Beauty and the Beast
Lady Momo was never one to run away from a foe, no matter how intimidating. Despite her tender age she counted amongst the kingdom’s finest warriors both thanks to her strength and her wits.
She was scared.
They – lady Momo and her companions – were supposed to pass through the forest before the night set, but they got separated and now she was hopelessly lost in the woods. Forests don’t fall silent at night. She had to stop every few steps and hold her breath, listening for any hints of incoming danger. Every little sound seemed like a potential threat and she didn’t know what she’d do if something attacked her, because she could hardly see.
It started to drizzle. The cold didn’t bother her much, nor did the hunger, but she was more and more tired by the minute, but at the same time she wouldn’t dare to stop and rest.
One thing struck her as strange about the forest – her eyes didn’t seem to be getting used to the darkness. During the long journey they came across a few places that were protected by magic and although she didn’t hear about the forest being one of those, it made her feel uneasy. She should’ve asked Uraraka when she had the chance – the witch seemed to pick up on magic seemingly without trying. All Momo sensed in the air was the fragrance of moss and damp leaves underneath her feet.
She paused and leaned against a tree. Despite the cold her feet were on fire and she doubted she could walk for much longer. As if in answer to her despair, light appeared not far from where Momo stood.
“People?” she whispered to herself and followed the light with renewed energy.
She arrived at the gates of a small chateau – save for that cold, blue light in one window it seemed in a state of disrepair. Lady Momo hesitated. She didn’t want to intrude, but not many decent people would turn down a traveller, especially in such a weather.
She reached for the door, but it opened before she could even touch it. No sooner had she entered than the door closed behind her. Momo found herself in a large hall with marble staircase in the centre. Other than a crystal chandelier there was nothing in the hall.
“Hello?” she called, her voice coming back to her in echoes. “Is anyone here? My name is Momo Yaoyorozu and I got lost in the woods. I humbly ask you allow me to stay overnight.”
A light – no bigger or stronger than a firefly – appeared at the top of the staircase, moving frantically. Momo followed it and the light led her into a kitchen – on the kitchen table, there was a pitcher of water with mint leaves and various plates under silver dish covers. Her stomach growled.
“Stay still,” a voice growled behind her.
Her whole frame tensed up. “I apologise, sir, it was not my intention to intrude. I only seek shelter for the night.”
“You are free to have dinner here and stay overnight. The light will show you the way. But under no condition you are to look at me. And you must leave in the morning, this is not a place for your kind.”
“Thank you, I am very grateful for your aid, sir…?”
She heard heavy footsteps as the mysterious person disappeared without an answer. The little light that led her to the kitchen set down on the table while Momo sat down and picked one of the plates – when she lifted the dish cover, she found grilled chicken, rice and carrots and a piece of peach cake under another one.
Once she was finished with her dinner, the light led her to a bedroom. Someone placed a cotton night-gown on the top of the bed. Momo changed, hanged her clothes so it would dry at least a little and fell onto the bed. It was as comfortable as it seemed, and the sheets carried a faint lavender scent.
She fell asleep as soon as she placed her head on the pillow. At one point she felt someone’s eyes on her, but she was only-half awake and immediately dozed off again. It was just a dream.
Was it just a dream?
Momo woke up before the dawn. The gentle drizzle turned into a heavy downpour while she slept, and she wasn’t looking forwards to leaving the bed.
She sat up and sneezed.
Wandering at night in a forest when it’s cold turned out to be a bad idea. Who would’ve guessed.
It took Momo a while, because her limbs were heavy as if she was moving underwater – in the end she managed to get dressed and make the bed. The guiding light was nowhere to be seen – when she left the bedroom she saw it at the bottom of the staircase, probably waiting for her to leave again.
A pity, really. She had hoped to talk to her mysterious host, thank him again for his hospitality and ask him whether he knew about a safe way out of the woods. And maybe, just maybe he would tell her his name.
“Sir?” she called into the empty hallway, “I am very grateful for your kindness.”
“Kindness…” The same growl as last night, though now it sounded amused. Momo stayed still, remembering he told her not to look at him. Not that the order – request? – didn’t puzzle her.
“Though I wonder who you may be,” she said, tension audible in her voice.
There was a long pause and Momo started to think she had offended her host and he left. Then she heard something unexpected – a deep, tired sigh.
“Have you ever heard of prince Shouto?” asked the voice.
“Of course!” her eyes widened slightly. “He was his majesty’s youngest son who was killed in a battle a year ago.”
Another long pause.
“True enough. There are some provisions for you in that bag by the door – the light will show you the way out of the woods. Have a safe journey.”
Then it dawned on her. “Are you the one who had killed prince Shouto?” Without thinking, her hand slid to the handle of the sword at her side.
Another growl, almost like laughter. It was annoying that she couldn’t see his face while they talked. “No, I didn’t kill prince Shouto.”
