Chiyo's hands.

   He stopped at the well at the end of the street and sluiced water over his head, rinsing off the blood as best he could and combing his hair down with his fingers. he didn't want to scare Eri. All the while, his memory tiptoed around what had happened in  the alleyway. maybe he was addled. He'd hit his head, after all. He could swear he'd seen Dabi take hold of the amulet and then it sort of exploded. just and Bakugou said it would. He could feel the ominous weight of the jinxpiece in his carry bag. Maybe Hitoshi was right. Maybe he should've buried the thing. But the fact was, if not for the serpent talisman, he'd be in  world of trouble. Maybe dead.

   Ha! He groaned out loud. He was in a world of trouble anyway. He'd reached the stable at the end of the street, so there was no putting it off any longer. Inside the stable, Shouto sniffed the air experimentally. There was  nothing of supper. Instead it stank of horses, damp straw, and the general smell of a stable. He'd have to muck out the stalls tomorrow. If he could even get out of bed. Some of the horses poked their heads out of their stalls and whickered in recognition, hoping for a treat. "Sorry," he murmured. "I got nothing." haltingly, he climbed the old stone staircase to the room he shared with his older sister and Eri.

   Shouto eased open the door. From force of habit, his eyes flicked around the room, meaning to locate trouble before it came flying at him. The room was chilly and dark, the fire nearly out. No sign of Fuyumi. Eri was lying on her pallet by the hearth, but she must have been awake because her head popped up as soon  as he came in. A big smile broke on her face and she flung herself at him ,wrapping her skinny arms around his legs and burying her face at his waist. "Shou! Where've you been? We've been so worried!"

   "You should be asleep," he said, awkwardly patting her back and smoothing down her ragged silver hair. "Where's Fuyumi?"

   "She's out looking for you," Eri said, shivering, teeth chattering with fear or cold. She returned to her bed by the fire and wrapped the threadbare blanket around her thin shoulders. She never seemed to have enough fat on her to keep warm. "She's in a right state. We were scared something happened to you."

   Bones, he thought, feeling guilty. "When did she go?"

   "She's been out all day, off and on."

   "Did you have supper?"

   She hesitated, considering a lie, then shook her head. "Fuyumi-nee will bring something home, I bet!" Shouto pressed his lips together to keep from spilling his thoughts. Eri's faith was somehow precious to him, like a dream he couldn't let go of. She was the only person in all of Musutafu who'd ever believed in him.

   He crossed the hearth, pulled a stick from their dwindling supply, and laid it on the fire. Then he sat down on the thin mattress next to Eri, keeping his face turned away from the firelight. "It's my fault you've got nothing to eat," he sighed. "I should've come home earlier. I told Fuyumi I'd bring you something." He dug in his pocket and fished out the napkin with the buns. He unwrapped them and handed one to Eri.

   Her red eyes went wide. She cradled it in her fingers and looked up at him hopefully. "How much of it do I get?"

   Shouto shrugged, embarrassed. "all of it. I brought more for me and Fuyumi."

   "Oh!" Eri pulled apart the bun and downi=ed it in greedy bites, licking her fingers at the end. Sweet, spicy sauce smeared her mouth and she ran her tongue over her lips, trying to get the last little bit. Shouto wished he was seven again, when all it took was a meatbun to make him happy.

   He  handed her another, but as she took it, she got a good look at him. :What happened to your face? It's all swollen." She reached up and touched his face with her small hand, like it was delicate as an eggshell. "it's getting purple." Just then he heard the weary clump, clump, clump up the stairs that said Fuyumi was home. Shouto eased into a standing position, bracing himself against the wall, concealing himself in the shadows. A moment later the door squeaked open. Shouto's sister stood in the doorway, her shoulders permanently in a downward slope against a lifetime of bad luck. To Shouto's surprise, she was wearing the new coat he'd picked up in Musutafu a week or two before, thinking it would serve him well whenever his current cloak wore down. On her it nearly swept to the ground, and she had a long scarf wrapped around her neck. Fuyumi wore layers of clothes even in fair weather, a kind of armor she put on against her constant cold constitution. She unwound the scarf from her neck, freeing her long plait f white hair with red highlights. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked more defeated than usual. She was young; when Shouto was born. she'd been no older than Eri was now, but she looked older than her years.

  "I couldn't find him, Eri," she said her voice breaking. Shouto felt terrible as he noticed the tears streaking down her cheeks. "I've been everywhere, asked everyone. I even went to the Guard, and they just laughed at me. Said he was likely ingaol, that was where he belonged. Or dead." She sniffled and blotted her face with her sleeve.

  "Um, Fuyumi-nee..." Eri stammered looking over at Shouto.

  "I've told him to stay off the streets, not to run with the gangs, not to carry money for that old Kurogiri, but he won't listen, he thinks nothing can touch him, he..."

   I'm literally worse than dirt right now, Shouto thought. The longer he waited, the worse it would get. He stepped out of the shadows. "I'm here, Fuyumi." he cleared his throat. "Sorry I'm late."

   Fuyumi blinked at him, pale as parchment, her hand flying to her throat as if she'd seen a ghost. "W-where...?"

   "I slept over at Erased Pines," Shouto explained hurriedly. "And then I ran into some trouble on the way home. But I brought supper." He mutely held out the napkin with the remaining meatbuns. An offering.

   Crossing the space between them, she grabbed the napkin from him and put it on the small table. "you brought supper? You disappear for three days and I'm out of my head with worry, and you brought supper?" Her voice escalated as she went into hysterics, and Shouto waved his hands, not really able to do anything as he was generally socially inept. He worried that she might wake the landlord, who lived next door, and remind him the hadn't paid their rent. She came forward, and he retreated until he was up against the hearth. She thrust an accusing finger into his face. "You've been fighting again, haven't you? What have I told you?"

   "No," he tried to explain, unconvincingly and shook his head. "i'm just...I stumbled over a curb and fell flat on my face in the street."

   "You should have put a cold rag on it," Eri said from the refuge of her bed. Her voice quavered, like it did when she was upset. "Fuyumi-nee, you always say that takes the swelling down." Shouto glanced over at Eri, wishing he and Fuyumi could take their fight somewhere else. But when you live in one room over a stable, there's nowhere to go.

   "Who was it this time?" Fuyumi said bitterly, probably fighting back tears. "The gangs or the Guard? Or did you pick one to many pockets?"

   "I ain't lifting purses anymore," Shouto protested, stung. "Nor diving pockets. I wouldn't-"

   "You said you were going after plants for the Flatlander Market," she reminded him, as if he didn't know. "Did you even go up on Inko? Or were you out running the streets the whole time?"

   "I went up on Inko," Shouto pushed on, struggling to control his temper. "Me and Hitoshi spent all day gathering herbs on the mountain."

   Fuyumi narrowed her eyes dangerously, trying to tell if he was lying, then tapped her arm slightly when she crossed them, he's on stormy waters now. "You should have some money as proof, then?"

   Shouto remembered that his purse is now sadly in the possession of Dabi. he still had Kurogiri's money but, like he kept saying, he wasn't a thief. He swallowed hard, looking down at the floor. "I don't have any money," he forced out. "It got taken from me in Hosu."

   Fuyumi bit back a sub, like he'd confirmed all her worst fears. "Why must you push your luck like this, Shouto? You'll force yourself into a corner with no escape." she said. "It's  no wonder you come home to us in pieces if you spend your time risking your life for the thrill of being a thief and a robber....."

   "I'm not with the Musutafu guys anymore," Shouto interrupted. "I promised you back in the spring."

   Fuyumi let a couple tears slip as if she hadn't heard him. "Why do you insist on taking up with the ill-favored sorts like Kurogiri? Mom always insisted on raising us honest, even if we were poor."

   Something broke loose inside Shouto, between the pain of seeing his sister cry and the near-death he just had he didn't stop the words that were fighting to pour out for once. "We're honest? Well, honest won't fill our bellies. Honest doesn't pay the rent. It's been me supporting us for the past year, and it's a lot harder without slide-hand. Be my guest if you think you can keep us ot of debtor's prison taking in washing and picking rags. And if we do go to prison, what do you think will happen to Eri?" Fuyumi stood speechless, her blue-eyes still watering, her lips as white as the rest of her face. Then she slowly raised her hand, palm open,and it spasmed there for a moment. Shouto closed his eys and turned his face slightly, knowing he probably deserved whatever she would dish out. The time lengthened out and Shouto took a chance and glanced back. Fuyumi ws standing shoulders curled in and covering her face with her hands, muffling the sobs and apologies that flew from her lips.

