Chapter 31: Through the Looking Glass

"I knew it!" Spinner's voice was on the verge of breaking, and tears began to run down his cheeks. "I fucking knew you'd come for us."

"Naturally, my dear Spinner- though it seems you two made quite a bit of progress toward escaping just on your own! A valiant effort, but the hard part is over now. Just hold still, and you'll be back with La Brava and the others before you know it."

After taking a moment to brush a few smoking embers from a scorchmark on his tan overcoat, Mr. Compress reached down and tapped Iguchi's arm, activating his quirk in a flash of blue light. Grasping the resulting marble between his gloved fingers, Atsuhiro slid it up his coat's sleeve with a signature magician's flourish as he turned to face Tobita. "And poor Gentle, what have these heathens done to you?"

Tobita felt a swell of emotion rising up in his chest as Atsuhiro reached over and undid his gag, but just as he let out a gasp of relief and began to summon up the words thank their savior, a dark, looming shape filled the hole Compress had made in the wall.

"Behind you!" Gentle blurted, but his warning came a beat too late; a massive, shadowy fist plunged through the haze and grabbed hold of Compress before he could turn to face the enemy, like the hand of a demon reaching out from the depths of hell.

"Not so fast," A familiar voice declared; then the fist squeezed shut, and Compress collapsed into mud-brown sludge.

A double, Tobita realized, a sinking feeling taking hold in his chest as the shape grew clearer, and Re-Destro stepped calmly through the hole; his right arm had been swollen to an enormous size by the layer of shadowy black energy surging across his skin, covering his hand, arm, and most of his face. A moment later, Spinner flashed back into existence amid the double's remains, profanities spilling from his mouth as scrambled to his feet and began to backpedal towards Gentle.

"Naughty, naughty boys. Look at what you've done."

In the far corner, Slidin' Go had reappeared as well, blood still flowing from his neck as he writhed in pain on the floor; Re-Destro let out a deep sigh of disapproval as he took another step towards them. Aside from the briefest of glimpses of the strange, shifting birthmark on Yotsubashi's forehead, Tobita had never seen his captor's quirk in action; regardless of the finer details of how the ability functioned, though, it was clear that the man could muster a massive amount of strength.

"I'll have to punish you for this," Yotsubashi continued, reaching his enlarged hand towards Gentle as Spinner backed up against the cell's far wall. "But first…"

Pivoting with surprising speed, Re-Destro raised his massive right arm and hand just in time to block a hail of ice shards sailing through the hole, followed up by a bolt of blue fire; Chaudron burst through the smoke and into the room a moment later atop a wave of ice, followed close behind by Dabi.

"Gentlemen, it's good to see you!" Monoma turned and gave the two of them a self-assured smirk as the pair continued to pelt Re-Destro with a barrage of attacks from both elements, scorching and shredding his suit's sleeve. "Good to see that Compress' attempt was at least a partial success! Spinner, see if you can free Gentle- I'll get you two out of here as soon as we've dealt with this nuisance!"

Turning his attention back to his opponent, Chaudron swore in frustration and dove sideways as Re-Destro lunged forward and smashed Dabi into the wall with a swift backhand, driving a crater into the reinforced metal with all the effort of swatting away a troublesome fly. Shock and horror rose up in Tobita's chest for a brief moment, but Dabi's body was reduced to brown paste on impact- another double, thankfully. As for Chaudron, though, Gentle had a feeling the same might not be true; Monoma was now backing towards the cell door, hurling blasts of fire and meter-long shards of ice to try and slow Re-Destro's advance with an air of increasing desperation. Meanwhile, Yotsubashi continued to grow in size; his chest, torso, and legs had now swelled to the same massive proportions as his arms, his pinstripe suit and pants enlarging along with his body.

Chaudron's using a copy of Todoroki's quirk, Tobita mused, a frown spreading across his face. But he can't go all-out with either his fire or his ice because we're still here- he doesn't want to wound us by mistake. Oh, what I wouldn't give to have Overhaul here right now. Gentle flexed against his restraints in frustration, and his frown deepened as a bead of sweat raced down his cheek. Things would be so much simpler. What a shame that he'd never agree to tag along on a rescue mission like this one- or allow Twice and Monoma to take his measurements, for that matter. It would compromise his precious 'independence'.

"Iguchi, go!" Gentle turned to face Spinner and jerked his head toward the hole Compress had left in the wall; smoke still obscured the other side, and the sounds of battle had grown even louder in volume, but it presented a better chance for escape than remaining in the cell to be crushed or frozen. "Now's your chance- they need to get at least one of us out of here!"

"And abandon you?" Crouched down behind their interrogation chairs for cover as jagged shards of icy shrapnel sailed overhead, Spinner shook his head adamantly. "Fuck that 'leave me behind' sacrificial bullshit, man. We made it this far together- I'm not gonna ditch you right before the goddamn finish line!" Reaching over towards Gentle's wrists with his remaining fingers, Spinner fiddled for a moment with the shackles, then glanced back across the room at Slidin' Go. "I'll bet that bastard still has the keys… Wait here, I'll be back in a second."

"No, what are you- don't try it!"

Gentle's protests fell on deaf ears, though, as Spinner lurched clumsily toward their unconscious guard, stumbling back and forth due to his two missing toes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cell, Chaudron had just dodged another blow from Re-Destro thanks to a well-timed burst of fire from his left foot, but he was rapidly running out of room to maneuver.

"Why isn't Kurogiri's quirk working here?!" Monoma called, his grin now replaced by a scowl; Tobita could feel the eerie, psychic energy of Nemoto Shin's Confession quirk laced into the question, and very nearly felt compelled to try and answer it himself.

"We took countermeasures," Re-Destro replied in a forced, robotic tone, even as he clasped his hands together and swung them down in a savage, frenzied blow. In the same moment, Chaudron erected a thick barrier of ice for defense, but despite his best efforts, the wall shattered in flurry of frozen shrapnel, sending him sliding across the floor towards the cell's barred and locked door. "There are twenty-eight generators embedded in the tower's walls- together, they create an electromagnetic interference field that counteracts his Warp Gate."

His movements imbued with the same surprising speed as before, Yotsubashi closed the distance between them in an instant, raising one leg to smash Chaudron into a bloody pulp before he could ask another question. Rather than connecting, though, Re-Destro's foot rebounded back upwards, off of the cushion of elastic air that Gentle had moved into place a meter above Chaudron's head. Tobita let out a yell of triumph as Yotsubashi stumbled sideways and slammed against the wall, giving Monoma just enough time to scramble back to his feet and fire off a massive arc of ice, large enough to entomb Re-Destro against the metal in a frozen cocoon. A few stray shards sailed toward the interrogation chairs in the center of the chamber, but Gentle deflected them up into the ceiling with another well-placed disc of air.

"Hey Prince Charming," Spinner interjected, glancing up as he snatched a ring of keys from Slidin' Go's belt, "anyone ever tell you that it ain't much of a fairytale rescue if you get the damsels in distress killed in the process?! Ease up on the ice!"

"You're welcome for the assist!" Tobita added, grinning in spite of the danger; Monoma replied with a wink.

"Allow me to return the favor!"

Just a few meters away from the two damsels in question, a jagged lattice of cracks was already snaking rapidly across Re-Destro's frozen prison, and one massive arm had broken free entirely, but Chaudron hardly seemed phased by the development; instead of attacking again, he raised his left hand and began to conjure up a murky, human-sized mass of brown sludge. Re-Destro's cage of ice shattered and evaporated the moment Chaudron switched his active quirk, and he lunged toward Monoma with a grunt of exertion and rage; though Chaudron still attempted to sidestep the blow, there was no time for him to defend himself, nor enough for Gentle to maneuver another film of elastic air into place to protect him.

Tobita could only watch in horror as Re-Destro's enlarged fist struck Monoma nearly head-on with a resounding thud- as Neito tumbled across the floor and skidded to a halt against the wall, his blazer torn and streaked with blood. Monoma's right arm and leg had both been smashed into brown paste, and the rest of his body was quickly losing its shape as well, but the double he'd sacrificed himself to create was still intact, just outside the arc of Re-Destro's fist.

"La Brava!"

Gentle's mouth fell open, tears welling in his eyes; Aiba Manami stood just a few meters before him, blinking in confusion as she glanced around the room to appraise the situation. The moment their eyes met, though, an expression of pure joy spread across La Brava's face, and she launched herself towards him, her arms outstretched.

"Gentle!"

Propped against the wall, Chaudron's body was rapidly collapsing, but he managed to flash one last smile while his head remained intact, coughing up a mixture of blood and sludge.

"And thus, I pass the baton to you."

"Ah, another of those pesky doubles?"

Re-Destro turned back to face Gentle with a sigh of disappointment, just as La Brava leapt forward and wrapped her arms tight around his shoulders.

"Gentle, I love you!"

Tears of happiness were already spilling down Aiba's cheeks; smiling as her quirk's magenta energy began to wreathe his body, Tobita leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on her forehead.

"And I you, La Brava."

Tobita broke free of his four shackles in an instant with Love's power surging through his veins, just in time to hold one hand and create three layers of elastic air, shielding the two of them from Re-Destro's massive fist. Rather than rebounding, though, Yostsubashi's hand continued to press further and further into the barriers, straining with effort as his body continued to swell in size, and what remained of his shirt and jacket began to tear apart from the inside.

"I'm so terribly sorry, Gentle, but I'm afraid I'll need to cut this touching little reunion short."

Swearing under his breath, Gentle wrapped one arm around La Brava and leapt to the side, not a moment too soon; just behind them, the air shield finally gave way, and the two interrogation chairs crumpled like cardboard beneath Yotsubashi's palm.

"It would be wise for you both to surrender," Re-Destro chided, then hurled the tangle of crushed metal in Spinner's direction. With his task of freeing Tobita now rendered obsolete, Iguchi had been edging towards the hole leading out into the hallway, but Yotsubashi's improvised projectile forced him to leap in the opposite direction, clinging to the wall with his Gecko quirk. "I can be quite forgiving, but if you continue this futile escape attempt, I'll be forced to take drastic measures."

By now, Re-Destro was so large that his head and shoulders were pressing up against the room's high ceiling; the shadowy energy coating his body has descended over his head like a mask, leaving only his eyes and mouth uncovered, and the last shreds of his pinstripe suit jacket had fallen away.

"After thorough consideration, Re-Destro, I'm afraid we'll have to decline your generous offer." Gentle eased La Brava to the floor and touched his hand to the wall behind him, then exchanged a brief glance with Spinner, conveying a simple yet vital message: Protect her. If she dies, I'll lose this power.

"On behalf of the Syndicate," Tobita continued, a grin spreading across his face, "allow me to express my deepest sympathies."

The next few moments passed in a blur of motion; springing off the newly elastic wall, Gentle shot up towards Re-Destro's head, drawing back his energy-wreathed fist for what he hoped might be a decisive blow. Before Tobita could so much as swing his arm forward, though, he was swatted aside like a fly, his left arm and leg crushed against his side by Yotsubashi's open palm. Following through on the strike, Re-Destro grabbed hold of Gentle's legs and swung him down towards the floor, but in spite of the sudden, disorienting shift in momentum, Tobita was able to create a cushion of air for himself at the last moment, easing the impact enough to ensure that his bones weren't pulverized against the metal. Another sudden burst of energy from Aiba gave Gentle the strength to kick his legs free from Re-Destro's grasp; once that was done, Gentle slapped the floor and bounced himself back up and onto his feet, molding two tightly-packed layers of elastic air around his body before his foe could strike again. Gentle Armor- it should be enough for me to withstand his next attack. A sharp, aching stab informed Tobita that his left shoulder had been dislocated, but amid the surge of adrenaline and strength that Lover Mode provided, it was a simple matter to reach over and force it back into place, ignoring the tears of pain that swiftly resulted.

"Such a wonderfully potent combination of meta-abilities," Re-Destro declared in a curious tone, pausing his assault for a moment to marvel at Gentle's defenses. "I can hardly touch you like this, yes?" Testing his assumption, Yotsubashi aimed a lightning-fast hook at Tobita's head, then let out a bemused chuckle when it bounced harmlessly away. "But it's thanks to her, of course, that you were able to break free in the first place." Re-Destro glanced back at La Brava- at the moment, Spinner was holding her against his side with one arm as he hung from the wall in the far corner of the cell, as far from the fight as he could reach.

"Don't lay your filthy eyes on her!" Tobita bellowed, his hands balling into white-knuckled fists. "I'm the one you're fighting!"

"So you are," Yotsubashi replied, pivoting back in Tobita's direction on a time as a shadowy sphere of black energy began to accumulate in his right hand. "This is a good opportunity, Gentle Criminal- let's see whether that armor of yours can withstand my Burden."

Burden? His eyes widening in confusion and alarm as crackling bolts of dark energy radiated from the slowly charging orb, Gentle planted his feet and raised his hands, creating and orienting another three protective shields to absorb and redirect the blast. The cell's too small for me to dodge any large-scale area attack, but if I'm lucky, I can rebound it into the wall.

