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It’s a bad night for this. It’s raining, a misty sort of drizzle that dusts his hair and sticks in his feathers. They shiver and fluff up against the damp, but his wings are still pathetically small from the fight with the high-end nomu. He still looks like a half-plucked chicken that only just narrowly escaped the butcher.

And was stupid enough to hop back on the butcher’s block. He eyes Dabi warily, the street lights casting his already scarred face in a ghoulish sort of shadow. He can’t fly like this; his only defense is the single primary feather he has left, tucked carefully against his back. This is a peaceful meeting, supposedly, if any meeting with a villain can be considered as much. Trust one to pick the dirtiest alley he can find.

“I’m tired of tests,” Hawks grouses, swatting a raindrop threatening to drip off the tip of his nose.

“Impatient,” Dabi murmurs, “for someone who sympathizes with our cause so passionately.”

Eager,” he counters, “to be done with doing your job for you. I gave you the number one hero.” Something inside him twists guiltily at the memory, that day carved in the scar down Endeavor’s face. It wasn’t supposed to go like that.

“Who is enjoying more popularity than ever before.” Dabi’s head ticks sideways, and his eyes flash blue in the headlights of a passing car. The area he’s chosen is too urban, too populated. Hawks would have chosen differently, but he wasn’t given an option. As always, he’s simply rugged along like a fish on a line. “Curious.”

Yes, at least that went right. Endeavor was certainly never going to find his footing as the new number one on his own, not even he kept trying to chase the shadow of a man who was already gone. The man’s got the personality of a hot coal, but he can fight. He did fight.

Hawks nearly smiles. He knew he’d been right, bringing Endeavor. His smug satisfaction wavers. As it turned out, anyone less would have died.

“That’s what happens when you don’t follow the plan,” Hawks says pointedly, his expression flat and sardonic. “Unforeseen consequences.”

He needs Dabi to act predictably. He needs to have a firm hand on the situation. The moment he loses control is the moment innocents start to die.

He takes a step forward, his head bent low. He doesn’t like being this close. Dabi smells like ash, like his fire burns so hot it’s left the rest of him hollowed out and charred. “Listen—”

“Wait.” Dabi raises a finger.

Click.

Hawks freezes, his head going up. His feathers quiver.

Clickclickclick. The creak of metal, almost too quiet to be heard. Dabi’s eyes shift upward, and Hawks’ follow them. A truck barrels down the road, it’s headlights briefly illuminating the alleyway with searing white light. There’s a fire escape along the side of the one of the buildings. Half the stairs are gone, more of the platforms rusted out and useless. Unremarkable, except for the figure hunched on top of it, a camera in hand. The lens gleams.

Click.

Hawk’s feather whips through the air so fast it whistles, catching their guest by the collar of his shift and hefting him upwards. The man squeaks, his camera falling against his chest, saved by the strap around his neck. Hawks lowers him to the ground before he has a chance to squirm to his death. The situation has gone to hell fast enough without civilian casualties.

It’s not the first time he’s dealt with paparazzi--he’s the number two hero, and high on the popularity charts for a reason. It’s part of the job. He’ll flash a peace sign, take a photo op, let them catch him outside the grocery store wearing mismatched patterns and his hair pushed back. He likes to think of it as all part of the hero machine, easy to work if you keep it oiled well enough.

They’ve never gotten this close before, not when he didn’t allow them to. Hawks’ heart hammers in his chest as he steps forward, his feather flying back to his hand like a loyal dog. “I’m going to need to see that camera,” he says, flashing that a thousand watt grin that’s always won them over before. He’s their number two hero, bold and bright and unpredictable. They love him.

The photographer swallows, his adam’s apple bobbing nervously. His eyes shift, focused on something over Hawks’ shoulder. Dabi, scarred and lurking and very much the villain they all watched play across their television screens not that long ago. Hawks’ heart sinks. The villain the photographer just watched him meet in a dark alley, talking about unforeseen consequences and trust.

“The camera,” Hawks repeats slowly one hand held out. “I’ll give it back, promise.”