   Shouto, out of remorse, walked up to her and pulled her into a hug, ignoring the sharp tingles that sent in his ribs. He guided her to the mattress and sat with her as she cried on his shoulder, he owed her that much. That and very much, much more. Eventually she quieted down and he layed her against the thinly-stuffed pillow and dumped as many blankets as he could find on her. His sister was strong, but even the strong need time to cry.


 

   Later, Shouto lay on his straw mattress in the corner. He could hear the soft, regular breathing that said Fuyumi and Eri were finally asleep. Every bone in his body ached, and his face felt like it might split open. Plus, he was hungry again. He had one of the last two meatbuns, and wrapped the other one up for Fuyumi for later, but these days it felt like everything he ate evaporated before it reached his stomach. His mind bounced off corners like a mouse in a maze. He was no philosopher. He had few spaces of time in which to dream. He was not the sort to try and reconcile the warring souls that lived inside his body.

   There was Shouto, both younger and older brother, breadwinner, deal-maker, and small-time conniver, There was Flame Spirit, who'd been adopted by Erased Pines and wished he could melt into the clans for good. And finally, Cuffs, petty criminal extraordinaire and street fighter, onetime streetlord of Musutafu and enemy of Hosu. From day to day he slid out of one skin and pulled on another. No wonder it was hard to sort out who he was. He shifted on the hard floor. He usually used his carry bag as a pillow, but he wasn't sure if he ought to, with the amulet inside. The jinxpiece occupied his mind like a toothache. What if it exploded and killed them all? or worse, left them alive with no roof over their heads. Kurogiri's words came back to him. 'Keep the amulets his, and stay out of the way of Todoroki. If they find out you have it, they'll kill you for it.'

   Finally he put the amulet in its wrapping out of his bag. Wearing only his breeches, he slipped down the stairs, past the  horses in their stalls,  and into the cold stable yard. Some distance from the building stood a stone forge built when there was a blacksmith in residence. It had been Shouto's hiding place since he was old enough to have secrets. Shouto lifted a loose stone at its base and tucked the amulet underneath, replacing the stone. Feeling more at ease, he returned to the stable and climbed the stairs, his mind working furiously. Tommorrow he'd go back to Kurogiri, deliver his purse, and hopefully get paid. That might be enough to hold off the landlord for a while, especially if he mucked out the barn again.

   Sitting down on his mattress, he dug in his breeches pocket, pulling out the royal coin Manual had given him a lifetime ago. He turned it toward the dying fire, and the reflected flames picked out the silhouette engraved on it. It was Princess Asui Tsuyu Toshinori, heir to the throne of Yuuei.

   "Hey, Miss Priness," he whispered, runnign his thumb over the engraving. "Think you can give a poor boy like me more like you?" She was in profile, captured in cold hard metal, her natural beauty shining, her hair swept back and caught into a coronet. No doubt as proud and haughty as the father and brother.

  No, Shouto thought with bitter humor, It's far too much trouble to come into the highlands to hunt. We'll just have the delivered, even if it means tearing up the mountain with an avalanche. A royal wouldn't have to worry about keeping a roof over their head, about where their next meal was coming from, or if they were going to be cornered and beaten in the street. No, a royal wold have nothing at all to worry about.

Chapter Text

   Izuku padded down the corridor, his bare feet making soft pads over the marble floors. He'd intended to return to his chambers and change into something a little more breatheable, but he was at a loss for what to put on. His riding clan clothes were fairly filthy. He had no play clothes anymore, and anyway, this new solemn Tenya in his dress uniform seemed to call for something more formal. He took of his dress shoes anyway because those were like walking on those connecty blocks that were famous in the south. But what if he'd changed into something more laid-back? He'd feel foolish in his dress clothes. Hold on. He was the shadow heir, come from a dance. Why should he feel foolish at all? What was the matter with him?

   Kirishima was waiting up, fooling around with oneof those foreign finger traps, his red hair down and messy since he left early from the dining hall. "You're back earlier than usual, Izuku." he said, riding a giving a slight bow which was really hard not to laugh at seeing as his this were still stuck in the cylinder. Kirishima straighten up and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "I thought dinner parties usually went later?"

   "They do, I just want to see Tenya," Izuku said, taking off his circlet in front of the mirrior and smoothing down the dress coat. He probably should do something about his clothes.....

   "Now?" Kirishima questioned. "Isn't he a little busy?"

   "It's Tenya. Even if it is a party he'd probably find a way to properly leave his guard. We used to sneak out all the time, remember? Like that one time Cook Rush found us under the baker's table at sunrise? We wanted to be ready when the cinnamon buns came out of the oven." Izuku finger combed his messy hair into a slightly less mess, thinking it not much of an improvement.

   "You shouldn't go off alone like that at this hour. As much as he is a guard he is still new." Kirishima scolds, getting overprotective as usual.

   "I already said I'd meet him," Izuku continued, only half arguing. "No one will know I'm going up there anyway."

   "If you go, I'll speak with Lord Yamada, who will interrupt the King," Kirishima said, firmly against all attempts of Izuku leaving.

   "You wouldn't, right?" Izuku asks nervously, now thoroughly sorry he'd bot gone directly to the rendezvous.

  "I would, Izuku. As much as I know you are the true heir, most of the castle doesn't and considering that.....people will talk."

   Izuku glared at the ceiling. "Blood. Of. Inko. I'm not interested in any of that Kiri. Not for a long time. I just want to have fun and adventure." I'll take a ship off into the southern islands before I'm convinced to fall for someone, he wanted to say. Kirishima sighed behind him as the yound prince continued to burn holes into the ceiling, at an impasse.

  "Okay, then come with me." Izuku sighs out.

   Kirishima looked down at his bedclothes. Obviously, he'd thought he was in for the night. "Izuku I don't think-"

   Izuku rolled his eyes and cut him off. "If you insist on coming, you might as well make a tray for Tenya. He stood guard all during dinner, so he's not eaten. I can help."

   A quarter hour and many jokes later, they left Izuku's rooms, Izuku scampering ahead, Kirishima following, radiating exasperation, carrying a large silver tray with small snacks that Izuku had happily helped prepare against Kirishima's wishes. They climbed several flights of stairs that grew narrower and steeper as they ascended.

   "Are you meeting him on the roof, then?" Kirishima asked, his voice echoing around as he struggled to balance the tray even with his natural skill.

   "We're meeting in the glass garden," Izuku said absently, pausing at the top flight to let Kirishima catch up when he'd caught his balance. It would've been much easier to go up via the secret staircase, but that was one secret he didn't intes to tell Kirishima out of fear of extra security being placed, he liked his freedom thank you very much. He'd not shared it with Bakugou, either. Once disclosed, it couldn't be taken back and he would lose his Bakugou Escape Route. 

   The greenhouse must've been a showplace once, designed by someone with a love for gardens. They entered together tall bronze doors decorated with cunning vines, flowers, animals, and insects cast into the metal. The air inside was moist, fragrant with earth and flowers and the breath of growing things. The dark slate floor gathered up sunlight all day long and gave heat back during the night. Hot water from thermal springs circulated through the pipes, controlled. Y a series of valves so the temperatures could be adjusted to meet the needs of tropical, desert, and temerate plants. King Yagi had a passion for digging dirt that Izuku shared and they would spends hours in companionable silence, rooting cuttings and thinking seedlings when given the rare chance. With Izuku gone these past three years and the King having health issues, the garden was overgrown and neglected, the more aggressive plants crowding out the weaker, more delicate plants. Panes we're broken here and there, stuffed with wool or crudely mended with ill-fitting patches. Some areas of the garden we're too cold now for anything but native plants.

   Izuku led Kirishima to the entrance to the maze. Tenya would be waiting in one of the side passages, in a pavillion next to the fountain. It was quite hidden in there which would allow him to have some peace of mind away from other castlegoers. Izuku confidently threaded his way through the leafy tunnels, Kirishima trailing behind him, looking around in joy at the wild nature much like an excited puppy. He was a much as a thrill-seeker as Izuku, he just knew how to hide it well. The boxwood walls had nearly grown together in some places, and more than once they had to push through tangles of branches.