“I am deeply sorry, I did not mean to vex you.”
“No, it was a reasonable question.”
The longer she stayed in the chateau, the more the mysteries piled up and she didn’t have the time to solve a single one at the moment. The only thing she could do was to turn around and finally look her host in the eye. But she didn’t. And she hated herself for it.
“Thank you for everything,” she said and sneezed. The little light that guided her to the chateau in the first place started flying frantically in front of the door, growing brighter and changing colours from white to blue and back into white.
“I see your point, but this is a bad idea,” growled the voice. Momo only assumed he was addressing the light. “No, Fyumi, absolutely not.”
“That’s her name, yes. And she thinks you should stay until it stops raining. I… I wouldn’t mind, but this place is cursed.”
Fuyumi started glowing even brighter.
“Fine,” the voice sighed. “If you’d like, you can stay. For a while.”
“Thank you, sir. I promise I will leave as soon as the weather allows it, because I must join my companions again. They were headed to the late king’s tomb, so I suppose I should be able to catch up with them even with a delay.” Momo smiled at the door and slightly bowed her head, hoping the gesture would be understood in the way it was intended. “I’m not afraid of curses.”
“Then it’s settled.”
“Thank you, I don’t even know how can I ever repay you.”
“It’s fine,” the voice assured her. Then he spoke up again, his tone darker: “But you must remember, do not look at me, no matter what. Do you understand?”
“I promise. May I ask what’s your name?”
Silence. Momo bit her lip, worried she offended her host somehow. He was odd. Secretive. Yet, at the same time he seemed sincere about everything he said. She didn’t know what to make of it all.
“It’s best you don’t know, lady Momo.”
The rain kept tapping the windowpanes in perfect rhythm, as if to mark the passing seconds. Momo caught herself tapping out the same rhythm with her fingers on the armrest of the sofa she was sitting on with a book on her lap. The chateau had an impressive library and Fuyumi indicated it was all right for her to use it. Since her host vanished right after their conversation, she had nothing better to do with her time.
Momo herself was too restless to focus on reading. Her mind was running too fast. Some of her teachers expressed their concern about her inability to make quick decisions and she didn’t know whether they were right or not, but at the moment she felt there was some truth to their words. She needed to do something, she just didn’t know what it was.
Too little information. Too many questions.
But if she were to learn anything, she had to talk to the lord of the chateau. She put the book back to the shelf and left the library in hopes of either encountering him or finding some information that would give her a clue as to the true nature of that place. He said it was cursed and Momo wasn’t lying when she said that it didn’t frighten her. On the other hand, she wanted to find out more, because she felt that understanding the curse would clarify a thing or two… or all of them.
There was no sign of anyone but her host and the light living in the chateau and yet, it was spotless – no dust, no cobwebs anywhere. In her family’s mansion it took dozens of servants to keep everything in order.
Another thing she noticed was the lack of mirrors – she’d expect one at least in the bedroom she was staying in, but there wasn’t one and there weren’t any in the rest of the house either. It occurred to her that her host might be invisible, like that one girl in the mercenary group they ran into a few weeks ago. Hagakure, was it? Naturally, if he was invisible, he wouldn’t need mirrors.
She came to a wooden door – at the bottom of it, more or less on the level of Momo’s knees, were crude, child-like drawings of flowers. When she opened the door a wave of warm air hit her in the face. Her eyes widened in surprise.
Behind the door was hiding the most beautiful greenhouse she had ever seen. She closed the door so the warmth wouldn’t escape and wandered deeper. Plants were everywhere, even hanging from the ceiling – some familiar, some completely unknown to her.
Whoever took care of them all seemed partial to roses. They were all in full bloom – their scent, heavy and sweet made Momo dizzy. Most of them surpassed snow in whiteness, their petals as delicate as if made of ice. Some red roses were blooming next to them and she found the contrast of white and ruby red enchanting – she cupped one of the red blossoms, running her thumb over the velvety petals, inhaling the scent.
“I always hated the red ones,” the voice sounded right behind her. It startled Momo, but she was quick to regain her composure.
“Is that so? I think they are lovely.” Although it explained why there were only few red roses drowning in the sea of white. “They’re my favourite colour.”
“Maybe I’ve seen too much red.” The voice’s tone betrayed no emotion, but Momo understood – since the last king’s death, everyone had seen too much red.
“The colour is innocent. I hope you’ll forgive it one day,” she responded softly.
“Close your eyes,” he asked suddenly. Then a little pause. “Please.”
Momo hesitated for a second before her eyes fluttered closed and she turned around. She reached up to tuck a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, nervous for a reason she couldn’t name. Everything about that situation felt surreal. Something soft grazed her face – a rose? Then a sharp sting on her cheek. She let out a surprised yelp and her hand shot up to touch the scratch.
For the first time the voice sounded agitated: “I’m sorry, I… I didn’t notice that thorn. It’s not bleeding.”
