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Of Monsters And Men

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THE NORTHERN SECTOR, YEARS PRIOR

 

Todoroki Enji was not a superstitious man by any means of the implication. It was custom to pay visit to a Spellblood when making a decision of importance; any clan withheld the notion of it and typically stuck to such. No matter their reservations. Be that as it may — he is not just any man. He walks with the step of a deity, even if he isn’t of Sage lineage. He didn’t buy into the thought of repercussions, the nonsense of magic. He clicks his tongue at the thought, flames dancing along his jaw. Soon he is to marry the utmost of royalty in the Northerners clan; Rei. She is the embodiment of everything Northblood: powerful ice magic, silvery white hair, pewter-cloyed eyes. Skin that rivaled freshly fallen snow most days, and a perfect willowy frame. Not only would her status as royalty benefit him greatly, but her powers were far too intricate to pass up. Their children would bend the world — perhaps even bring a certain Sage to his knees.

 

I’ll have this world in my hands yet, he thinks, footprints disappearing in the snow the further he ventures.

 

As the trees grow barren, take on near different shapes, the branches thin — a path makes itself distinguishable despite the steadfast wintery down thickly masking the forest floor. Hovering near low branches are perfected dimly illuminated lanterns — suspended purely by magic. These people had always harbored a certain flair for the dramatics. The balls of light nearly move with the breeze, and as the man pays them brief mind, sparks fly, all gathering on the chilled airs toward the east. That’s where he needs to go. He turns on his heel, more than ready to have this little visit pushed aside.

 

His cloak swirls behind him, hood lowered with a pull of broad fingers, resting easily over his shoulders as he comes to stand afore the (rather shabby in his opinion) cottage, exhaling a cloud of breath before he trudges onward, not bothering to knock. Surprisingly, despite the outward appearance, inside is more grandiose than he would have initially pegged it for. Spacious, tapestries of many colors lining the walls, draping across the bannister for the stairs. There’s the scent of incense, fire barely sputtering from its place in the hearth — all signs someone was bound to be home. Though Enji wouldn’t put it past the scatterbrains to leave such unattended. Magicians were careless beings.  

 

A voice breaks him from his reverie; seeming to have come out of  nowhere at all.

 

“...You’re late.” Inky, long hair falls in rivulets over a thick scarf, one that nearly covers Aizawa Shouta’s mouth when he speaks. Dressed in deep gray and black silks, the Spellblood motions his opposite to follow him. By means of simply wanting to get this over with, Enji reluctantly does as such, (though not until after he’s placed himself to walk aside the other is he satisfied) brushing past (and ducking under) the decorative fabric adorning the doorway. He’s lead to a smaller room off to the side — one he can only assume rituals of sorts are done in. The room is darkened, lit only by fading evening light leeching it’s way through from the opposite room. Candles line the surface of the shelf to their left, books in a tongue he doesn’t recognize littering the rest of the spacers. There’s two seats on opposite ends of a wooden oval table, a deep score of a scorch threatening to split it down the middle. It’s old, worn, undeniably so by the charred and blackened gauge of it, but it doesn’t make it look any more inviting. ...Just what did these witches get up to here?

 

Shouta takes his seat, nimble fingers coming to lace together as he regards his company. (A rat would have made a better guest, but he doesn’t speak the thought aloud.) “—I understand you’re here in terms of insight.”

 

A long, much overdue sigh leaves Enji’s mouth, fighting the need to allow his eye to twitch at the casualties of this ordeal. What was the point in pushing formalities? “Yes. What else? I’m to marry Rei of the Northblood.” He leans forward, blazing turquoise meeting that of deep brown, near black. “However, your opinion isn’t needed. I know my path, magician.”

 

A small, barely-there twitch of something lifts Shouta’s lips.

 

“You come all this way for word on your future but you won’t take it. I see.” He leans back then, nonplussed as he studies the blunt nail of his pinky finger. “Perhaps then you’ll at least heed this. Tell me, Enji, do you know the fate of those who marry solely for gain? For power?”

 

Clenched palms begin to release tendrils of smoke into the air between them, sharp jaw stiffening, but Shouta continues.

 

“This world is delicate in balance. Those bigger than us can sense foul intent.” Dark eyes sharpen, redden near the indiscernible pupil.  “Any children born of your blood combined will bear the hideousness of your purpose.”  