   "Your sister is going to be unhappy if you think that new outfit," Kirishima said with a snicker, brushing off a couple thorns from Izuku's jacket. Izuku heard Tenya before he saw him. He was pacing back and forth, muttering to himself. At first he thought he was grumbling at the prince's lateness, but it seemed he was practicing some sort of speech.

   "You Highness, may I say how honored I am that you.....wait....how pleased in am to be remembered....gaaahhhh." He dragged a palm down his face and cleared his throat. "You Highness, I was astounded-no-surprised when you spoke to me, and I hope that you might consider our friendship.....bloody bones!" he groaned, burying his face in his hands. "What an idiot."

   Izuku raised a hand to let Kirishima know he should stay a bit away for privacy and moved forward. "Tenya-kun?"

   He jumped and swiveled around, his hand automatically going to the hilt of his sword while the other made the extremely familiar chopping motion Izuku was used to. He tried to change the hand movements into an elegant gesture, extending the sword hand toward him and bowing slightly over the other. "Your Highness," he croaked out, straightening and watching him with his keen eyes. "You're.....um....you look well."

   Izuku rolled his eyes, "Your Highness?" He strode toward the blue-haired knight. "Tenya-kun you know better than that."

   "Well," he stuttered out, flushing furiously, "I....mean no disre-"

   Izuku stood up on his tiptoes and bonked Iida on the head, thank the Spirits it wasn't that much of a height difference. He looked square at his old friend and gave a cheerful smile. "Bones, Tenya-kun, it's me. Izuku. Have you ever in your life called me 'Your Highness'?"

   He rubbed the back of his head and studied on it. "As I remember, there were several times you pestered me into the ground to call you that," he said dryly.

   Izuku's face grew warm. "I-I never did that!" He raised an eyebrow, another action he remembered well and just as annoying. "Well....maybe a couple times...." He conceded.

   He shrugged. "It's probably for the best if I get used to calling you that," he said. "If I'm going to be at court."

   "I suppose..." Izuku fave and trailed off, distracted by the late night stars twinkling and a little hyper-aware of the time gap now.

   "So," he started. "You.....look well. I already said that didn't I?" He whispered the last part and looked over in the distance and then looking back, as if he can't decide where he should be looking.

   "And you look....tall," he replied, feeling very much like an idiot. "Are you hungry? Kiri has some food since you probably didn't eat."

  He flinched and glanced around, his gaze lighting of Kirishima who gave a cheerful wave as ye stood by an ancient jade tree. The eyebrow again. "Why did you bring Kirishima along?"

   Izuku shrugged and dipped his face a little. "He wouldn't have let me come alone and he was the best choice. It's hard these days."

   "Oh." He hesitated. "Well I am hungry..." he admits. Izuku gave a nod to Kirishima, who set the tray on a small wrought-iron table at the waterside, lit the torches, and then withdrew to a bench close enough that he could still hear what they were saying.

   "Please," Izuku gave the proper nonense to Iida. "Sit." He settled into a chair and chose a small bunch of grapes to nibble on, though he was still stuffed from dinner. He was glad for the distraction of food, glad it gave them some thing to focus on besides each other. Iida carefully remind ver his uniform jacket and hung it on the back of his chair. Underneath he wore a snowy white line shirt. He rolled his sleeves to his elbows, exposing hard-worked arms.

   "Sorry," he said, finally sitting. "I'm used to doing my own laundry at Riot House, so I try to keep my cuffs out of my food." He enthusiastically tucked into the bread, cheese, and fruit Kirishima and Izuku had assembled, washing it down with cider. He looked up and once and caught Izuku staring at him, trying not to laugh. "Excuse me," he said, hastily swiping at his mouth with a napkin. "I rode a long way today, I'm starving, and I'm used to eating in the barracks. It's kind of a free-for-all."

   To Izuku, it was a relief to talk to someone who didn't try to flatter him. Who said what he thought. Who wasn't so smooth he felt clumsy and ill-spoken himself. "So," he said, staring up his questions, "you're assigned to the Guard this summer?"

   He nodded, and quickly swallowed. "And every summer from now on."

   "Will you be working a lot?"

   "Yes, my dad will make sure the King get his money's worth after all." he rolled his eyes. "I might get to see you if I'm assigned to your personal guard. But that's unlikely as a first year in the Guard."

   "Oh," Izuku said, a little disappointed. He'd been lonely since returning to Yuuei from Mandalay. There was Bakugou, of course , but being with him wasn't exactly relaxing, not even with prying eyes. He'd looked forward to a summer knocking about with the Tenya he remembered, having fun exploring the castle. It hadn't occurred to him that he'd be so tied up and ...different. "I hoped we could ride up to Fireburnt Falls again. I heard there was a new geyser that shoots fifty feet in the air."

   "Really?" Iida cocked his head. "You haven't gone to see it?"

   "I was waiting for you. Remember that time we went swimming at Demon Springs?" They'd fished for trout in the Fireburnt and cooked their catch in one of the steam fissures that crazed the landscape.

   "Erm." He looked a little distraught. "The King might not like the notion of us riding off on our own anymore."

   "Why not?"

   "Several reasons." He paused, and when he didn't respond, added, "For one thing it's more dangerous than it used to be."

   Izuku huffed a little. "Everybody keeps saying that."

   "Because it's true."

   "And why else?" Izuku persisted.

   "You're the shadow heir and I'm a soldier and of age. You'll be of age as well soon. People will talk."

   Izuku snorts. "People will talk regardless, and you know I'm not interested right now." But he knew he was right. Also on that second note, Izuku won't deny he is interested, but Tenya is his best friends and that would be weird. After a bit of silence, he changed the subject. "Tell me about Torino's Ford."

   "Well." Iida hesitated, as if to be sure he really meant it. "The academy is split by the Shiketsu River: Riot House, the warrior school, is on one side, and Mezzanote, the wizard school, on the other. Guess they thought it best to keep the two separated, in the beginning. Those were the first two, but these days there are other schools as well. There are fifty plebes in Riot House each year. They come from all over, from Shiketsu, from Yuuei, and Ketsubutsu, and Isamu. Some of them are actually at war with each other, but they're not allowed to bring it on campus. There is something called the Peace of Torino's Ford that's enforced really strictly. Torino's Ford itself is like a small realm all on it's own. It's on the border between Shiketsu and Ketsubutsu, but it doesn't belong to either."

   "Where did you stay?" Izuku asked, drawing his feet up on the chair.

   "Each class stays together until we're proficients." Idda continued. "Then we choose our own housing."

   "Is it pretty balanced in Riot House, girls and boys?"

   He shook his year. "We send girls from Yuuei, but in the south things are different. They have strange notions of the Church of Stain."

   "Ah." Izuku nodded wisely, pretending to understand. Tenya seemed so well informed, so worldly next to him, and he was the shadow heir of the kingdom! Shouldn't he know about these things? Did his father, the King, know about them? Maybe not. Yagi never really travels anymore due to health. Izuku was seized by the sudden desire to go somewhere, anywhere, outside of Yuuei.

   "So it's about three-quarter boys, one-quarter girls," Iida continued. "The girls hold their own though. Being a soldier isn't all about brute strength, as some of the Southerners have found out." He laughed.

   "What do you do then?" he asked. "Do you do seat work or....or drill, or what?" 

   "Some classroom, some applied," Iida answered, seeming happy to explain. "We train in strategy, geography, horsemanship, weaponry, that sort of thing. We stidy great battles in history and analyze the outcome. The further along you are, the more practical the application."

   "I wish I could go," Izuku blurted.

   "You do?" Iida looked surprised. "Well, it'd be too dangerous. These days, just getting to and from school is a challenge."

   "Why is that?" Izuku fingered his Ivy necklace. Maybe his yearning for foreign lands came from Aizawa's influence.

   "You know there's a civel war in Shiketsu, siblings fighting over the throne, each with an army. So if you're military age in the south, even if you're just passing through, you're at risk of being ganged into somebody's army. And militray age is defined broadly; ten to eighty in general." He pushed the table back, stretching his legs. "Plus, you never know when you're crossing enemy lines or walking straight into a battle. Deserters and bands of mercernaries between patrons are everywhere. These days, people don't try to identify you before they run you through."