The photographer shakes his head, shaking so badly Hawks isn’t sure what he’s doing at first. He clutches his camera so hard the plastic creaks.

Hawks exhales through his teeth, frustration mounting into something close to panic. He doesn't like playing the bad guy, it’s not a good look for him, but he can’t have those pictures getting out. Even without the words filling the space between them, they’re damning enough on their own. He reaches out to grab the camera. He’ll delete them himself.

“The Cloud!” The photographer squeaks, shying backwards against the dirty brick wall. He cringes, peeking out of one eye. “You can’t delete them. They’re all in the Cloud.”

The fuck--Hawks stares, breathing hard, his primary feather held so tightly in his hand that it might snap in half. The Cloud. The fucking--

“If you’re going to do it,” Dabi says, his voice scraping against the filthy concrete and filling the narrow alley like poison, “then do it.”

Hawks comes back to himself all at one, blinking away the fog of panic threatening to overtake him. One hand pins the photographer to the alley wall, the other still clutching his feather like machete. The edge has gone sharp, the feather’s filaments pressed tightly together to form a deadly edge. Hawks takes a staggering step backwards, releasing him.

“Do it,” Dabi presses and Hawks refuses to turn around. He can’t look at him, the fanatical gleam in his eyes, unnaturally blue, as if lit from the inside. “Kill him.”

He exhales, and lets his arm drop, the tip of his feather brushing the ground. “It won’t change anything,” he says. “It’s already done.” A mysterious disappearance would only lead the police back to those photos anyways, though he can hardly even entertain the thought. His stomach flips, nausea crawling up his throat. Would he have done it, given a stronger push? Could he have?

“Tch.” Flames crackle, like striking a match.

Hawks whirls, throwing his feather like a javelin. It strikes between Dabi’s fingers, only briefly pinning his hand to the wall. Just enough time for the photographer to scurry away, his footfalls impossibly loud. Blue flame dances across Dabi’s skin, crawling up the feather and leaving it black and ruined. There goes his last weapon until they’ve grown back fully.

Dabi tips his head back and laughs, exposing the scarred ruin on his neck. Blood drips down his chin where a staple cuts into the tender skin. “Coward,” he says. The blackened shaft of his feather clatters to the ground. It crunches beneath Dabi’s boot as he steps forward, his mouth titled in a lopsided smirk, his eyes just a little too wide. “I always knew you’d be too soft-hearted for this.”

He turns to leave, his hands in his pockets.

“Stop.” Hawks surprises himself. His voice cracks. “Come back.”

What am I supposed to do now? How pathetic, that in that moment the only person he can ask is Dabi.

Dabi stops, haloed by the street light at the end of the alley. He doesn’t turn back, only turns his head sideways in the vaguest sense of interest. “Let me know when you’re ready to be a real villain, Hawks,” he says, and he steps out into the rain-slicked street.

///

The train rattles around him, threatening to shake him apart. Rain streaks the windows, heavier now, and sinks chilly fingers through the metal of the train. The train is surprisingly full for this time of night, a handful of commuters on their way home from their late shifts and people with no place better to go, all equally as bedraggled and miserable as he is.

Hawks sinks low in the hard plastic seat, his wings pressed uncomfortably against the back. They’re small enough to hide like this. That’s something to be grateful for, at least, even if it makes him functionally as useless as he feels. He tugs the edge of his hood forward self-consciously. He’d been smart enough not to wear his hero costume, though it’ll be obvious enough who is is in the pictures.

The pictures. His heart twists, and his phone vibrates.

“Yeah,” he says, accepting the call with more force than necessary. His eyes slide down the train car. A teenager bobs his head in time with music loud enough that it leaks through the headphones. Two older women hold an animated conversation in the corner. No one is paying attention to him.

“There’s nothing we can do,” the police commissioner tells him without preamble. “I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean--” He bites his tongue so hard he tastes blood. Hawks lowers his voice. “There’s nothing you can do? File an--I don’t know, an injunction or something.” Is that what that means? His television legalese leaves something to be desired.

“The paper’s lawyers know what they’re doing,” the commissioner counters. “Trust me, I’ve tried. If we stop them from running the pictures, they’ll only run a story about the number two hero playing a double agent. They’re not going to let this go.”