“It doesn’t hurt, it just caught me off-guard, that is all,” Momo tried to reassure him.
She heard him take a deep breath, as if he was about to tell her something important. But all he said was: “You can open your eyes in five seconds.”
When she did, her left eye was partially covered by a rose he stuck behind her ear.
“Are you still here?”
No response. Lady Momo was alone again.
She stayed in the greenhouse, pondering the flowers. Wondering how she could see pretty, crimson blooms where he only saw open wounds.
After their conversation in the greenhouse, something changed. The voice sought her company more often and lady Momo caught herself looking forward to hearing him. Whoever he was. Every time she tried to steer their talk in that direction, he changed the topic.
At first, it felt strange to just sit there, looking at the wall and talk to someone she couldn’t call by any name. But after a while, she found that it made speaking freely easier. She could even tell him about that lingering feeling of not being good enough that haunted her, especially since she had joined the group around Izuku. That was how she learnt the voice was raised to the same standards of perfection.
“But I could be perfect or I could be me,” he concluded. It sounded so sad she wanted to turn around and take his hand to show him she understood.
Two days passed in that fashion, but as much as Momo enjoyed herself, she knew she had to leave the next morning, because otherwise she would have trouble meeting up with her companions.
The evening before her departure Fyumi made her wear a long blue dress hemmed with white lace, creeping up like frost along the edge of the skirt.
Over the past days Momo realised that it was Fuyumi who took care of the place with magic and it seemed as if the light wanted to go all out for Momo’s last evening there. Instead of the kitchen, the dinner was served in the dining room, all decorated with white roses. Silver cutlery and crystal glasses were shining in the light of countless candles and the chateau, usually so melancholy, seemed completely transformed.
After dinner, there was tea and raspberry cake served on a coffee table next to a large window. When she sank into a plush armchair to have some, Momo felt almost as if she were in her family’s mansion again and warmth settled in her chest. It had been a while since she could sit down to enjoy tea in such a refined fashion. She missed her home.
Before those thoughts could dampen her mood, the voice appeared.
“Good evening. Is it all right if I join you?”
“I was hoping you would,” Momo responded, smiling. She poured tea into the other cup and closed her eyes. “I’m not looking, my word.”
A faint click of porcelain sounded. “Thank you… I took it.”
Momo opened her eyes again, but kept her face turned to the window. The rain had stopped the day before, but her host recommended her to wait, so the roads would have a chance to dry at least a little.
“I will miss your company,” she admitted.
The voice wasn’t a mystery. He was three mysteries in a long coat. Maybe with some extra enigmas in the pockets. Despite that, she cherished the understanding they had together, as if they had known each other for ages.
“Not more than I’ll miss yours. I’m sure you noticed this is the local centre of tourism,” he responded seriously. Momo laughed, covering her mouth in the ladylike way her tutors drilled into her since young age. Though the dry joke only reminded her how isolated the chateau was. Did the voice ever have other company than Fuyumi? Everything suggested that no, he did not.
“If you ever leave the forest-”
“I don’t. People… don’t react well to my presence.”
“I can’t imagine that.” She shook her head, making sure not to look back and to keep her eyes on the window. The night didn’t seem so dark thanks to the stars spilt all over the sky. Momo’s reflection was looking back at her, still smiling.
The voice sounded closer than it had before. “Do you think I’m a good person?” he asked. A simple question, but Momo felt it was filled with more meaning than she could decipher with the information she had.
She opened her mouth-
His reflection appeared in the window.
Her hand slipped to her side out of habit, but she wasn’t carrying her sword. Because she was wearing that dress, instead of her usual clothes and didn’t think to bring it with her.
She turned around and for the first time looked the voice – the beast – in the eyes. He was enormous, towering above Momo. His presence seemed to fill the entire dining room, or maybe it was just because she couldn’t tear her eyes off him, no matter how desperately she wished to close them and forget.
He looked as if he was hastily sewn up from two different creatures. His shape was human, but with a layer of white, quartz-like crystals covering his right side. And his left side…
His left side was hideous. His skin was angry red and melting off, distorting his features. His eyes, too, were mismatched and cold, cold like the crystals encasing his right side, cold like the white roses decorating the room, cold enough to freeze Momo’s blood in her veins.
He wore an elegant velvet suit which made the contrast of human and monstrous even more pronounced. Her head was spinning – she never felt closer to fainting. Too much. It was too much.
“It seems introductions are in order,” he said quietly. Momo watched him speak with terror in her eyes, while his mouth opened and closed like a coffin.
“I am prince Shouto.”
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“But prince Shouto is dead,” Momo blurted out. “He died during lord Shigaraki’s attempted coup.”
He sank into the armchair opposite her, Fuyumi floating above his shoulder. As he moved, his right side was glimmering in the candlelight. “I suppose my father would prefer it that way.”
