The organization’s reprogramming center was hidden beneath a city far away from Musutafu, and buried miles under that not even heroes with hearing quirks or echolocation quirks had managed to sense it, much less track it down.
Upon arrival at its lone entrance, a man turned to him, regarding him as their villain group’s newest member. “So. Thoughts on this place so far?”
“Truth be told, I was expecting a bit more...grandeur around here,” Shouta said, following as the door closed behind them and he was led further in.
His companion—Kiyoshi was his name—laughed, a sharp ringing sound beating against the eardrums like a katana slicing watermelons in half. “You’re so hard to please, Ryo. Not even once have I managed to crack a smile out of you ever.”
Their footsteps echoed as they traversed the brightly-lit underground corridor. Shouta flicked his eyes from side to side, trying to sneak a peek within the barred rooms they’re passing by. He was close, he could feel it.
Finally, after countless sleepless nights, the sweet relief that usually followed after a successful rescue was within grasp.
Last year, it made the news: a U.A. student’s disappearance. In particular: Midoriya Izuku.
One day he was attending school. The next day he wasn’t. And the next as well. And then his mother had filed a missing person report. Camera feeds all over town were checked to find where the boy had gone. One of them yielded a view of Midoriya suddenly halting in his tracks and falling forwards on his face as he was walking past an alley.
The video failed to show the kidnapper, with the record being suspiciously cut before it revealed who had snatched the boy off the street like a prize.
The mole that sabotaged the feed was discovered a day later and an arrest warrant was issued. He was found in his house. Dead. Someone had put a bullet through his head to ensure that he wouldn't even have the chance to tattle.
The mole’s death had put them back to square one, much to everyone’s dismay.
For weeks they searched for leads and possible trails—it didn’t matter how small as time flew by. Several pro heroes even volunteered to assist, most of them doing so as a favor to All Might who had been neglecting his health when he threw body and soul into the case. Even the students of Class 1-A were piecing together every scrap of evidence they could find when they thought that their teachers weren’t looking.
Behind the scenes, Shouta was also part of the investigation.
If it weren’t for the much-needed tip to the police station, provided by a former organization member that had defected, the operation would’ve gone undiscovered, and Midoriya’s missing person case left without leads.
The defector was background-checked, deemed clean with his intentions to help, and gave them all the info they needed in exchange for witness protection and a lighter sentence. According to him, he was part of a criminal organization specializing in the business of kidnapping people and reeducating them according to their clients’ wants or needs.
Together with the investigation team, Shouta proposed that he go undercover within the organization, find the headquarters, and bring the entire operation crashing down while saving Midoriya in the process.
The boy was his responsibility. He had to save him at any cost.
“How long does it usually take to break them?” Shouta engaged in conversation just as his tour guide finished boasting about the Preparation Rooms—small confined spaces in the walls used for isolating and wearing down victims. Just looking at those made him feel rather short of breath, and he imagined how anything else other than the lack of light and space would’ve been a welcome change after being subjected to those cramped conditions.
At his question, Kiyoshi let out a guffaw. “Oh no, no, no! We don’t break them. It’s bad practice to break such good quality wares. But to answer your question”—his grin was all teeth—“A week. On average.”
Shouta’s stomach lurched. “A week.”
Inhale. He envisioned a mountain sitting on his tongue, its sheer weight and monstrosity bearing down on the back of his throat, keeping his rage in check and preventing him from disastrously blowing his cover.
Yet the magma in his chest surged upwards still, roaring to devour those who have dared harm his student and— fuck, okay? Midoriya had been gone for half a year—
“...just gotta bombard the tough ones with persuasion and brainwashing quirks until their brains cave in, yeah? Our record holder is three weeks and two days,” Kiyoshi was still continuing on cheerfully. “We’re in the fine-tuning phase with him. That takes longer. Say about a quarter of a year, but it depends upon how thorough we’re required to do our job. And then, we deliver them gift-wrapped to our clients. Sometimes topped with a bow.”
“What’s the fine-tuning phase?” Shouta forced out, managing to barely just maintain his cool.