The number two hero. The title mocks him now. What a fucking spectacle.

The commissioner hesitates. “This might not be the worst thing.”

“Fuck you.” The words are out of his mouth before he can taste them.

Think,” the commissioner says. “The League was always going to hold you at arm’s length. This could be your opportunity to really earn their trust.”

He thinks of Dabi, turning his back, soot still staining his hands. Worse, the photographer, trembling like a leaf. Afraid. Of him. He ducks his head and digs his fingers into his hairline, grounding himself with the pain. It doesn’t matter what the photographer thinks of him, it matters that he’s safe, he reminds himself. It doesn’t matter that he’s about to ruin Hawks’ life for a quick buck, it matters that he’s not a pile of ash in an alleyway right now.

“Hawks?” The commissioner prompts him. Of course. He needs an answer.

“Do I have a choice?” He sighs.

“There’s always a choice.” But he hesitates. Hawks snorts. There’s the wrong choice, and then there’s the right one. He can make everything he’s done so far mean something, or he can throw it all away. If it comes out he’s been a double agent all along, the League will fold in on itself and regroup, even less trusting than before. They won’t get an opportunity like this again.

“Right.” He takes a deep breath. Holds it. Exhales. His shoulders are still as tight as before. “Right. Fine.” His wings squirm unhappily where they’re pressed against the bench. They’ll be a problem when they’ve grown back to their full size, but at least he won’t be so helpless.

He can’t see the commissioner’s face, but he can imagine the relief. It’s always easier when a martyr goes willingly. “We’ll be with you every step of the way,” he promises, whatever that means. Hawks isn’t counting on anything. Not after tonight. Again, the commissioner hesitates. “I advise you lie low tomorrow. It’s going to be bad for a couple of days.”

“Yeah.” It’s all he can say, though he has a couple more expletives lined up for later. He ends the call and drops his hands into his lap, his phone dangling from his fingertips. All he wants to do is sleep, right here on this train if necessary, but there’s no time. He has maybe twelve hours before the story breaks—less, depending on how quickly they get the story online. The moment it hits Twitter, it’s all over. There’s still so much he needs to do.

His phone buzzes again. He musters a smile before he realizes Miruko can’t see him. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Miruko says, always just a little too loud. Her voice presses against the headache budding behind his eyes. “What are you up to?”

“Working?”

She snorts. “With wings like yours? Tell me a lie I might believe.”

Hawks cracks a smile that’s real this time. He likes Miruko. She works hard and she doesn't do bullshit, which makes it surprising they get along so well. It feels like bullshit is all he ever does. “Not about to go clubbing with you at eleven at night, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“You only threw up once last time.”

He closes his eyes and rests his head against the shuddering side of the train. A part of him loves the idea of losing himself in flashing lights and a strong beat for a night, like a dead man walking enjoying his last meal. But he’s still got a job to do, and he’ll regret it in the morning if he gives into dramatics now. “Hey,” he says before he can think better of it. “Can I crash on your couch tonight?”

“Yeah,” Miruko says, and somewhere between that fifth shot and throwing up in an alley they must have gone from colleagues to friends because it’s only after she agrees that she asks, “why?”

“Just…” His eyes roam around the train car. Again, he’s gripped with the urge to toss caution to the wind. He could tell her the truth. She’s the number five hero, she probably deserves to know. She’s his friend. He wonders if they’ll tell Endeavor the truth. Either way, he’s going to kill him once he connects the dots about their battle with the high-end nomu. “Going through some shit.”

Miruko laughs with her whole body, even over the phone. “What else is new?” She gives him her address, and he hangs up feeling just a little bit lighter. The press will be all over his apartment building by morning, but at least he can get a little sleep so long as he sneaks out of Miruko’s by dawn.

His apartment is quiet when he steps through the door, lit only by the warm hall light. He always feels the most himself here, sometimes in the worst way. It’s too quiet, too homey, too warm. In the outside world, on the job, he can keep moving at a near constant pace, sure of the fact that there’s always someone who’s going to need saving. Here he’s forced to stop and exhale, the mundanity of life catching at his heels like quicksand.

