Some moutan peonies look their best in the harshness of winter while others bloom with the coming of spring.
They’re pretty little things that don’t belong by the cracks of sewage lines and rusty building sides. Not that Izuku can admire such beauty through the haze of thick bloody fog and flickering street lights. Everything is loud. There’s so much shouting, sounds of firing shots and flying helicopters overhead. Explosions erupt in harmony with the screeching of metal and warning sirens.
And, Izuku’s right eye burns.
Clutching at his eyelids does nothing more than grind on the sensitive skin there. He leans on the side of the wall where the shadow shields him in darkness and breathes quietly.
“Deku! DEKU! Where the fuck are you? Say something, you useless fuck.”
Izuku steps out into the alleyway only to have his face roughly grabbed between two scorching hot palms. Kacchan’s eyes are piercing through him, gaze wild and hands as solid as steel. He uses his fingers to force Izuku’s right eyelid open, prying the swollen skin open with undistilled ferocity.
“Ow! Kacchan, please no! It hurts. It hurts so bad. Please, stop.”
No amount of thrashing or pulling on his wrists gets Kacchan to shy away from his coarse handling. Izuku feels the tears of pain overflow and it only causes the sting of his breached skin to spike.
Kacchan’s hands are set in an unyielding pace, with his brows furrowed and face flushed from heat. “Dammit- just let me- fuck, Deku. I need to see. Let me do this, I’m- Oh, thank fuck.” Aggressive touches turn to a gentle embrace— that’s how Izuku finds himself pressed to the side of Kacchan’s neck, feeling the strong pulse under his cheek. “It’s there. You still got your eye. Holy fucking shit, when I saw you take that shotgun in the fucking face, I really thought- for a second there I— ” Kacchan’s chest rises in hitched motions, catching on his breath as he buries himself in Izuku’s shoulder. “Shitty nerd, don’t you fucking dare scare me like that again.”
Izuku doesn’t realise how much heat Kacchan is radiating until he pulls off. He’s drenched in his own sweat, the entire neckline of his shirt, armpits and roots of blonde hair stained in nitroglycerin. His lips are cracked and chest flail- body at the mercy of dehydration and fatigue. Despite his skin steaming with the aftershock of his explosions, Kacchan is shivering, eyes unfocused and movements jittery. He’s pacing around the alleyway, muttering under his breath, fidgeting with his hands as if he’s unable to sit still. Nervous habits that are so unlike him. Kacchan is always so confident and composed, able to form strategies and tackle enemies with the ease of housework chores. But, now...
As Izuku ponders, Kacchan unsheaths a needle, filling the syringe with the yellowish-white substance in the vial he’s been gradually heating up in his palm. He thinks long and hard on their next move, any gamble that can possibly save them from this, and comes up with nothing. All the planning and days of strategising has led them to this dead end, with their backs backed against the wall. They’re right where the enemy wants them, which means: there’s only one viable option left.
“We should- Kacchan, I think it’s best if we hand ourselves in,” Izuku blurts out just before Kacchan finds a vein on his forearms that hasn’t burst already.
Kacchan scoffs, shoulders hunched over, and bangs covering his eyes, “And, then what? We get pardoned? You actually believe that if we beg on our knees hard enough, sound a little sorry, that they’ll take us back and it will all be water under the bridge- shit. The people want retribution, Deku. We ain’t getting out of death row by playing nice now. It’s too fucking late.”
Kacchan’s voice rises with each spoken word, and Deku watches as he rests his head back on the gritty stones of the buildings after emptying the content of the syringe in his arm. There is a certain breed of cruel irony here, a particular bitter taste to seeing Kacchan inject himself with quirk enhancers when just last month he was apprehending the rings smuggling those unlicensed drugs. It hurts to see the hero who refuses to rely on any shortcuts or cheating spells to succeed, the person who barely touches alcohol or nicotine let alone illicit drugs, be heavily reliant on the substances he swore he’d never take.
But, he’s also never seen Kacchan look this desperate.