“We deem our products ready for fine-tuning when they start to accept what we want them to accept. Our clients usually give us a script and a list of specifications, and then we match our staff to their needs. The product’s usually wiped off of anything unnecessary or worthless to the client that ordered it. Ha! It’s funny really. We train our products so well that they won’t even lift a pinkie finger without our say so.”
Specifications. Ordered. Product. The entire operation went beyond dehumanization and turned their victims into custom-made merchandise, stripping them of qualities that their victims held dear until they popped out of the cookie cutter perfectly-shaped and beautifully molded according to someone else’s whims.
As his tour guide took him deeper still into the complex, pointing out facilities that deal with problems encountered during the brainwashing process, it took all of Shouta’s focus to ignore the crawling sensation beneath his skin, that got worse into a full-blown itch the longer he was forced to turn a blind eye whenever they passed by rooms containing people that he couldn’t immediately save. At least not until he had located Midoriya—priority priority priority—and then he could finally call for back-up.
Kiyoshi would point left and right, excitedly describing the traumatic methods they would put people under. There was a facility used to reeducate a person into thinking that their quirk was not for them to use, but only for catering to their “master’s” benefit. Another one was dedicated to implanting trigger words and touch-based triggers as failsafe to put victims back under their conditioned state, should signs of rebellion begin to show. Shock collars, heavy-weighted shackles, and suppression cuffs lined the walls of one of the storage rooms. Other containment equipment included iron maidens and cylindrical cages made of different metal alloys. They had come crazy-prepared and stocked up on all kinds of restraints to accommodate a vast selection of quirks.
Shouta’s thoughts drifted back to Midoriya. He tried not to imagine the boy’s body laden with cuffs and collars, punished for every intake of breath that he wasn’t explicitly permitted to take. Tried not to imagine the boy tailoring the use of his own quirk for the benefit and entertainment of others, forced to do deeds that would sicken him if he were in his right mind. Shit.
In what state would he find the problem child? Would Midoriya be too far-gone even after he was rescued? Were all their efforts to get him back for naught if they couldn’t even undo what these blasted villains had twisted him into?
As they waited by an elevator, Kiyoshi said to him, “You won’t believe who we got months ago though. In fact, I might take you to him: our little record-holder.”
“Who?” Shouta asked, only half-listening.
“One of them kids from U.A.”
That got his attention, but he knew that showing any kind of interest at the mere mention of that would instantly raise red flags.
So as much as it pained him to act so indifferent to his student’s current plight, he just had to bear with it for a little longer. “Tch. How boring. I thought you got someone interesting from the Top 100 roster of pro heroes.”
“You underestimate how big this is, Ryo!” Just as predicted, Kiyoshi was already scrambling to keep his attention. “Rumors say this kid is a favorite of All Might. Oh, wait hold on, but that’s not the best part! The clients that asked for him were quite creative with what they want their product to come out into.”
“A slave of theirs, perhaps?” Indifferent. Keep feigning disinterest.
“Nah. Nothing so usual, no.” Kiyoshi snorted. “They want to strip him off of his supposed ‘heroism.’ Oh yes,” he added, mistaking Shouta’s wide-eyed look for the look of surprise. “Everything and anything that makes him act and want to act like a goddamn hero. Poof! Gone.”
Shouta clenched his jaw as they entered a barred room.
The first thing that hit him was the cold, a bone-deep ache that quested to his very core. The kind of chill that couldn’t simply be chased away by sitting near a fireplace or going out to meet the sun, the kind that rooted itself until it was there to stay.
In the middle of this room sat Deku.
The boy’s eyes were closed, his body had lost muscle, and his hair had been shaved.
They muzzled him, Shouta noticed, narrowing his eyes at the metal device pulled over his student’s face.
He dragged his eyes over his student’s form, imprinting on his mind every mark of pain and injury that Midoriya had suffered. Quirk-suppressing body binds were wrapped around the boy’s body, pinioning his arms to the side. Over those binds were thick leather straps securing him in the seat, while a similar strap was buckled around his neck like a collar. His legs and ankles were similarly cuffed to the metal chair he sat upon.
