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stared down demons and come back breathing

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i. Izuku

Izuku dreamed about it most nights, one way or another. Sometimes it was the training camp replayed in his mind, how he reached out but couldn’t force his damaged limbs forward quickly enough. How frightened Kacchan looked with four fingers on his throat, and how fiercely he tried to conceal his fear. How hopeless Izuku felt when they vanished and he could only scream after him.

Sometimes it was Kamino Ward instead, the heart-pounding moments when he’d believed they might really get Kacchan back. Then the wave of blue fire had slammed into Todoroki’s ice and sent them toppling. Kirishima had still cried out and Kacchan had thrown himself towards them but it hadn’t been enough, and they’d all toppled back to earth.

Todoroki’s ice and Iida’s engines had broken their fall enough so the impact only bruised, but the knowledge that they’d failed hurt worse than any injury could have. Izuku hated that dream the most, because it gave his hope back so, so briefly and then ripped it from his hands again.

And sometimes he just dreamed of Kacchan, sitting in the empty classroom at school or in the playground where they used to spend so much time as children. Standing in the river, inexplicably in his UA uniform. From the bank or a stone above the water, Izuku would hold out a hand, but Kacchan would never take it.

The best ones were the ones where they talked, like tonight. Usually Izuku didn’t realize he was dreaming until he woke, but this time he knew instantly because he was sitting in the common room of the dorm and Kacchan was sitting on the couch. “You can’t be here,” Izuku said. “You’ve never been here.”

“So?” Kacchan said. “It’s a fucking dream, dipshit.”

“I miss you,” Izuku blurted, because it was a dream and it couldn’t hurt to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

“Who says I need you to save me?” Kacchan asked.

“I’m a hero,” Izuku said. “It’s my job to save everyone.”

“Well, you didn’t save me,” Kacchan said.

“I want to,” Izuku said. “I wanted to. I’d do anything to.”

“You were too weak,” Kacchan said, which stung, but then he said, “Me too. I shouldn’t have gotten kidnapped.”

“You couldn’t help it,” Izuku said. “Kacchan--”

“I could have if I was stronger,” Kacchan cut him off. “Or you could have stopped it if you were. We have to get stronger. Both of us. Or we’ll never save anyone.”

“Okay,” Izuku said. “I’ll get stronger. I’ll save you, I promise.”

He woke up then, staring at the ceiling of the dorm room he’d only just moved into, and he hoped he hadn’t lied.

Even if it was only a dream.


ii. Katsuki

Popular culture said that torture could drive you mad, but there were only forty seconds when Katsuki thought he might have actually lost it. It was when he opened his eyes and saw Deku standing in the doorway. He’d done a quick inventory immediately, but everything else was where it had been when he’d fallen asleep--the concrete floor was cold and hard beneath his hip and shoulder, his hands were locked together so he couldn’t use his quirk, the room itself was damp and chill. Only Deku was out of place, just standing there and looking at him.

“What the fuck?” His voice came out low and raspy.

“Katsuki, isn’t this fun?” As soon as Toga spoke, the illusion shattered and rationality came flooding back to Katsuki’s world. Not Deku at all. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

“You didn’t even know I existed a couple months ago, you blood-sucking bitch,” he spit at her.

“Oh,” she looked disappointed, but even that expression was off. It was disappointed-Toga, not disappointed-Deku. “That’s no fun. How’d you guess?”

Katsuki just glared up at her. Then he carefully levered himself into a kneeling position while she pouted at him.

“What,” she complained. “Aren’t you going to tell me?”


“You’re no fun,” she said, and the brief flash of legitimate anger was somehow even less Deku than everything that came before. “It’s okay, I’ll make this fun.” And she’d gone for the scalpel.

She tried it twice more after that, but those first forty seconds were the only time that he ever fell for it. She wasn’t good at imitating Deku, first of all. Probably she wasn’t much of an actor anyway--too crazy for it--but her attempts at Deku were especially pathetic.

Maybe it was how totally different they were. Although maybe it was also just that Katsuki knew Deku, knew him far better than he’d ever wanted to, knew him better than maybe anyone else. Toga in Deku’s shape was a pathetic imitation.

Still, he averted his eyes when she pressed the blades into his skin or pushed on a bruise. Probably he would have tried not to watch anyway, but it was particularly disconcerting when it was Deku’s scarred hands on him.