   Izuku grimaced at the thought. "What do you thin kwe should be doing differently? About the wars I mean."

   He shifted his eyes away. "It's not my place to-"

   Izuku snorted lightly. "You know I don't care about that." He leaned slightly to catch his friends gaze. "I want to know what you think. I won't tell anyone."

   Iida studied him, as if not sure whether to believe him or not. When I'm king, Izuku promised in his head, people won't be afraid to speak their minds. "Just between us?" Izuku gave a nod. "Well," he said, his blue eyes returning Izuku's gaze, "my brother and I have been talking. The civil war in Shiketsu isn't going to last forever. If nothing else, they'll run out of soldiers. One of those bloody Isamu siblings is going to come out on top, and when they do, they're going to need money. They'll look north, south, and west for new territory. We think there's things we could be doing now that would help protect us in the future."

   "Such as?" Izuku prompted, gladly paying attention.

   "Get rid of the mercernaries," Iida bluntly put. "They're always for sale, and the Isamu siblings know how to work the payroll. We need an army that's unquestionably loyal, made up of native born. Even if it's smaller. Otherwise the King could be over thrown by his own soldiers."

   "But.." Izuku bit his lip, "where would we get recruits? Times are hard. Who would volunteer?"

   He shrugged. "Men from Yuuei are selling their swords to Shiketsu," he stated. "Meanwhile, we're importing trouble from the south. Why pay foreigners to fight for us? Give the people reason to stay home where they belong."

   "What reason?"

   "I don't know. Something to fight for, to believe in. A decent living." He threw his hand up. "Like I'm an expert. I'm just a cadet, bit it's what my brother thinks."

   "Do you know...has Captain Iida discussed this with the King?"

   Iida looked away from him, unrolling his sleeves with way too much focus. "He's tried. But you know the king has to pander to the council as well, and nii-san is just the captain of his Guard." Izuku winced at the aggravated tone. He knew that was on thing he did not look forward to when clbing the throne, council talks.

   "What about General Vlad? What does he think?"

   "Well," Iida started, rubbing the back of his neck, "he's the one who brought in the mercernaries in the first place. Would show up bad if he went back on that."

   "We have wizards," Izuku said, thinking this is a conversation he should be having with his father. "We have Lord Todoroki and the rest of the council. They'll protect us from flatlanders."

   "If you can trust them." Iida bit with a nod.

   "You've become a cynic in the south," Izuku grumbled, rubbing his eyes and realizing it's been a very long day. "You don't show any trust anymore."

   "That's how you stay alive in the south," Iida sighed, staring out at the fountain.

   Izuku smothered a yawn. "That's how you deal with the court and all those suitors too. You don't trust any of them."

   "That's already started?" Iida asked, surprised.

   "Already?" Izuku shrugged grumpily. "I'm nearly sixteen and people are vying for connections to the throne. What with me being a shadow heir there's suitors from everywhere."

   Iida looked appalled. "Aren't you the one who argued arm and leg you wouldn't marry anyone til the day you die?"

  Izuku laughed bitterly. "I'm not planning or marriage anytime soon," he declared. "Not for years and years," he said in confirmation. "Papa's still young, and will rule for a long time yet." Izuku kept his mouth shut about his father's health, that's only a thing the direct family knew.

   "Zuku. Will you have to marry someone you don't love?" Iida asked with that familiar Iida bluntness. 

   "It depends. I might strike lucky and fall for some clan royalty or even a prince or princess from a different kingdom. But that's a good resaon to put off marriage for as long as possible considering how rare that is." His father had mentioned that in his musings one day, that Izuku's mother was rather his friend than someone he wanted to marry. How much did Izuku's current adversion to marriage have to do with what he saw between his parents?

He looked up to see Iida watching him. He looked away quickly, but he'd seen sympathy in his blue eyes. He was so different from Bakugou. Bakugou rivalled everything Izuku ever said, and made it his goal in their younger years to prove he should be king instead of Tsuyu or Izuku, yet he also would be like a loyal guard dog for him never letting him feel hurt. Iida was a kind soul, ever as loyal as Bakugou but wasn't afraid to show it, yet also he seemed distant at times, as if the south had changed his very being. Izuku glanced over at Kirishima. His hand was sound asleep, sprawled out on one of the parking benches, snoring loudly.

   "Well," Iida said, following his gaze, "we've lost your loyal watch." He stood. "And I'm on duty at sunrise. With your permission, I'll say a good night."

   He looked dead on his feet, Izuku noticed and felt a rush of guilt. "Of course, but I have to to show you something first," he said quickly, a little unwilling to see his old friend go yet. Still wanting to negotiate some sort of treaty. "There's a secret passage. It's like a shortcut. We can't go that way."

   Iida frowned, concerned. "Where does it let out?"

   "You'll see," Izuku said mysteriously.

   Iida tilted his head at Kirishima. "What about him?"

   "Let him sleep," Izuku said finally. "He looks comfortable enough."

   "He may never find his way out on his own," Iida hesitated.

   "You'd be surprised how he is when he puts his mind to things. Not to mention it'll give him an excuse to try and track down his new project." Izuku said, with a slight smirk. Lifting free one of the torches, he marched off, between the walls of greenery, not looking back at see if Iida was following, but soon hearing the crunch of his boots on the gravel path. They circled around and around until they reached the center of the maze. There, an exquisite wrought-iron temple stood forlornly amid a tangle of old roses and overgrown fragrance gardens. Honeysuckle and wisteria twined over trellises and covered the roof, dangling nearly to the ground, giving it the look of a living cave or a wedding Bower. Even Izuku had to duck his head to enter.

   Leaves and twigs littered the floor. At one end stood an altar to the Maker, centering a semicircle of stone benches, with room for no more than a dozen worshippers. A stained glass window at the other end depicted Inko in battle, sword drawn, hair floating like it was underwater. In daylight, when the sun shine through it, it sent river's of colour washing over the stone floor. Amid the stone pavers in the floor was set a metal plate engraved with wild ivy. Izuku knelt and brushed away the debries with his hands.

   "Under here," he said, pointing. "Can you help me lift it?" Setting his torch into a bracket in the wall, Iida grasped a ring set into the plate and pulled, rocking back on his heels. Izuku grabbed the little bit the moved up and pulled as well. Hinges screeching, the plate swung up, followed by a rush of dank, stale air.

   Iida glanced at Izuku. "When's the last time you were down here?"

   Izuku shrugged. "Maybe two months ago. It's hard because there are always people around."

   "I'd better go first," Iida said, eyeing the dark entrance skeptically. "Who knows what's moved in here since your last visit."

   "There's a ladder along the side," Izuku chirped. Bracing his hands ovneither side of the opening, Iida lowered himself until his feet found the first rungs. He climbed down until his head and shoulders disappeared below floor level. He stopped at that point and reached his hand up. Izuku handed him a torch, and he resumed his descent until he reached the floor two stories below.

   "You're sure you've been down here before?" he questioned scanning the slightly damp walls.

   Izuku sighed, "Yes, Tenya, I have. It's just the old passage leaking from the river."

   "Fine just.....yeah it's clear. Come down but be careful."

   That was easier said than down. The rungs we're far apart, difficult to manage by someone his size in the best of circumstances, nearly impossible in his fitted suit. The rungs we're going to be slippery and that was a nasty combination with bare feet. He lowered himself onto the first rungs and slowly went down each one, careful to land each bar ovthe arch of his foot. He was halfway down when he lost the already tenuous balance on the slippery metal ladder which pulled his grip off, teetered on one leg for a moment, arms flailing, then fell through the dark space.

   He landed with a large thump in Iida's arms. He staggered back a few steps, and for a moment Izuku thought they would both go down, but he regained his balance leaning against the wall, breathing hard. He could hear Iida's heart hammering next to his ear.

   "Bloody bones!" he swore, his blue eyes dark and roiled as the Indio on a stormy day, his face pale. "Are you crazy, Zuku? Do you want to kill yourself?"

   "Or course not," Izuku snapped, his temper shot currently after a fall while on top of him being tired. "I just slipped is all. Put me down."

   "I get you wanted to show me this, but do you have to break your bones as soon as I get back?! You already did enough of that when we were younger." He glared at him, beginning a lecture.

