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the faces you might meet

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The MLA headquarters still didn’t feel like home, Himiko thought.

What’s more, it’d become rare for them to be left alone, without Re-Destro at their leader’s shoulder with his gleeful sycophant’s grin, or Skeptic muttering to himself about their lack of respect just loud enough for them to hear, or any of those other mooks she supposed they’d have to get cozy with for these next few months. But the erstwhile League kept to themselves out of habit and a dearth of excessive trust in their strange new allies. They’d been scrabbling together in cold, abandoned places long enough that none of them had really taken to the comforts of proper beds, cushioned seats, tatami mats and hot tea, and the austere elegance of the MLA headquarters with its high, well-lit ceilings. Without any official declaration on Tomura’s part, they’d collectively declined Re-Destro’s offer of separate bedrooms on their first night here after getting patched up. Even Dabi, who’d unrolled his futon in one of the far corners of the room they were now in. After all, although the cult obviously revered their former grand commander, nobody saw any need to test the limits of their mandated generosity.

It was a League-only meeting, anyway, she thought with a sniff. Even if they were technically the PLF now. (Why did they let Spinner pick the name? she thought. Liberation was what they were all after one way or another, but it sounded so hoity-toity now that they had money.)

Tomura had called them here to tell them about what Ujiko’d offered him. They’d had a bunch of meetings already, of course, but they’d been mainly for the logistics of their little merger and a post-mortem on their respective fights with the MLA. Now that it was all over and they were safe, she could pout at having been half-dead for so many of her comrades’ coolest moments. She could giggle at Dabi’s griping about the ice-wielder Geten, and gasp dramatically at Spinner’s retelling of how he’d clung to a van with his gecko quirk to help fend off Hanabata’s half-zombified Deika citizens, and go quiet listening to Twice’s voice tremble as he told them about how he’d realized he was real and found a way to save her. Mr Compress, for his part, had been more than satisfied to have simply survived and gotten a fancy new prosthetic.

“Sometimes it’s enough to live to run away another day,” he’d said, throwing up one of his marbles and catching it with a smooth flourish of his robot arm, and though she couldn’t see his face under the mask she could’ve sworn he’d be winking. Dabi, of course, scoffed, but his smirk had been more amusement than haughtiness for once.

Tomura, for his part, had listened quietly, if a little stiffly, all bandaged up and unable to sprawl out like usual because of his injuries. The former MLA leadership had convinced him to dress nicely for announcements to the rest of the cult, suit and everything, but otherwise he’d been sticking to his black hoodies and pants. Their boy king in red sneakers.

The furs were nice, though. She thought they made him look like a handsome ghost, dragging his injured leg like something that’d haunt you in a horror movie.

He’d been pleased with them, she could tell, for fighting so hard—she could see it in the way the ragged corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly with pride. And then, a silence had fallen over them, and he’d told them all about how Re-Destro had destroyed his hands, splitting his mind and memories open like so much overripe fruit, so that now his quirk could now (or once again?) spread itself far beyond what he could touch. How he’d decayed the city with what remained of him. How he remembered how he became Shigaraki Tomura, and who he’d been before.

“Shimura,” Twice had repeated to himself, frowning under his mask. It was a common enough last name, definitely less exotic than Shigaraki. But Jin was connecting dots. Which dots she couldn’t be sure—the name didn’t ring any bells to her. He’d been recalling something she couldn’t, it seemed. He had over a decade on her after all.

“Sounds like some flashback, Tomura-kun,” Himiko had murmured half-dreamily, feeling far away as she twirled her chopsticks. But she’d felt troubled, despite sounding, she knew, like a scatterbrained child. She’d never known how to match her face to her feelings when it really mattered.

Because for all their fabulous success, for all that the MLA had been shocked and awed into submission, for all that he was supposed to be free...

Since the fight with Re-Destro—even beyond the broken body he had to thank for it all, under all the bandages, she’d thought—once or twice—that there’d been a nameless something in her leader that made her unspeakably sad.

Was it how naked he seemed, with one lonely hand left of his family? Or had she first seen it in how earnestly he’d told Ujiko about the emptiness in his heart that nothing, even their wildest dreams, would fill?