 

Enji hadn’t believed him. That decision, daft and bull-headed, was his second mistake. His first was ever thinking he’d had a hold of what his fate was to become.

 

 

The first child is born screaming, bloody, a shock of red hair and bright eyes. In the quiet of their bedroom and with a head of fiery hair almost exactly resembling his father, it’s clear this one is of little to no potential. He holds almost solely Enji’s power, if not an amplified version of it — the kid accidentally sneezes blue hellflame by the time he’s an adolescent. Where this would normally be useful, his muddied ichor prevents him from using it in high doses. He is still his mother’s child all the same — where he burns, he also freezes, and in trying to utilize his power, he burns himself from the inside out. The more Enji pushes him, the more flayed his skin becomes. He’s got his mother’s internal temperature, but coupled with his father’s extroverted, all-consuming quirk, he merely self destructs.

 

Useless, Enji spits, watching the boy curl into a ball after a thick boot delivers a blow to his stomach. Utterly, completely, useless. Four years of anticipation. Four years lost.

 

The next is a girl, snowy white hair like her mother with streaks of crimson bled through. Enji is almost hopeful. But again, her power holds no weight in the way he’d like it to. It’s not enough. Grown bored with beating their eldest, Touya, he turns instead on the woman who’d produced such children. Such disappointments.

 

Another boy is born, another head of snowy white hair. Another useless power.

 

Enji grows restless, angrier, seething. There was no point in it now. Everything he’d married her for, everything he’d hoped to have. It was all for nothing, and he had not a thing to show for it. Just a woman who flinched when he entered a room and a couple of brats who cried too loud when they got hurt. He runs a hand over his jaw, resigning himself. One more time.

 

If this child did not show any sign of the perfect powers… well. He’d take matters into his own hands one way or another. He continues the training with Touya, but it’s of little to no avail. The scars at this point have become ugly, darkened, purpling things, lining his eyes, arms, jaw. He’s absolutely disgusting to look at.

 

Children born of your blood combined will bear the hideousness of your purpose.

 

He hears it in his subconscious without intention, the magician’s voice burning thickly through his skull. Touya did little to nothing to ease his mind; nor did Fuyumi or Natsuo. All quirks that proved fruitless. Unable to take the constant reminder, Enji takes it upon himself to pluck them all of their comfortable niches. One by one. Starting with the first of the failures. Looking at the boy was more than just an eyesore — he was the eldest embodiment of everything Enji had tried to create and failed. Russet hair flutters with the breeze, and he’s turning on his heel, bright near-cyan eyes questioning. Why were they out here, near the flight range? With his mother bedridden, ill with a bad vat of morning sickness, he was uncertain as to why his father would want to be so far out. Enji prevents him from speaking, however, lip curling in distaste as he throws the boy into the snow. They’d come far down the slope, farther than their usual session grounds. They linger at the yawning precipice of the Ridge now, overlooking the valleys below, the spindly trees. Enji stoops low, fisting a hand in that fox-like hair, yanking Touya’s head back, breath hissed through his teeth.

 

“Get the hell out of here. I don’t care where you go or what you do. As long as you don’t come back.” Eyes narrow, venom lacing his tone. “And if you do? It’ll be the last thing you’ve ever done to disappoint me.” Without waiting for an answer, a protest, he kicks him sharply, sending maimed limbs splaying for purchase as the boy wheels into the open air  given by falling from the cliffside. Enji turns sharply, not bothering to wait and see the mess that surely will bloom to life far below, already formulating the lie through his teeth. Boy wandered off during training. I’ll send guards out to look for him. He wouldn’t. They wouldn’t.

 

Somewhere far below, frenzied, scar-riddled hands scour the screaming winds, desperate to grab at any purchase, finding, clasping — tightly with a sharp huff as the breath’s knocked from his lungs — onto golden wings.

 

He does not land on the grounds below.