“This is my last shot,” Kacchan mutters, tone gravelly and bone tired. “And I … fuck,” a wretched gasp as the drug courses through his body. It will take a short while to settle in, but it will last Kacchan at least ten minutes before the inevitable crash. “I’m gonna cut off the main power supply to the east side of the city. The security cameras won’t survive more than two hours after the blackout, and I’ll cause enough damage to make sure the system stays down long enough for you to aah- escape, dammit.” A strangled whimper. “Ten minutes. Y-you got ten minutes before I blow up the generator. Get to the port, Deku. Run as far away as you can away from this damn city and don’t look back.”
“Huh! But- but, w-what about Kacchan? I can’t just leave you-”
“Bastard, push your sorry ass any further and you’ll break all your fucking ribs, pop your lungs and die. Your stupid quirk reached its limit and so have you. What good are you to me with a blindspot this massive anyway? Don’t waste my time and effort, Deku. You’re gonna get the fuck out of here or I’ll kill you myself.” Kacchan swallows against the dryness in his throat, and in spite of the venom he’s spitting at Izuku, he throws him a small sacred smile, the kind Izuku only gets to see in those rare cold mornings and private hours of the night.
“I’ll catch up to you, nerd. I always do. That’s a fucking promise.”
And with that, Kacchan grabs Deku’s face, traps it between his fingers, hovers over the charred lips and whispers, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, okay.” He speaks the next words between the mold of their mouths, heat simmering in the curves and corners where their worlds meet. “I wish I could take it all back, and start over.” He nuzzles the side of Deku’s cheek, voice breathy and low. “I wanna do you so much better, Deku. You deserve so much more than I can give you, fuck.”
Wrapping his arms around Kacchan, Izuku holds on for dear life. He folds into him, wretchedly small and helpless in his embrace. Kacchan always shined so bright it was blinding, and even at his lowest, his wavering glow makes Izuku shy away in awe and admiration. He doesn't want to let go. He doesn’t. No, no, no.
Izuku feels the growing flame of Kacchan’s hands slide across the sides of his neck, over the expanse of his shoulders, down through the fabric of his sleeves and all the way to his palms where he kneads the old scars of Deku’s knuckles before dropping a token there.
And then, he’s gone.
Kacchan is gone.
Izuku hears the sound of detonating bombs, and an array of gunshots and he knows that Kacchan would rather die a thousand deaths than be captured. A pride as grand as his won’t settle for any less. Izuku stands there in the wet cold and muckiness of the early spring and watches as the moutan peonies flutter with the wind. Flowers that bloom through the unforgiving cruel winter, and die as the heat of spring comes to lay the land. Flowers that signal the start of a new season, a new chapter, new life. Flowers that speak of riches and wealth and honour.
Izuku was planning to go to Peony Matsuri with Kacchan this year.
He peers down at the glinting ring Kacchan sneaked into his hand, stares with mourning at where his own name lays carved in the inner piece of the hoop, and feels the bile rise to his throat.
Izuku can see the clock tick before his eyes.
“That’s a fucking promise.”
A while back, Izuku would have believed Kacchan, would have trusted in the sincerity of those words with his whole heart, but now? How can he when Kacchan broke every single promise he ever made to Izuku?
And, what if it was well-deserved? The broken promises. After all, Izuku was the viper who doomed Kacchan at the height of his career. It was only fair that Kacchan didn’t trust him to stand by his side anymore.
"Division Three, seal all exits of the power plant. Division Five, release the highest dose of Agent C through the vents. We must stop the criminal before he destroys half our city. To all divisions, do your best. Ground Zero mustn’t live to see another sunrise.”
Against the wave of deafening alarms, white flashes of fired weapons, and poisonous air, Kacchan will live through this spring to see the moutan peonies bloom again.
Because Izuku would sooner take a bullet to the heart than let Kacchan die.
So, he lets the spikes of energy encompass every vessel, every fibre of his being as he stands tall and allows OFA to take a hold of the very blood rushing through his deepest organs. The enemy's main attack wave is due to hit in 5, 4, 3. And, Izuku’s ready.
On cue, the air around him shakes in tempo with the sound waves. Deathly high-pitched, with a cutting edge that leaves the walls of the buildings, the ground, Izuku’s very core vibrating in tandem, as his ears ring, and his vision gets hazy. There it is. His chance.