That, Toga did catch, the third time that she did it. She’d laughed madly, but never repeated the experiment due to lack of blood. It was somehow both a relief and a disappointment when she came back in her own body, knives in hand, and Katsuki didn’t even dare to begin to unpack what was what.

Toga did most of the damage. He barely saw Kurogiri. Dabi took a few shots at it, and the burns had hurt, but for someone so ruthless in battle he didn’t seem to have much of a stomach for torture. Katsuki was always left with the sense that it was performative, that Dabi came prepared with excuses for never going beyond the occasional second-degree burn.

And Shigaraki, although he visited frequently, never tortured him at all. Instead, they had increasingly odd conversations.

“What the fuck do you think you’re accomplishing?” Katsuki asked, once. “You think if you kick the shit out of me enough, I’ll decide you guys are fucking great and join you?”

“No,” Shigaraki said. “We hope that you’ll see how little the heroes care about you. They know exactly what we’re doing. It simply doesn’t matter to them. Too much of a risk. A child being tortured and they won’t even act.”

“You’re the one torturing me,” Katsuki pointed out.

“You still claim to be a hero,” Shigaraki shot back. “That makes you an enemy.”

“So what, torture me until I go crazy enough to join you?” Katsuki felt many things--hurt, exhausted, like someone had cut him open and scooped all his energy out until he was left hollow and empty--but not in the slightest bit insane. He was beginning to think that Shigaraki was the one who was nuts, actually.

“No,” Shigaraki corrected. “That has nothing to do with making you change sides. You’ll change sides because you’ll see the truth. The heroes don’t care for you, or anyone. They never have.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Katsuki told him tiredly.

“It will.”

No, torture didn’t drive you mad. It did drive you to extremes, to daydreams, to plans. Working through math problems in your head just to have something else to think about. Trying to find the edges of what you could endure by sinking deep enough into your memories away from it.

He wasn’t even sure how he got to the idea, in the end. Maybe it was desperation, grasping for any faint possibility that might end the cold, the stiffness, the sharp agonizing moment when the knife broke the skin that never seemed to get any easier. Maybe it was that underneath it all he’d been considering his options this whole time, a lion pacing the fence and testing for weak spots. Maybe it was sheer dumb luck.

But he thought fuck, that hurts.

And then he thought, I’d even rather be writing one of Aizawa’s shitty essays.

And then he thought, Wait.

And the last thought occupied him for the next hour as he tested the idea, prodded at the seams of it, tried to guess how long it would take to enact and how likely it was to work. It would be difficult. Not impossible.

What felt impossible was this--waiting, hurting, knowing that a rescue was probably never coming and knowing he wasn’t even angry about it. The heroes had tried, and they’d lost too much in the effort. He wasn’t worth All Might’s fall.

So make it worth it. Make you worth their time. Come on, Katsuki.

Don’t be a coward.

“Fuck,” he said, coming back to awareness. “Fine. Okay.”

She paused and pulled out the blade. He gasped and then forced the tension out of his body, collapsing to the floor.

“What was that?” Toga asked, sweetly.

“Okay. I can’t--do this anymore.” He choked a little on the words. “I’ll join you. I’ll do whatever. Just...stop. Just stop.”

Even lying on the ground without looking up, he could feel the manic force of her grin. “Ha! I knew you’d come around! Just wait until I tell Shiggy!” She gathered up her knives in a whirlwind and left him there, bleeding.

He breathed, slowly. In and out. Eventually footsteps came. Shigaraki. “I’m glad that’s over with,” he said. He sounded sincere about it, not gloating at all. Absolutely fucking nuts, Katsuki thought. “You won’t regret this.”

The second part, Katsuki thought, was true. But the first part.

Remember, Katsuki. This isn’t over. It’s only just begun.


iii. Aizawa

The day it hit the news, UA’s gates clogged with reporters and all of Aizawa’s students came into the classroom conversing at full volume. Some of them, like Iida, consistently spoke at a volume that was several decibels higher than a reasonable indoor voice, but even the quieter ones were going at full force.

“It’s pretty fucked up, is all I’m saying--” the rest of Kaminari’s comment was smothered by the chaos.

“It doesn’t seem very much like him,” said Yaoyorozu.

“Look, I’m just saying I wouldn’t have joined them in his position,” Mineta announced.

“You would have joined them ages ago, you’re a coward,” Asui said flatly.