"Gentle!" La Brava cried, waving her hands in his direction even as Spinner struggled to keep her from falling to the floor. "Please, don't lose! You can do this!"

Another wave of energy from Aiba's Love coursed through Gentle's veins and steeled his will; he let out a cry of defiance in face of Re-Destro's massive, looming figure, driving deep dents into the metal floor as he planted his feet.

"Do your worst, fiend!"

"Careful what you wish for!" Re-Destro called out in reply, swinging the orb forward like a great black hammer.

In the end, the barriers stood no chance.

Yotsubashi's Burden smashed effortlessly through the layers of elastic shields that Gentle had erected, then slammed into his armor with the speed and force of a freight train; before he could even process his barriers' failure, Tobita found himself being flung backwards, swept away by an unstoppable tidal wave of energy. Rushing up behind him, the cell's metal door and surrounding wall crumpled and tore apart as easily as sheets of paper, and in the blink of an eye, he was tumbling across tiled marble floor like a rag doll, moving far too rapidly to reach out an arm and slow himself with Elasticity. His head, his elbow, his torso, his ankle- blinding bursts of searing pain flared up across Tobita's body, and darkness began to encroach at the edges of his vision, threatening to overtake his mind entirely.

Finally, mercifully, after what felt like both an instant and an eternity, the skidding and rolling slowed, and Gentle's limp body came to a sliding halt on his stomach. The taste of copper filled his mouth as warm liquid trickled down his arm and face, and he let out a muffled groan of pain as his limbs, head, and ribs screamed out in agony. Tobita's vision was still blurred, his ears deafened by incessant ringing; forming coherent thoughts was a laborious task, and it took every ounce of effort he could muster not to slip immediately into unconsciousness.

Alive. I'm still… alive.

Slowly, steadily, the world took shape anew, and the all-encompassing pain wracking his body became more focused. My arm, Gentle realized, blinking to clear the blood dripping down into his eyes as he sucked in a sharp breath. My left arm is broken. Some of my ribs too, I think. My ankle… Tobita eased his right leg across the floor as gingerly as possible, and winced in discomfort. Only sprained, I think. But my head… Reaching up with a trembling hand to pat at the matted hair just above his scalp, Gentle gasped in pain and jerked back his arm- his fingertips were wet with crimson. Not good, not good at all.

Finally turning his gaze upwards, Gentle squinted through the sweat and blood stinging at his eyes, trying to make sense of his current whereabouts; judging by the sunlight flooding in from behind him, it seemed that he'd come to a rest just beneath a set of windows, a theory quickly confirmed when he tilted his head to the right and pressed his hand against the warm glass, leaving behind a set of bloody fingerprints. A cloudy blue sky and the rooftops of a city were visible on the other side, but Tobita's attention was quickly drawn back to his left as the floor began to shake with a series of heavy footfalls.

"Ah, so you survived?" Re-Destro's towering black silhouette loomed at the center of Tobita's field of vision; drawing steadily closer to his fallen foe, Yotsubashi cracked a smile, his massive arms outstretched. "I must say, I'm quite impressed, Gentle Criminal. Burden concentrates and materializes my accumulated Stress into a single blast- very few can withstand it and live."

My armor, Gentle reflected, thinking back to the moment Re-Destro's attack struck. It saved me- when that ball of energy sent me flying back into the cell door, it gave me just enough of a cushion to keep me from splattering like a bug. What's that about Stress, though? Is that his quirk?

Fighting through the pain, Gentle forced himself up to his knees and clutched at his broken left arm- an improvised cylindrical splint of elastic air served to hold the fracture in place for the time being.

"So," Gentle called, spitting blood and a shard of chipped tooth from his mouth, "have I proven myself worthy of your respect, oh great and noble Supreme Commander?"

As he stalled for time to think, a quick glance to his right and left gave Tobita a better sense of his surroundings- it seemed that he'd landed in the middle of an observation deck, a large, open chamber with high ceilings, tiled marble flooring, and massive windows overlooking Deika city. The pitched battle he'd heard and seen before was still raging in the hallway directly ahead, running alongside his and Spinner's cell; Re-Destro's Burden attack had blown apart the cell's door and one of its walls, scattering the debris across the comparatively empty sightseeing area. A few pieces of shrapnel had struck the windows and left jagged scars on the glass- no doubt specially reinforced, if the lack of cracks or outright breaks was any indication.

Probably not a reliable escape route, then, Gentle mused, flexing his right fist to ensure that he could still land a blow if necessary. Lover Mode's heightened strength and stamina was still present inside him- likely another reason he was still conscious- but the magenta smoke around his body was slowly beginning to fade. I can't see if La Brava or Spinner made it out with this monster standing in my way, nor can I intervene in the battle- I need to find a way around him, and quickly.

"You've more than proven yourself!" Yotsubashi replied with a chuckle, drawing to a halt a few meters away. "So why persist with this pointless resistance? You made a valiant effort, but by now you must know that you're hopelessly outmatched. Surrender, Gentle, and this will all be over."

"Picking fights with the wounded, I see? How pathetic."

Resonating with an eerie, mechanical undertone from within his combat suit's helmet, Seraph's voice sent a chill racing up Gentle's spine; Re-Destro pivoted and raised his arms, but he was a beat too slow to block the brutal, flying kick that Midoriya delivered to his head the next moment, followed by a graceful mid-air turn as he descended to land at Gentle's side. Even more menacing in appearance than usual, Seraph's gleaming black suit of multi-plated armor was streaked with blood, dust, and ash. Smoke wafted from its elbow and heel-mounted rocket thrusters, and the curved blade extending from his right gauntlet was coated in viscera and gore, making it perfectly clear that Midoriya had already carved a brutal path through the enemy's ranks to make it this far. Re-Destro, though, hardly seemed phased by Seraph's blow, growing even larger in size as he gazed down at the duo.

"Ah, there you are- I was worried I'd lost you in the fray, Seraph. Come to play some more with that toy suit of yours?"

"Not quite," Midoriya replied, then lowered his voice so that only Tobita could hear. "When she calls out to you, get yourself away from here, and back towards the others- Pandora will treat your injuries if you can get to her. I'll keep him busy."

"But sir, he-"

"Gentle!"

Interrupting Tobita's objection, La Brava's voice sounded out above the chaos of the battle- to Gentle's distinct surprise, she and Spinner were perched atop one of the rafters overhead. Iguchi was holding Aiba's shoulder to ensure that she didn't fall off, a grin on his face as he gazed down at his cellmate.

"You can do it!" Aiba shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. "You can do anything, because I love you!"

A new surge of power struck Tobita's body like a bolt of lightning- in the span of an instant, his stamina was renewed, the pain from his injuries faded, and a sense of clarity cut through his doubt and confusion. Love's power had been down to its final embers, but La Brava had given him a second wind, and though he'd been on the verge of collapse just moments prior, Gentle felt ready to conquer the world.

Pandora, he had to remind himself, fighting the urge to ignore Seraph's orders and attack Re-Destro. I have to get away from here and get to Pandora.

Formulating an escape plan on the fly, Gentle leapt off the newly elastic floor, sailing straight up and out of Re-Destro's reach just as Seraph launched himself at Yotsubashi below. After springing off the ceiling, he sailed down past Spinner and La Brava, bouncing on a gradually descending series of air platforms towards the mouth of the main corridor. As he moved back towards the floor, Gentle took the opportunity to survey the scene from above: Beyond the trail of smoke, rubble, and haze created by Re-Destro's Burden, rest of the battle was finally visible, a frenzied and chaotic melee. At a glance, Tobita could see half a dozen doubles of Monoma, along with several more of Carmilla, Dabi, and Compress, all locked in vicious close-quarters combat with a roughly equal number of opponents, a mix of uniformed Detnerat security, Liberation Army soldiers, and the ape-like puppets controlled by Skeptic's Anthropomorph quirk. Though the building's security personnel were equipped with guns and stun batons, most of them had abandoned those for their quirks by now, engaging the Syndicate rescue team with needles, acid, sonic blasts, and practically everything in between.

The guards and foot soldiers' skill in combat still paled in comparison to the brutal efficiency of the Liberation Army's officers and commanders, though; Gentle watched in dismay as Curious cut down an entire group of Monoma doubles at once with a well-timed pitch of exploding coins, paperclips, and pens, her shrill laughter echoing through the corridor and the chamber beyond. A wounded survivor attempted to reach her with a desperate flurry of fire and ice in the moment before he collapsed into sludge, but two of Skeptic's puppets flung themselves in front of the attack without a moment's hesitation; a group of them coalesced into a protective formation around Curious moments later, giving her cover from any other Syndicate assailants while she nursed her wounds and searched for more projectiles.

Thankfully, the parka-clad ice-wielder who had taken Gentle and Spinner captive was nowhere to be seen- the handsome young politician, Trumpet, was absent as well. In their place, though, a variety of lieutenants seemed more than eager to pick up the slack, cutting their way through doubles of Compress and Dabi and Toga as quickly as the Chaudrons could make them. Tobita even spotted a double of himself amidst the fray, wielding a set of air shields to defend a wounded Setsuno Toya from a burly soldier with imposing metal spikes sprouting from his knuckles. Just as he opened his mouth to give himself a shout of encouragement, though, the duplicate Gentle's head exploded into paste- he'd been outflanked by a tan, silver-haired Liberation Army lieutenant firing bolts of blue energy from her palms. Tobita's mouth fell open in horror at the sight, but there was no time to dwell on the rather existential matter.

While he was no tactician, Gentle could guess at the general order of battle from his aerial vantage point; most of the Liberation Army's forces were concentrated on the left side of the corridor, their backs to the wall of Gentle and Spinner's cell. The Syndicate, emerging from a side hallway to the right, had been fighting to break through the enemy's lines and reach their captive allies- with limited success, judging by the fact that only a handful of doubles had made it through the hole created by Mr. Compress. We can still win the day, though, Gentle reassured himself, strengthening the cast around his left arm with another layer of air as he prepared to drop down into the fray. Spinner and I are both free- Kurogiri may not be able to extract us from inside the building, but if I can reach Pandora and Chaudron, I'm sure they could coordinate a withdrawal.

His mouth set in a determined line, Gentle made the final drop to the floor, landing with an elastic bounce at the far edge of the melee as Love's energy continued to swell up inside him. A uniformed Detnerat guard was his first target- the man hardly had time to turn around before a single, swift blow to the chin knocked him flat. The two Liberation Army soldiers just past him proved equally easy to dispatch, too busy bombarding the Syndicate's forces with sonic blasts and discs of red energy to notice Gentle moving up behind them. And here I thought it might be hard to fight with just one arm, Tobita mused, flexing his fingers in satisfaction as the second of the two long-range fighters slumped unconscious to the floor. Now, if I can just find Pandora amid this chaos…

"Hey, there you are!" Giggling sadistically as she dragged her knife across a burly Detnerat guard's throat, Toga Himiko leapt off the man's shoulders and landed deftly at Tobita's feet. "We've been looking for you! It is the real you, right?" Covered in blood as per usual, Carmilla looked to be fully in her element, her cheeks flushed red and her breath escaping in frenzied pants. "Yeah it's gotta be you! Wow, you're so beat up, Gentle!"

"I-It is me, yes." Flinching slightly in apprehension, Tobita forced himself to nod; he'd always found Toga particularly terrifying. "And you? Are you the real Carmilla?"

"Nah, but does it matter?" Letting out a sigh of pleasure, Toga touched her blade to her tongue and took on the appearance of the guard she'd just murdered, a tall, muscular man with a black buzzcut. "Here, stick with me! I'll get you back over to Momo and Neito before you know it!"

Himiko's demented grin looked disturbing on the guard's mature, stubbled face, and his gruff voice was uniquely uncanny when combined with her cheery tone, but Tobita smiled and nodded all the same, steeling himself for a push into the heart of the enemy forces.

"Ah ah ah! I saw that, Carmilla!"

Just as Toga turned back towards the battle, knife in hand, Curious' voice rang out from behind the parted ranks of her puppet guards- with blood flowing down her face from a slash on her forehead and half her jacket singed by fire, the lavender-skinned Liberation Army commander looked particularly unhinged at the moment. Wasting no time on talk, Carmilla flipped the blade in her hand and winded back for a throw with blinding speed, but before she could let the knife fly, Curious snapped her fingers, and a series of miniature explosions quite literally tore Toga apart from the inside, reducing her disguised body to a pile of sludge within moments. Her knife's blade was consumed by a separate blast, smoke wafting from the blackened metal as it clattered to the floor.

The blood? Gentle's eyes widened, and he quickly erected another series of moving barriers to protect himself from Curious' explosive projectiles while he made a break for the other side of the battlefield. Was it the blood she drank that exploded?

"Why so eager to get away?" Curious called, laughing as the mob of puppets surged forward to cut off Gentle's escape route. "Come over and have a chat with me! I'll pour us some tea!"