“I… I don’t understand.” She looked at her hands folded on her lap.
“That’s not surprising. Many things to do with the royal family were never made public, though you probably know that my mother is a powerful sorceress.”
She nodded. The Todorokis were an extremely influential family even before lord Enji succeeded to the throne after the previous king’s sudden death. He was a strong warrior, second only to the late king; his wife was known for her enormous magical talent. Their children inherited these traits to some extent, but it was prince Todoroki who really stood out both as a fighter and as a wizard.
The one born with everything.
There were few official portraits of the Todorokis and so the only picture of prince Shouto she knew was painted when the prince couldn’t be more than five years old. He had changed considerably since then.
“Theirs was an arranged marriage,” he began, slowly, as if he wasn’t sure himself where to start. “Father sought mother’s hand in marriage in hopes of producing an heir equally talented in magic and combat.”
Momo nodded again, unsure how to respond.
“In my memory, mother is always crying. But even so she was trying to protect me from father. I didn’t want to be like him. I didn’t want to be someone who hurts her.”
Like before, she was overwhelmed with the urge to reach across the table and take his hand, only she couldn’t bring herself to look at him, let alone touch him.
“I thought that if I did what he wanted, she wouldn’t have to fight him and he’d leave her be… I had to go wrong somewhere. I started to resemble him more and more. And mother saw it, because she was still crying when she thought nobody was around.”
“Was it…?” Momo couldn’t finish the sentence.
Shouto’s tone became completely flat. “Yes, she was the one who cursed me. Fuyumi and I tried to reverse it, but we failed and made everything worse.” He touched his face – although the skin on his left side looked as if it was melting, there was a patch of rough, scarred skin around his eye. “Fuyumi has changed into her current form during one of her attempts to lift the curse.”
“Fuyumi… wait, this is princess Fuyumi?”
The light above Shouto’s shoulder changed colours from white to green in response. Momo kept her eyes fixed on her, instead of looking at Shouto.
“She appeared here soon after father had me shipped off from the capital. He couldn’t afford the scandal of letting people see what he had caused. And what happened to my family afterwards… I don’t know.”
As far as Momo knew, prince Shouto was dead, the queen was ill, princess Fuyumi stopped leaving the castle to take care of her, and one of the remaining princes was kidnapped by lord Shigaraki’s forces. True or false? Momo didn’t dare to guess.
Then there was the other pressing question:
“Is there a way to break this curse?”
“The only way for me to regain my original appearance is to find friends who will see me for who I am. Not a beast. Not a prince. Not my father’s tool.”
That was a problem. That was a problem that could be solved. That was a problem Momo could help him solve. She clasped her hands together: “You could join our group! Everyone would be glad to welcome someone with your skills and you’d find friends in no time.”
A chuckle that had nothing to do with happiness escaped his mouth. “It’s not that easy. As I said, people react poorly to me the way I look now.”
Momo hesitated, but then spoke up again: “You’re a good person and they’ll see it, if you give them a chance.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Then look at me.”
She could feel heat creeping up her cheeks when he said that. She didn’t think he’d notice she was avoiding looking at him, hell, she didn’t realise she was doing it herself until he pointed it out.
“I… I’m sorry,” she responded quietly. She had never been more ashamed of herself than in that moment. Slowly, slowly Momo raised her eyes from her hands to Shouto’s chin. His right side, the one covered in crystals, didn’t bother her. Strange, but not in an unpleasant way – she could look at it without losing her courage. The red, melting side was still too much.
Was that what he meant when he said he had seen too much red?
Her gaze travelled upwards until their eyes met. The atmosphere was raw, pulsating with tension as they stared at each other. One of his eyes was bright blue, the other grey, much like her own. She didn’t even notice that at first, because she was simply struck by the coldness in them. But something else was lurking behind the layer of ice – something vulnerable, something mourning. Momo’s eyes filled with tears.
Suddenly, Shouto looked away and stood up. “Good night, lady Momo.” Then he left.
Soon after, she went back to the guest bedroom where she spent a sleepless night replaying that evening in her head over and over again, desperately trying to think of a way to make everything better. The fact was, plain and simple, that she panicked – maybe her teachers were right, maybe she did lack the flexibility needed to make quick decisions.
Maybe she was right to doubt herself.
She was up long before the dawn, getting ready to set off on her journey through the woods to the nearest village, as she knew Izuku, Uraraka and Iida would be stopping there. Before they headed to retrieve the All Mighty sword, they had agreed they would meet there if something happened and they had to split up. She was grateful that Iida had the foresight to suggest it.
Fuyumi prepared lunch to take with her and was waiting for her at the front door which only made Momo feel worse. Although she didn’t mean to, she still hurt Shouto even though he and Fuyumi were so kind to her.
The prince didn’t come to say goodbye and she couldn’t blame him. Momo opened the door and stepped outside, but then she paused and looked back into the beautiful, silent chateau.