Chapter Text

THE NORTHERN SECTOR, NOT LONG AGO

 

Rei is heavy with child when she hears news of Touya’s disappearance — it wasn’t unusual or unheard of that children of the Northernlands got lost playing in the bluffs of snow, however, they were always found shortly after. Search parties followed tracks in the plumes, quick to tread for more often than not, for said footprints would be quickly swallowed up by oncoming storms. Even if the Northerners were accustomed to the chill, subzero temperatures, a body could only withstand such a climate for so long. A close eye was expected to be trained on any child outside the immediate grounds, and as such, Rei knew she was justified in her worry whenever Enji would take their eldest away to train.

 

Enji had ensured her they were doing everything they could to return Touya home safely — declined her efforts to plead she was able to help search — You’re with child, he’d said. She was by no means to do anything that might harm herself or the precious life inside her. He’d said much in the same one night when she’d raised her voice at him over the disappearance of their son.

 

You’re with child — you’re lucky. Elsewise I wouldn’t be so kind.

 

Being pregnant offered her a little reprieve, a little bought time when her husband was less cruel. He knew the life inside her was nothing to tamper with, not worth the regular way he treated her, his fiery temper, his lack of patience.

 

Rei’s heart ached so, but unable to do so much as ruminate about it, she set about pacing the castle halls, hands wringing over one in another. She stands one night, facing the great expanse of the moon, light bleeding silver into snowy hair, rustling the furs around her shoulders. She rests hands tightly balled into fists on the ledge, wondering just how her life had come to this. Her parents giving her away without a second thought to man with a horrendous power for the sake of an all-consuming kingdom. For the sake of keeping the throne of the Northernlands in good hands. Hardly, she thinks in spite, fingertips tracing gentle circles over swollen stomach.

 

Months pass, and Todoroki Rei’s days of gentle treatment fall to an end.

 

The youngest boy of the Todoroki royals was born on the coldest Tuesday of the year, shortly after the Winter Solstice. Wind howled outside the building, rattling the frame where it stood. It was early, near dawn when the boy came into the world, quiet for a newborn but fussing all the same. The birth had gone easily, much unlike the other three of his siblings — before him, each had been a labored, timely ordeal.  Fire burns steadfast in the hearth, encompassing the royal’s chambers in a warm swatch of glowing amber. The delivery nurse, one much trusted to the family for years, finishes wiping the boy down, handing him to the mother — Rei’s eyes, slate gray and so very tired, soften as the squirming bundle is placed in her arms. She wipes the gathered sweat from her brow, leaning down to place a kiss to his forehead, lips faint as they are steady.

 

Enji is away from the grounds with his men on a hunt — he’s unknowingly granted mother and son this mercy, this moment of peace in leaving them both. Nimble fingers stroke through hair split evenly down the middle — half snowy white, the other a bloodied red, and Rei, for all her strength, her assuredness, can only hold him a little tighter to her chest. Dread crawls into her heart, burrows in deep, making a home among the nest of arteries, veins, heavy rhythm in the beat it provides. Their solace here would not last long. Enji would snatch this boy up in seconds, finally having been given what he’d entered this deal for. He was getting what he wanted, and this boy, Rei knew, was deemed to reap the result of such. Not even an hour old, and none the wiser. The babe in her arms reaches up, eyes full of wonder as he promptly grabs a strand of white hair in chubby hands, eagerly stuffs it into his mouth. Rei giggles softly, thumb running over the soft right side of his face, eyes misting when she feels the chill there. Near tentatively, she mirrors the action with the left, and sure enough, the warmth under the pad of her thumb is telling her what she already knows. What she’d been dreading. Hot tears spring into the corners of her eyes, track down her cheeks in silent understanding. Rei cries, then. She weeps for her son, for this moment of peace they will never have back, for the fate he is soon to be thrust into. In mild confusion, though she knows it not to be possible, the babe seems to understand, somehow. She cries, and for the first time since his birth, so does he.

 

**

 

Shouto Todoroki has come to learn, and early on at that, that there is little to nothing beneficial to living with royal blood. He is six when Enji first insists on teaching him the many ways to wield and properly use a sword. Only ten or eleven when he is expected to have mastered such. Taken down to the range, where the slopes of snow flurry and build against the cliffside, where pines stand tall but weigh heavy with their cloaks of white, Shouto exhales, fingers numbing despite the gloves he wears. He and his father have been at this for hours on end — and where such a thing has become commonplace, expected, it doesn’t prevent him from wanting to go home any less. He misses his bed, lined with furs from the peoples’ hunt. He misses the fire burning in the hearth, misses not feeling the cold of the wind outside whistle in his ears. He wonders what his mother is doing, or his siblings, if they’ve started the meal yet or if they’re waiting for them to return. The sun in the sky suggests morning has bled into late afternoon, and his stomach rumbles almost painfully.