"I'm afraid I must refuse!" Gentle shouted back, moving an air platform into place to bounce up and over the puppets. Before he could leap onto it, though, a pair of cold, dead hands latched onto his left ankle, throwing his stride off balance and sending him stumbling to the ground. Suddenly, the puppets were all around him, their soulless black eyes staring blankly down at Gentle as they battered him with kicks and punches- though individually weak, their effectiveness rose dramatically when they attacked in a group. For a moment, memories of the horrors Skeptic's creations had inflicted upon him and Spinner flashed through Tobita's mind, and fear stabbed briefly at his heart. It was quickly replaced by pure, fiery, anger, though, as Love's energy swelled up in his chest.

Break them, destroy him, the voice in his mind shouted, as Gentle seized one of the puppets by the leg and crushed its shin like a twig, then slammed the automaton down into the floor. Make them pay for what they did to you. Surging back to his feet, he dispatched two of the puppets attempting to drag him down to the floor with a single, sweeping right hook. Three more surged forward to try and grapple him from the front, but a wide bludgeon of elastic air swung forward in a vicious arc was enough to launch them into the nearest wall with a series of resounding thuds.

"Gentle, over here!" A familiar voice rang out from somewhere amid the melee- Yaoyorozu, visible just a dozen meters ahead now that most of the puppets had been cleared away. "Dabi, Compress, cover me!"

Her Chaos Regalia dinted and scarred from the battle, Pandora was currently struggling to hold off a handful of Skeptic's puppets as well- she was wielding a hefty, spiked riot shield, still connected to her arm with Creation so it couldn't be pulled away. A double of Dabi and one of Compress were visible close behind her, though they were both still attempting to break away from opponents of their own. Or could they be the originals? Tobita found himself wondering. Compress, perhaps, but I doubt Dabi would have come unless ordered.

"Yaoyorozu!" Curious called out in a giddy, singsong voice, audible even above the sounds of battle. "Poor, sweet little rich girl, why are you trying to hide from me?! I just know our interview is gonna be a hit, all you need to do is cooperate!"

Finally free from the grip of a Liberation Army soldier with stone-armored skin thanks to a well-timed assist from Compress, Dabi incinerated both of the puppets attacking Pandora with a precise blast of fire, but two Detnerat guards rushed forward to take their place moments later. Keeping hold of the riot shield to cover her flank, Pandora tossed a flashbang in her new pursuers' direction and began to move towards Gentle, only to stumble and fall moments later. One of the guards, a woman with green-tinted skin and grassy-looking hair, had lashed out with a vine protruding from her wrist, wrapping it deftly around Yaoyororzu's ankle and dragging her back towards them.

"Grass-type? Shit, looks like I'm a bad matchup for you, lady!" Dabi let out a sadistic laugh, then flung another blast of fire in the woman's direction- it never reached its target, though, dissipated in mid-air by a gust of frost from the mouth of the second guard, a bald clean-shaven man with pale skin and sapphire-blue eyes. His grin turning rapidly to a scowl, Dabi took a step back and began to conjure up two more fistfuls of flame, but his attack flickered back into nothing before he could launch it- a stray, half-meter chitinous spike fired off during one of the dozen-odd other duels occurring throughout the corridor skewered him through the back without warning, reducing him to sludge in the span of an instant.

Mr. Compress, meanwhile, had been overwhelmed by a group of puppets, who were advancing on him faster than he could shrink them away- Tobita felt a morbid sense of gratitude that this Atsuhiro was indeed a double as the mindless pawns tore Compress' melting body limb from limb. And although Pandora had cut herself free from the first vine with ease, a dozen more snaking green tendrils were wrapping around her limbs faster than she could sever them, twisting her arms and legs in unnatural directions- Gentle's eyes widened in horror as she let out a piercing cry of pain. Not a double- dammit, she's not a double! After a few moments, new blades stopped sprouting from her open patches of skin, and he realized with a sinking feeling that her Creation capacity was likely exhausted.

"Just hold on!" Tobita shouted, fear and rage building in his chest as he bashed aside two more puppets standing in his path- several more were still clinging to his legs and back, doing their best to slow him down despite his repeated attempts to dislodge them. "Pandora, I'm coming!"

No, no, no- she's only here because of me, because I was careless! She can't die because of me too!

Moments later, a well-placed wave of ice from a Monoma double gave Gentle the opening he'd been looking for, clearing away the final few puppets weighing him down. The instant he was free of their grasp, Tobita sprang off of an elasticized patch of floor towards Pandora's assailants and drew back his fist- wreathed in flaming magenta energy, one brutal blow to the torso was enough to send the vine-wielding guard sailing back into the wall, the sickening cracks of her shattered ribcage echoing through the air as blood spurted from her mouth.

His face contorted in a mix of shock and anger at Gentle's sudden, violent appearance, the bald guard pivoted and opened his mouth to let out another gust of frost breath, but a well-placed layer of elastic air rebounded the attack back towards his own head; his vision obscured by ice, the guard had no way to anticipate the sideswipe that shattered his jaw and teeth moments later, nor the kick that broke his knee with a gut-wrenching snap and sent him stumbling to the ground.

"Who's next?!" Gentle bellowed, panting in exertion as he turned his head towards Curious and her phalanx of puppets. A quick glance confirmed that the vines around Yaoyorozu's neck and limbs had receded; she was coughing weakly, clutching at her right arm and struggling to stand again as blood flowed down her face from a gash on her cheek.

"Oh, what a ferocious display!" Curious cried, clapping her hands together in delight. "The lengths you're willing to go to protect your companions- it's truly touching, Tobita! How would you and Yaoyorozu feel about a group interview?!"

"Enough!"

A deep, thundering cry reverberated down the length of the corridor before Gentle or Curious could say another word; in an instant, nearly all of the fighting drew to a pause, save for an overly enthusiastic Carmilla double, who slashed open one more guard's throat before being reduced to sludge by a supercharged blow to the chest. Dozens of heads turned in unison toward Re-Destro, whose massive, Stress-enhanced form stood in the center of the observation deck, silhouetted before the windows. In his right fist he held Spinner, blood dripping from a new gash on his forehead, and in his left, Seraph, his jet-black combat armor crisscrossed by jagged, sparking rends in the plating. Though Iguchi was still struggling to break free from Yotsubashi's iron grip, Midoriya was still and calm, his helmet retracted to reveal his sweat-soaked bangs and piercing green eyes as he offered his remaining allies a reassuring nod.

"Enough," Re-Destro repeated, more quietly this time, though with just as much menace laced behind the word. "My dear Syndicate friends, isn't that enough bloodshed for one day? Surely you know by now that you've failed to accomplish your mission. Despite your best efforts, Tobita and Iguchi will remain here as our honored guests."

Spinner let out a grunt of pain as Yotsubashi's fist tightened around his waist for effect, but it quickly turned to laughter.

"Yeah, you may have me, but Gentle's already loose, and with that power-up, there's no way you assholes can stop him from escaping." Iguchi turned his gaze down towards Tobita and gave him a nod, a smile on his face. "Don't listen to whatever this fucker says, man. You gotta get out of this place, for both of us."

Tobita could feel his muscles tensing, the lavender energy from Aiba's Love surging up around him once more. The double of La Brava who'd given him this boost was nowhere to be seen, but she was still alive somewhere on the battlefield, if her quirk hadn't dissipated. There's still a minute or so of Aiba's power left, Gentle noted, his eyes darting back and forth. I escaped U.A. in spite of a horde of teachers giving chase- if I focus entirely on getting away, surely I could escape this place as well.

But then he glanced back towards Midoriya and Spinner, still gripped in Re-Destro's hands, to Yaoyorozu, who'd just risen shakily back to her feet, and to the crowd of combatants beyond her. The original Monoma must be here somewhere as well- and how many others beside those three? Are some of them already dead?

Rooted in place by a swirling torrent of indecision and guilt, Gentle failed to notice the low humming sound emanating from behind him until it was already too late; by the time Pandora's eyes widened in alarm, Phantasm had already emerged from the floor and wrapped one arm around Gentle's neck, his other palm pressed against his back.

"You move a single centimeter," he declared, squeezing Tobita's throat, "and I tunnel a hole straight through your chest. Instantaneous, no chance to stop it- it's not a pretty sight."

"Do as he says," Seraph called, his even tone marked by a slight tinge of disappointment. "Do as they both say. The mission has failed."

"Hold the fuck up!" Another voice shouted, off to Gentle's right. "I ain't giving up that easy- they're not the only ones with hostages!"

Battered, singed, and bleeding from a half dozen wounds, Setsuno Toya shoved his way to the front of the crowd of combatants, the crimson-streaked blade of his katana pressed up against the neck of a tan woman with silver hair drawn into a ponytail and disc-shaped golden earrings. The one who popped my double's head like a balloon, Gentle recalled, frowning at the memory.

"On the contrary," Re-Destro replied, a smile spreading across the dark, beak-like shroud of energy that covered his face. "We hold all the leverage, and you hold none. Lucaria is more than willing to die for the cause of Liberation, as is every other soldier present. Aren't you, dear?"

"It would be an honor, Supreme Commander." A wide, earnest smile spread across the woman's face, and she straightened to attention, baring her neck against Setsuno's blade as she raised a hand to her forehead to perform the Liberation Army salute. "Just say the word."

Re-Destro sighed and shook his head; when he spoke again, his voice sounded almost wistful.

"Humans are such noble beings."

A brief moment of tense silence reigned, followed by a curt nod from Midoriya to Setsuno.

"Put down the sword. Let her go."

Once Setsuno had wordlessly complied, his furious expression visible even beneath his beaked plague mask, Midoriya held his arms out and smiled, craning his head to look Yotsubashi in the eye.

"And there you have it. All the leverage, plus a bit extra." Seraph's expression suddenly turned contemplative, and he held a hand to his chin, a somewhat comical pose given that his legs were still dangling in mid-air. "But then again, I suppose you were only referring to the leverage in this room. If we were to expand things beyond that, I'm not sure the scales are quite as unbalanced as you think."

"Oh? And is that vague, unconvincing statement intended to worry me?" Yotsubashi chuckled and began to tighten his grasp on Midoriya; the sound of his combat armor creaking and straining echoed through the hall, punctuated by a burst of sparks.

"Not quite," Seraph replied, wincing briefly in discomfort before his expression returned to one of calm indifference. "Rather, it's intended to pique your curiosity. Setsuno?"

His gaze still trained on Re-Destro, Seraph snapped his armored fingers; in an instant, he vanished from Yotsubashi's grip and re-appeared on the ground next to Setsuno, who released his outstretched right hand from Midoriya's shoulder with a satisfied smirk.

"Apologies," Seraph declared, raising his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender as Lucaria and a half dozen other enemies took aim at him with their quirks. "I have no intention of resuming hostilities- in fact, I'm formally calling for a parley. But all the same, I'd prefer to be standing on even ground before our conversation progresses any further. I'm not as durable as the genuine article, after all, and you have quite the iron grip. "

Gentle's eyes widened in surprise, and Phantasm's bitter, mocking voice filled his ear.

"Aw, did you think your boss came in person? Sorry to break it to you, but you just weren't important enough for that."

"And what makes you so sure this conversation will continue at all?" Re-Destro asked, a tinge of annoyance in his voice. "What makes you so sure that this scenario doesn't end with your entire team being executed?"

"The fact that ordering our deaths would mean resuming the chaos and bloodshed you just so passionately requested an end to," Midoriya replied, clasping his hands together as a warm smile spread across his face. "To do so would be rash and wasteful, two qualities that I would hardly ascribe to you. By now, I think it's safe to say that neither of us wants this situation to end with more violence- if you doubt me, allow me to demonstrate my commitment once again."

Given that many of its component sections were broken or torn, Seraph's armor couldn't retract cleanly back into its folded form as usual. With a few taps on his gauntlet, though, Midoriya activated the suit's emergency release; its entire back section opened up with a hiss of steam and another burst of sparks, allowing him to slip out onto the floor.

"And so," Seraph continued, raising his hands in the air once more once he'd finished brushing a few stray ashes from his blazer, "entirely vulnerable before you, I come with a proposal. As a duplicate of Midoriya Izuku, I have full authority to act on behalf of the Syndicate, and to speak as its representative in formal negotiations with the Meta Liberation Army. Our wish is to secure the end of any further conflict between our organizations, and to advance basic tenets of mutual cooperation." Pausing for a moment, Midoriya glanced first at Spinner, still clutched in Re-Destro's first, then back towards Gentle. His expression had reverted back to a blank, unreadable slate, his tone formal and businesslike.

"Admittedly, it was also our wish to free Tobita Danjuro and Iguchi Shuichi from your custody before these negotiations commenced. We failed to achieve that goal, but my desire for stable, amicable relations between the Syndicate and the Liberation Army remains unchanged."

"Stable? Amicable?!" On the other end of the corridor, Skeptic scoffed, stepping out into the open alongside Curious as his ranks of puppets parted, his laptop in hand. "Do tell, Seraph, exactly what part of the murderous rampage your operatives just committed speaks to your desire for 'stable' and 'amicable' relations?"

"The 'rampage' wasn't part of the plan," Yaoyorozu countered, a frown crossing her bloodied face as she mimicked Skeptic's patronizing tone. Her right arm still hung limp at her side- most likely broken or dislocated. "This operation was meant to be bloodless, if that's any comfort- I regret that things devolved to this extent. You caught us before we reached our objective, and we were forced to improvise."