The electric power beats off him like a pounding heart, and Izuku does something he didn’t dare attempt since his first year of UA. He unlocks the pure disinhibited energy of One for All at one hundred percent, and sours to the sky with a jump.
St. Louis Smash. Straight into the helicopter releasing the agonising noise. In mere silent seconds, it crashes in a ruthless blow, the impact causing a funnel shaped-dent that destroys the wings of the helicopter and offending spearkers. The air ripples around him in the afterwave of the attack, hot with the thunder of his green glow. Izuku stands over the rubble of what previously was the control centre of this operation and growls in warning. He’s not at his limit. He's not done here yet. Izuku can still fight by Kacchan’s side.
For the first time since his first year in UA, Izuku is ready to smash each and every single bone of his body without an inkling of regret. Less than ten minutes. They both have less than ten minutes to finish this and neither of them are about to die.
Two month earlier.
The figure at the end of the table throws the file he’s holding. The contents spill and scatter across the table for the rest of the attendants to see.
“I don't see the point in going after Ground Zero. We’re still recovering from the scandal six months later. The public’s faith will not waver in him, no matter how hard you try to tarnish his image. It’s just a waste of our time and resources.”
“It’s because the people think he’s on their side,” someone pipes up. “We’ve got to alienate him from the masses, expose him as the greedy self-centred hero he is!”
“Ladies, listen to yourselves,” a gruff deep voice joins the conversation. “While you sit here and mutter under your breaths, Ground Zero is climbing the ranks faster than ever before. He’s already broken into the top ten, and soon he’ll be part of the big three. Once that happens, you know there will be no getting rid of him.” A grunt, and more sounds of shuffling paper. “You think too small; look at the big picture. We need to take him away from the spotlight …. or better yet, give it to him in full force. On our terms.”
An uproar of chatter erupts in the room. People in suits arguing over a meeting table.
“He’ll never be on our side so our best bet is to just have him killed in battle. It’s doable, and can be easily arranged. Accidents happen-”
“And have him be immortalised as a great martyr for the next generation to worship? Give me a break! We got to strike him down and bring him to shame. Show his true colours to the crowds. Have him fail his people. Once he loses the public’s faith, he’s as good as dead.”
“We tried that already, and look at what happened-”
“I think you’re all forgetting a vital piece in this plan,” the man standing alongside the head of the table finally speaks. He flourishes a remote in his hands, and clicks on a button that brings the screen on the wall to life. A picture comes in full view: it’s pro hero Deku and pro hero Ground Zero standing in the same frame. Deku is crouched down on a rooftop during late night patrol hours, illuminated solely by the bustle of the city. The soulless dark sky, and minimal dots of lighting shrouds Deku and blends him with his surroundings, his green hair turnt black, and eyes glowing stark white. Beside him, Ground Zero is leaning on his side, elbow perched on his partner’s shoulders as he surveys the city. If it wasn’t for the lines of blond hair and bright orange streaks, the low visibility could have allowed him to be mistaken for another hero.
“His hero partner,” he punctuates his statement with a pointed red laser at the screen.
“He’s ranked thirty five with a mediocre mission record attached to his name,” Someone japs. “He’s like a war machine with a short battery life. Strong, but only useful for hard and fast countermoves; sometimes, even long term planning. But he won’t last without losing steam by the second. Then, there’s his chronic injuries problem...”
“Yeah, the only thing holding him up there in the polls is the public’s infatuation with his earnest persona. I don’t think he’s anything to worry about.”
The figure with the remote tutts, “I’d reconsider.”
With that, he presses another button, and a video starts playing on the big screen. This time, it’s old news footage of a previously well-known near miss incident. A sudden rockslide blocked the tracks, and a train full of travelling passengers was unable to deter its route or slow at the last minute. The pros had to be called, and the situation was delegated to them. The channel then switches to a view of pro hero Deku with his back blocking the train cart from moving forward, with his feet embedded in the ground underneath and scatters of smashed boulders flying around the site. The actual train front is completely indented with the force of the makeshift breaks, with steam emitting from both the ruined metal, destroyed engine, and Deku’s body. The entire landscape around the area is left in shambles.