“I meant it when I said you could join us,” she called, her voice echoing in the empty hall. She felt a little foolish, but it was better than leaving without a word. And she felt he was listening. “I’m sorry I reacted like that, but I still want to be your friend if you let me. I must go now, but I’ll be back in seven days to ask you again. I know it’s not my place to force you to do anything, just… please, think about it.”
Having said that, she turned around and marched outside. Fuyumi took the lead and after an hour of walking Momo came across a road. It was covered in dirt and dead leaves, but she could see cobblestones underneath in some parts.
“Is this the way out?” she asked Fuyumi, whose light was faint and violet that morning. She turned bright green in response.
Momo bowed deeply. “Thank you for everything, princess. I hope I’ll be able to repay your kindness. I will come back for Shouto and I’ll find a way to help you both. You have my word.”
Their ways parted there – Fuyumi headed back home, while lady Momo followed the old road to the village.
Only a few days ago she was hopelessly lost in the woods that seemed ready to devour her whole. Now she was taking a rather pleasant walk with sunlight filtering through the trees and birds chirping, but her heart…
…her heart was heavy.
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While checking into the village’s sole inn, Momo found out that the only one waiting for her there was Ochako. That, of course, made her worry, especially when she found out the witch’s leg was wrapped in bandages – but once they sat downstairs to have something to eat and drink, Ochako cheerfully assured her that it was nothing serious. Tenya and Izuku weren’t there, because they heard something about a dragon shape-shifter living in a village a three-day journey away and wanted to meet him, maybe even convince him to join their cause. Then, in whisper, she also confirmed that they were able to retrieve the All Mighty sword. That was when she got hurt.
Momo listened to Ochako’s happy chatter, anxious not to miss a word. Apparently, the witch volunteered to stay behind and wait for Momo’s return while recovering from her injury. Momo didn’t ask what they’d do if she didn’t return, but she knew Izuku had plans for anything, probable or improbable. It saved them a few times already.
Then came the inevitable question. She knew it would come, but that didn’t mean she wanted to answer it.
“Where were you?”
“I… I got lost in the forest. I hardly knew where I was, but I remember crossing a stream-”
The entire inn went quiet – all eyes were on the two girls. The first one to speak up was the innkeeper, a young girl with long green hair and large hands: “You went that deep into the forest? Isn’t that area forbidden?”
Now it was Momo’s turn to be surprised: “I don’t know anything about that.”
The innkeeper looked up, tapping her chin with her finger. “We had some royal guards here a year ago or so. They said there was a horrible beast in the forest and everyone must stay away, ribbit.”
“It’s a pity,” one of the locals remarked over his beer. “The king had a summer residence there and it brought extra business to this place.”
“Well, I didn’t run into any beast,” Momo stated with a strained smile. “I must be very lucky.”
After that, other customers resumed their talk, some of them exchanging stories about the chateau. But Momo could still feel the innkeeper’s lingering gaze on her. Obviously, they couldn’t talk about prince Shouto there. What she didn’t realise was that very little was necessary to start gossip – and gossip travelled fast.
Later that evening, in Ochako’s room, Momo shared with her a summary of what really happened in the forest. Now that she was reunited with her friend and surrounded by people, the events seemed like a distant dream.
“I messed up,” Momo concluded with a sigh.
Ochako wrapped an arm around her shoulders, holding the young knight close. “But you’re going back there, right?”
She nodded. “I promised.”
“My leg should be as good as new in a few days and I can go with you. Cursed places got nothing on me!”
Momo gave her a watery smile in response. She really had the best friends in the world and she hoped they’d be also Shouto’s friends soon.
A strange message reached the king.
Momo spent the following two days cleaning her weapon and armour, unaware that four riders set off from the capital towards the enchanted forest, followed by a carriage without windows.
The day after, she wrote a letter home and made sure it contained only the most trivial of information, because she didn’t want her parents worry more than they already did.
The riders barely slept and changed their horses on every stop, because time was of essence. Since there was reasonable doubt cast on the chateau as a safe hiding place, they had to move prince Shouto somewhere nobody would ever find him. Whether the prince agreed or not.
The next day Momo went to the edge of the village to gather some herbs for Ochako. The innkeeper – Tsuyu – shared with them a special medicine for her injuries and the witch wanted to make a charm against fire for her inn to thank her. She still had trouble walking for extended periods of time and so Momo offered to gather the ingredients herself. Shouto had seven days to make up his mind – in the meantime, the least she could do was to make herself useful.
The riders entered the village – they were ordered not to waste time, but the long journey exhausted them and only a fool would wander into that forest at night. They passed by a beautiful girl with shining black hair who seemed to be busy picking flowers.
Momo nearly dropped her herbs when she saw four members of the royal guard entering the backwater village she was staying in. There was only one reason for their presence that she could think of and didn’t like the implications.