"And improvise you did!" Curious replied, beaming even as she clutched at her own wounds. "Oh, you poor thing, what did those silly guards do to you? Let me see that arm."

"Please, don't come any closer to her." Seraph interjected in a curt, commanding tone; after a moment's contemplation, Curious stopped a few steps short of Pandora and perched her hands on her hips, rolling her eyes as he continued. "If you want to negotiate, my only pre-condition is this: Allow the rescue team to leave. Don't touch them, don't treat their wounds, don't confiscate their gear. Just bring them down to the lobby- to the bounds of the interference field you've created- and let them go. That is the sole favor I'll ask of you; feel free to hold it against me in the negotiations if you wish."

"You're still assuming we're going to negotiate in the first place!" Skeptic snapped, one hand curling into a fist. "Supreme Commander, I see no need to entertain this facsimile's pathetic ramblings any longer! With your permission, I'll escort our new prisoners to a temporary holding cell for processing- the real ones, that is."

"To what end, Skeptic?" Letting out a deep sigh of disappointment, Re-Destro lowered Spinner to the floor and allowed him to fall from his grasp; Lucaria rushed forward to restrain Iguchi before he could stagger to his feet again. "Two prisoners are leverage enough- five would be a burden." He paused, glancing first at Yaoyorozu, then at Setsuno. "There were three of you, yes? Chaudron, step out into the open with your comrades- there's no need to hide."

Limping on a wounded leg, his coat and blazer scorched and torn, the original Monoma Neito emerged from the depths of the crowd of combatants, an indignant expression on his face. It rapidly shifted to one of guilt and shame when he drew near the double of Seraph, though, and his gaze fell down towards the floor. For a moment, it looked as if Monoma were about to speak- to apologize, perhaps- but he reconsidered, and his mouth drew shut just moments after he opened it.

"All this chaos and destruction…" Taking a step towards Chaudron, Re-Destro gazed out at the remaining doubles. "I have you to thank for the lion's share, yes? An entire assault squad contained within one soldier." Yotsubashi shook his head and sighed once again. "You've been gifted with a wonderful meta-ability, Monoma Neito. I can only hope that one day you use it for the right cause."

"The 'right cause'?" Monoma bristled, his brows twitching with fury. "I'll have you know, I-"

"The three of you have proven to be quite the nuisance," Re-Destro cut in, drowning out Chaudron's protests with his enhanced form's booming voice. "Even now, I find myself tempted to make examples of you- to send your heads back to your master as recompense for this insult, and as punishment for your Syndicate's blithe arrogance. But in the end, there is nothing I despise more than wasted potential."

Surrounded momentarily by a rising whirlwind of shadowy black energy, Re-Destro, shrank back down to his normal form, standing bare-chested before the rescue team with only a tattered pair of pinstripe slacks remaining in the way of clothes. Tall and lean, Yotsubashi had a more muscular physique than Gentle had expected, given his lavish position; a guard rushed forward moments later and attempted to offer the Supreme Commander his suit jacket, but he chuckled and shook his head, a wide grin on his face now that his Stress levels had receded.

"So, in recognition of your skill and valor," Yotsubashi continued, clapping his hands together, "and in the hope that one day you'll put those talents to use for the noble cause of Liberation, I offer you an olive branch, where you offered me a sword." Taking a step forward, he glanced briefly between Chaudron and Pandora, then laid a hand on each of their shoulders. "Go back to Seraph, and tell him that you failed. Tell him that you left this place alive because I allowed it- because I did not wish to see such brilliant minds and potent meta-abilities squandered, and because I still believe in a future where our groups can be united under one banner, fighting together for the cause of Liberation. But all of that aside, there are two things that I need you to relay to him in perfect clarity."

Re-Destro's grin faded, and his grip on their shoulders tightened; twisting patterns of dark energy danced menacingly along his arms. Off to Gentle's right, Seraph's double frowned, his brows furrowed in displeasure, but he elected to remain silent rather than object.

"One," Yotsubashi continued, locking eyes with Monoma, "I'd like you to impart that my patience and generosity have a limit. I am allowing you to leave today out of my own goodwill, but this is your one and only reprieve. If the Syndicate were to take any further offensive action against us before my negotiation with Seraph conclude, I would consider it a declaration of war- there would be no quarter given, no prisoners taken, and poor Gentle and Spinner would be the first to perish. Nod if you understand that, Chaudron."

Monoma's brow twitched in annoyance, his face a thinly veiled mask of anger; even from half a dozen meters away, Tobita recognized the precise expression that Neito made when he was struggling to stop himself from saying something unwise. Eventually, with a great deal of effort, he forced himself to nod, and Yotsubashi chuckled before relaxing his grip on Monoma's shoulder.

"Very good. Now, two." Re-Destro turned his gaze to Yaoyorozu, and smiled warmly. "Pandora, you said that this rescue mission was meant to be… 'bloodless', yes?"

"That's right," Pandora replied with a curt nod of affirmation. "As Seraph explained, our sole intent was to free Gentle and Spinner from captivity. I…" A frown crossed her face. "On behalf of the Syndicate, I regret that things turned to violence."

"Is that so?" Yotsubashi shook his head in disappointment. "Unfortunately, Pandora, regret cannot bring my dead soldiers back to life, nor can it heal the scars of the injured. How many casualties do you think my forces suffered today? You can try to count the bodies if you'd like."

While Yaoyorozu turned to look at the main crowd of combatants- at the numerous corpses that dotted the floor, and the bloody wounds visible on those still standing- Gentle's eyes drifted to his left, and a familiar surge of revulsion swelled up in his gut.

It happened again.

In the moment, the vicious blows he'd dealt to the guards attacking Pandora had felt just and righteous- a suitable punishment meted out to two servants of an evil foe. But now, confronted with the sight of the vine-wielding woman's limp, motionless body, still slumped against the wall- of the frost-breather whimpering in pain on the floor as blood flowed from his broken teeth and shattered knee- Tobita felt only horror and revulsion at what he'd done.

But… I had no choice. They were killing her, there was no other way to stop them. Gentle's eyes drifted down to his hands, to the missing fingers Skeptic had stolen from him, and his brows furrowed in confusion. These are the same people who've been torturing us for days, who've mutilated and humiliated us. So why should I feel-

"Your casualties were… considerable." Pandora's voice broke Gentle away from his thoughts, dragging his attention back to the moment at hand. "Thirty, perhaps forty soldiers, both dead and wounded."

"Quite a high body count for a bloodless mission," Yotsubashi replied, his eyes wide with mock surprise. "I'm sure Seraph would agree- which is why you must understand that no matter the outcome of these negotiations, there will be… retribution." Re-Destro's brows furrowed, his mouth turned down in a grimace. "I will take no pleasure in it, but only blood can pay for blood. You took something of value from us, and before we can achieve peace, we will take something of value from you- the scales must be balanced."

At that, Yotsubashi released both of them, and stepped back with a smile.

"Curious, Deathblow- it seems that these three… tourists… stumbled into our building by mistake. Would you two be so kind as to escort them off the premises?"

"Consider it done, Supreme Commander."

Shoving aside a duplicate of Compress as he stepped out from the crowd, a tall, burly man snapped to attention and performed the MLA salute; dressed in black tactical gear, he wore a skull-shaped metal gas mask, and his gloved hands were soaked with a mix of blood and grey sludge from dispatching doubles. Flanked by a squad of soldiers and guards, Curious was quick to join him in surrounding the three members of the rescue team, and flashed an eager grin towards Pandora.

"I guess we'll just have to reschedule that interview, huh? Don't worry, sweetie- I can be very patient."

Opting to remain silent rather than dignify her adversary with a response, Yaoyorozu glanced back toward Tobita; though she was still attempting to project her usual air of confidence, he could see the guilt and regret in her eyes, and she laid a hand on his shoulder, a silent gesture of apology.

"It's alright, dear." In spite of the bitter disappointment welling up in his chest, the anger and frustration, Gentle managed a soft smile. "You gave it your all."

"Aww, did you hear that? You gave it your all." Phantasm glanced over at Yaoyorozu, and a mocking smirk spread across his pale, gaunt face as he tightened his hold on Gentle's throat. "Too bad it still wasn't good enough. Now run along home, princess."


An hour later, the bulk of the cleanup was done. After a 'farewell speech' from the duplicate Seraph thanking them for their sacrifice, the remaining doubles made by Chaudron had been rounded up and 'pacified', as Re-Destro phrased it- aside from one stubborn Dabi, they all surrendered willingly at Seraph's command. Gentle was grateful for the fact that he and Spinner had been escorted to a new holding cell by the time they were disposed of; the double of La Brava had survived the battle, and the prospect of watching her execution was more than he could bear.

As for the rescue team, there hadn't been any problems escorting them from the building, as far as Tobita was aware. Part of him had hoped that Pandora and Chaudron would have one final trick up their sleeves, a contingency plan to break loose from their escort and come back for them, but with every passing minute, the grim reality grew clearer- the operation had failed, and no more help was coming.

"You should've run when you had the chance." Letting out an exhausted sigh as he leaned back against the cell's cool metal wall, Spinner frowned and shook his head. "You had a shot, man, with that lovey-dovey power-up. I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd just booked it out the window. Nobody would've blamed you."

"I… I know." Shifting in place on the cold metal floor, Tobita glanced down at his bloodied knuckles, aching and tender now that Lover Mode had worn off. Surprisingly, the Liberation Army's medics had actually treated the worst of his wounds, escorting him back to confinement only once his broken bones had been repaired, the gash on his head stitched. His wrists and ankles were shackled once again, the same as Spinner's, though thankfully they hadn't been strapped to another pair of chairs- not yet, at least. "But I would've blamed myself. Even if I had somehow gotten out, if I'd managed to get through one of Kurogiri's portals before they overwhelmed me… knowing that I'd abandoned the rest of you to this hell…"

"If it's any comfort, you would never have made it out." Pausing to take a drag on his cigarette, Amplivolt shot them a smug grin from the other end of the room, where he was standing guard by the door. "We had an aerial team circling the tower from above, and my squad was waiting in the lobby in case anyone broke through our lines. I can assure you, Gentle Criminal- as soon as your friends tripped the alarm, escape from this building became impossible."

A skilled electricity-wielder, Amplivolt had aided Skeptic with their interrogations on numerous occasions, applying excruciating shocks for every refusal to answer their questions. From what Gentle could glean, he was one of Re-Destro's top lieutenants, just beneath the inner circle- there was no chance of tricking and overpowering him like they'd done with Slidin' Go, no possibility that another improvised escape attempt might succeed.

"I bet you would've said breaking into the building and getting as far as they did was impossible too," Spinner retorted, pointing his bloodied, broken right hand in Amplivolt's direction; his corresponding shackle had been tightened even further to prevent him from trying the same trick again. "So as far as I'm concerned, your 'assurance' doesn't mean jack shit, taser boy."

Amplivolt's only response was a light scoff of amusement; unlike many of their other guards and interrogators, Skeptic included, he was slow to anger, and prone to ignore Spinner's bait. It seemed that the events of the past hour had emboldened Iguchi rather than discouraging him, though- despite a worried glance from Gentle, he pressed on with his goading a few moments later.

"I see what your deal is. You try and act all cool, like nothing bothers you, but on the inside, I bet you-"

A series of electronic beeps emanating from the cell's door interrupted Spinner mid-insult, followed by a hiss of steam as it slid open and Curious stepped through.

"Having fun in here, boys? I do hope you're getting along."

Curious' demeanor seemed as confident as ever- her wounds from the battle were already bandaged, and a new fur-collared jacket had swiftly replaced the one shredded and burned by Monoma and Pandora's attacks.

"Like three peas in a pod," Amplivolt replied with a grin, breathing out a cloud of cigarette smoke as he performed the Liberation Army salute. "So, shall I resume asking the usual questions?"

"Not today." Curious glanced down at the two of them, and her face broke into an unsettling grin. "Today, their presence has been requested by the Supreme Commander. Bring them to the upper hall."

One tense elevator ride later, Gentle found himself being escorted through a shattered doorway and into a spacious conference room alongside Spinner; around the long, rectangular central table, Re-Destro, Skeptic, and the double of Seraph were already seated and waiting, while Phantasm stood guard at the entrance. Tall, floor-to ceiling windows covered one side of the room, currently obscured by metal shutters, while a massive portrait of Destro occupied one of the walls. Another was lined with an array of widescreen monitors, powered off at the moment.

"Ah, there they are- how good of you to join us!" A warm smile on his face, Yotsubashi clapped his hands together in delight and gestured to the two chairs next to Midoriya. "Why don't you two take a seat? Amplivolt, go ahead and undo their restraints- our guests will be on their best behavior, won't they?"

"That's right," Seraph declared, giving the two a firm, assertive nod. "They'll be polite and respectful."

Spinner's eyes widened in disbelief; for a moment, it looked as if he were about to protest, but after a deliberate glance from Midoriya, Iguchi swiftly demurred.