 

“Show me again.”

 

The voice cuts through his thoughts and almost makes him start, hands fumbling with the hilt of his sword. It’s heavy, and he is not at all muscled enough yet to hold it, though he tries. He tries because that’s what is expected of him, and despite his father being brash, cruel, he wants to do good by him. The more he pleases his father in their combat sessions, the less likely he will return to the castle grounds soured by his son’s lack of prowess. The less likely he is to make a scene of it, take that anger out elsewhere.

 

He steadies himself then, planting his feet firmly and taking the stance he’d been taught. The makeshift target glares back at him -- should be unassuming; it’s just a plank of wood strapped horizontally to a taller, thin post -- but somehow, it seems like it looms over him. Shouto moves sharply, steps as cutting as the blade he wields, slicing the plank clean in two, and he’s pivoted to hold it affront him, albeit with a little stumble, eyebrows drawn low as the wood falls soundless into the drift.

 

“Your ambit needs work. Have you learned nothing from a few days ago?” His father scoffs, a disgruntled twitch of his lips following his question. He isn’t expecting an answer, if the way he turns on his heel is much to go by. “You left your side completely unguarded. Hold your weapon closely to you. It’s easier to be knocked off balance extending your arm so carelessly.” He takes Shouto’s arm in one hand, tugging him along mercilessly. Back to the castle, it seems, and where relief undoubtedly blossoms in his chest, much in the same, as does worry. He never knows what to expect when they return home -- sometimes it’s merely the drawl of meetings, trades they need to smooth over, or duties of the Northerners are expected to follow through with.

 

One such day, a day he thankfully has to himself because his father has busied himself with other matters at hand, he sits on a sun-warmed rock facing the east. His mother sits aside him, slender fingertips moving through his hair. The landscape stretches endlessly, showcasing the warmer regions below of the plains, the expanses of vast forests further to the west, ever barren but beginning to bloom in the promise of spring. His mother had told him of the Woodlanders, a people who thrived in the brush of it all, in the sway of branches in the wind, the crunch of leaves under foot. A friend she had made long ago before she came to be head of the Northerners, a gentle woman with dark viridian hair and kind eyes. She told him of the Pyrebloods, the more fiery sector of the people south. How his father had come from a people not far from them, how he came to be in such power. How the Pyrebloods held their greatest prowess in the training of great creatures.

 

“Like dragons?” He asks, or rather, blurts out, eyeing her with unkempt curiosity. Rei merely laughs, the sound gentle and caught on the breeze as she watches the wind take the wings of a bird farther off, cradle it, allow it to glide.

 

“Yes, dragons.”

 

“Have you ever seen one?” Shouto presses, sitting up a little straighter as he does so. He’s not learned much about them himself -- merely has been told by his siblings about them. Wondered if they were true, if they held any merit. Rei is quiet in her contemplation, lips parting to answer when a sudden, loud exclamation cuts through the momentary silence.

 

“M’lady! You’re needed back at the grounds. The two head of the Pyreblood are..” the messenger’s eyes fall to Shouto, and his voice lowers in slight. “Perhaps this is something best discussed on the way?”

 

Rei brushes him off kindly, standing to her feet, lengthened cloak swirling about her ankles — everything about her carried grace, even in trivial movements.

 

“Come, Shouto.” She offers her hand, the cool slip of skin against his own a welcome comfort, even in the air’s slight chill as it nips at his cheeks.

 

She and the messenger exchange quiet conversation as they walk back; she was called to the castle in regards to nothing of dire circumstance, apparently; merely offers of trade, and she is shooing Shouto off elsewhere once they reach the walls of it. He understands it to be a blessing of sorts — not needing to be involved in such matters as of yet, but he knows now he is expected to find one of his tutors. If he was not with either of his parents, he was to train — that was the unspoken rule. Never to play with his siblings where they often ran in the courtyard, whooping with shouts of joy and exclamations of their game.