   "I do not always break my bones, it was never that dangerous." Izuku hissed and looked him straight in the eye, ignoring how close they were currently.

   "Yeah? What about the time you just had to ride that flatlander stallion? What was his name? Deathwish? Devilspawn? You had to climb a fence to mount him, and his back was so broad your legs stuck straight out, but nothing would stop you from giving him a try." He snorted. "That was the world's shortest ride." He'd forgotten about Iida's annoying habit of repeating old stories he'd rather forget. Izuku struggled and kicked, trying to get free. Even if he was smaller he was always able to hold his own before. "You never think about the mess you leave behind," Iida growled. "If you bust your head and I'm in any way involved, my brother won't leave enough of me for the crows to find."

   "What happened to ''If you please, Your Highness' and 'With your permission, You Highness?'" Izuku demanded not thinking. "For the last time, put me down."

   Iida blinked at him, and Izuku couldn't help noticing the flash of sadness that went through his eyes. Carefully, he set him down on his feet and took a step back. "My apologies, You Highness," he said, his face gone black and robotic. "Shall I go, then?"

   Izuku felt his heart tense and fill with remorse. His cheeks flamed. How could they be friends if he kept pulling rank on him? "I'm sorry," he whispered, pulling on his arm. "Tank you for saving my life."

   He continued to stare straight ahead. "My duty, Your Highness, as a member of the Royal Guard."

   "Tenya, no please." Izuku begged desperately. "I said I was sorry. I didn't mean it that way."

   "No apology is necessary, You Highness," Iida said, lightly moving out of the way of his hand. "Now if there's nothing else.....?"

   "Please don't go, Tenya-kun," Izuku said, lowering his hand and staring at his bare feet. "I could really use a friend, even if I don't deserve one." He shifted his feet a little. "Do you think that's possible?"

   There was a long pause. Then Iida put his hand under Izuku's chin, and he lifted his head to look at him, and as soon as he looked up tears spilled down his cheeks. Izuku moved and buried his fance in Iida's shirt, crying his heart out. He just got his friend back only to lost him again to his stupid rank and stupid inheritance.

   Iida curled a hand around Izuku's neck and let him cry just as he always did when Izuku got like this. Ever since they were young Izuku's soft heart would cause situations like this and only patience could stop it. It doesn't help that he knew every time what was bothering Izuku and this time they both needed this. He spoke up after some amount of time, musing. "You know, when I saw you at dinner, you looked like a prince," he said as Izuku quieted down. "I mean, I always knew that, but you seemed different than I remembered. Kind of.....remote."

   "You-" Izuku choked on a breath and rubbed his face with his sleeve when he shifted it away from Iida's now tear-stained shirt. "You looked different too," he huffed. "I didn't even recognize you until Papa called your name." He managed a damp smile. "You look like one of the knights we used to play pretend as. You must have a lot of friends and fun."

  He shrugged, flushing slightly. "There's not much time for fooling around and goofing off at Torino's Ford." 

  "Kirishima says I'm will full and a little spoiled. My father says I'm stubborn and self-sacrificing. I do try to get my way, but I think it's because I'll lose myself if I don't." he mumbles out. "I won't get to choose where I live, or who I marry, or even who my friends are. My time and choices will never be for myself." He sniffled quietly, feeling bad about Iida's shirt. "It's not that I don't want to be king, I do. I guess I don't want the rules and chains that come with it."

   "Then don't be tied down," Iida said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

   "But that is basically rebellion," Izuku said, glancing around as if someone might over hear them in the dark tunnel. "And I don't know how to fight to be anything different. I don't want to be at the mercy of advisers. But how do you find things out? Other than how to play the piano or talk proper, I mean. At least I know how to ride a horse and get along in the woods and shoot a bow and use knives from my time in Mandalay. Aizawa's got me well on the way to being a trader. But that and piano's not enough to be king."

   "Well I'm no scholar," Iida said. Leaning against the wall, seeming reassured Izuku won't break down into tears again. "But there are people in Yuuei who know things. The speakers in the temple, for instance. There's a huge library there." 

   "I guess," Izuku gives. "It's just such an ordeal to even go there. Sometimes I'd like to be invisible." He twitched slightly. "I don't even know what's going on in the world. My father's advisers either tell him what he wants to hear, or they're promoting their own agendas. People say he listens to them too much." People being Aizawa, among others.

   "Now who's the cynic?" Iida said jokingly. "Maybe you need to find yourself some honest eyes and ears other than Kirishima, he can only do so much." He yawned and rubbed his eyes.

   "Oh!" Izuku said, apologetically. "I'm sorry. You said you have to be up early." Half an hour into reform, he was being as inconsiderate as always. He tried to ignore the voice in his head that said that's what you do at court. "Come on, let's go." Seizing one of the torches, he led the way down the tunnel, trying to ignore the rustling of rats and the reflected eyes of the creatures that stared down at him from the imperfections in the walls and scattered ahead of him at each turning.

   Iida had no trouble keeping up, with his long legs. "How did this passageway get here?" he asked. "And who else knows about it?"

   Izuku swiped a cobweb from his face. "I found after I came back from Mandalay," he stated. "It's really old. I don't know who made it, and I don't think anybody knows about it. I haven't told anyone but you."

  At last they reached the roughly circular stone chamber that meant the end of their journey. "Here we are." Izuku quickly says, setting the torch into a bracket by the door. He slid back the panel and pushed aside the wardrobe he'd positioned in front of the entrance.

   "Where are we?" Iida asked, mystified.

   "You'll see," Izuku replies, picking her way through the stacks of books and shoes, pushing aside coats on racks. His bedroom was chilly and dork, the fire dying in the hearth, his nightclothes still laid out on the bed.

   Iida emerged from the closet behind him and glanced about. His eyes widened and he looked a little panicked. "Zuku....is this your bedroom?"

   "Yep," Izuku said offhandedly and popping the p. He crossed to the hearth and poked at the fire, laying on another log.

   "Shit," Iida spit. "There's a secret passage in the walls leading to your bedroom? That doesn't worry you?!"

   He glanced up at him. "No. Why should it?" In truth, it hadn't. He been focused on the convince of having a means to come and go without passing under the eyes of everyone in the busy palace corridors.

   "Somebody made this," Iida said tensely. "Who else might know about it?"

   "This apartment had been shut for hundreds of years," Izuku huffed. "Maybe a thousand. You should ahve seen the way it looked before we cleaned it up. Someone made it, but whoever it was would've died a long time ago."

   Iida was examining the sliding panel, running his hands over the wood molding surrounding it. "You should have it boarded up, Zuku. Close it off permanently."

   "You worry too much," Izuku frowned. "I've been here three months and no monsters have come through." Iida shook his head and sighed. Izuku huffed again, knowing he should compromise. "I'll see if there's a way to put a lock on it. That should be fine." He glanced at the small pantry. "Do you want anything else to eat?"

   He shook his head, smiling ruefully. "I'd better go. We don't want anyone to find me here."

   Izuou sighed. "True I guess." He felt conflicted, and mournful. He knew as soon as Iida left it was pretty much saying goodbye to his childhood friend again, what with court standards. He walked him to the door and they stepped out into the hallway.

   "Thanks for dinner," he said. "I'm really tired of southern food." He paused, cleared his throat. "Don't forget about the tunnel."

   "Sorry I kept you out so late," Izuku uttered, commitin gto nothing. "But I'm really glad you're home." He said and have him a hug out of melancholy.

   "So this is where you've been all evening," someone growled in a voice as cold as the outside. Izuku jerked out of the hug and turned, regrettably recognizing that sharp voice. It was Bakugou Katsuki, red eyes glittering in the light from the sconces. A strong odor of wine said he'd been drinking.

   "Um..., why are you here?" Izuku asked a little annoyed but knowing not to push his buttons. "This is a little far from one of the card rooms or the guest hall."

    "I might ask the soldier the same fucking question. Wow what a coincidence!" Bakugou hissed. "He seems just as damn...out of place as I do."

    "His Highness asked me to escort him back to his rooms," Iida said, stumbling onto the excuse all three of them used from childhood, regrettably. "I was just leaving."

   "I see that," Bakugou said, rolling his eyes. "I thought you had a headache," he directed at Izuku.