"Put them through the usual check first," Skeptic called, gesturing in their direction. "Be thorough."

Nodding silently, Amplivolt touched his taser to his palm, then slid it back into his jacket pocket and took a step towards Gentle.

"Now just stay still, Gentle Criminal," the man murmured, raising his hands as sparks of electricity began to crackle between his fingers, "and this'll be quick and painless."

"Whoa, whoa, what the hell is this guy doing?" Spinner took two swift steps backwards, only to bump up against Phantasm. "Boss, what-"

"Polite and respectful," Seraph interjected, a friendly grin belying his serious tone. "It's just an inspection for any listening or tracking devices, perfectly harmless. I went through the same."

"Oh, uh…" Iguchi shrugged his shoulders, his green-scaled face flushing slightly red in embarrassment. "Gotcha. Sorry, Boss."

"Your concern is appreciated, Spinner." Tobita flashed a worried smile in Iguchi's direction, then turned his gaze back to Amplivolt; tiny sparks and flashes of yellow-gold electricity were dancing between his palms and Tobita's body as he hovered his hands over each of Gentle's limbs in turn. Though more or less painless, the sensation was quite unique, like a constant bombardment of low-level static electricity. The hairs on Tobita's arms and legs quickly stood on end, and as Amplivolt moved his hands up towards Gentle's neck, he felt the hair on his head beginning to shift out of place as well.

"Ah, got one."

A moment after his sudden declaration, a larger and brighter bolt of electricity jolted from Amplivolt's palm to a spot along Gentle's collarbone, and Tobita let out a muffled yelp of surprise at the subsequent prick of discomfort. Reaching out to the area in question, Amplivolt plucked off a small, skin-colored patch of latex, holding it up between two fingers. No larger than a fingernail, it was embedded with a miniscule microphone and battery, only visible from the adhesive-laced bottom side; a tiny plume of smoke was wafting up from the circuitry now that Amplivolt had disabled it.

"Looks like a dermal mic- quite well-concealed, too." Turning to face Skeptic, Amplivolt slid the device across the table. "It won't be transmitting anything now."

"I'll be more than happy to study it once we're done here," Skeptic declared, snatching up the mic with a smirk. "Anything else, or is he clean?"

Amplivolt ran his hands over Gentle's neck and head once more, tousling his hair out of place with a wave of static electricity, then shook his head.

"He's clean."

"Hold up a sec," Spinner cut in, shuffling back towards Gentle. "How long was that thing there? Did you know about it?"

"I-I have no idea…" Tobita stammered, his eyes still wide with shock and his mind racing. Was it on me from the beginning? Have the Syndicate been listening in on our cell all along? "I didn't know about it, Spinner, I swear."

"To answer your first question," Skeptic declared, his arms crossed, "it's been there for around an hour. We put you both through the same check when you first arrived here, while you were still unconscious, and found nothing. Pandora or Chaudron no doubt attached it to you during today's… incident."

"Ah…" The memory of his farewell with Yaoyorozu flashed through his Tobita's mind- of her hand resting briefly on his shoulder. She must have created it at that very moment, and…

While Gentle continued to process the development at hand, Amplivolt moved on to Spinner, who flinched and scowled throughout the inspection, but nonetheless remained silent.

"I-If I may so bold as to inquire," Gentle stammered, seizing on a brief lull in the conversation, "why are Iguchi and I here at all? Surely you could handle this parley without us, Seraph. We'll only be a distraction."

"You're here because I wanted you to be here," Midoriya replied, a reassuring smile spreading across his face. "Whether I speak with the real Seraph's authority or not, I'm still a double- as long as these discussions last, your lives will continue to hang in the balance, unlike that of Midoriya Izuku. It seemed rather unfair to keep you in the dark, with that in mind. You both deserve to be here, and to play a role if you so wish."

Tobita's eyes widened- it wasn't the answer he'd expected.

"Thank you, Seraph." Once he'd recovered from his initial surprise, Danjuro bowed his head. "You honor us with your trust."

"Yeah," Spinner echoed, clearly just as shocked; his pink hair was slightly askew from Amplivolt's device check as well, and he was in the midst of attempting to smooth it out. "We, uh… we really appreciate it, Boss."

Midoriya is as difficult to read as ever, Gentle reflected, a slight frown on his lips. Does he genuinely want these negotiations to succeed, or is he simply playing along, trying to lull them into a false sense of security before another attack? After a few more moments of contemplation, Tobita opted to give up at trying to guess Seraph's true intentions. For now, it's probably best to do as he says and not question it. We need to trust him, just as he's trusting us.

While Curious settled in next to Skeptic and Amplivolt unlocked their shackles, Yotsubashi continued to speak; his tone was casual and nonchalant, as if he were chatting with old friends rather than hostages.

"Oh, and before I forget- I'm sure you two will be very happy to hear that Slidin' Go's condition has stabilized. He lost a good bit of blood thanks to that little stunt you pulled, but we managed to get him a transfusion in the nick of time."

"That's… a relief." Gentle managed, after he'd taken a few moments to sit down and gather his thoughts. "And what about…" Tobita's mouth had suddenly gone dry, and he let out a nervous cough. "What about the green-skinned woman? With the vines. She was one of your guards, I think."

"Ah, you mean Chlorophym?" Yotsubashi clicked his tongue and frowned. "Poor girl. A punctured lung, nine broken ribs, severe internal hemorrhaging… our doctors are doing their best to save her, but Deika General's trauma ward is full to bursting, and the damage you inflicted is quite severe." Yotsubashi clapped his hands together, and his eerily cheery smile returned. "How kind of you to remember her, though. Shall I let you know whether she pulls through?"

"Please do," Midoriya cut in, sparing Tobita the pain of formulating a response. "In fact, if it's not too much to ask, we'd like to be kept updated on the condition of all of your wounded. What was the final count?"

"What's this?" Skeptic sneered, leaning forward over the table. "Some pathetically transparent attempt at gathering intelligence on our troops?"

"Hardly. But you did speak rather pointedly about some sort of 'retribution' for the fallen- if I'm to negotiate on the Syndicate's behalf, surely it would be reasonable to ask how many lives you intend on avenging."

"Twenty-nine dead," Yotsubashi declared, glancing up from the screen of a tablet that Curious had set down front of him. "And thirty-five wounded, with eight in critical condition. As I said to Pandora, quite the high body count for a bloodless operation- but all things considered, not an entirely unanticipated development. Prod a sleeping cat, and you'll end up with a few scratches."

"I take it that's how you'd characterize your actions over the past few weeks?" Midoriya leaned forward in his seat, his brows hiked. "Alerting the heroes to our presence on Okinawa, kidnapping our members, all just… poking at us for reactions?"

"If they wanted a reaction, they sure as hell got one today," Spinner murmured, his arms crossed.

"That we did!" Yotsubashi replied with a chuckle, shaking his head in amusement. "I know it may sound rather cold and clinical, but we needed to test the Syndicate's capabilities- to ensure that your group could live up to the reputation you've built, and the rather lofty aspirations you've proclaimed so very publicly. We knew you'd come for your lost members sooner or later, but the use of your attack on U.A.'s commencement as a diversion was an unexpected touch."

Commencement? Ah yes, I suppose that was due to happen soon. Though he knew roughly a week had passed since his capture, it was still difficult for Tobita to keep precise track of time and events on the outside of their prison. It seems we did end up going through with the attack Midoriya had been planning. I can't exactly ask how it went unless he brings it up first, though- there might still be details the Liberation Army doesn't know.

"You wanted a proof of concept, then?" Midoriya frowned, one eyebrow cocked. "A practical demonstration? Was our work on the Black Day not convincing enough for you? All Might and Hawks dead, Tokyo PD's headquarters ransacked, a majority of their criminal records erased."

"Yes, quite a dramatic statement- and one that you undoubtedly spent months, if not years, planning for."

"And when you were done," Skeptic cut in, scowling, "all you had to do was run through your portals and hide. No need for an exit strategy, little need for improvisation. When I alerted Red Riot and Suneater to your presence in Okinawa, I was testing your capacity to think on your feet- to react to a development you hadn't planned for."

"The same was largely true for our… appropriation of Tobita and Iguchi." Re-Destro nodded towards Gentle, and Tobita felt a shiver course through his body; a mix of anger and dread swelled up in his chest, but he managed to suppress them for the time being, and remained silent and still. "Assuming you could track us to Deika City- a task we felt was well within your capabilities- you'd be in unfamiliar territory, operating against a largely unknown enemy without the type of inside intelligence you had for your attacks on U.A. and the Tokyo Police."

"I see." Midoriya remained silent for a moment, his eyes narrowed in contemplation. "All these trials and tests… We had to prove our 'worthiness' under your standards to earn the right to sit across the table from you. Is that it?"

"In part, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. There's no need to rush- not when we have all the time in the world to sit and talk." Re-Destro rose to his feet and gestured for Amplivolt to bring forward a bottle of wine from an ornate wooden cabinet set off to one side of the room. "If you don't mind, I'd like to examine the series of events that led us all here today- to start from the beginning, as it were. Would you gentlemen care for a glass of cabernet? A celebration, to commemorate finally reaching this important milestone." Flipping the bottle around in his hands, Yotsubashi inspected the label with a wistful smile, then set it down in front of Seraph. "It's quite the exclusive reserve- a fifteen-year vintage, sourced from your dear friend Yaoyorozu's family vineyards. They own a lovely little operation near Bordeaux, among their many other holdings."

Gentle's eyes widened in disbelief as Seraph leaned forward and picked up the bottle- he opened his mouth to protest, but Spinner beat him to it.

"B-Boss, you can't be serious! There's no way that shit ain't poisoned, or spiked with a truth serum, or something!"

"Poisoning a double would be rather counterproductive, wouldn't you agree?" Seraph let out a quiet laugh, and Spinner flushed in embarrassment as he came to the same, belated conclusion. "As for truth serums, did our hosts use any on you two during your time in captivity?"

"…No," Gentle replied, after a moment of uncomfortable silence. "They relied on more conventional methods."

"Then it seems logical to conclude that they don't possess any." Seraph declared, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't blame them- Pandora tells me that they're notoriously finnicky and unreliable. All things considered, it would be quite rude to decline such a generous offer, but I'm sure that our gracious hosts would be more than willing to assuage your concerns."

"Of course," Yotsubashi replied with an understanding nod. "A sense of mistrust is only natural at this stage. There's no need for any of you to share a drink with us if you won't wish to do so, but we do have tea as well, if that would be preferable. Gold Tips Imperial, isn't it?" He turned his gaze back to Tobita, who only managed to stammer out a reply after another awkward pause.

"Y-Yes, I do quite enjoy that blend."

"Oh, I know you do." Yotsubashi gave him a soft, reassuring smile, then glanced over to Spinner. "And for you? Beer, perhaps? Or whisky?"

"Wine sounds good." Iguchi was still glancing furtively back and forth across the room, skepticism laced into his every syllable. "But I'm not big on reds. You, uh… you guys have any whites back there?"

"I certainly hope we do." Curious leaned forward in her chair, a wide grin on her bandaged face. "God knows I wouldn't last a day without pinot grigio."

"Uh-huh." Spinner's arms were still crossed, and he pointedly refused to return Curious' relaxed, casual attitude in kind. "How about a sauv blanc?"

Not a bad tactic, Gentle realized, his eyes widening momentarily in realization. Ask for something specific, something they couldn't have planned on you requesting.

"O-On second thought, perhaps I'm in more of an oolong mood today. Might you have any golden peony?"

"The cabernet will do just fine," Seraph interjected, raising a hand in their direction; the smile on his face hadn't wavered, but his tone struck a perfect balance between jovial and assertive, and his eyes were still fixed across the table on Re-Destro. "Three glasses for this side of the table, if you'd be so kind."

Nodding in silent approval, Yotsubashi snapped his fingers and gestured to Skeptic, who in turn ordered one of his puppets to set out the glasses in question; another laid a wine bottle opener in front of Midoriya.

"I thought you might feel more comfortable if you were able to pour the wine yourself," Yotsubashi offered with a light chuckle, gesturing toward the leather-gripped steel corkscrew- even the Liberation Army's wine openers looked expensive. "And as your host, I'm more than willing to take the first sip."

"Oh, there's no need for that level of formality- we'll all drink together. Isn't that right, gentlemen?"

"…If you say so," Spinner replied after a moment's hesitation, one eyebrow raised. "If you say it's okay, Boss, I trust you."

Gentle nodded in agreement, but couldn't muster the strength to speak. His gaze flitting between the Midoriya and Yotsubashi, Tobita felt goosebumps race across his skin- the hairs on the back of his neck were suddenly standing on end. As the minutes crept by, their combined presence had become overwhelming, suffocating- each of them exuded an aura of sheer, unfettered confidence, and Gentle knew full well that neither man was putting up a façade. They were both dangerous, both calculating and ruthless- and most importantly, both fervently committed to their ideals, certain in the righteousness of their causes. There was no bluster or bravado between them, no self-aggrandizing, ego-stroking, or brazen threats, but all the same, Tobita could feel the undercurrent behind their words, rippling through the air like heat distortions on a summer afternoon. Seraph and Re-Destro were engaged in an unspoken, invisible battle of wills, and Gentle felt smothered by the clash, a tightness gripping at his throat.