“Huh, I’ve seen tougher heroes. Remember All Might? Fatgum? He ain’t special,” an incredulous voice pipes in.
The commentary isn’t graced with a response; instead, the screen view changes.
The next footage is taken from a security camera, as shown by the grainy quality of the video and dated shots. In this one, Ground Zero is visibly injured, back to a wall in a run-down warehouse with blood coating the entirety of his hero suit. Deku can be seen too, back bare, and hunched over his unconscious hero partner as he presses the tatters of his own costum to a gaping wound on Ground Zero’s torso. There is an array of noises coming from the large group surrounding the duo; taunts, laughter, and warning shots from stolen firearms. Pro hero Deku bends down to whisper something in Ground Zero’s ear before turning to his opponents with eyes that glow bleach white. In the next second, green lightning strikes, the ground cracks open and windows shatter. A rainshower of bullets gets released, but Deku is prepared to use his body to shield his partner. Shockingly, the shots barely penetrate his flesh- they pounce like malleable rubber on an iron wall. A certain aura of doom fills the atmosphere as the next few instances transpire like a blur. Screams of fear, splatter of blood and the sound of grinding bones.
The group gathered in the quiet meeting room shifts in discomfort, and some look away or excuse themselves out of the premise. The video ends with the camera panning away to Deku carrying Ground Zero out of the warehouse. The screen hisses with static.
After a deadly bout of silence, the person leading the meeting clears his throat, and speaks, “That man is an indestructible force of nature, armed with a will of steel. He’s your biggest obstacle, and until you deal with him, you have no chance of taking down Ground Zero.”
He lets his words settle in the room, and as questions start to rise, he interrupts, “This footage had been strategically omitted in an old mission report that claimed the case was closed after an ‘unprecedented incident’. However, after Ground Zero and Deku merged agencies, records moved rather … inconspicuously, and a very generous insider dug this up for us. This dates back to two years ago, so go with the assumption that he’s gotten even stronger.”
Quiet, then a suggestion. “Maybe we should have a more realistic goal, like pro hero LeMillion?”
Finally, the gathering goes back to their overlapping discussion.
“But LeMillion never caused as big a ruckus as Ground Zero. He’s a nuisance, yes, but a difficult one to taint or drag attention to. If you want to hit them hard, then you gotta crack their toughest shell.”
“But as long as pro hero Deku is alive and well, then Ground Zero will continue to be untouchable, so what is your next move going to be?”
“If I may bring something to the audience of the General Hero Council officials,” a quiet voice at the corner of the room speaks for the first time. “Deku is a class X hero. Tied with a five year contract.”
The new information presented brings the conversation to a halt, and another silence befalls the attendants until someone asks the most detrimental question to their plan.
“What’s their relationship like?”
In this case, ‘their’ doesn’t need to be defined further. The screen at the far end of the room is lit again with a photo. It’s Deku and Ground Zero in civilian clothes, sitting at an outdoor table in a busy restaurant. The seating area is small, and the duo are within very close proximity of one other. Deku is excitedly showing Ground Zero something on his phone, while the latter, face a blushing red, tries to force a french fry in his partner’s mouth. The picture changes, and it’s the same setting, but this time, Ground’s Zero’s feet can be seen nestled between Deku’s crossed ankles, as the explosive hero pulls on his partner's nose, causing him to scrunch up his face in a wince.
Another photo jumps up on the screen: Central Park. Deku is sitting on a low fence by the bench with Ground Zero under the flap of his coat as they sip on hot drinks.
“Not much is known but rumour says they’re childhood friends-”
The slideshow changes to a frame of the two pro heroes on top of a building rooftop in broad daylight. Ground Zero has Deku by the front of his hero suit, pulling him down to eye level. The angle of the photo, distant and with the expanse of Deku’s back being at the forefront, makes it difficult to see the point where their faces meet, but there is no denying the intimate distance caught in the shot.
“—However, my intuition says there’s more to it than they’re letting on.”