Or maybe it was the way he’d folded in on himself since winning Deika. He was still physically present, directing the chaos and particulars of their new alliance together as a team, but he somehow seemed to be further away than ever. Except for the very start (oh! but what a thrill it’d been, their little stand-off), Tomura had turned into the kind of leader that didn’t separate himself from everyone else—not in how he spent his time, not in how he’d share his thoughts and plans. Since even before the mountains he’d started speaking to them more and more freely, and not just for the sake of the mission. Like friends, she thought happily. It made it easier to figure out how to make him happy, how to read between the lines, how to act for the sake of the League as a unit. But he’d stopped talking to them like that, since beating Re-Destro. He was with them the way a lonely star was—in the scene but too far to reach.

But today’s meeting was different. Tomura had plans to share. She folded up her legs and sank into the plush upholstery, waiting for whatever was to come.

Without ceremony, Tomura gestured towards his mangled right arm with his mangled left hand, the cracks in the skin, like he might come apart. She eyed the new wounds along his jawline from where his new-old power had started to claim him too.

“I can’t fight the way I need to if this keeps happening,” he said to them, matter-of-fact. “So Ujiko’s gonna help.”

Ujiko.

The made-up name felt like a portent of some dark promise, although whose she couldn’t say. Himiko’s skin still prickled at the memory of the doctor’s gross transforming goop, his lab full of half-finished monsters, and his stinginess in helping them out for the six weeks they’d been fighting Gigantomachia. From rags to riches indeed.

He had sent them Machia in the end, she supposed. But only once they’d been so, so close to the point of no return, close to defeat and the end of their adventures together. She had a feeling that they weren’t all that different from his experiments to him. Something he liked to watch struggle and thrash and come close to being torn apart just so he could see how it worked.

It wasn’t so far from her own style of loving. But the League meant something else to her than that intoxicating love, something she didn’t know how to name. She breathed out and decided to let herself feel suspicious.

Tomura was explaining. The doctor had an experimental project, something to do with how to make a body adapt to more and more powerful quirks, to holding them in all at once. Power to make power grow. But it would be dangerous, and it would hurt for a long time. It sounded scary.

Dabi raised one slender eyebrow, skeptical. “Are you so sure you want to be knocked out while the doctor’s poking around your insides, boss?” He gestured towards Himiko. “Toga, throw me a pocket knife, will you?” With a precise flick of her wrist she flung it towards the fine teak table in front of the couch, where the tip of the blade lodged in the wood. Dabi produced an apple from his coat pocket, new staples glinting.

Tomura snorted. “If he was going to ‘modify’ me, he would’ve done it already, no doubt. He had plenty of chances to do that when I was a kid,” he said, “and besides, I’m not exactly peak Nomu material from a practical standpoint. Can you imagine one of them going haywire in the lab with my quirk? Probably wouldn’t shake out very well for him or his research either.”

Of course Tomura didn’t really trust Ujiko. Himiko felt a rush of relief, absurd as it was. They were villains and so on. Death was always a near friend, come to collect either them or their targets. Still—since joining the League, she’d discovered so many new shades of feeling. They were like beautiful colors, but whatever this one was—a dull, muddled brown, maybe—she didn’t think she liked it.

Outside her swirling mind, she sensed the beat in their discussion. With Dabi’s moods and clipped responses and cold way of keeping everyone at bay like he did with his fire, he could be harder to read than Tomura, but she understood him this time. It was all about hearing the unspoken words curled up under the spoken ones. What his question really meant was: was this the only way?

Of course, he knew a thing or two about offering himself up to the pyre.

“You could make all his hard work disappear, just like with the yakuza!” Jin interjected, miming chopping motions with his arms. His mask twisted into a worried frown. “Poor Johnny-chan.” Sweet, blessed Jin. Mr Compress snickered.

But Spinner was frowning too. He looked like he was thinking hard, gathering up the right words to say.

“Shigaraki...” he started slowly, uncertain. He cleared his throat. “I don’t like Ujiko much. And I’m not a fan of him cutting you open and putting you out of commission for so long.” His eyes darted around the room as if someone might overhear. “Especially with all our new, ah, friends around. But if you think this is important for our mission, then I trust your judgement. I’ll back you up. Tell me how and I’m there.” He squared his shoulders and met Tomura’s gaze.

“Thank you, Spinner,” their leader replied, low and quiet. He seemed to draw himself up just a bit taller in the armchair. Thank you, Spinner, echoed Himiko silently. Running with these guys, she was finding herself doing more and more of the things she didn’t like. Yet she kept choosing to stay at their side.

“How long do you anticipate being...indisposed?” asked Mr Compress delicately.

“I don’t know,” Tomura admitted. “Sounds like it could be a few months. But it has to be done.” A dark note crept into his voice, almost rueful. “Who am I to turn down a power-up anyway? We can’t risk being caught with nothing to back us up again.”

