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Long Road Ahead

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Shouto hadn't been the same since the sports festival.

At first, Enji didn't notice. Their routine, consisting of largely ignored morning pep talks and curt evening greetings under Fuyumi's insistence, didn't change one bit. But something fundamental to their relationship did, a slow but sure change that sprouted from the minute Shouto won his match against the Midoriya boy. It started with Shouto's weekly visits to his mother.

The wall was marred with an ugly black smear from their training session early that morning. It was nothing compared to the melted remains of his treadmill that Touya left behind all those years ago, but it was definitely a start. Enji didn't bother complimenting the brat when he managed to call upon his flames without ruining his shirt in the process - Shouto knew he was improving, and he didn't need another stroke to his ego. He left immediately afterwards, not once paying Enji another glance over his shoulder, any and all of his attention turned towards Fuyumi as she fussed over him right before he left.

Something about the sudden compliance felt odd. Unnatural. Shouto was hesitant at first, as he always was when he regarded his father, but something changed. Small, subtle, but insurmountably significant; his first clue, beyond Shouto's occasional training sessions with him, came that afternoon when he returned from his visit to the hospital.

Shouto never talked much. Their house was always tranquil, even with Fuyumi there, even when they interacted beyond a greeting. So when Enji caught the dull murmur of Shouto's voice drifting down the hall from the living room, muffled under the insistent chatter of the TV show they had switched on in the background, he figured something was off. He left his training room with a towel pressed to the nape of his neck.

"I wish she could meet him," he heard Shouto say to Fuyumi.

Enji approached the back of the couch where they sat, voice as gruff and stern as it always was when it came to Shouto as he demanded, "Who?"

And of course, as always, Shouto only glared and replied with an equally gruff and stern deadpan, "No one."

A few times, during those rare instances where Enji pays Shouto any mind outside of training, he caught Shouto smiling. Smiling. Genuine smiling. The kind of smile that radiated a warmth that rivaled that of his left side. The odd sort of smile that made his eyes soft and his breath hitch. It was weird.

Shouto didn't smile. Shouto wasn't plastered to his phone, Shouto wasn't always too occupied to answer Enji, Shouto wasn't always smiling in a way that Enji didn't recognize. After the first couple of times, the shock of it wore off and was replaced with a different kind of shock altogether. Perhaps it was an eye-opener, this foreign smile that his son donned on those gentle instances, this radiant warmth that had nothing to do with his Quirk. Perhaps Enji, as a father and not as a hero, realized that the unnatural thing wasn't the smile, but the desolate lack of one for so long.

That realization only came when Enji asked him during one of those instances, "What're you looking at?"

Shouto glared. That same frigid glare didn't so much as falter under Enji's fierce stare as he replied, "Nothing, Father."

His response was Enji's second clue. The glare remained constant, but for the first time in what Enji assumed was the entirety of their dysfunctional relationship, Shouto's words didn't drip with its age-old animosity. It was foreign, so much that it was deafening, and it kept Enji silent, even when he passed behind Shouto some time later and realized that he wasn't looking at something, but talking to someone.

They rarely talked outside of their training sessions. It wasn't a surprise, because Enji never bothered to talk to his son, and in turn, Shouto never cared enough to pay him any mind. Except after this particular training session, when the flames that enveloped Shouto's arm smouldered stronger than Touya's had, Enji told him, "You did well today. I'm proud of you."

Shouto stared. The hand that held the towel against his forehead stilled, the frayed remains of his shirt barely clinging on, his chest and face still flushed red while his right side made a valiant effort to keep him from overheating. What was unnerving to Endeavor, moreso than the patches of ice that he'd seen on Shouto's body a few times before, was the complete lack of a glare.

Something's changed. Enji knew it. Deep down, he knew something was different, something that didn't involve him, something that made Shouto forget that his father was the hero Endeavor long enough to murmur, "Thanks."

Shouto's tone was light, airy, as if he wasn't the perpetually upset child that Enji knew so well. Or thought he knew so well.

Enji was still caught in the thrumming heart of insistent and cacophonous reporters when Shouto was officially discharged from the hospital. Several voices regarded him, both in person and in the media, all coalescing to form one question: what does this mean for the hero Endeavor?