I knew it before, but's it so much clearer now, watching them both together- how very small I am. I'm out of my league, a minnow swimming among sharks.

Gentle flinched in surprise when the sound of wine splashing into his glass jerked him back to reality a few moments later, and he glanced up to find Midoriya gazing back at him.

"Daydreaming, are we?"

"N-Not at all. Thank you, sir." Struggling for the proper response, Gentle bowed his head in respect as Seraph finished pouring; Midoriya simply chuckled in reply, a bemused expression on his face as he moved on to Spinner.

Half a minute later, everyone at the table had a full glass, and Re-Destro raised his own, swirling about the blood-red liquid inside.

"What shall we toast to, Seraph? I'll allow you the honor."

"Re-Destro, you're spoiling me," Midoriya shot back with a grin. "What's next, a proposal?"

"Things could've been like this from the start," Yotsubashi responded with a dramatic sigh, "but alas, it seems that we both have a rather… suspicious nature. Not entirely unfounded from either side, but all the same, I look forward to establishing a much more cooperative dynamic going forward."

"To suspicious minds, then." Midoriya raised his glass, his lips twitching back up into a smile. "And to new beginnings."

Gentle stared wide-eyed and oblivious at Seraph for a few brief moments before he remembered that he was supposed to raise his own glass now as well; to his left, Spinner had already done the same, and across the table, so had Re-Destro and his lieutenants.

"To new beginnings," Yotsubashi echoed, then tilted his glass back and took a sip; Seraph, Curious, and Skeptic did the same, in nearly perfect unison. Gentle and Spinner, on the other hand, exchanged a quick glance, and silently agreed to wait a few short moments before they joined in, watching Seraph to ensure that he didn't begin choking or foaming at the mouth.

How did they manage to make a simple toast seem so sinister? Tobita wondered,his brows furrowed in confusion and frustration as he took a small, dainty sip from his glass. I feel as if I've just taken part in some sort of cult ritual- though I suppose that would be quite on-brand for our hosts. Rolling the cabernet across his tongue to check for any strange, chemical notes, he finally swallowed it once he was satisfied; it was, in truth, a very good wine. Well, I'll give them that. If it is spiked or poisoned, they've done quite a masterful job concealing it.

"Simply wonderful." Midoriya declared a moment later. "You certainly don't lack for good taste, your treatment of my associates notwithstanding." Turning to his left, he gestured to Spinner. "Such a shame, for instance, that Iguchi had to toast with his left hand, seeing as you've removed most of the fingers from his right. And a few toes as well, I believe? I'm still waiting with bated breath to hear why such medieval measures were necessary. Was it another one of your tests, perhaps? A twisted means of measuring their loyalty to me? Surely your satellites had given you enough information on us already."

"Surely no more medieval than the way your own group would treat agents of a potential enemy," Skeptic snapped, one bloodshot eye glaring out from beneath his heavy bangs. "Or would you have us believe that the Syndicate-"

Re-Destro raised his right hand, and Skeptic drew silent midsentence, bowing his head in a wordless apology.

"With the proper technology and applied quirk medicine, their injuries are reversible." His glass in hand, Yotsubashi rose to his feet and took another sip, longer this time. His smile from before had faded, giving way to a calm, contemplative expression. "But before I answer your questions, allow me tell you a story."

Reaching a hand into his jacket pocket, Yotsubashi produced a small remote and pressed the central button. With a gentle, electric hum, the massive metallic shutters that had descended over the chambers' towering windows- as part of the lockdown, no doubt- began to retract, revealing a partly cloudy afternoon sky over the cityscape below and the green, forested hills beyond. Blinking in surprise, Gentle realized with a start that this was his first look at the outside world since his capture, aside from a brief glimpse during the battle- for days now, he and Spinner had seen nothing but the dull grey metal walls of their cell. Re-Destro seemed to notice his wide-eyed wonderment, and when Gentle broke his gaze away from the scenery, the Liberation Army's Supreme Commander was staring directly at him.

"A beautiful place, isn't it? I find myself missing Deika whenever I'm away, trudging about amid all the bustle and chaos in Tokyo. Come to think of it, I believe I was in Tokyo when I heard the news- what was it, eight, nine years ago? None of the papers reported it, of course- the government saw to that- but our covert sources confirmed it. All For One had been defeated, mortally wounded in a clash with All Might."

Savoring the pause, Yotsubashi smirked, his eyes flitting between the three of them.

"And I suppose this is when you reveal to us how your extensive surveillance network managed to capture an event no one in the public was ever made aware of? More of your satellite cameras hard at work, perhaps?" His eyes narrowed in amusement, Seraph gestured in Skeptic's direction; Tomoyasu flinched visibly in anger, his hand curling tight around the stem of his wine glass, but he ultimately remained silent rather than rising to the bait.

"Our dear Mr. Skeptic's satellites are quite useful," Yotsubashi replied, patting reassuringly at Tomoyasu's shoulder, "but sadly limited by positioning and timing in what they can surveil, and a birds-eye view can only reveal so much. For precision monitoring, more conventional technology can be just as effective." Drawing his phone from his jacket pocket, Re-Destro tapped at its camera with a grin, then snapped his fingers and pointed toward one of the large, flatscreen monitors mounted along the wall. "Of course, seeing is believing- I think a visual aid might help our guests better grasp the narrative."

Though his mouth was still locked in a frustrated grimace, Skeptic complied; after a few taps at his laptop's keyboard, a grainy video had been projected onto the monitor, clearly taken by someone's cellphone camera if the vertical format was any indication. As it began to play, Gentle felt his eyes widen instinctively in shock- All Might was at the center of the video, and though he was in his muscular prime, his costume was bloodied and torn, and his body was covered in grisly wounds, most notably a massive, gruesome gash on his torso. It had been hastily bandaged, but the gauze was already soaked crimson, and a steady stream of blood was flowing unabated from beneath the edges, leaving a dripping red trail along the tiled white floor as two men- Gentle recognized them as Sir Nighteye and Detective Tsukauchi Naomasa- struggled to drag Toshinori through the doorway of a hospital's emergency room, their arms wrapped around his massive shoulders.

"Get him a stretcher, immediately!" Nighteye was shouting, his eyes wide with fear and dismay; his voice was at the verge of breaking, and his suit and hands were soaked with All Might's blood. "Please, he's losing consciousness!"

Doctors and nurses were already rushing forward to receive the trio, who were flanked on either side by an escort of police officers. The cameraman seemed to be part of the crowd of medical personnel, though they were staying a few steps back from the main action; judging by a few brief, first-person glimpses of a pair of arms clad in scrubs and rubber gloves, they seemed to have tucked their phone into their chest pocket, with the camera facing outward.

"Has the public been cleared out?!" Another voice snapped, older and grizzled. The image went blurry for a moment, then panned over to a short, grey-bearded old man with a yellow cape and black domino mask, keeping pace just behind Nighteye- Gran Torino, another casualty of the Black Day. "They can't see him like this!"

"Who cares?!" Nighteye snapped in reply. "Goddammit, Sorahiko, he's dying!"

"He cares!" Gran Torino shouted; though his demeanor was more calm and collected than Nighteye's, he was clearly holding back a considerable amount of distress as well. "Yagi and the Symbol must both survive!"

The two men's voices were soon lost in a cacophony of overlapping shouts as a group of nurses eased All Might onto a stretcher, attached an oxygen mask to his face, and began to rush him down the hallway. Nighteye, Tsukauschi, and Gran Torino followed behind them, jogging to keep pace with the stretcher; just an arm's length away from them now, the cameraman had merged into the accompanying gaggle of doctors, nurses, and trauma surgeons, and despite the shaky image, they were able to keep the video centered on All Might as he coughed blood into his oxygen mask and groaned in pain.

"Did… did I kill him?" All Might's voice was muffled and weak, barely audible. He turned his head ever so slightly toward Nighteye, his golden blond brows contorted in agony. "Please…" Another ragged cough, and blood began to spill out from beneath the mask's edges. "I have to know."

All Might lifted one of his hands up towards Sir and Tsukauchi, and Gentle realized with a start that both his arms were covered up to the elbow in blood- but not his own, if the way it had splattered was any indication.

"Don't talk," Nighteye replied, shaking his head as he grabbed hold of All Might's bloodsoaked hand. "Just save your strength!"

"You got him," Gran Torino interjected, laying a gloved hand on All Might's forearm. "He's gone, Yagi. No one could've survived that, not even him."

The video cut out a few moments later, just as the stretcher arrived in an operating room, and Yotsubashi turned back to face the table with a self-satisfied grin.

"Hospitals truly are excellent places to embed covert agents. In this hero-saturated society, you get to witness all sorts of fascinating developments firsthand with a loyal nurse or two watching for new arrivals! Though I'm sure I don't need to tell you that, Seraph."

"I agree completely," Midoriya declared, smiling politely. Glancing back at the monitor, he narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing the video's final frame. "He was spitting up almost that much blood when I killed him a few weeks ago. It must have been quite exciting to receive this footage in real-time, though it's a shame you couldn't be there to witness it yourself."

"'Exciting' only begins to describe it," Re-Destro replied, letting out a wistful sigh as he paced back and forth along the windows. "To everyone else on the street that morning, it was an ordinary day, mundane and unremarkable. I remember how dour their expressions were, how sapped of life and meaning they looked. I could feel the stress radiating from their bodies, quite literally. But me? For once, I was jubilant." He took another sip; Seraph followed his example, and Gentle decided to do the same. No use in holding back now- what's done is done, and it would be an insult to dear Yaoyorozu's family to let their cabernet go to waste.

"A weight had been lifted off my chest," Yotsubashi was saying, running one hand along his receding red-brown hairline as his smile slowly returned. "It was all I could do to keep myself from breaking out in song and dance in the Detnerat boardroom! If a thief had accosted me on my way back to the subway station that evening, I daresay I might not have had enough Stress left to fend them off. The greatest obstacle to the Liberation Army's revival had been defeated, and my burden as its leader had been lightened considerably."

"Greatest obstacle?" Midoriya leaned back in his chair, his eyebrows raised in open skepticism. "From my own research, it seems that All For One spent the past few decades far more preoccupied with crushing All Might than with challenging your ambitions to rise up and rule Japan. Judging by his actions, I doubt he was even aware of your army's continued existence."

"Entirely by design," Curious chimed in, one hand perched on her chin as she met Seraph's gaze with a bemused expression. "His attention was the last thing we wanted, and we took extensive measures to conceal ourselves from him. Like both of our respective organizations, All For One excels at building up power in the shadows- ever since his puppet regime collapsed, he's done a masterful job of concealing his resources and operations, and the new government was eager to erase him from the records. He may be a topic of conversation again these days, but only because of his dramatic little spat with All Might in Kamino. Up until then, the general public had no idea who he was- you can thank good old-fashioned historical whitewashing for that."

"Another in a long line of their repressive policies," Yotsubashi added with a sigh. "But thankfully, the Meta Liberation Army has a long memory. My predecessors and I tried without avail to track All For One's movements and agents- we knew that he was likely preparing for an eventual grand return onto the national stage, just as we were, and we suspected that he too was amassing forces to support that return- enough to rival us, perhaps. A singularly powerful megalomaniac such as him does not simply retire peacefully to the countryside, certainly not one endowed with nigh-immortality thanks to a collection of stolen meta-abilities."

A particularly venomous contempt dripped from Yotsubashi's last few words; his tone had grown sharp and clipped, his expression had turned to a frustrated scowl, and the dark spots on his forehead began to shift and expand as his temperament visibly soured.

"I'm sure you understand, Seraph, but All For One represents the antithesis of Destro's philosophy. Domination and manipulation rather than Liberation- he sought to corrupt and control this nation, to rule the people, his 'subjects', as a shadow despot. Those who opposed him were murdered, robbed of their meta-abilities- their most sacred possession, a piece of their very soul, torn away by force." A single tear ran down Re-Destro's cheek, and he dabbed at it with an embroidered handkerchief, letting out a heavy sigh. "Tragedy. His reign was a sheer, unmitigated tragedy for Metas."

"The Meta Liberation War, Chapter Seven, Section One." Seraph cleared his throat, then rose to his feet and locked eyes with Re-Destro, spreading his arms out to either side. "'And do not allow yourself to be fooled by false prophets who unjustly claim the mantle of Liberation. They seek to deceive and exploit you, to present their own actions as just and righteous while depriving you of your basic liberties. All For One is one such tyrant; he wins his followers through deceit, manipulation, and coercion, and when those methods fail, he slaughters those who oppose him in droves, stealing their meta-abilities to sate his infinite greed. His desire for absolute control is fundamentally opposed to the tenets of Liberation, and his ideology must be extinguished if this nation is ever to be truly free.'" Once he was finished, Midoriya took another sip of wine, settled back into his chair, and broke into a smile. "Shall I continue? Or was that enough to convince you that I've done my homework?"