She quickly stashed the herbs for Ochako into her bag and hurried back into the inn. Tsuyu was just serving the guards their dinner and beer. If their sudden arrival surprised her, she didn’t show it. The other patrons were stealing glances and whispering among themselves, but not a single one approached them.
She sat at the nearest table, in hopes they would say something about the purpose of their stay. It could be perfectly innocent, of course, but Momo found it hard to believe that their presence so close to Shouto and Fuyumi was a mere coincidence.
Tsuyu brought her a glass of dandelion lemonade, a knowing look in her dark eyes. She accepted it gratefully and made herself as comfortable on the wooden chair as possible, taking tiny sips of her drink and trying to look like she wasn’t eavesdropping.
The guards stayed quiet, probably too tired from their journey and she was about to give up, when their leader spoke up:
“No more beer tonight. We must be up at daybreak, if we want to make it to the destination and back before sunset.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna take that long, boss.”
“The… cargo might put up a fight. Better safe than sorry.”
It took Momo all of her self-control to maintain her composure when she realised what they were talking about. They meant to take Shouto away before she would be able to talk to him.
She finished her drink, brought the glass back to Tsuyu and went upstairs. Ochako was napping in their room – she briefly considered waking her, but then decided to write a note instead. Her friend would surely try to dissuade her from what she was about to do.
Momo knew full well her actions were reckless at best, but if she didn’t act – who would?
She placed the note and the herbs next to Ochako’s sleeping face and in that moment the other girl woke up.
One look at Momo, wrapped up in her cloak with her sword hidden underneath, was all it took:
“Are you going to see him so soon?” The witch sat up and yawned, stretching. “It’s almost dark outside already. You should at least wait for the morning.”
“There are some of the king’s men downstairs. I heard them, they’re going take him away tomorrow – I must get there first!” She took Ochako’s hands into her own, her voice pleading. “Could you make some kind of a light for me? I wouldn’t get lost again with one. I… I must talk to him. It’s very important to me.”
Ochako realised there was no point in arguing with Momo – the young lady had made up her mind. She tilted her head aside, deep in thought. “I could, and it would be easy – it’s a basic spell – but the light might attract all kinds of wild animals to you.”
“Could you make an object glow?” Momo asked after a while, hopeful. If Ochako could do it, she had a plan.
She unsheathed her sword. “Could you do that with just the blade? I can keep it sheathed unless I need light.”
Ochako’s face lit up with a smile. “That’s a brilliant idea! Hand it over.”
When the witch was done with her sword, its blade gained a strange, iridescent glow – according to her, it would disappear in a day or two, but the moment she gave it back it shone like starlight in her hands.
The blade seemed to cut the darkness itself when Momo entered the forest again, and she hoped it would bring her to Shouto before it was too late.
Momo walked through the forest with pounding heart.
Step by step.
In the dark, the chateau seemed out of reach.
She pressed on.
Breathe in. An owl cried above her head. Breathe out. She didn’t know yet what she’d tell him. Breathe in. A twig snapped under her foot. Breathe out. Sickly light appeared in the distance. Breathe in.
Momo stopped in front of the door, took a deep breath and raised her hand to knock. She couldn’t. All the doubts she had been trying to ignore came flooding back – what if he wouldn’t listen to her? What if she only added to his misery? What if she misjudged the situation? What if he just wanted to be left alone? She never asked; only assumed.
But he looked so lonely.
She knocked at the door – last time it opened before she could even touch it, but now it looked as if it would never open. The longer Momo stood in front of that door, the more it seemed to mock her. She banged at the door, half from the need to be heard, half from the desire to show the door who was the boss, as childish as that was.
Her tutors always worried that Momo was too indecisive. Well, she was more than determined now; she would not leave without warning Shouto about the guards sent to take him away.
The door opened at last and Momo marched in. Her hand shot up to cover her mouth as she took in the scene, eyes wide open. The chateau had changed since her departure. In just a few days spiders covered the ceiling with their webs, the air was thick with dust and that strange dignified melancholy of the place turned into full mourning.
She could choke on that hopelessness.
Fuyumi was there to welcome her, but even her light seemed weaker, sadder. She wanted to hug her, but how to wrap her arms around a speck of light, no bigger than a firefly?
“What happened?” she demanded to know. “And where’s Shouto? The king sent guards to move him away from here – I must tell him.”
The light flickered and gained a pale green tint.
“I… I think I understand. Thank you.” Momo bowed to Fuyumi and ran towards the greenhouse.
She found him there, surrounded by white roses. No red roses in sight anymore, only a handful of crimson petals like blood stains trampled beneath his feet. When he heard her, he lifted his head and simply looked at her, without a word.
“I know I am here early, but I need to talk to you.”
“I’m surprised you bothered returning at all,” he responded in a flat tone. “There is nothing to talk about. I don’t care about joining your group. I’m not interested in making friends.”