 

Sometimes, when caught looking longingly as they played, his father would tug him away from his watch, scolding him all the while. Don’t look at them, Shouto. You’re meant for better.

 

He kicks his heel as he walks, skulking as he does so. It isn’t fair, and he knows this, eyebrows drawn low and a scowl on his face. He turns to head into what he knows to be Rusl’s training circle just outside the west wing, a small area surrounded in low walls of stone that offered a makeshift half-circled enclosure. There were targets set up there, bags of sand to practice throwing, the like. However, he finds himself stopping short just behind a pillar leading to it. There is a boy in the training grounds, idly kicking at one of the many weighted bags as if it’s done something to offend him. He has sandy blonde hair that sticks up every which way, and eyes as red as the blood Shouto had seen beaded on a freshly scored buck. His tanned skin doesn’t match the pale palette that came with living here — he’s seen much more sun than the Northerners ever have. Pyreblood, Shouto recalls distantly, connecting he must be here on part of the trade.

 

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” The boy snaps suddenly, pulling Shouto from his reverie. Really, he hadn’t realized he’d been staring at all. And, much to his horror, the boy seems to hold no personal affiliations to the word space — he’s marching over like he’s done it a thousand times, hands on his hips. “You gonna talk or what, halfie?”

 

The nickname allows Shouto to find his tongue, though despite his slight discomfort with the term, his voice is steady.

 

“Todoroki,” he says, not at all shrinking from the stance the boy had probably tried to make intimidating. And not answering either of the questions the boy had asked, really. “My name is Todoroki.” He’s eyed by a narrowed red gaze for a beat, but the name he’d half-heartedly expected to be given in turn isn’t voiced. Even if this boy is a little off-putting, Shouto finds himself clinging to this like a lifeline — he barely sees other kids his own age besides his own siblings. Shouto notices he’s staring, then, his dark blonde brows quirked.

 

“Why’s your hair like that?”

 

Now it’s Shouto’s turn to be a little baffled — he wasn’t used to this kind of attention. Or scrutiny. Not when it was said so flatly, without reserve.

 

“...Why are you back here?” He asks instead, knowing fully well this was beyond the usual trading grounds. How had this one managed to sneak past the guards?

 

“You never answer shit, huh? Because I wanted to be.” The blonde crosses his arms proudly, tipping his chin. “My ma and old man are working some deal. It’s boring,” he adds in a slight drawl, lifting his shoulders in a shrug.

 

Shouto tilts his head, eyes blinking expectantly. “So you train with dragons, then…?”

 

The question seems to catch the other off guard; he merely balks before he laughs, the sound biting. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

 

“Ah, Shouto, there you are.” Rusl’s voice is soft, though the look he turns to the other boy is rather disapproving. The blonde merely raises his eyebrows at the elder, crossing his arms over his chest. Like he’s supposed to be there. He isn’t. Rusl tells him as much, tells him to go back to his parents, to the main gates -- and even if Shouto had thought he’d mouth off, he doesn’t. (He respects authority at least, bless the gods.)

 

Shouto watches him go with a slight pang of… something in his chest. Regret? Melancholy? He tells himself he’ll travel, someday, meet people of other blood. He will not allow himself to be here forever.

 

**

 

Sometimes, his father disappears into his study chambers, along with a few of his men, and Shouto is never sure what they’re discussing -- his mother tells him it is things better not heard by young ears. Once, he had snuck from his room, down the vast set of stairs, stood outside out the door. He’d had his back pressed against the cold stone of the wall, breath held, exhaled and inhaled only in short increments. He wasn’t sure why he was being so careful -- the men were always loud, boisterous, full of mirth and energy, courtesy of the mead. In all honesty, it should have been fine, not something to worry about, them hearing him. He’d only managed catching words of slicing their heads from their shoulders and something about bathing in the bastard’s blood before shadows had danced not far from where he stood and he’d bolted out of fear of reprimand. He knew his father had to put people in place in order to keep his role, but the thought had struck him harshly as if he’d been slapped across the face. One thing to assume it wasn’t as such, to keep it out of sight and out of mind. But reality hadn’t been so easy to ignore from then on. It was hard to look him in the eye after that night.