He cradled the last of the dead hands in his good one, seemingly studying it, and his eyes went far away again for just a moment. Himiko wondered once more where he’d gone.

She blinked and it was over. “That’s why I’m going to need you all to hold things down while I’m recovering,” he continued, all business. “Dabi, keep an eye on Hawks, and don’t give him any details about my whereabouts. Get as much intel on the Hero Commission’s plans as you can. Toga, you’ll help Dabi. Keep our traitor on his toes.” Orders—spoken and unspoken. She knew he was counting on her understanding. Himiko nodded, feeling a shiver of excitement despite the growing unease in the pit of her stomach.

“Aye aye, boss,” Dabi drawled, now methodically peeling the apple. His pose was long and languid, leaning on the floor against the divan, and his eyes were half-lidded, but she didn’t miss their sharpness in the glinting reflection of her blade. So bright, she thought. Like his fire. He looked more at home surrounded by finery than any of them, somehow. She found herself missing the old bar hideout with its ratty couch.

“Twice and Mister, I want you to learn as much as you can about Detnerat’s research and development if the doctor can’t help us with the quirk-erasing bullets. Spinner, you’re with Hanabata. You know something about how to inspire hearts towards a cause. You’ll keep helping them with their propaganda campaign.”

“But boss, I thought we didn’t like their message about quirks. It’s so cool, like the ice man! It’s stupid.” Jin groaned and threw himself deeper into the couch.

“It’s bullshit quirk Darwinism, yeah,” replied Tomura, waving his cybernetic hand as if to casually dismiss the whole MLA ideology with it. “Still, we need as many forces as we can get for what’s next.”

“Twice on his own can be an army nowadays,” offered Mr Compress, “but I see what you mean. We can live with the perks of this continued collaboration, I suppose.” Jin struck a preening pose and extended a fist bump to Spinner, who returned it awkwardly with a confused little smile.

So it wasn’t just her. None of them liked it, but they hoped Tomura was right to do this. Hoped he’d come back.

She wished she could do something to make him happy more fervently than usual, and that was new to her too. It was easy enough to figure out in battle, how to be quick and clever, how to recognize an opportunity, like with those silly yakuza who’d hurt them. How to see in peoples’ faces what even they didn’t, because she’d only survived this long knowing how to make herself disappear without being noticed. To be a hunter you need to understand your prey. Though she couldn’t—wouldn’t—fit in with the world like her parents or that horrible Curious woman wanted her to, she knew she could only play in it if she understood the rules well enough to slip between them unseen.

It dawned on her that, for Tomura, taking up Ujiko’s offer was about more than just destroying society. This was about destroying something that, for all his deadliness, he’d never been able to reach.

And for all that she was starting to see, Himiko didn’t know how to reach it for him.

The unbidden wish choked in her throat.

“Tomura-kun,” she said softly, surprising herself.

His eyes, bright like new blood, rested on her, expectant but not impatient. She’d been quiet the whole meeting. She hated to cede anything to the MLA, but maybe the battle at Deika had changed her a little too.

She held up her switchblade—her oldest one. It was nicked and a little dented, but she maintained it lovingly. The blade still gleamed.

“I trust you,” she heard herself saying, looking around the room at their gathered League. “And we know you trust us. But if it doesn’t work...” Her eyes flicked down to the knife, then back to him. “I wanna see, just for a little. Just in case. Will you let me, Tomura?”

He said nothing for a moment. He was considering her request, weighing it out, like a heart presented to a god for judgement. It was a long shot, but she didn’t worry about his reaction. Even if he didn’t understand why, even if he would never admit it if he did, she knew her leader would take her seriously.

He shrugged slightly and Himiko’s heart skipped a beat.

“Sure, I’ll bite. Why not.”

Slowly, he moved to rise from the armchair and strode over to her place on the couch, where she sat cross-legged. He stood before her.

Himiko straightened out and got up to face him, not believing her luck. He held out his good hand for her, palm facing upward, keeping it stone-still.

She made a clean cut along that deadly palm, heart picking up speed. Droplets of blood, red and lovely, beaded up from the wound and stained the blade. She could feel the weight of all the League’s eyes on her, the wonder that Tomura would actually indulge this wish. It wasn’t enough to be even useful in battle, so even he couldn’t pretend this was about anything other than sentiment—affection, even. Something he claimed to so thoroughly not understand. And yet...