“This one’s a regular of my quirk.” Kiyoshi sneered, heedless of the horrible disaster about to befall on him. “Brat won’t stop crying, fucking crybaby. Then we have to wean him off of his annoying mumbo-jumbo bullshit about pro heroes. Clients didn’t like that about him, so I took his voice from time to time ‘til he learned to only mumble about what he’s commanded to say.”
The man came forward and had the audacity to pet the boy’s head. “Kinda strange though. Sometimes, even with those binds, his quirk acts up and does all kinds of trouble for us. I suppose you could intervene there, Ryo, with your vocal-based nullifying quirk.”
It was the casual suggestion of how Shouta could use his quirk to further their agenda—to hurt his student—that did it.
He let the magma rise. The volcano in him erupted.
Only after triple-binding the man with his capture weapon did Shouta turn his attention back to the boy trapped in the chair. The hideous muzzle was the first to go. He couldn’t stand looking at it. Only then did he step back to activate his quirk and wait for the illusion to fade, for a shapeshifter to shed their disguise, for his student to vanish right in front of his eyes, always so close yet so far and—
Izuku Midoriya remained in the seat.
His hair fell back into place and he rushed to the boy’s side once again, staring, daring to hope as he put his hands firmly on those frail shoulders.
“Midoriya,” he said, shaking him a little. “Wake up. Hey.”
Slowly, Midoriya stirred, and Shouta was there, patiently coaxing those glazed eyes to open little by little. He noted how the boy kept his head down as he blinked at his lap a few times, made no effort at all to look up at his teacher.
“Midoriya,” he said again. “I’m going to release you from these restraints, alright?” He received no response, not even a hitch in the boy’s breathing to show that he’d recognized Shouta’s voice.
Carefully, gently, he moved his hands towards the collar wrapped around Midoriya’s neck, unbuckled it, ignored the bruised skin for now as he quickly worked his way down to the cuffs around his student’s ankles. The suppression binds he’d unlocked with the keys he found from Kiyoshi’s pocket. He’d just managed to unbuckle the last strap when his ears caught a low continuous sound like mumbling.
He jerked his head up. Midoriya was mumbling.
For a minute, he knelt there frozen, caught up in the moment. He hadn’t realized how much he’d sorely missed that voice relaying a torrent of information. The class had been quiet without it. The impromptu info dump of the stats of pro heroes, the fanboying over All Might, the breaking down of quirks to their basest form...
And then the moment was over, his mind cruelly pulling him back to the present as he registered the words falling like shards of glass from the boy’s mouth, sentences repeating over and over like a cursed chant and battering at Shouta’s heart.
As an underground hero, he had prepared himself for several possible scenarios including this one. But no amount of preparation could really prepare him for the real thing.
With a suppressed cry, he launched himself forwards and pulled his long-lost student into an embrace. “Sorry. Sorry I was late. Sorry sorry sorry —”
The communicator in his pocket was heavy as he pulled it out.
“The Problem Child is secured.” He paused, wiped the sweat off his eyes, attempted to savor the code phrase they’d all agreed upon at the beginning once the search was over, to no avail. “I— We...we got him. We got him.”
But as he pressed Midoriya’s atrophied body tighter against his chest, with his student stubbornly remaining unresponsive and listless aside from the quiet mumbling, Shouta couldn’t help but be plagued with thoughts that, in the end, they had no cause for celebration.
His words at the point of rescue should be triumphant. The actual situation was not.
“Check every location, every containment,” he followed up. “They’ve got more victims. We’re in the backmost room, last floor.”
The communicator crackled. “Roger that. Got your position. We’re going in, Eraser. Hold tight.”
“Fully intend to,” he muttered as he slipped the communicator back in his pocket, then slipped his arm under his student’s knees in order to carry him. Midoriya shivered, and Shouta tucked the boy’s head in, just under his chin.
“Little longer. Let’s bring you home, problem child.”