 

Now, he knows better. He wishes he didn’t. He is still young, and should not be subjected to such things, and his mother is saying as such once the two of them have gotten back home, settled in. Shouto has made himself comfortable, which he soon realizes is a terrible, terrible lie to tell himself -- just a moment ago, he’d felt full enough to fall asleep comfortably for a few hours after training, entertained the idea of nuzzling his face into the furs of his bed and letting tiredness take him. Now, the meal sits uncomfortably in his belly, dropping and twisting like a stone turned on its side. His mother is busying herself, retrieving the boiling water from its place hanging above the fire, pouring a small amount into her cup. She adds a generous amount of leaves, mouth twisted into something unpleasant as she focuses on the task of it rather than who she’s speaking to.

 

“...He’s eleven, Enji, you’re being too hard on him--”

 

“I know what my son is capable of. And he isn’t even progressing.” The words sting, bite into Shouto with teeth like needles, and he’s raising up a little from his seat. He knows well enough when something ugly is about to break beneath the surface and rise -- he needs to diffuse it. Rei’s slate gray eyes focus on her husband, incredulous, but Enji is backing her into the countertop until her fingers grasp the cup with whitened knuckles.

 

Your son?” Rei retorts, tipping her chin sharply. “He is my own just as much as he is yours. Gods above, Enji, you use him as a tool to--”

 

Shouto hears the sharp crack of Enji’s hand to Rei’s cheek before he sees it -- either he is that fast, or Shouto was merely chanting the mantra of stop, stop, stop! in his head too adamantly to realize his dread was blooming into vivid color right before him. (It would cause him sleepless nights for years to come, burned into the backs of his eyelids and play like some godforsaken record, scratched, broken.) She only takes a moment to absorb the shock of it, or rather, lack thereof -- unfortunately, this was not something she was unaccustomed to -- before she retaliates, shoves at her husband’s chest with frost-laced palms cold enough to burn. She is small, but that does nothing to mar her strength -- Enji is staggered back a few beats, face twisting with malice.

 

Perhaps it was years of pent-up aggravation, biting her tongue, posing perfectly for their people and all around them -- years of having to endure it for the sake of not worrying their children, years pulling at a fraying thread for far too long, only to have it break entirely. Mark the catalyst of all things -- if Shouto were to know this to be the beginning of all things, he would have tried harder. He would have done things differently. If such a thing allowed, he would go back in time, try to change it, try anything by means of himself to twist fate on its axis. But no such thing exists, no mercy is granted, and the past, no matter how much he longed to change it, relived it, had nightmares of it, was set undeniably.

 

Enji’s fingers wrap into moonlit hair like a vice, twist until Rei is shrinking from it, slate gray eyes flying wide upon seeing her son rising from his seat at the table -- his other siblings have retreated to their chambers for the night, and by her surprised, horrified expression, she’d seemed to have assumed Shouto had done the same. She twists then, a wildcat on her feet as she fights to break the hold, purposely wrapping hands around Enji’s wrist, trying for a purchase she couldn’t quite find.

 

“Enji, Enji, stop--”  Her voice breaks; she’s pleading, desperate to spare Shouto from this, desperate to stop this quickly snowballing scene playing out before him. But the avalanche is only just getting started, and Enji couldn't care less that his son is subject to it. Let him see, he thinks, gritting his teeth. Let him see just how intolerable you are. She twists again, nails digging into the skin of his wrist, welting angry pink lines, and that seems to trip the wire -- Enji grabs the still-steaming mug from beside Rei on the counter, his grip white-knuckled on it as is the one in her hair.

 

“Get your hand off me. Know your place, you sorry--” He is about to throw its contents on her when Shouto’s feet seem to dissolve of the vines that had been puncturing into them, rooting him to his place. He doesn’t give it a second thought or even a first -- he has no time to. He simply moves, shooting forward and knocking into Rei’s legs so hard she doesn’t have time to catch herself, and the brunt of the hit causes the intended projection to be hampered. Flawed. Ruined. He remembers the pain of it, white-hot, making him cry out, but above all else, he wants to forget.

 

He wants to forget the sounds of his mother crying, above all else. He wants to forget the way she’d apologized, continuously, not only to him, but his father, as if it had been her fault. He wants to forget it ever happened -- but he knows, had it played out again, had he had the same chance -- he would have taken it for her. 

 

That night, for as much as he’d wanted to previously, Shouto does not sleep.