His cat brushes against his ankles, purring in what sounds like welcome home but actually means feed me, please. Hawks reaches down to scratch between her ears. She’s a scrawny old thing he found on the street last year, mouthy but just as content with going full days without seeing him so long as her bowl is full, but he’ll need to figure out what do do with her. The police will have to search his apartment to keep up appearances.

He doesn’t bother to tidy up for their benefit. He finds a beat up old backpack and stuffs it with clothes. His wings are small enough to hide for the moment, but his clothes weren’t built with hiding in mind. He settles for anything red instead, where his feathers might blend in against his back. He lays his hero costume at the very bottom. It’s practical, he tells himself. He’ll be able to fly again soon enough, and he’ll be grateful for the lined jacket then. That’s all there is to it.

He leaves the cat in her carrier outside his neighbors door, a bag of cat food and an envelope stuffed with cash leaning against it.

///

Miruko makes him have at least one drink, because evidently she bagged some bigshot villain downtown tonight, and it’s a crime not to celebrate. Either that or she feels bad for him, standing on her doorstep looking like someone dragged him out of the gutter.

“Must be some kind of shit if you ended up here,” she says as she tosses a pillow onto her couch, well after midnight. Every time Hawks glances at the clock he silently calculates how much sleep he might get before he has to sneak out again. He isn’t even sure where he’s going to go yet.

Miruko’s couch creaks every time he moves, but it’s almost impossible to fall asleep anyways. His mind runs through the night's events again and again, like film through his hands. What could be have done differently? Stayed home, for starters. He rolls onto his back and throws an arm over his eyes, his wings squashed underneath him. He forgot how much more vulnerable he is when he can’t fly. It’s not that the paparazzi didn’t want to follow him before, it’s just that they could never keep up.

Unless it was staged. Unless this was another one of Dabi’s tests. If it is, he suspects he’s failed.

The commissioner would scold him for that, but he doesn’t much care what the commissioner thinks right about now. It’s bad enough he’s come within arm’s reach of a villain and let him go, again and again and again. He won’t kill for them too.

He doesn’t know when he falls into a fitful sleep, only that he dreams of blue flames and burning. They turn his wings to ash and crawl up his skin, leaving ruin where they touch. Smoke darkens the air and fills his lungs, black as shadow and oily. He can’t breath, he can’t—

Hawks wakes up with a start. He jerks upwards only to be slammed back down, and abruptly everything makes a little more sense.

Miruko sits in his chest, one hand wrapped around his throat. Her thumb presses against his jugular—a warning. Her phone glows in her other hand, cutting through the gray early morning light that leaks from under the curtains. Hawks doesn't have to see the screen to know that he’s on it.

“Didn’t know you were into that,” he croaks, and he kind of deserves it when she digs her heels into his gut. He wheezes. No one has ever accused Miruko of being dainty, but she’s heavier than he would have expected. His wings squirm, trapped beneath him. It’s not as though the pin feathers he has left would do him any good anyways.

“Shut up.” Miruko punches a number into her phone, her ears quivering with rage. Is she calling the police? He would laugh if he could find enough air in his lungs.

“Double agent,” he squeaks, his hands held up in the universal signal for surrender.

“Yeah, I figured that out,” she snarls.

Not that kind.”

She hesitates, her hair falling over half her face in a white curtain. She should look ridiculous, wearing a tank top and pajama pants patterned with cartoon carrots, but she didn’t get to be number five on popularity alone. She could pick him up by the neck and throw him out the window if she felt so inclined. His wings twitch weakly. He sincerely hopes she doesn’t.

Hawks takes as deep a breath as her weight will allow. “I’ve been working to infiltrate the League,” he says in a rush. “Since after Kamino. Pleasegetoffme.”

Miruko cocks her head, considering for a moment longer before she finally climbs off of him. Hawks sits up and inhales deeply, his ribs protesting every movement. “Shit,” he coughs, rubbing his sternum. “You’re heavier than you look.”