Those who hated him were reluctant to give him the satisfaction of a thanks. Those who loved him praised him for his valiant efforts as an outstanding hero. They whispered that it was justice and rightful punishment that were clearly the motivations behind Endeavor's actions that night. Although his presence in the media was soon smothered by the harrowing ideals of the Hero Killer, the fact that it was he who brought the Hero Killer to his knees was a widely accepted and praised fact.

Except it wasn't a fact. It was a blatant, disgusting lie that made Endeavor slam his fist against the steering wheel the minute he was out of sight from the crowd. Lies, all ugly, putrid lies that he had no right to spill, but that was the price he had to pay to keep his son safe from the law.

It killed him more than he cared to admit. It ruined him more than he knew how to express. Not just the lie, but the fact that it was his son, his masterpiece, his pride and rarely his joy, who apprehended the Hero Killer. Without his help. Without a care in the world for publicity, but with every assumption that Enji happily accepted the glory for himself.

He was so proud, couldn't Shouto see?

But of course he couldn't see. Shouto was ignoring him, as always. He even had the audacity to read his messages and not even bother to respond. He tapped his fingers impatiently against the wheel, the digital clock slowly bleeding into the next hour, and he eventually left his car with an angry snarl.

Shouto stopped reading his messages, most likely out of childish spite. Enji fumed silently as the nurses directed him to Shouto's room. He wasn't that late to picking him up from the hospital, yet the brat was still throwing a fit about it. If Enji didnt know any better, he'd lecture Shouto about it, stretching it long into the afternoon until Shouto wasn't even listening anymore.

Enji's third clue was thrown right into his smouldering face when he shoved the door open. Shouto immediately stood from where he sat on the side of the bed - on the Midoriya boy's bed, no less. What confused him even further was the bright crimson on Midoriya's face. Shouto's countenance remained eerily frigid.

"Talk to your friends on your own time," Enji growled.

Shouto nodded. He murmured something to Midorya before he left, and the boy smiled that familiar smile, ever so stupid and sweet, even with his white-knuckled grip on his blanket. Enji didnt know what to make of it.

First came the news that the students of class 1A and 1B were attacked by the League of Villains. Then, shortly after, came the phone call. A boy had been kidnapped along with a hero. No one knew where could have possibly been taken to.

The voice over the line prompted, "Endeavor, sir? We need all the help we can get. Every pro hero . . ."

The words became muffled and incoherent as he lowered the phone. It wasnt Enji's masterpiece they took. It wasn't his hard work that went down the drain, presumably never to be seen again, forever subjected to the will of the League of Villains until hope arrived. His nights were already long. Shouto was already home safe.

Over on the screen of the television mounted high on the wall was the face of a boy. Angry, seething, prideful. A boy who was Shouto' classmate. A boy Shouto talked to. A boy that was someone's masterpiece - no, someone's son. A boy as perfect in another's eyes as Shouto was to his, not as a masterwork, but as a son.

"All right. I'll help."

Number one. Symbol of peace. Beloved hero.

None of those titles belonged to Enji, but somehow, he ended up number one. He ended up compared to the Symbol of Peace. He ended up being the talk of the country - not with praise and affection, but with nearly complete scorn.

He was not the Symbol of Peace. He was not a universally loved hero. He was not a loved father.

He was number one.

What does that mean?

The door slid open behind him. Everything was laid out for Shouto to see. Charred walls, dented metal, destroyed furniture, Enji's rage-fueled shame. Shouto sighed. A soft, nearly imperceptible sound over the crackling of fire. He closed the door after a few tentative moments.

What does that mean?

Enji didn't like All Might. He never did. He hated that boisterous laugh, that burning optimism, that blinding smile. He absolutely loathed the fact that he could never hope to catch up to someone like All Might, someone so perfect, so pristine. All Might never caused controversy amongst the hero community, All Might never once turned away a fan unless he absolutely had to leave, All Might never refused to smile for the camera.

Except the man next to him wasn't All Might. The man next to him wasn't at the top of the mountain anymore. He was Toshinori. And Toshinori told him, "You can't fit into the mould that I created. You can't bend it to your will. You have to make your own title, become your own Symbol of Peace."