“Kacchan wouldn’t--” and that was Midoriya, cutting through the din. “Kacchan’s not a villain. And if he joined them--there’s something we don’t know. He had no choice. He’d never do it otherwise.”

“It is inappropriate to speculate!” Iida declared. “Aizawa-sensei--”

“All of you, sit down,” Aizawa snapped. Cowed, they did, reshuffling into their appropriate seats. Bakugou’s sat empty as it had ever since classes had resumed after summer break.

“Aizawa-sensei,” Uraraka raised her hand.

“Yes. You are all evidently aware that the League of Villains robbed a museum and that Bakugou was with them.”

“And that Shigaraki declared on-camera that he joined them,” Jirou put in.

“And that,” Aizawa said. “First of all, you’re all restricted to campus until further notice. If you need something or have an emergency, talk to me to get permission. Please do not engage the reporters.”

“They keep calling him a villain,” Kirishima said. “That’s not fair.”

“He joined the League of Villains,” Tsuyu said bluntly.

“He’s not a villain!” Midoriya shouted. “Kacchan wouldn’t--”

“Anything I can say to you would be speculation,” Aizawa said flatly. “But I can see we’re not going to focus much on the actual curriculum, so let’s talk about torture.”

The class fell abruptly silent. No one even tapped their feet or dropped a pencil; it was the most effectively he’d ever stunned them since they’d collectively decided he probably wasn’t actually going to expel them.

“Who plans to be an Underground Hero?” he asked.

Only Hagakure raised her hand, one disembodied glove slowly lifting in the air.

“Then you would have gotten this lesson eventually,” he said. “Most mainstream heroes will never be taken captive. Kidnapping is a high risk crime to begin with. Kidnapping someone with as much combat training as a Pro Hero is much worse. Heroes who embed themselves in villainous organizations are the only ones likely to encounter it, but not likely doesn’t mean impossible.”

To make his point clear, he waited a moment and then added, “UA has never had a student kidnapped before.”

The class was all staring at him. Most of them weren’t moving; he was pretty sure Tsuyu hadn’t blinked. Midoriya was the only one taking notes, writing furiously.

“Sensei,” Kirishima said, very quietly.

Aizawa ignored him. “Let’s start from the beginning. A villainous organization takes a student captive under the assumption he can be convinced to join them. What happens?”

“He refuses,” Midoriya says. “He fights back and tries to escape.”

“Good,” Aizawa said. “What are my options?”

“Let him go,” said Uraraka.

“Kill him,” said Tokoyami. A couple of the other students shot him looks. “It’s a possibility.”

“Correct,” Aizawa said. “Anything else?”

“Get him to join you?” Ashido said, uncertainly.

“How?” Aizawa prompted.

“Bribe him.”

“Convince him your ideology is right.”

“Torture him,” Asui said.

“Why not just let him go?” Aizawa said.

“It looks incompetent,” Iida said. “An explicit failure.”

“Fine. Why not kill him, then?”

The class was silent for longer this time. “Because--” Yaoyorozu started, then stopped. The whole class was looking at her by the time she continued, uncertainly, “Because he’s a martyr, then?”

“Elaborate,” said Aizawa.

“The kidnapped him to make him a villain,” Yaoyorozu said. “If they let him go, they failed, they’re incompetent. But if they kill him--it’s more villainous , but then he’s. A symbol. A hero who would rather die than join them. Right?”

“I think that’s reasonable,” said Aizawa. “So we have no choice but to force him to join us. How?”

“Convincing him you’re right is the best option,” Todoroki said. “He’s not loyal to you otherwise.”

“Alright,” said Aizawa. “Do you think they did it?”

“No,” Midoriya said, immediately.

“No way,” Kirishima agreed.

“They might have,” said Jirou. “We don’t know.”

“I know Kacchan,” said Izuku. “They didn’t.”

“He’s a jerk,” Uraraka said. “But he...I keep thinking about the sports festival.”

“Isn’t that why the villains took him?”

“No,” Uraraka said. “Or, maybe, because he was angry--but he was so angry that--sorry, Todoroki-kun, but he was angry that he won when he didn’t deserve it. He only wanted to win fairly. Isn’t that right, Deku-kun?”

“Yes,” Izuku said, brightening with her support. “That’s right.”

“That just...doesn’t feel very villainous to me,” she said.

“He is mean, though,” Satou said.

“And that makes you a villain?”

“Heroes want to help people,” Jirou said. “He isn’t really the helping type.”