   "I did," he said trying to end this before things got ugly. He turned to Iida. "Good night and thank you, Corporal Iida." He turned to enter his room, but Bakugou grabbed his arm, the loosed power in his grip sparking his flesh and making flame-like puffs. "Hold on," he snapped. "Don't you fucking go anywhere, I need something cleared up and I want it cleared up damn well fast."

   Izuku tried to slide his wrist out. "Kacchan, I'm really tired. Can we wait until tomorrow?"

   "No, I think I just said right fucking now Deku," Bakugou growled, glaring at Iida. "While both you and Shitty Knight are here."

   "Let go!" Izuku pleaded, trying to peel his hot fingers away with his free hand. Suddenly Iida's sword was in his hand and pointed at Bakugou.

   "Sul'Bakugou," Iida stated coldly. "The prince has asked you to let go of him. I suggest you do so."

   Bakugou blinked, and then looked down at his and holding Izuku's wrist as if he was shocked to see it there. He let go and took a step back. "De- Izuku, listen, I didn't fu-"

   Izuku shook his head sharply. "No Kacchan," he bit. "You don't own me. I don't think I need to be interrogated if I want to speand some time with an old friend who just got back, I don't owe you any explanations."

   Iida stowed away his sword. "Your Highness, it's late and we're all tired. Why don't you go on to bed, and we'll both be on our way, all right?" Izuku swallowed hard and stepped into the shelter of the doorway. Iida planted a hand on Bakugou's shoulder and propelled him down the corridor. But the look Bakugou fired at Izuku over his shoulder said this wasn't the end of it.

 

Chapter Text

   "Eri, we need to hurry." Shouto grumbled, still tired from a very unrestful night of sleep, as per usual. He wanted to bang his head against the wall as the clamor of the temple bells echoed throughout the city, marking the half hour. "Here let me help you with your hair, it looks like a rat's nest."

   "Do I have to go to school?" Eri pouted, and bent down to lace her shoes. "Can't we go to Kurogiri? He's teaching me crosswords."

   "It's raining out and you know how he gets with bad weather. Besides, Fuyumi doesn't like you visiting Kurogiri." Shouto responds. "She says he's a bad influence."

   "Fuyumi-nee doesn't like you going either." Eri says matter-of-factly biting a small blurb of pain down as the brush dragged through her hair. "And you still go."

   "When you get as old as me, you can give Fuyumi heart attacks of your own," he said finally, thinking Eri was too smart for her own good. Plus, she had a strict idealism that would get her into trouble. Shouto would know. He gave up on the bristle comb and smoothed the rest of her long hair through with his fingers, making her look decent enough.

   "Fuyumi wouldn't find out anyway." Eri retorted with puffy cheeks not dissimilar to an angry chipmunk. Cute. "She won't be back from the castle 'til late."

   Shouto sighed dramatically, only halfway jokingly. "But if you don't learn how to write and do figures you'll never be able to make a caramel apple stand like you've always wanted. And how are you going to learn anything else?"

   "Fuyumi-nee can't read or write and she's working at the castle for the king." Eri says proudly, not taking to Shouto's joking.

   "That's Why she wants you to learn how," Shouto huffed. It had been two weeks since Shouto had brought the amulet home, and their lives had settled into a different cadence. Fuyumi had a new job in the laundry at Yuuei Castle. It was reliable money, but she had to leave long before down to walk the length of the town across multiple bridges to get there. She never got home before dark, either, so they were on their own for supper. But at least there was supper to be had. It had become Shouto's job to take Eri to and from school, which made it hard for him to work his route for Kurogiri. Once or twice he had to take her with him on his rounds. Today he meant to drop off Eri, stop in at the Smokey Keg  and several other Hosu taverns, and get to and from Kurogiri's place before Eri was done at school. It was a risk; Dabi might be looking for trouble, but it had to be done. Shouto dampened a rag in the basin to scrub off Eri's face, so the speakers at the temple wouldn't think she was neglected. He couldn't do much about her clothes, but she wasn't the only one who shopped from the rag bin. 

   "Let's go."

   It was still dark in the narrow streets and alleyways of Musutafu. It had rained hard overnight; Shouto had woken up to water dripping on his face through the leaking roof. There was slush everywhere and the gutters ran full, but the rain had reduced to a freezing irritating drizzle. Shouto pulled Eri under the shelter of his too-large coat, and they staggered along like some poorly designed quadruped.

   "I don't see why it has to be so early," Eri said, stifling a yawn. "They've got the whole day to have school."

   Shouto pulled her out of the way of a bakery cart that splashed frigid street water up to their knees. "This way the 'prentices can get schooling and still get to work." he explained. Hosu Temple anchored the far end of Hosu. Its soaring towers pricked the sky and reminded a person that there was a world beyond Musutafu and Hosu, even if you couldn't get to it. The stone facing around the door was carved with leaves and vines and flowers. Gargoyles launched themselves from every side of the building, and the downspouts were capped with fantastical creatures that must've died in the Breaking, because you never saw them these days. The temple close housed libraries and dormitories for the dedicates, gardens and kitchens as well. It was by no means a cloister, however, since it welcomed in the citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods, feeding their minds along with their bodies. Anyone could come inside the temple buildings and see artwork that had been collected for more than a thousand years. There were paintings and sculptures and tapestries with colors so brilliant they seemed to vibrate.

   Shouto and Eri walked in through the side door as the great bells overhead began tolling the hour. They shook like a pair of dogs, scattering droplets over the slate floor of the foyer. Classes were held in one of the side chapels. When they entered, Speaker Ankuro was at the podium, riffling through notes. Behind him stood a line of easels holding paintings drawn from the temple collections that would be used to illustrate his presentation. His dozen students fidgeted on cushions pulled from the benches in the sanctuary. It was a motley group of girls and boys, ranging in age from Eri's seven to seventeen. Some were dressed for trade, meaning to go on to their jobs after class. If Ankuro was here today that meant today was history.

   "History," Eri huffed quietly, trying not to disturb the lesson. "If I fall asleep I'm blaming you when you could have taken me with you. Why do we need to study it if we already know the basics?" she asked the last part honestly, not seeing the point.

   "So hopefully we get smarter and don't make the same mistakes again," Shouto replied, internally smiling in mirth as that is one of Ankuro's favorite lines, and he knew his old teacher would appreciate it.

   "Shouto!" Ankuro said, rounding his desk and striding toward them, his cloak flapping around his short legs. "it's been a long time. To what do we we your presence?"

    "Well, I, er....." Shouto stammered, extremely conscious of Eri looking on. "Actually I'm not staying, I have something I need to do..."

    "He thinks he's already smart enough," Eri stated, playing devil's advocate probably as revenge of having to come here.

    "That's not it," Shouto quickly tried to defend himself. "it's just I'm working now and..."

    "That's too bad," Ankuro cut in, probably oblivious as per usual. "We'll be discussing the Breaking and how it's depicted in art through the ages. Fascinating stuff." Ankuro thought everything was fascinating. It was kind of catching. Only this time Shouto has his own reasons for being interested in the Breaking. The story Kurogiri had told was still rattling around in  his brain, kindling little fires wherever it landed. And buried in the forge in the yard was something that might be a piece of that history. Shouto wanted reinforcement of what he knew to be true. Except....

    "The thing is, I've got business in Hosu and I can't bring Eri along," Shouto said. "So I thought I'd go while she's in class."

    Ankuro eyed him, no doubt taking in his still scuffy-looking face, but not feeling the need to mention it. Which was one of the things Shouto liked about him. "I see. Well, most business in Hosu doesn't get up this early anyway." the speaker said dryly. Which was exactly why Shouto was leaving this early. He was relying on Dabi's gang sleeping in. At least it seemed less likely he'd run afoul of them at this time of day. You never used to go out of you way to avoid trouble, he mentally sighed. You used to go looking for it. 

   "Tell you what," Ankuro said, displaying his usual quiet persistence, "sit in on class, and afterward Eri can stay with the speakers in the library while you go about your business. We'll give her supper, if need be." He paused, then couldn't resist adding, "You will be careful, won't you? For Eri's sake, if not your own?"

   "I'm always careful." Shouto said, glancing at Eri. "And I guess I can stay a little while." It wasn't like he'd outgrown the temple school. There were boys older than him in the class.