Enji's skin prickled at the drop in temperature in the exam room when Shouto erupted a large, winding slide of ice for the children below. A white cloud brushed quickly past his lips, and around him, infatuated by the glitter of ice and the rush of adrenaline, the children screeched and laughed. Shouto never dared to look up at where he knew Enji was watching, tight-lipped and rigid as he always was.

The joyous cries below were muffled in his ears, cradled by his own flame, one that burned and pulsed as brightly as the fire that Shouto had created on the palm of his hand for the children to warm up a little. Enji glanced over to Toshinori. He'd also been watching, but not with the strict intensity that Enji held upon his countenance. There was something soft, something genuine, as if he was proud - as a father, not as a hero.

"And how do I do that?" Enji eventually inquired.

His voice was nearly imperceptible over his flames and the children. Perhaps he didn't want Toshinori to hear his cry for help, or perhaps he just didn't want to admit it to himself that he was at a loss. Endeavor didn't need help. Endeavor never wondered what was truly the right choice, Endeavor was never held up on scornful events of the past, Endeavor never lost sight of what truly mattered.

But even in his hero costume, engulfed in angry flames, watching his masterpiece - his son, God, his son - under a meticulous eye, he was not Endeavor. He was Enji. And Enji heard what the media was saying. Enji remembered what he did, and he recognized that the tight weight in his stomach was guilt.

So what mattered, then? What truly mattered when his one and only goal was shoved in his faced? What mattered at the end of the day when his new golden spot on the hero hierarchy felt like a vicious lie?

Somehow, Toshinori had heard him, and with a thoughtful hum, he responded, "It's not about you, anymore. It stops being about you and it starts being about the public that you're protecting. You become the person that they need you to be. But in order to do that, you need to find a starting point." He offered Enji a smile. Not a blinding smile for the camera or a confident smile for a hero, but a genuine smile for a father. "Start somewhere small. Start where it matters the most, and the rest will fall into place eventually."

Toshinori's gaze shifted the slightest bit, off to the side where Shouto had settled with a group of children gathered around his fire. Enji could see how delicately Shouto held the flames, talking ever so gently to the children who gazed up at him in awe, and for a fleeting moment, he understood.

"I'm proud of you."

That's the only thing Enji knew how to say. It was the only thing he knew he could confidently say and never regret, because deep in his soul, in his twisted heart, he was proud. So, so proud of his son. His son. His son, who made the flames his own, who found a purpose beyond that of the hero Endeavor, who now had a provisional license and could pursue his dreams.

Shouto stopped trying to slap his hand away. Enji gripped his shoulder, gentler then he ever had before, and repeated low under his breath, "I'm proud of you, Shouto. I'm proud of you."

Enji let him go. Yet to his surprise, Shouto willingly followed behind him. They never said a word, forever shrouded in silence, just as they always are, but there was no tension or animosity that made the silence unbearable. Shouto followed until they made it to the train station, where their paths diverged and Shouto left to the UA dorms with All Might and Present Mic.

In the line of hero work, there were bound to he particularly infuriating villains that took longer than usual to handle. It was a hostage situation that kept Enji out late that night. These villains were coordinated; their plan was even meticulously executed with a safety net, should things go awry. Of course, it was nothing Enji couldn't handle, but it took far too long to figure it out with the other heroes who arrived to assist him.

He returned home seething that night. The outstanding hero Endeavor, with a hellfire no one has ever known and a track record of brilliant successes, was never under the spotlight long before the controversy emerged. Tantrums, some called it, while others were gentler and called it a temper. He was not All Might. He was never going to be the Symbol of Peace. That much he knew, and that in itself was seemingly too much for the public to endure.

There was a pair of bright red shoes at the entranceway that Enji didn't recognize. Just a few days ago, Shouto returned for the two short weeks of autumn that UA students were given before they started their final grueling winter of the year. It was no surprise that he invited a friend over. What was a surprise was that it was nearing ten o'clock and this friend still hadn't left.

The house was silent, for the most part. Only a dull murmur came from Shouto's room, the faintest of blue light flickering from the cracks of his door, and why he had been so careless, so blatant, Enji didn't know. All he knew was that there were rules in their household, ones that were strictly enforced, and visiting home over the break did not mean Shouto could break those rules with impunity.