She’s not in a joking mood. She eyes him warily, her phone still clutched in one hand, though the screen as gone black. “After Kamino,” repeats. “That means that shit with the nomu--”

“Didn’t go as planned,” Hawks fills in hastily. It looks bad, when she says it like that. “They don’t trust me yet. The villain that attacked us, the one in the photographs--he calls himself Dabi. He’s the only one I’ve been allowed contact with.”

Miruko frowns, but he can see her softening. Her ears relax slightly. “Is that what all this is?” She waves her phone, though the screen is still dark. “Some ploy to gain their trust?”

“Inadvertently,” he admits. “But yeah, basically.” His wings droop. “Do you believe me?”

She snorts. “If you were lying, I’d hope you’d have a better story,” she says. “You really are going through some shit, huh?”

Hawks actually laughs. His ribs ache in response. “Told you so.” He sits up properly, stretching his arms over his head. He feels like garbage, complete with a nasty crick in his neck that he can’t entirely blame on Miruko’s rude awakening. Is this what getting old feels like? He squints in the pale morning light. “I should get going. They’re probably going to be harassing all the top ten for a statement soon. Say something nice about my hair, would you?”

She meets his bluff with a thoughtful frown. He likes that Miruko doesn’t do bullshit, he reminds himself, but just this once he wishes she’d play along. “Hold on,” she says, and she disappears down the hall, her footsteps loud. He considers ducking out while he has the chance, but she’d probably kick his ass if she caught him.

She returns a minute later with a bundle of fabric in her arms. She shoves it at him. “Here,” she says. “You’re obvious as hell with those chicken wings sticking out.”

Hawks shakes it out. It’s a puffy white jacket with a black hood. “I didn’t know they made Thirteen merch,” he says, inspecting the cartoonish patch of the space hero sewn over the breast.

“Yeah, well, it’s limited edition, so I’d like it back someday,” Miruko huffs.

Hawks grins, and wonders if it has anything to do with Miruko getting roped into being a guest speaker at UA last month. “Thanks,” he says, slipping it on. It rustles every time he moves but it’s light and comfortable, with enough room that he doesn’t have to fold his wings to tightly against his back.

He fusses with the cuff, his eyes down. He’s grateful, but he doesn’t know how to say it. It’s not the jacket or the couch or even the fact that Miruko believed him when she didn’t have to. Maybe it’s just he’s glad to have someone else know the truth, someone who understands. Like the truth has a physical weight, and the more people know it the less he’ll have to carry on his own.

“I think you could beat Jeanist for number two, you know,” he says instead. “If you stop swearing so much on TV.” She’s only number five right now, but there’ll be a lot of reshuffling after he falls from grace. Endless opportunity.

“And get volunteered for shit like this?” She quirks an eyebrow. “Not likely.”

Smart woman. “There’s one more thing,” he says gravely. “I need you to punch me.”

Her fist connects with his face before the last word is even out of his mouth, sending him reeling backwards, bracing himself against the couch. “Fuck,” he spits, touching his lip gingerly. How did she manage to connect with both his eye and his lips? “You were supposed to ask why!”

“To make it look like I kicked your ass out if anyone sees you leaving,” Miruko says. “Obviously, dumbass. Don’t ask before you’re ready for it next time.”

///

By 8:30 AM it’s spread through the hero blogs. By 9, it’s made the morning news. By 10:30, the whole of Japan knows what he’s done.

NUMBER 2 HERO HAWKS - IN LEAGUE WITH THE LEAGUE? MORE AT 11.

Hawks watches the fight against the high-end play out on the giant screen in the center of the mall, the lesser news of the day relegated to scrolling against the red banner at the bottom. He came here because he knew it would be crowded and he could get lost in it, but there’s something selfish in it too. He ditched his phone already, in case someone outside the know gets any ideas about tracking him down, and he feels cut off without it. He buries his hands deep in the pockets of his borrowed jacket. Probably a good thing. He wouldn’t dare check Twitter right now.