Silence followed, broken a few moments later by a polite, dignified clap of approval from Re-Destro. Though his brows had briefly hiked in surprise during the speech, Yotsubashi's expression quickly reverted to one of calm, steady confidence, and Tobita frowned in disappointment. Damn, I was hoping that would get him crying again.

"Well, Seraph, you're certainly well-read- I'll give you that. But whether you truly understand Destro's words or you're simply skilled at reciting them remains to be seen."

"Ah, still wary?" Midoriya let out a soft chuckle and shook his head. "Give me a notebook and one hour and I'll be happy to write up an essay on Destro's life and philosophy. Mind if I run a few potential thesis statements by you?"

"That's not what he meant." Skeptic leveled an accusing finger in Seraph's direction, scarcely concealed rancor dripping from his every syllable. "I'm sure you've researched it enough to comprehend it on a surface level- no one's denying that. But there's no way you could truly understand our ideology."

"Oh? And why is that?"

"There may be some truth to Mr. Skeptic's words," Re-Destro interjected, "but let's address things in the proper order, shall we? As I was saying, All For One's rule was marked by tyranny, the stark opposite of the liberty Destro dreamed of- that we still dream of. We knew that if we made our move first- if we revealed ourselves while he was still lying in wait- that he might intervene, and marshal his forces against us. Given his sheer power, we would have been foolish not to treat such a scenario as an existential threat. When we learned of his apparent demise, we began our preparations in earnest; the way had been cleared for our Revival, and the countdown had begun."

"And that was eight years ago, yes?" Seraph glanced down at his watch, his brows raised in mock confusion. "Quite a long countdown, assuming it's still going."

"Patience is a virtue, dear Seraph, and we possess it in spades. We have waited more than a hundred years for the proper moment to make our grand return- taking one more decade to properly set the stage is a small price to pay if it means achieving our ultimate goal. When your objective is a complete overthrow of the current social order, it pays to be thorough in your planning."

"Two years was plenty of planning time for us," Midoriya replied with a shrug, "but to each his own, I suppose."

Re-Destro let out a dry chuckle in response; his frustration at the snide remark was only made evident by a brief swell of the dark patch on his forehead, but it reverted back to its original size after a few moments.

"As you can see now, all that time was put to good use. Curious rose to the top of her publishing company, while Skeptic's Feel Good Inc. spread its cell towers across the country and launched satellites into orbit. My own beloved Detnerat has also grown quite extensively in that timeframe- given how well-informed you are, I'm sure you're more than aware of our expansion into the hero support item industry over the past two years. And we've gone on quite the construction spree as well!"

Stepping back towards the windows, Re-Destro gestured out at the skyline, pointing down at an observation tower a few blocks away- from this distance, it looked to be only around half the height of the looming corporate skyscraper they were currently sitting at the top of.

"A year ago, that was the tallest building in Deika City. But with the date of our Revival fast approaching, I ordered the construction of a larger, more well-fortified 'home base', transferring many key Detnerat operations from Tokyo to Deika in order to spend as much time as possible at the heart of our army."

"I remember reading about that development in the paper," Gentle murmured, only raising his voice to a normal volume when he realized with a start that he'd spoken his thought aloud. "You and Detnerat were lauded in the headlines for doing your part to reduce corporate congestion in the capital, and bring jobs to smaller cities like Deika. I suppose it was all just part of the PR strategy? An effort to make yourself a hero in the public eye?"

"I hardly desire the label of 'hero'," Yotsubashi replied with a polite scoff. "But speaking of the public eye, let us not forget our dear, dedicated Trumpet, stuck in Tokyo today for a key vote in the Diet- in seven years, he's gone from a local councilman to the leader of a major opposition party in the national parliament."

"And a potential dark horse candidate for prime minister, if you put stock in a few recent articles," Seraph noted, his arms crossed. "What a fascinating coincidence that Curious' company syndicates several of the papers and magazines publishing those op-eds."

"What can I say?" Curious gave a nonchalant shrug, but her black and green eyes were practically beaming with pride. "We utilize our resources to the best of our ability."

"Just when we were nearing the final stages of preparation, though," Yotsubashi continued, "the nation's attention was captured by a ragtag little band of anarchists." Another nod to Skeptic, and news reports covering the USJ attack flashed on the screen, accompanied by footage of the dozens of captured villains being led away by police as Present Mic and Vlad King attempted to hold back a crowd of shouting reporters outside the school entrance. "Quite bold of them to attack U.A. students, and the Nomu creature that accompanied them was certainly an intriguing abomination. But for a time, it seemed that the League of Villains had been defeated just as soon as they debuted, and that their Nomu was simply a freak genetic anomaly. We decided that the handful of members who managed to escape weren't worth the resources to bother monitoring, until they stole the public eye once again."

Footage from Hosu City filled the screen next, a shaky video shot by a fleeing bystander. When the cameraman finally turned back around a few seconds later, the image focused on a pair of grey-skinned Nomu rampaging through the streets, charging toward the responding police and heroes as bursts of Endeavor's fire illuminated the scene with a bright orange glow.

"Quite the sensational incident." Yostubashi declared, his eyes wide with faux surprise. "As it happens, one of the forty-odd heroes murdered by Stain was an undercover Liberation Army solider, so we'd already been attempting to track the Hero Killer, with limited success; it came as a shock to us when he appeared in seeming coordination with the League and their Nomu. Luckily, one of the agents searching for Stain was in the area as well, and thanks to him, we saw the whole attack live. A few minutes later, we even had front-row seats to this infamous bit of drama!"

Just as Gentle anticipated, the camera cut next to a view of Stain himself, blood dripping from his jagged-edged katana as he faced down Endeavor before a small crowd of onlookers. The Hero Killer had left a trail of carnage behind him as he sliced through a group of students and pros alike: The still, lifeless corpses of the pro hero Native and the U.A. first-year Iida Tenya were visible in the entrance of an alleyway at the edge of the screen, and in the foreground, Manual, Todoroki Shoto, and two other local heroes were lying beneath a flickering streetlamp in pools of their own blood. It was a slightly different angle from the more famous video that had crossed fifty million views online before being scrubbed from most sites for content violations, but Tobita still recognized the tragic scene in a heartbeat.

"WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!" Endeavor was bellowing, his voice shaking with rage as white-hot flames flared up around his fists. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SHOTO?!"

"The same I'm going to do to you," Stain shouted in reply, planting his boot on Shoto's back as he lifted his sword for the killing blow, "and to all the other false idols this society worships as 'heroes'! And once I-"

Stain would never finish his sentence. Blasting off the ground amid a burst of fire like a red-orange bolt of lightning, Endeavor tackled Stain off his son's back and slammed him into the brick wall of an adjacent building in the blink of an eye; Stain's sword fell from his grip and clattered to the ground, and blood spurted from the Hero Killer's mouth before his head slumped back against the wall. Sensing that the villain was beaten, several police officers stepped forward from the crowd, moving towards Endeavor, but they all halted in unison when the Flame Hero let out another primal roar, grabbed hold of Stain's collar, and lifted him into the air.

"YOU'LL PAY FOR THIS! I'LL MAKE YOU PAY!"

The blast of flame that followed was blinding- the crowd of bystanders all stumbled back at once, several letting out shouts of surprise and dismay as they shielded their eyes from the light and heat. When the smoke cleared and the camera refocused, Endeavor stood alone; a two-meter hole had been melted in the brick wall directly in front of him, and all that remained at his feet was a pile of ash.

"And we all know what a mess followed from that." Yotsubashi sipped at his wine and let out a sigh as the video cut out. "A crisis of public confidence, two years of legal proceedings- it was an even greater PR disaster for the Public Safety Commission than that frightful mess with Lady Nagant a few years back."

"And my papers hammered them for it every day," Curious declared, a smug grin on her face. "We try to seize every possible chance to gradually undermine public trust in the current system, just like your Syndicate's little livestreamed speeches and internet propaganda."

"Of course, from a personal perspective, we supported Endeavor wholeheartedly throughout the ordeal." Re-Destro rolled about the wine in his glass, his brows furrowed in contemplation. "Stain was a hardened, zealous killer- Endeavor had every right to use his meta-ability to resolve the situation, and prevent him from taking any more lives. Telling someone born with the gift of fire not to burn is like telling a bird not to fly, a mole not to burrow- ultimately a futile and repressive exercise. But alas, I digress."

Re-Destro began to pace around the conference table, slowly approaching the Syndicate members' side; Gentle felt a beat of sweat roll down his brow and lowered his eyes back down to his glass, opting to gaze at the blood-red cabernet rather than watch his looming captor. Yotsubashi passed him by, though, drawing to a halt behind Iguchi instead- Spinner shot him a worried sidelong glance, and Gentle could do nothing but offer a quiet look of sympathy in return.

"Hosu taught us several important lessons. First, that the League of Villains was a lasting threat rather than a one-hit wonder, and second, that the Nomu were a sizeable force rather than a singular anomaly, supplied to Shigaraki and his gang of hoodlums by an unknown patron. In response, we immediately devoted resources to monitoring the League; it was around this time that we first became aware of you, Spinner! The pious Stain devotee, spurred to work with the League in the name of vengeance following his idol's untimely demise."

Yotsubashi patted amicably at Iguchi's shoulder, and Tobita watched with growing anxiety as Spinner's face twisted in scarcely-restrained anger. Please, Iguchi- don't do anything rash. If you raise so much as a hand against him, he can kill you in a heartbeat, crush your head in his fist and claim self-defense. Over at the entrance to the room, Amplivolt and Phantasm had clearly noticed Spinner's incensed emotional state as well- both were watching his every twitch and tremor with hawklike intensity, and Amplivolt's hand slid casually into his jacket pocket, reaching for the taser that charged his quirk.

"What was it called again?" Re-Destro asked, perching a hand on his chin. "The Vanguard Response Team?"

"Vanguard Action Squad," Spinner grunted, letting out a resigned sigh as his fists finally unclenched. "We were the Vanguard Action Squad. Me and Shigaraki came up with the name. Let me guess: You had some spy hiding in the forest, filming our attack on the kids' little summer camp?"

"Quite the opposite, in fact. The League concealed their movements remarkably well leading up to that raid- our agents failed to track you to the campsite, but once we determined the coordinates of the incident after the fact, we were able to view bit of the action via our recorded satellite feeds."

Another gesture, another video on the monitor- a top-down view of the campsite raid, filmed in the infrared rather than the visible spectrum. Dabi's raging fire ironically showed up as red and orange rather than its normal blue, and amid the chaos, several tiny yellow dots marked the students, teachers, and villains, moving rapidly in a variety of directions.

"This time, the results were even more dramatic than in Hosu! Three students kidnapped, along with over a dozen wounded or unconscious, thanks to Mustard and Muscular. Poor Kendo Itsuka's injuries in particular were quite severe- what a brave girl." Re-Destro cast a knowing, bemused glance at Seraph before continuing. "But imagine our surprise when Mr. Skeptic reviewed the footage and determined that the League's forces only departed with one captive, Bakugo Katsuki! Where had the other two gone, Yaoyorozu and Tokoyami?"

The feed began to pan to the right, zooming in on the northwest quadrant of the grid; after a few moments, it settled on a separate group of dots, moving away from the rest. From the look of it, four or five people- it was difficult to tell the exact number, given that some of them were clumped together- were converging on an orange-yellow rectangle. A car, Gentle realized, as the shape began to move swiftly through the trees a few moments later, once all the people had climbed aboard. So this is how they captured them, then. I've never asked Yaoyorozu about the precise circumstances- it seemed like it might be a sensitive topic. Tobita lifted his glass to his lips once more, his eyes still fixed on the screen, and swallowed the last of his wine.

"We didn't realize it at the time, but this was our first time meeting you, Seraph." Yotsubashi raised his glass in Midoriya's direction, smiling widely. "All we knew was that someone had taken those two students- someone aligned with neither the League nor the heroes. Thanks to the fact that we were viewing recorded footage, though, we couldn't realign our satellites in time to track your car. Just like that, you vanished off the map, a mystery organization with a talent for stealthily abducting young heroes. I can't help wonder what your group was like at the time- this was only a few weeks after you left U.A., yes?"

"Things were… touch and go." Midoriya replied, after a moment's contemplation. His expression had turned somewhat wistful, his piercing green eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. "We spent a good deal of those first few weeks and months evading the search parties out looking for us, and that particular problem only worsened after we took Momo and Fumikage. But despite all the time we spent covering our tracks, looking over our shoulders… it was fun." Izuku chuckled and shook his head, running a hand through his tangle of green-black hair as he finished off his own glass of wine.

"After spending our entire lives struggling to fit in, to carve out a place inside society's artificial boundaries, it was like a whole new world had opened up. Hitoshi could use his quirk as often as he pleased, on whomever he pleased, no longer forced to worry about what his peers might think, about the jeers and jokes and judgement. Mei could spend her time building anything her heart desired- there were no more school rules and regulations holding back her creative energy. We felt…" Midoriya paused for a moment, then looked straight at Yotsubashi, a genuine grin on his lips. "We felt liberated."