“But what about your curse?”
“It’s my curse. I will deal with it as I see fit. My place is here, where nobody screams when they see me.”
“This is what I came to tell you. A few of the royal guards came into a nearby village. Their order is… they called you cargo. Do you want to just accept that too?” her voice came out all choked up and Momo hated it. “You fought for your father so often… can’t you fight for yourself at least once? There are so many good people out there, Shouto. Better than me, that’s for sure.”
“I can fight the guards off.” He touched a rose and in the blink of an eye its petals were covered in a thin layer of ice. “Maybe you remember that he took great pains to make a perfect weapon out of me.”
“You’ll fight them and then he’ll send more. All I ask for is a chance.”
Silence. He studied her face for a long time, but Momo didn’t avert her gaze – suddenly, as if he found something he was looking for in her eyes, his expression softened. “Tell Fuyumi. I’ll pack – we still have time, right?”
“We do.” Momo hoped she was right about that.
Fuyumi received the news with delight, as far as Momo could tell. Her light flared up in a flash of brilliant white and she set off to prepare the chateau for their absence. Shouto joined them again an hour later, wearing standard travel clothes, gloves covering his hands and a cape that partially obscured his face.
It was already nearing dawn, which made her nervous. They needed to be careful if they wanted to avoid the guards. And they wouldn’t catch a break even if they managed to avoid them, because once they found the chateau empty, there was no telling what they would do.
Lady Momo trusted that Ochako would be ready to go as soon as she came back. Then they could leave the village immediately and meet Tenya and Izuku half-way. The plan depended a bit too much on luck for her comfort, but Shouto made it clear he trusted her judgement. That alone gave her the courage to risk it.
As soon as the chateau’s door shut behind them, Fuyumi took the lead, her light guiding them through the night. They didn’t talk much. As the sky grew paler, the danger of running into the guards increased. When they reached the edge of the forest, Shouto stopped.
“I’ll wait here for you and your friend. If people saw me here and father heard about it, it could spell trouble. I heard my face is quite memorable.”
The corners of Momo’s lips quirked upwards. His sense of humour was terrible – she loved it.
Once she was out of sight, Shouto settled down between the protruding roots of a large oak tree and waited. It had been almost a year since the last time he wandered so far from the chateau – so long that he felt as if there was a link connecting him to it. And the link was about to break. The change was welcome, but at the same time it made him nervous. Maybe Momo was wrong and he was no longer fit for human company. He knew he was a beast.
But when she looked at him, he didn’t feel like one.
Fuyumi’s light faded into soft pink as she dozed off on his knee. Poor girl, they both stayed up all night and with all the excitement it was small wonder she felt tired. Minutes passed by, slowly, too slowly, one after another, like pouring caramel.
At last he heard lady Momo coming back – carefully, he put Fuyumi into his pocket and got up, dusting off his clothes.
“Put your hands where I can see them,” shrieked a male voice. The prince put his hands up and slowly turned around. He found himself face to face with the four royal guards Momo warned him about. Three of them had their swords unsheathed – the fourth one didn’t seem to carry a weapon on his person. Shouto couldn’t believe his own carelessness, but it didn’t matter at the moment. He could fight off four men. Although the fourth one worried him, since he didn’t know what could be expected of him.
In a swift movement Shouto unsheathed his own sword and lunged at the first man.
He realised, with terrifying clarity, how rusty he was. Life in solitude didn’t exactly provide him with many sparring partners. So far, he managed not to get hit, but he had yet to land a blow himself and he was sweating already.
One guard down.
The fourth man kept his distance, but Shouto noticed he was mumbling something underneath his breath. A mage? That meant trouble, because he already had his hands full with the other fighters.
Two guards down.
He lost his footing and the sword fell out of his hand. He leaped away and his back hit something solid. The third fighter stepped behind the mage. Shouto glanced back. There were solid iron bars growing out of the ground all around him and meeting above his head.
Like a beast.
Shouto gritted his teeth and focused his magic on the bars in front of him. The air around him crackled with power, carrying the familiar smell of freshly fallen snow, but instead of shattering his prison, the spell reflected off the bars and hit Shouto in the chest. His back crashed against the wall of the cage. He collapsed, desperately gasping for breath.
The mage he stood against was even stronger than he had suspected.
Fuyumi slipped out of his pocket, her golden light brighter than he had ever seen before. She floated between the bars – that moment her light flickered but grew stronger again as soon as she was away from the cage.
For the first time since a spell backfired and gave her her current form, he could hear her voice.
“Leave my brother alone!” Her light grew so impossibly bright Shouto had to avert his face. The cage started fading before his eyes.
The mage finally countered, renewing the cage before Fuyumi could make it disappear completely.
Whether father acknowledged it or not, Fuyumi possessed impressive talent for magic and her control for it bordered on virtuosity. But could she keep up with the enemy?