   "Excellent. Spectacular, in fact." Ankuro put on his teacher face and turned to the rest of the class. "Yesterday we discussed the events leading up to the Breaking. Today we'll talk about some of the people involved. Who can name one of them?"

   "Well, there was Queen Inko," one small girl ventured.

   "Correct, Kimori!" Ankuro said, as if she'd just demonstrated how to change dung to gold. "There was Queen Inko, for whom we thank the Maker every day." He turned one of the easels to reveal a painting Shouto recognized immediately as Into Blessing the Children. In it, the legendary queen looked to be thirteen or fourteen. She was seated at the harp, dressed all in white, like a dedicate, her forest green hair gathered in a loose plait, her complexion creamy pink, like rose porcelain. She looked like one of those fancy dolls in the shop windows along the Ways of the Royals. The ones Eri pined for and would never have. In the painting, Inko extended here hands toward a group of younger children, smiling benevolently, the glow from her skin illuminating their rapt upturned faces.

   "This is Inko as a young girl, before the terrible events that we've-"

   "Excuse me, Speaker Ankuro," Shouto interrupted. "The painter, was tat someone who knew Inko?"

   Ankuro blinked at him, caught midsentence. "Say again?"

   "When was that painted?" Shouto pressed. "Was it painted from life or is it just somebody's idea of what Inko looked like?"

   Akuro grinned. "Master Shouto, we have missed your presence in these classes. This was painted by the Artist Enigma in the New Year 505. What does that tell us?"

   A serious-looking boy in threadbare clothes and a clark's collar said, "it was painted more than five hundred years after the Breaking. So the painter couldn't have known her."

   "So it's possible she looked entirely different?" Shouto asked.

   Ankuro nodded. "It is possible. What are the implications of that?" This launched a discussion of something Ankuro called social context: how religion and politics influence art, and art in turn shaped opinion. Ankuro's enthusiasm rolled right over some of the younger students, who looked bewildered and excited at the same time. "Since Inko carried clan blood, what are the chances that she was fair skinned and blue eyed?" Ankuro asked. "It seems more likely she was dark skinned and dark eyed."

   "Are there any paintings of Inko done by people who actually knew her, sir?" Shouto pestered.

   "I don't know," Ankuro replied cheerfully. "there may be, right here in the archives. Why don't you look into that and report back to the class?" That was Ankuro, always snaring you into projects that involved time in the library; that would bring you back to class another day.

   "Well maybe," Shouto gave, not promising anything.

   Ankuro nodded, knowing better than to push. "So we have our Inko, as she's represented in history and art. Who else played a role?"

   "The Demon King," Eri said, shivering a little. Several of the other students made the sign of the Maker, to ward off evil.

   "Yes, indeed. We have the Demon King, who single-handedly changed the course of the world by nearly destroying it." With a flourish, Ankuro turned another easel to display another painting. If Shouto recalled correctly, this one was called The Demon in Madness. Painted in burnt silvers and purples, it depicted a shadowed figure outlined in blue flame. His arms were raised, his fanatical eyes glowed in the shade of his silver-grey hair. But Shouto's eyes were fixed on the demon's skeletal right hand, which was holding aloft a glowing steel amulet. A tangle of serpents. Shouto's stomach did a sickening backflip. "Some say he was the Breaker incarnate." Ankuro was saying. "Others that he was seduced by evil, made drunk by the power associated with dark magic. No one doubts that he was incredibly gifted."

   "What's that in his hand?' Shouto questioned only half-rhetorically.

   Ankuro glanced over at the painting. "it's an amulet often seen in paintings of the Demon King. It's thought to be a direct link to dark magic."

   "What happened to it?' Shouto pestered. "Where is it now?"

   Ankuro turned and frowned at Shouto, as if trying to parse out the source of the rapid-fire questions. "I have no idea. Likely it was destroyed by the clans immediately after the Breaking, as were many of the most powerful magical pieces. In any event, it's lost to history."

   "When was this painted? And who did it?"

   Ankuro bent and examined the brass plate at the base of the painting. "The artist was a Bakugou, first name unknown, painted in New Year 593." He squinted at the engraved lettering. "it was a gift of the Bakugou family."

   "Bakugou?" Shouto's heart stuttered. "But how would the artist know about the amulet if it was painted so long after the piece was destroyed?" The other students were starting to give him glances, but Shouto couldn't really stop himself from asking.

   Ankuro shrugged. "It's a common element in paintings of the Demon King. I'm assuming it was copied from an earlier work." Or maybe it was painted from the object itself, Shouto thought darkly.

   "What's his name?" he asked.

   Ankuro's brow furrowed. "Whose name?"

   "The Demon King. Did he have another name? From before." Shouto pestered.

   "Well, yes," Ankuro replied, still looking puzzled. "his birth name was Shimura Tenko."


 

   For Shouto. Hosu Temple was in every sense a sanctuary. It was a toehold in enemy territory, a refuge from the streets when he needed one. He couldn't help feeling edgy as he left the safety of its walls and ventured into Hosu, his first visit since the confrontation with Dabi in the back alley. Eri begged to come with him. Everything he did seemed to fascinate her, no matter if it was tedious or dangerous or on the hush. Before he left Eri at the library, he extracted a promise from her that she'd stay put. The last thing he needed was to be searching Hosu for her.

   He avoided that back alley, just in case, and followed the river west from the bridge, wrinkling his nose against the stench. If the Hosu gang came after him, he reasoned, he could jump into the Musutafu. No one who wasn't in fear for his life would follow him into that cesspool. The pristine river that emerged from the Eastern Spirits became an open sewer in Yuuei. It was a thorn in the side of the clans, who considered the river sacred. The streets were strangely quiet, even for this time of day, and the Royal Guard was unusually visible. Shouto faded away from several bluejacket patrols and had to continually adjust his route to avoid clusters of soldiers on street corners. In Hosu, guilty or not, you avoided the Guard. It was a tradition handed down through generation.

   By the time he reached The Smokey Keg, it was nearly midday. It should've been prime for the lunch trade, but only about half the tables were occupied. Manual stood at the bar, glumly carving plate-sized sliced off a leg of mutton. "Hey, Manual," Shouto broke in passively. "I've come for the empties."

  Manual froze, staring at Shouto as if he'd seen a demon. Sliding the knife into his apron pocket, he retrieved the bottles from behind the counter and set them on the bar, never taking his eyes off Shouto.

   "What's going on?" Shouto asked, sliding the bottles into his carry bag. "It's strange outside. Nobody on the streets except for the Guard, and plenty of them."

   "You haven't heard?" Manual squinted at Shouto.

   Shouto shook his head. "Not at all. What about?"

   "Half a dozen gang kids went down last night," Manual said, pulling out his knife again. "And that's a lot, even for this front, left for show. So people are jumpy, thinking the gang war is starting up again."

   "Went down how?" Shouto continued, leaning against the counter with a direct stare.

   "Now isn't that the odd part," Manual said. "Wasn't your typical knifing or clubbing. They looked like they'd been tortured, then garroted."

   "Maybe somebody looking for their stash," Shouto said, trying for casual, though it wasn't easy with his mouth gone dry.

   "Mayhap." Manual waggled his knife as Shouto, curiosity wrestling with caution all over his face. "Thought you might know something about it."

   "Me?" Shouto fastened down the flap of his bag. "What would I know about it?"

   "Ever'ybody knows you're streetlord of Musutafu. And ever'ybody knows the Hosu gang roughed you up the other day. Looks like payback to me."

   "Well, ever-everybody's wrong," Shouto bit. "I'm out of that."

   "Ri-ight," Manual hummed. "Just remember, I don't want any trouble."

   Shouto hoisted his bag over his shoulder. "Believe me, I don't want trouble either."

   But trouble had a way of finding him. As he walked out of The Smokey Keg, he just had time to notice it had begun to rain again, before someone grabbed him by the collar and slammed him up against the stone wall of the tavern. Shouto cursed in his mind and kicked and struggled, trying to make himself a moving target, expecting at any moment to feel a knife slide between his ribs. But his captor kept him pinned to the wall with one hand while ripping his bag free with the other. The bottles clanked as the bag hit the ground. Then he was crudely patted down one-handed, and relieved of his several knives, and his purse.