Enji didn't bother knocking before he slid the door open. He started boldly, "Shouto -"

Simultaneously, his breath was punched right out of his gut while Shouto's was caught in the back of his throat. His computer screen was on, playing some animated western movie in the background, and on the bed, Shouto was propped up comfortably against his pillows. In his arms, wrapped up in Shouto's blanket, was the Midoriya boy. Midoriya nuzzled perfectly into the crook of Shouto's neck, their fingers loosely intertwined, his slow, methodical breathing barely audible over the movie. The clues suddenly clicked.

This isn't what I raised you for. This isn't how it's supposed to be. I didn't sacrifice so much for this. I didn't -

Enji stepped forward, but every thought that whirled in his mind stilled when he saw Shouto's face. There weren't many faces that Shouto ever wore around him. He'd seen revulsion, hostility, annoyance, hatred - but never, not once in the last fifteen years, had Enji ever seen fear. Whited eyes, skin paler than the moon, chest heaving as if he couldn't catch a breath. Enji saw the arm that wrapped protectively over Midoriya, the thin ice that speckled the bed sheets nearest to his right hand, the faintest glow of orange that cupped his left cheek.

Enji's stomach twisted, the weight within getting increasingly heavy and ugly until he quietly stepped back out and slid the door shut.

It wasn't about Enji. It was about Shouto. It was about what made Shouto happy. Even if it was Midoriya. Even if it was far away from the future Enji had worked for. Why couldn't he see? Still, why did it take him so long to understand?

They never talked about it.

Well, they hardly ever talked in general, but the silence was tense now. Somehow, over the course of one night, their entire dynamic seemed to change once more - mere spiteful coexistence had transitioned into cold indifference, and now, awkward avoidance. Part of it was Endeavor's doing, given the several mornings that he would leave without a single word to Shouto and on the evenings where he would arrive unannounced. The other part of it was Shouto's, who formed his own schedule around the hours that Enji would be gone.

Except one morning, their paths converged. One morning, Enji met Shouto on his way out. Shouto, who regarded him with an insouciant countenance, who was still his perfect, phenomenal son. That part didn't change, at least. For that, Enji was glad. Suddenly, the urge to talk became almost too unbearable to hold, but he didn't dare open his mouth. Not yet. They couldn't talk yet. Instead, Enji's eye trailed downward, lingering briefly on the beginnings of purple and red under Shouto's collar.

Enji offered a subtle hint in the form of a brief, delicate scratch at his own collar. Immediately, Shouto's hand shot up to cover the stretch of his neck. While his face burned, his eyes shined with something incredulous. Enji pushed past him with an exhausted sigh.

They never talked about that, either.

Natsuo wasn't wrong; he was always correct in his accusations that Enji sought to forget about the past.

The past shouldn't matter. The past harbored memories that were unbearable, both for him and his children. Reflecting upon the past meant that he had to face his flaws, his actions, his terrible moral traits. But inevitably, he found himself staring blankly at the paperwork before him, each line a jumbled mess in his eyes and he lost himself in his memories.

He was bad at this. At facing his feelings, addressing his flaws, learning from his mistakes. He knew he was absolutely terrible at all of it. So when he thought back to Toshinori's words, spoken heavily through the voice of a veteran and a father, he found himself wondering more often than he'd like to admit: where am I supposed to start?

Shouto still ignored his messages. Fuyumi still flinched when he slammed the door shut. Natsuo still refused to come home. Touya was still missing. All of his attempts to face the past were spat on, but he knew that was an appropriate response. No matter how vigorously he attempted to make amends with all of his children, whether through gifts or apologies or even through genuine conversation, nothing would address the root of the problem. The start of it all. The weak remains of a flame that burned bright so long ago, the delicate pulse of a heartbeat that still existed, still pounded strongly for Shouto, for all of them, for everyone except Enji.

He started with an amaryllis.

He never asked to see Rei. He never bothered to. He knew the nurses had no authority over him, because his words, now as the number one hero, remained strong, vehement. He never had the audacity to ask for Rei, only that she received an amaryllis every weekend, a day after Shouto's visit. He knew that she wasn't ready.

And maybe, just maybe, he wasn't ready, either.