Himiko held little sacred in this world outside her own wishes, but she recognized a rare gift when she saw one. She couldn’t bring herself to meet her leader’s gaze as she licked the broad side of the knife.

It didn’t take more than a second. Her bones grew longer, hair coming out of her buns and going coarse and shaggy. She heard Twice gasp and Dabi shift in his seat. Looking down, she saw two pale hands, with overgrown fingernails. She raised her eyes to meet Tomura’s, and saw that even his had widened in shock.

Blood pounding in her ears, she peered into his reflection in her blade and saw why.

The Tomura in the reflection had hair as long as the real Tomura’s was now, but it was black instead of ghostly gray-white. His eyes were sharp and red as ever, but the skin around them was much less dried out and damaged. He still had the cute little mole and the same angular features, yet there were no ragged scars on his right eye or the corner of his mouth either. In her surprise she’d forgotten to arrange her limbs into his typical blasé half-slouch the way she would have instinctively mimicked anyone else she used her quirk on, so his reflection seemed taller too, not forced to lean on a cane and a broken leg.

He looked so young. A boy with a familiar face that was somehow all wrong, like from a dream that never was. She had only meant to get a glimpse of him whole and uninjured again, to get a little closer before—maybe—everything changed.

This was something else entirely.

In the space of those still few seconds, she tried to picture this dark-haired stranger wearing Tomura’s lost family. Tried to see him charging into battle, hands bared like so many deadly thorns. She almost could have, if she narrowed her (his) eyes like so, like their leader, all calculating and cold fury. But she didn’t dare to. She was already wearing a face he never had.

It was over too soon for anyone to get over their shock or break the silence, and before Himiko knew it she was melting back into herself again. She vaguely registered Tomura wordlessly handing her his coat. Though it always made Spinner blush and splutter, she’d never been shy about the side effects of her quirk, and she cared even less right now. Spinner’s mouth was hanging open, anyway, eyes not on her but on Tomura. Himiko’s head spun, trying to make sense of what she’d seen and of the swirl of colors in her mind.

Mr Compress collected himself first. “If I weren’t the only magician here, I’d say we just witnessed a masterful performance of sleight of hand,” he said, resting his prosthetic hand up to his face as if he were trying to solve a riddle. “Although something about it feels awfully familiar.”

“I barely recognized you in there, Shigaraki! Love the hair color though, really brings out your eyes. Please don’t make me look at that again, Toga!” Jin wailed. It seemed unclear even to Jin which part he meant the most. He grabbed at his head with clenched fists. The voices in his head must have been more strained than usual.

“Turns out there’s a world where you look almost normal, huh,” Dabi added, smirking.

“Yeah, and we don’t live in it,” Tomura shot back flatly. End of discussion. But even he looked disturbed by the vision of himself she’d summoned. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a phone, which he held between his right thumb and index finger. He fiddled with it for a moment. “If we’re done here, I’m heading out to give our dear doctor a call.” His eyes met Himiko’s for a moment and she felt her chest tighten, worried that maybe he blamed her for showing them his face like that, even though she hadn’t meant to. Instead he merely looked at her, as if he was searching her expression for something too.

So he wasn’t mad. Of course he wasn’t mad. She hadn’t meant to, not like that, and he understood that. She knew he didn’t see it as a favor, indulging her wishes, so she resisted the strange urge to thank him and simply nodded.

Satisfied, he turned to leave. As he passed Dabi, the fire user’s earlier nonchalance dropped from his expression and morphed into a deadly seriousness he rarely wore outside of battle.

“Don’t go dying on us, boss,” he called out to Tomura as he reached the doorway, and under its bravado it almost sounded, to Himiko, like a supplication.

Tomura stayed silent, but he paused so they knew he’d heard. Then he was gone.

“I wonder if seeing that made him think of his family, since he remembers them now,” said Spinner. Awww, she thought. Tomura really had won him over this time, huh. He raked his clawed hands through his hair. “Toga, why’d your Shigaraki look so different than ours?”

Himiko pulled Tomura’s coat more tightly around herself as if it were cold. “It can be a bit of a toss-up with my quirk. I can’t copy fresh scars or modifications that haven’t been written into someone’s DNA yet, but I can recreate things like clothes if I can see them. Old tattoos are fine because their body’s already reacted to the ink, so their blood lets me recreate that. But anything extra—like damage from quirk overuse—I can’t quite get down.”

“Not yet, my dear,” added Mr Compress. “Thought it seems your quirk is evolving too, if our last skirmish is anything to go by.”