   Finally his attacker slung him around and smashed him against the wall, face out this time. Shouto found himself staring into a familiar face, scarred and grinning cruelly, his thin smile pulled over his way too pearly-teeth for his personality. His breath impressively minty. It was his old nemesis, Jason better known as Muscular on the streets, sergeant in the Royal Guard. And behind him, another half dozen bluejackets.

   "Hey! Give me back my purse," Shouto growled loudly, figuring it was best to raise the topic early and often. Muscular punched him hard in the stomach as a reply, and the breath exploded from Shouto's lungs.

   "Well now, Cuffs, you've done it this time," Muscular said, taking advantage of Shouto's inability to speak. "I knew just who was responsible, and I knew just where to find you. Had to wait a bit is all."

   "I...don't know...What you're talking about," Shouto gasped, doubled over, arms wrapped around his bruised midsection.

   Muscular gripped Shouto's hair and yanked his head up so they were eye to eye. The sergeant had damaged one of his eyes since he last saw him, the thing torn and scarred around the area yet still had a working eyeball somehow. At least somebody has a mute amount of luck around here because Shouto sure didn't. "Who's been beating on you, brat?" Muscular demanded. "Wasn't Dabi and his guys, was it?"

   "No," Shouto said, falling into his old habit of making a bad situation worse. "it was the Guard. I wouldn't pay up." Everybody knew the bluejackets would leave you alone if you paid protection to the right person. And Muscular was the right person.

   Stars dotted Shouto's vision when he felt Muscular bring his club down on Shouto's head, and he fell to his knees, biting his tongue. He covered his head with his arms.

   "Stop it!" someone shouted, Shouto didn't see who. It must've been one of the other bluejackets. Or Manual, come to his aid?

   But Muscular was in a blood rage, totally focused on Shouto. "You did in those streets brats, didn't you, Cuffs? You and your friends." He threw down his club again and landed the blow on Shouto's forearm with bone-shattering force, and Shouto let out and suppressed yelp in pain. "Now you're going to confess, and then you're going to swing for it, and I'm going to be there to watch."

   "I said stop !" The same voice, but right on top of them now. Startled, Shouto wiped the blood from his eyes and looked up to see the club descending again, but it never connected. It flew sideways, and Muscular let out a grunt of pain. Shouto slumped back against the wall, eyes closed, head lolling sideways, at the same time gathering his feet under him. "You hit him again and I'll crack your skull," his benefactor stated stiffly. "Back off."

   "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" the sergeant bellowed. "I'm in command here. I'm the sergeant. You're just a corporal."

   "Back off, Sergeant Jason, sir," the corporal gritted out sardonically. "In the Royal Guard, sir, we don't beat confessions out of prisoners on the street."

   "Naw," one of the other bluejackets said, snorting with laughter. "We usually take 'em back to the guardhouse first."

   "Are you all right?" A soldier squatted next to Shouto, looking anxiously into his face. Peering through his lashes, Shouto realized to his surprise that his benefactor was young, no older than he was. The baby bluejacket's face was pale with anger, and his blue-black hair fell down his forehead messily. Shouto blinked away a double image, and said nothing. "You could've killed him," the corporal said, looking up and Muscular, his face twisted in disgust. This one must've missed his Guard orientation. He had starch, at least, to cross Muscular.

   "You listen to me, Iida," the sergeant growled. "Maybe you're the little brother of the commander, and maybe you go to the academy. That don't mean nothin'. You're still just a boy. You don't know these streets like we do. This one's a cold-blooded killer and a thief. Just never been caught red-handed before."

   Iida stood and faced Muscular. "Where's your proof? He got beat up? That's it ?"

   Good one, Shouto thought, silently rooting for the blueblood corporal, but knowing better than to say anything aloud. Muscular nudged Shouto with a foot, none to gently. "They call him Cuffs," he stated. "He's the leader of a street gang on the Musutafu side. They been feuding with Dabi and his brats for years. Two days ago, Dabi caught Cuffs on his own in a back alley. If the Guard hadn't shown up, he'd be dead already." Muscular grinned and his eyes lit in that typical bloodlust you'd expect from the street bluejackets. "Would've been a service to the community if we'd let them finish the job. Them poor devils we found yesterday- you saw what was done to them. Had to be the Musutafu rats. No one else would take Dabi and his gang on. It's revenge killing for sure, and this one's responsible."

   Corporal Iida looked down at Shouto, swallowing hard. "Fine. We take him in for questioning. He confesses or he doesn't. No beatings. Any confession you beat out of a person doesn't mean anything. They'll say anything to make you stop."

   Muscular frowned and cracked his knuckles sharply. "You'll learn, Corporal. You can't coddle a street rat. They'll turn on you, and they have teeth, believe me." He turned to the watching bluejackets. "Bring him along, then. We'll see to him back at the guardhouse." The way he said it gave Shouto shivers. This do-gooder Corporal Iida wouldn't be there every hour of the day.

   "One other thing, sir," iida said. "Maybe you should give him back his purse." Muscular leveled a look of such vitriol at Iida that, despite everything, Shouto had to stifle himself to keep from laughing. Muscular reached into his coat and pulled out Shouto's purse, made a show of digging through it to make sure he didn't have any weapons in there, then jammed it back into Shouto's jacket pocket. No telling how long it'd stay there.

   Two bluejackets grabbed Shouto's arms and hauled him upwright, and the pain was blinding. his left forearm felt like it was packed with shards of glass. They draped his arms over their shoulders and began dragging him between them. Shouto hung, limp as a rag, trying not to pass out, his mind racing furiously, leaping from thought to thought. Could Mina and her pack gone and done in six of the Hosu gang? Why would they? Not on his account, not even for old time's sake. Anything that splashy always brought unwanted attention from the Guard. Everybody knew that. If not them, who?

   Whatever had happened, he couldn't expect air treatment at the guardhouse. They needed someone to pin this on. He'd dance to whatever tune they played, and he'd end up at the end of a rope. he thought of Eri waiting for him back at the temple, of Fuyumi scrubbing laundry at Yuuei Castle. They'd be the ones top pay. He couldn't let that happen. By now they were passing Hosu Temple, turning onto the bridge over the river. Shouto groaned loudly, scuffling his feet in the dirt as if to gain purchase.

   "Hey! Watch yourself," one of the bluejackets said, tightening his hold on Shouto's upper arm.

   Shouto whined fakely, halfway embarrassed at his own act. "Ow! My head@ It hurts. Leggo!" He struggled to free his arms ignoring the spikes of pain. "i don't feel so good," he said, allowing a trace of panic to enter his voice. "I'm serious! I'm gonna hurl!" He clamped his mouth shut and blew out his cheeks suggestively.

   "Not all over me, you're not!" his bluejacket captor said. Gripping Shouto's collar and the waist of his breeches, the guardsman propelled him to the stone wall that lined the bridge. "Spill it into the river, boy, and make it quick." Shouto braced his good hand on the wall, then slammed his head back into the guardsman's face. The bluejacket yelped and let go of him, blood pouring from his broken nose. Shouto boosted himself atop the wall and crouched there, looking down at the debris floating on the water.

   "Stop him!" Muscular yowled behind him. "He's getting away!"

   Shouto turned and gave a two-finger salute then launched himself from the wall, executing a fancy, shallow dive that took him as far as possible from the stone piers of the bridge. Somehow he managed to miss hitting any of the boats crowed together in the narrow channel, and sliced into the frigid water closer to the north shore. He surfaced, spitting out a mouthful of the filthy water, gagging for real this time. Good he could swim, courtesy of his summers with the clans. Not many city boys could.

   "There he is!" He heard one of the guard's voices carrying across the water. "You on the water! Five girlies for the one who catches him." Five Girlies! He'd just about turn himself in for that.

   Shouto submerged again and swam blindly toward the Musutafu shore, kicking strongly to compensate for his useless right arm, eyes closed tight against the murky water. When he raised his head to check his position and correct his crooked progress, a clamor of voices said he'd been spotted. Then he went under again and managed to lose himself amid the motley of watercraft and floating garbage. 

   Finally he reached the docks on the Musutafu side, slid underneath, and waded through the shallows to where the dock met the shore. There he huddled between the pilings, shaking, teeth chattering. The noise of the search faded as the Guard spread its net wider and wider. until finally Shouto couldn't hear it at all. Still, he waited for dark before he slipped out from under the dock and waded to shore.