For a second, Fuyumi gained the upper hand and Shouto fell through the bars of the cage. Without wasting a second, he grabbed his sword and rushed to his sister’s aid – yet, before he could do anything, the third, undefeated guard attacked him.
Both Shouto and Fuyumi had their hands full and he didn’t like their odds. He wasn’t sure what that deflected spell earlier had done to him, but he had trouble breathing and his head was spinning. It took all his willpower to focus on that single enemy.
A pillar of fire shot out from the ground right below Fuyumi. Shouto screamed. The guard seized the chance and the prince only narrowly dodged a blow that would otherwise be his ruin.
Two against one, then.
“How dare you!” A terrible crash as the guard deflected a hit from Momo.
He didn’t see her approaching, but there she was, with a young witch in pink robes. The prince was delighted to see her – it was becoming a bit of a pattern.
“Fall back, Shouto,” she ordered, without a trace of shyness or hesitation. She stood there, commanding and fearless. “We’re taking over.”
The witch – Ochako, was it? – grinned at the mage, emitting aura that could be only described as murderous.
“I’m gonna tear you in half,” she promised.
Dozens of rocks of all sizes shot up from the ground and started hurling themselves at the mage. He managed to jump aside and dodge most of them, but one still hit his shoulder at full speed. Ochako launched herself at him and punched the mage so hard Shouto’s jaw hurt just watching.
In the meantime, Momo was doing her best to remind the guard of the meaning of fear. He was only defending against the avalanche that was the lady’s swordsmanship, without a single chance to land a hit of his own.
Shouto could no longer ignore the dizziness taking over him.
His sword fell to the ground before he did. The last thing he heard before losing consciousness was Momo’s cry.
Ochako was already tying up the unconscious fighters, while Momo, kneeling by Shouto’s unconscious body, was trying to wake him up. How long it all took? A minute or two? Two thousand years? She didn’t know. He seemed to have no serious injuries, but he stayed unresponsive. She moved him into a recovery position, whispering gentle, reassuring words to him the entire time.
Fuyumi appeared as well, faint and flickering above her brother’s body.
“What happened?” she asked, her throat tight.
“His ice… deflected,” the light responded, to Momo’s astonishment. The voice sounded as if coming from great distance, but it had to be Fuyumi.
“We need to get the heck out of here,” Ochako warned. “I can float him for a kilometre or two, until he’s better.”
Momo took Shouto’s hand – icy cold. His chest barely moved as he breathed. Soft, shallow breaths. Fuyumi by her ear let out a sound that was too much like a choked sob.
She covered her mouth, struggling against the burning in her eyes. He couldn’t fall on the threshold of freedom.
He deserved so much more than father’s orders and mother’s curse.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, her head bowed. “I couldn’t do anything, in the end. I shouldn’t have… it’s all my fault. You don’t have to forgive me, just wake up. Please, wake up, Shouto.” Her eyes welled up with tears, as hot as his skin was cold.
She placed her hands on his cheeks, leaned down and kissed his forehead.
The moment her lips touched his face, a visible crack appeared on the side covered in crystals. Momo, breathless, watched them fall apart, disappearing into nothing more than a thin layer of shimmering particles, dusting his cheeks, his hair, his eyelashes. His other side remained the same.
He cracked an eye open. “Lady Momo?” he mumbled, his voice raspy. “Why are you crying?”
“Sorry,” she smiled through the tears, wiping her cheeks with shaking hands. “I’m just really happy you’re all right.”
He sat up with a huff. Then he noticed his hand, which was no longer encased in crystals. He touched his face, tracing it with his fingertips. The silvery dust covering his skin disappeared like melting snow.
“I never believed the curse would leave me. Thank you, Momo.”
She brushed a wayward strand of hair away from her eyes. He looked so strange and new to her now, although the eyes watching her remained unchanged. “I wish I could have done more.”
“You did more than Fuyumi and I achieved in a year,” he responded.
“You helped my little brother and I got my voice back,” Fuyumi added. “Neither of us hoped things could get better, but you proved us wrong.”
Momo simply knew she was blushing face to face with all that praise, yet she couldn’t find the words to express her feelings. So she did what she wanted to do so many times already in the past few days – she threw her arms around him and pulled him into a tight hug.
He completely froze in surprise at first. The he let out a soft sigh and wrapped his arms around her waist, inhaling the warm scent of her skin.
“I don’t want to ruin the moment,” Ochako said, disturbing the peaceful quiet that settled between them, “but we really need to go.”
Momo, red like a rose, let go off him immediately. He stood up and offered her his hand to help her get up, which she accepted gladly. With Fuyumi floating above Shouto’s shoulder and Ochako walking next to Momo, they set off, still holding hands.
The curse wasn’t broken completely and the stunt they pulled that day would definitely catch up with them, but as long as they held onto each other, the future didn’t seem so bleak.
They would make it.