Still, he wants to know what they’re saying about him. There’s no sound on the giant wall screen, but subtitles play across the bottom in white. He watches himself struggle to support Endeavor, half his face a bloody mess, and blue fire blooms across the screen. The screen splits, and on the right is a still photo. It’s grainy and dark but the photographer caught the moment that headlight’s passed down the street, highlighting the gold of Hawks’ hair from behind. They’re both looking up, Hawk’s mouth half-open, his primary feather already in the air. Dabi’s eyes gleam like a cat’s.

In the present, Hawks’ mouth twists. Well, it’s certainly not a good look. He’s hardly giving Dabi a slap on the back and flashing a peace sign, but he’s not trying to arrest him either. That’s damning enough.

Most of the people at the mall are focused on their shopping, but enough have stopped and lingered that there’s something of a crowd watching the screen, their faces drawn and worried. All Might’s retirement after Kamino changed things in a way they didn’t realize they could be changed. Their Symbol of Peace was mortal after all.

This isn’t the same thing, but it’s a blow. He can see it in their eyes, the sting of the betrayal. It makes his shoulders curve inwards, trying to make himself smaller. If you can’t trust your heroes, who can you trust?

“Is that a Thirteen jacket? Where did you get that?” A little girl with four eyes blinks up at him, all four of them wide and wondering.

Hawks flashes a smile on instinct and hopes it mitigates the effect of his black eye. “Limited edition,” he says, “but I hear they might be bringing them back.” If his reputation is salvageable after all this, he’ll see to it himself. He wonders if Thirteen knows they have so many fans.

The girl opens her mouth to speak when suddenly her eyebrows pull together, and she frowns. “What happened to your friend’s face?” She asks loudly, looking over his shoulder.

Hawks stiffens, the smile frozen on his face. “Go find your mom,” he says with a jerk of his chin. “She’s probably looking for you.”

The girl throws one last look over her shoulder as she does so, too curious for her own good. She scampers away toward a woman rifling through her bags nearby, her sneakers pattering against the cold tile floor.

“Cute kid,” Dabi says. He’s picking idly at his bottom lip, the scarred and discolored skin wrinkling grotesquely beneath his fingertips. He’s barely attempted to disguise himself, for someone so easily recognizable at the best of times. He wears a dark hoodie, the hood pulled up over his hair, but it doesn’t do much to hide the gleaming staples embedded in his face. One of his sleeves is pushed up to the elbow, exposing his scarred forearm. “You look like shit.”

As if he has room to talk. Hawks actually snorts, before he remembers where they are. Namely, standing beneath a giant photograph of their faces. He tugs his jacket closer. “Didn’t sleep great,” he snaps. “What are you doing here?”

The corner of his mouth quirks in the shadow of a smile. “Thought I’d see how life as a traitor was treating you.”

“It’s been twelve hours.” Not even.

His eyes flicker up and down. “Not a strong start then.”

“I thought you were done with me,” Hawks snaps. His eyes cut across the mall. Are they starting to attract curious glances, or is he only imagining the eyes on his back? “I’m not a real villain. I don’t have anything for you.” Not a hero, not a villain. What else is there?

“Maybe you could be,” Dabi says, and when his eyes roam the mall it’s different. His head is tilted idly, his hood threatening to fall back. Hungry and impassive all at once. “I think everyone underestimates you, Number Two. I think maybe you like that. That you’re happy to let them them think you’re just a quick smile and a pretty face.” He takes Hawks’ chin between his thumb and forefinger and Hawks’ jerks away, his heart hammering. Dabi’s skin is shockingly cold.

“Why would you think that?”

Dabi shrugs with one shoulder. “You’ve done worse for the public’s faith in heroes in twelve hours than the League has done since Kamino Ward,” he says.

“An unforeseen consequence,” Hawks grumbles, recalling their conversation the night before, “of being seen with you.”

“I guess that makes us a good team.” Dabi actually laughs, the sound too loud, bouncing off the mall’s high, glassed ceiling. More than one person casts them a startled look.

“Come on,” Dabi says, turning away. On the screen above them, Endeavor steps up to a podium. He still looks rough, half his face covered in fresh scar tissue, so new it’s barely even a scar at all. But his flames still burn just as brightly, furious to match the look in his eye. “I don’t want to watch this shit.”