Everything burned. In his mind, in his blood, in his eye, the world burned and raged and rioted until it was quiet once more. He didn't remember the rush to the hospital. He didn't remember Recovery Girl arriving shortly after she was summoned by the head doctor. All he remembered was the heat, the fire, and why it was his downfall.

Rei was perfect. The perfect match. The ice to his fire, the cure to his weakness. Then there was Touya, whose magnificent hellfire incapacitated him after a few short minutes of using it to the fullest extent; Natsuo, with a flame too weak to do anything significant with; Fuyumi, with traces of flames in her hair but only possessing the heart of winter in her hands; and finally Shouto, the perfect mix of both fire and ice, the phenomenal masterpiece that would take All Might's spot as number one.

But All Might was gone. All Might was gone, and so was his protection over their country. All that was left was Endeavor. Endeavor was there, staring at himself in the mirror, his gaze never leaving the large, ugly scar of his left eye. A mangled patch of skin stretched from his hairline to his chin, his fight against such a profound Nomu forever engraved in his body, in his soul.

"Nice scar," Shouto said to him when he arrived home.

Enji couldn't find it in himself to glare. All he could do was gaze down at where all three of his children sat, finally together after so many years of isolation, all of them possessing the same white, snowy hair that Rei had. She remained prominent in all of them, even with Natsuo and Touya's fire Quirks, even with the strips of fire in Fuyumi's bun.

Natsuo hadn't been so welcoming.

"Here you are, deciding now's the time to have a change of heart!" Natsuo slammed his fist against the door frame. Enji didn't have the heart to protest the blatant disrespect. Instead, he listened, watched as Natsuo snarled, "You just suddenly try and come back into our lives, and for what? Don't you have any idea how any of us feel?"

He didn't. It was obvious he didn't. He didn't understand the burning, putrid hate that smouldered on Shouto's bandaged face all those years ago. He didn't understand why Rei insisted that he stopped being so rough, that he listened, that Shouto was just a child. He didn't understand the fear on Shouto's face not too long ago, an arm wrapped around the Midoriya boy, both ice and fire ready to coalesce in their defense.

He didn't understand why Rei looked so downtrodden with each exiled child. He didn't understand why Natsuo and Fuyumi avoided him. He didn't understand why it was so difficult for them to see what the ultimate goal was and why it mattered.

But he reached his goal, didn't he? All on his own, without exploiting his children. Without exploiting Shouto. So why did it feel so empty, so wrong? Was it because he didn't deserve it, no matter how hard he tried? Was it because it meant that his efforts, all three of his older children that he deemed failures, were all in vain?

"I'm sorry."

That was another thing that he could confidently say without regretting it. Except he had to learn the importance of it. He had to dig deep into his heart to find it. And for his children, for Rei, for himself, it was a start. It was a start to dealing with the past, with his perceived failures, with Shouto and his bright future as a hero independent from number one hero Endeavor.

An apology would never be enough to fix what was broken, but it was indeed a start.

The media shifted. Enji may not have been the Symbol of Peace, but he was still number one, and for the first time in weeks, he was starting to feel worthy of the title. General public opinion was skewed in his favor from the battle with the Nomu. Rei was reportedly happier with each amaryllis that she received. Fuyumi talked more often, and Shouto indulged her each time, and Natsuo was becoming less reluctant to visit with each passing month.

One time, on one of his rare visits home, Shouto brought Midoriya with him. They still hadn't talked about what happened so long ago. But when the two of them passed by Enji on their way to Shouto's room, Midoriya offered him a polite greeting. The boy seemed thrilled at the equally polite greeting he received back. They never talked about that, either, but Enji supposed that they didn't need to talk about any of it. He never checked up on them. He granted Shouto the privacy and respect that he wanted, and in return, Shouto slowly started to respond to his messages.

Enji could never erase what happened in the past. Perhaps Rei and Fuyumi could wholly forgive him, but he could not forgive himself. All he could do, as Toshinori said, was start somewhere small. Somewhere that mattered. Somewhere with an amaryllis, somewhere with his three children chattering happily in the dining room, somewhere with Shouto's noticeably brighter and happier demeanor after each visit to the Midoriya household. Enji knew the rest would slowly but surely fall into place.