“We don’t know,” Aizawa interrupted, partly because they’d lost the point of the discussion and partly because Midoriya looked on the verge of throwing a punch. “But for the sake of argument, let’s say he’s not interested. He doesn’t find our ideology compelling. What now?”

“I offer him something,” Yaoyorozu said. “Or I threaten him.”

“What can I offer him?”

“Money?” said Uraraka.

“Maybe,” Aizawa said. “But how much would I need to offer to make it worth it?”

“A lot, probably,” Todoroki said flatly. “Becoming a villain really cuts into your career options.”

“If it was urgent,” Ashido considered. “If you really needed the money.”

“Does he?” Uraraka asked. “If someone’s family is in trouble…”

Midoriya shook his head. “No.”

“Fame,” Hagakure suggested.

“He wants to be Number One Hero,” Kirishima objected. “He doesn’t want to be generically well-known.”

“Revenge on someone I hate,” Todoroki said.

“Who does Bakugou hate?”

“Everyone,” Kaminari intoned, which got a few laughs.

“Villains,” Midoriya said.

“Any other suggestions?” Aizawa asked. No one else raised their hand. “So let’s assume I can’t offer you anything. You don’t like my agenda, you don’t need money or else I can’t offer you enough to interest you, you don’t want to be well-known as a villain or want to accomplish something we can help you with. What do I do now?”

“Threaten his family,” Uraraka said instantly, and her eyes got wide. “Are his parents--”

“That’s a very good suggestion,” Aizawa said. “The police have, fortunately, already thought of that and have the situation in hand.”

“They could threaten them even if they can’t follow through,” Iida considered.

“Wouldn’t Kacchan know the heroes could protect them?” Midoriya asked.

“That leaves torture,” Tokoyami said. “That’s how you started this lesson. You think they tortured him.”

“What do you think?” Aizawa returned. “Maybe he did decide he liked their mission. Maybe they offered him something we didn’t think of. Maybe they made a different threat.”

“Would that make him join them?” Yaoyorozu asked. “Torturing him.”

“I might,” Ashido said, the first to break the silence. “If that was the only way to get them to stop.”

“How do we know?” Kirishima asked. “What they did or why he--decided to, or had to…”

“We don’t,” Aizawa said. “Until we can ask Bakugou or until the League of Villains decides to inform us, we have no way of verifying anything.”

“But you think they hurt him,” Midoriya said.

“I think that if they decided his recruitment was the only acceptable outcome it was the most likely way to get him to accept,” Aizawa said, frankly. “There are several uncertain factors. The League of Villains is mostly young. We don’t know most of their backgrounds, but as far as we know there aren’t significant yakuza ties. So it’s unlikely that any of them have extensive experience with torture. But pain is pain. As a captive, you weigh the risks of giving them what they want against the amount of suffering you are willing to endure.”

He didn’t mention the other reason he believed it, which is that he had watched the news footage just like they had. It was difficult to tell through what appeared to be a makeshift villain costume, but Aizawa would have guessed Bakugou had lost ten kilograms. He was pale, and there was no mistaking the limp.

And then there was the empty, dead-eyed look he’d given the camera, looking right into it with no expression. That brief frame of footage had thrown Aizawa backwards in time. He knew what a torture victim looked like.

“And you think he gave in,” Kirishima said. His voice was soft; Aizawa wasn’t sure if the right word was betrayed or defeated or merely frightened.

“There are people who don’t,” Aizawa said. “People who believe that what their captors want is unacceptably devastating. Spies who know codes or people who carry passwords to dangerous weapons. People who are trained explicitly to resist torture. And people who have good reason to believe that they will be saved.”

The class had gone quiet again. He looked around the room. “Otherwise,” he said. “Eventually, everyone does.”

The bell rang. The sound startled them all. “Get out of my room,” he said.

They did, in a sudden scramble. Midoriya hung back, deliberately packing up his pencil case slowly, rearranging his notebooks until the rest of the class filtered out.

“Kacchan’s not a villain,” Midoriya said, once they were alone. “He wouldn’t join them. I don’t know what this is but--he would never join them.”

“I don’t think they gave him a choice,” Aizawa said. There was nothing reassuring to say. “Go to class, Midoriya.”

Midoriya went. When the door shut, Aizawa sighed and regarded Bakugou’s empty seat.

“We did fail you,” he said. He didn’t bother apologizing. There was no one around to hear it.