Pride washed over Himiko and warmed her cheeks to their usual rosiness. It had almost cost her her life, but she’d gained something new, something closer to the love she craved. Unbidden, the image of the dark-haired, unscarred Tomura flashed in her mind again. She didn’t know what it meant that her quirk had also given her a glimpse of that face—too innocent to be the leader she was starting to understand, yet too familiar to discard.

“I wonder which one of his family he looks most like,” she wondered out loud.

“For his sake, I hope not Father,” Spinner muttered darkly, giving her a sidelong glance.

Himiko said nothing in response. It reminded her of her own parents, who’d first begged and later demanded with increasing forcefulness that she be someone she was not. Funny when her whole quirk hinged on it, when the most ecstatic joy she felt came from transforming into those she admired most, feeling their blood flowing alongside hers. Her answering smile to that thought was sharp and predatory. Jin shot her a questioning look, and she shook her head, putting a hand over his. They’d gossip later.

Somehow, seeing the stranger reflected in her blade—wearing his face—had made her miss Tomura more than before. He was going away soon, he might not come back, and the version of him she’d transformed into hadn’t brought her any of the solace she’d hoped for. It was clearer fighting alongside him, for him and for the League, knowing he was a monster like her. But in these in-between moments, she wasn’t sure anymore. All the colors blurred together. It troubled her, the nascent protectiveness she felt when she saw him stumble because he tried to walk too soon on his bad leg, or when he told them Ujiko was going to cut him open and rearrange him like a jailbroken gaming system, or when she got to see who he might’ve been if he hadn’t become Tomura. Could a monster care for others, even if they were bad in the eyes of everyone else? Were they still monsters? And if they weren’t monsters, how could they be free?

This feeling—it wasn’t overt like Spinner’s newfound admiration, but still, it lived in the back of her mind constantly now, thinking of what “we” would want, or what would make the others happy. She’d lived for herself for so long, and it had felt like happiness. So what could all this mean? Mr Compress and Jin were talking, but she wasn’t paying attention. She twirled her switchblade irritably between her fingers, zoning further out of the world around her.

She thought she’d left all those doubts and questions behind when she’d decided to cut herself free from the world’s silly expectations for her, but getting closer to the League was slowly tangling it all up. With them she felt more free than ever—they respected and appreciated her skills, they accepted her. Cared for her.

Yet it brought on all these new questions, all these strange new wishes.

She cared for them too. It wasn’t the violent delight of seeing Izuku all bruised up, or the giddiness of dancing, weapons out, with Ochako, but the feeling that had kept Himiko with the League all these months was bringing back another feeling she knew she didn’t like. One that had only ever been on the opposite side of her knife since she’d walked out of being someone else’s normal: fear. She didn’t want Tomura to die and she didn’t want him to tear himself apart even more. Even if he didn’t care what happened to him, couldn’t he see that they did?

Was this another kind of love, then? Maybe it came in flavors, like ice cream. She’d have to ask Jin what he thought. The thought cheered her up a little, even if it didn’t quite soothe the confusion she felt.

But Himiko had had enough of these strange thoughts for now. Dabi had slunk off already. Luckily, hide and seek was one of her favorite games, so she didn’t worry about finding him within the massive MLA complex. In the meantime, she’d make herself some fun, if only for a little while, before things picked up again.

“Say Jin, do you wanna play with some the PLF lieutenants?” And if her personal definition of “play” might be their definition of “terrorize”, well… “Should we braid Skeptic’s hair while he looks at all his fancy computer screens and see if he notices?”

Jin lit up at the prospect. “We could braid him to one of his puppets! Or find out where Geten keeps all their fancy coats and masquerade as them, even without our quirks!” He whooped with glee while Spinner shook his head in exasperation.

“Or swap out Trumpet’s gel for Dabi’s hair dye!” Himiko giggled. They could afford to take a break from the real scheming after everything they’d just been through, and she wanted to take her mind off of murky future. It had made her head hurt. Later, she and Jin could talk about what Tomura was planning and what she’d accidentally done with her quirk and maybe even all the confusing thoughts she was having—if anyone had any tips about confusing thoughts, it’d be Jin. They skipped off, arm-in-arm, plotting excitedly.

Oh! And she could ask Jin about the name “Shimura” after they were done playing. Maybe she could help him remember whatever it had jogged for him and Mr Compress. Someone they’d heard of before?

But that was for later, she thought, satisfied to let it rest for a while. In the League, they each had their share of masks, after all.