Re-Destro's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed again as a look of satisfaction and understanding spread across his face.

"You see, Mr. Skeptic?" Yotsubashi glanced over towards his heavy-banged lieutenant. "Perhaps he understands us better than we anticipated. As for my story, you gentlemen know the remainder quite well, but I find it fascinating all the same." Re-Destro glanced back towards Spinner, and his smile turned to a slight frown. "The League never was quite the same after that campsite raid- you escaped with a captive and no losses, but the heroes weren't far behind. We all know the epic tale of the battle in Kamino Ward, of the climactic fight between All Might and All For One. You and your comrades were forced to flee rather quickly, though, weren't you, Spinner?"

"…Yeah." Iguchi finally muttered after a brief, awkward silence. "We were outmatched from the start. The heroes busted down our door before we knew what was happening- there was no way we stood a chance against All Might and all the other pros he brought along. He snatched Bakugo right out from under our noses like it was nothing, then beat down on All For One like a punching bag. Far as I'm concerned, we were lucky to escape at all."

"As for us," Yotsubashi continued, gesturing at the MLA's side of the table, "we were simply watching the coverage on TV along with the rest of the nation. We had a few operatives in the area, of course, but none of their amateur cellphone videos could match the dramatic, birds-eye view captured by that helicopter circling overhead. You remember it, don't you, Curious?"

"Like it was yesterday," Kizuki leaned back and let out a nostalgic sigh. "I remember watching the livestream on my laptop at the office, and feeling so… conflicted. I was shocked that All For One was alive of course, and worried about what it meant for the Revival. Part of me was even rooting for All Might, in spite of the horrendous, repressive system he represents. But most of all, I just remember wishing I was up there in that chopper, risking my life on the front lines for a firsthand look at the ultimate story."

"And what a story it was! Until that night, we knew that the League were acquiring the Nomu from somewhere, that they had a mysterious patron supplying them with troops. None of us guessed that the benefactor in question was All For One, still clinging to life in spite of his seemingly mortal wounds."

"At least that problem solved itself," Midoriya noted, shrugging his shoulders. "You must have been quite relieved when he was defeated, just minutes after revealing himself to the world."

"To say the least of it," Yotsubashi remarked with a grin, sipping at the last of his wine before setting the empty glass back on the table. "Though we would have preferred to see him killed, we were still thoroughly delighted to see the tyrant taken into permanent custody."

"Perhaps not permanent, once the lawmakers in Tokyo have their say." Seraph shifted in his chair, stroking contemplatively at his chin. "If I recall correctly, Hanabata's Hearts and Minds Party is leading a legislative push to expedite the timetable for his execution- Trumpet must be quite busy these days."

"All for a good cause. All For One's death would mark a final, definitive act of justice for all the countless lives he twisted and destroyed- the closure of a dark chapter in our collective history. But as for the history of the League…" Yotsubashi clicked his tongue and shook his head in disappointment. "We continued our surveillance, but they were lost without their master to guide them. Shigaraki had been deprived of his patron, deprived of his purpose. Their activities ground to a complete halt as their members split up and hid from the law, hiding up in decrepit warehouses and filthy apartments for weeks on end. It must have been frustrating for you, Spinner."

"I… it was." Iguchi answered, his tone still halting and reluctant. "I was still pissed about what happened to Stain- I wanted us to be out there punishing false heroes, spreading the word and making sure his ideas didn't die out. But after All For One got captured, Tomura just… shut down." Spinner sighed and shook his head, rubbing at his mane of disheveled pinkish hair. "We were all just laying low, trying to watch our asses, but Tomura didn't seem that eager to get things going again. Twice offered to set up a meeting with the Eight Precepts, try and expand our operations, but Tomura turned him down. It's like you said, he had no purpose." Spinner's eyes suddenly narrowed, and he glanced back up at Re-Destro.

"Hold on- how exactly do you know so much about what we were going through? Did you bug our hideouts or something?"

"We didn't need to," Skeptic replied with a smirk, typing diligently at his laptop as he spoke. "We employed traditional stakeouts and satellite monitoring, but for the most part, you did the work for us. Do you recall ever using one of these, Spinner?" Reaching into his pocket, Skeptic slid a small black object across the table- a cheap plastic flip phone, by the look of it.

"Yeah, sure- it's a burner phone. The League used them all the time, especially when we split up after Kamino. What about it?

"Turn it over." Still grinning, Skeptic leaned forward and made a flipping gesture with one hand. "See if there's anything you recognize on the back."

His brows wrinkled in confusion, Spinner reluctantly complied; Gentle snuck a peek out of curiosity, and his eyes widened when they settled on a familiar logo emblazoned on the cheap plastic.

"I don't get it," Spinner snapped after a moment, "it looks like a totally ordinary…" He trailed off and swore under his breath, coming to the same realization as Tobita. "Feel Good Inc.," Iguchi read with a sigh, tapping at the company's insignia with one clawed finger. "That's your gig, right, Bangs? Fuckin' typical- of course we were buying your phones the whole goddamn time."

"Not all of you, unfortunately. It's clear that most League members purchased their burners individually- only you and Toga regularly used Feel Good models."

"Yeah, 'cause we both used to buy 'em from the same few corner stores." Spinner let out a groan of frustration and defeat, slumping back in his chair. "I even told her where I got mine, gave her money when she was running low."

"Speaking of young Toga Himiko," Yotsubashi cut in, giving Midoriya a sidelong glance, "this was around the time that we noticed her regularly communicating with a… mystery individual."

Audio began to play from the monitor's speakers a few moments later: Toga's voice, giddy with excitement.

"Oh baby, I had so much fun on our date last night! When do you think I can see you again?!"

"Soon, darling," Midoriya's own voice replied, his tone calm and reassuring. "Very soon, I hope. Next time, I want to introduce you to my friends, if that's alright- they're all quite interested in meeting you."

"Eh, I guess I can say hi." Toga gave a dramatic sigh. "But I'm more interested in picking up where we left off." Himiko's breathing began to grow heavy, desire and longing clear in her voice. "Thinking about last night is driving me crazy. Just hearing your voice gets me so hot and bothered, baby."

"Don't worry, we'll, ah… we'll have plenty of time for that." For a brief moment, Midoriya's confident tone broke, and Tobita could hear the voice of a nervous teenage boy rather than that of a ruthless criminal ringleader. By the time he resumed speaking, though, Midoriya had already regained his composure, and repaired the break in his persona. "I've also been thinking about your friends. I know that your group and I didn't necessarily start off on the right foot, but if I had a chance to talk to some of them one-on-one, I think we'd get along much better. You'd like that, wouldn't you? All of us, friends together?"

"I don't know if To- if the boss would like that," Himiko answered after a moment, catching herself when she nearly said Shigaraki's name over the line. "He's really grumpy lately, always ranting about how hard he's got it."

"He does seem like the grumpy sort," Izuku replied with a chuckle. "I would never want to put you on the wrong side of his temper, which is why this can be our little secret. And in exchange, I will clear my evening schedule for you, darling- we can spend as many nights together as you'd like."

"Hmm…" Toga let out a giggle, clearly amused. "I like the sound of that offer. Let's meet up again tomorrow, and you can finish persuading me in person."

"I, uh… Sure, yes, that sounds perfect." A brief crack in Midoriya's façade again, quickly smoothed over. "Same place as last time?"

"Same place, same time, same hotel afterwards." Toga made a kissing sound over the line, then giggled again. "See you real soon, baby."

Once the audio had fallen silent, Gentle snuck a brief glance over at Midoriya- for the most part, his expression had remained a calm and emotionless mask, but Tobita could tell from the slight narrowing of his eyes and wrinkle of his brows that the existence of the recording bothered him. Whether it perturbs him on a personal or a professional level is another question entirely, Tobita mused, suddenly eager for another glass of wine. I certainly hope Re-Destro doesn't prod any further with regard to Toga- that's one of the few subjects that might cause Midoriya to snap, and Spinner and I would be the ones in peril if these negotiations were to fall apart.

"We weren't able to trace Toga's mysterious beau," Re-Destro continued, watching Seraph's expression closely as he spoke. "He hid his tracks well, and wasn't using a Feel Good phone for his end of the call. The nature of the conversation had piqued our interest, but aside from a few similar calls over the following weeks, there was still no sign of what organization this charming young fellow belonged to. He was clearly using an inside connection to gather intel on the League, perhaps even attempting to turn their members, but to what end? Skeptic and Curious considered a variety of theories."

"At first, I thought Toga's contact was an undercover agent for the police or the Public Safety Commission." Curious gestured for one of Skeptic's puppets to bring out another bottle of cabernet, and refilled her glass before continuing. "Our inside sources tell us that they're generally a bit hesitant to use honeypots, though, especially over such an extended period. Something about 'ethical concerns'." She scoffed and took a long, thoughtful sip, clearly reveling at the chance to flaunt her knowledge. "And given Toga's propensity to connect intimacy with bloodshed, it seemed unlikely that they'd put an agent in such obvious danger of being sliced to pieces mid-coitus."

"Once that theory was eliminated," Skeptic continued, cracking his bony knuckles, "I proposed that the suitor might be a member of the Eight Precepts, or another related yakuza group. We had good intel that Twice had briefly come in contact with Chisaki Kai, and even tried to set up a meeting between him and Shigaraki- perhaps Overhaul had tasked one of his underlings with poaching members from the League, beginning with Toga. It only took a few weeks for that hypothesis to be all but debunked as well, though."

Tapping again at his keyboard, Skeptic summoned another news clip to the screen: This time, it was coverage of Sir Nighteye's famous raid on the Eight Precepts compound, another event that Gentle instantly recognized.

"I'm live here on the scene where the incident took place." A young, blonde-haired female reporter was saying, gesturing to the walled residence behind her. The compound's tall wooden doors had been shattered, and smoke was rising from the building itself; a line of police officers was holding back a crowd of curious civilian onlookers as Sir Nighteye, Bubble Girl, and Fatgum helped escort multiple handcuffed yakuza into the open doors of a police van parked just outside the entrance. "According to eyewitness accounts, the heroes initiated an organized raid on the designated villain group around half an hour ago, and significant fighting took place inside the compound. We're receiving conflicting reports as to whether Chisaki Kai, the capo of the yakuza gang, was captured or escaped, but several of his lieutenants are being led into custody now. One witness also claims they saw a young girl being carried out of the compound's main building- it's still unclear whether this was an anti-trafficking operation, or-"

The reporter paused midsentence as Nighteye turned and began to stalk toward the police line, holding out her microphone as he approached.

"Sir Nighteye, can you comment on eyewitness reports that a young child was recovered from the yakuza headquarters?! Did Chisaki Kai escape?!"

"Sergeant, please clear this crowd away."

Turning to face one of the police rather than the reporter, Nighteye waved dismissively in her crew's direction, then shot a brief, worried glance back at the compound entrance. As the officers began to comply, steadily pushing back the bystanders and news teams, the camera captured a brief shot of Lemillion stepping through the shattered compound doors- he was holding a frail, white-haired child tight against his chest, her bandaged arms wrapped around his neck.

"Is that the girl you rescued?!" The reporter shouted, still holding her microphone towards Nighteye even as he began to walk away. "What's her status? Was she being abused?"

The camera feed cut out moments later, though, and the monitor went blank once again.

"One of Toga's calls with her suitor took place just a few minutes after the raid began," Skeptic explained, leaning back in his chair as Curious poured him a second glass of wine as well. "And no mention of the attack was made, either in that conversation or any following one. It seemed fairly simple to conclude from there that her mystery contact wasn't yakuza-affiliated."

"Bravo, truly." A grin on his face, Seraph gave Skeptic and Curious a brief, insincere round of applause. "Brilliant deduction, both of you. Although I can't help but wonder- with all your resources and advanced surveillance, did it never occur to you to simply follow Toga when she left to meet me? Or would that have been too complicated?"

Reaching his glass down towards Curious for a refill, Re-Destro let out a lively peal of laughter.

"Oh, believe me, Midoriya- we tried! As I'm sure you're very well-aware, though, Toga Himiko is a uniquely talented individual. She seems to have an uncanny sense for when she's being followed, perhaps some sort of subconscious instinct. Even when our field agents kept a considerable distance and took every possible precaution, she still managed to give them the slip every time. It was quite impressive, and quite frustrating for poor Skeptic."

"Even with her meta-ability," Skeptic protested, his arms outspread in exasperation, "she shouldn't have been able to just… vanish like that! I still don't understand it, but regardless, we… couldn't trail her." The last three words seemed especially difficult for him to say aloud, as if each one was actively wounding him. "But it wasn't a failure- it was simply a variable that necessitated a change of strategy."

"She is uniquely talented," Midoriya declared, a genuine smile on his face as he gazed across the table at Skeptic. "You mustn't fault yourself for your inability to track her- if she wanted to hide from me, I doubt I could find her either, even with all your resources. Speaking of which…" Seraph narrowed his eyes, as if he were struggling to recall something specific. "Feel Good Inc. provides service for almost a quarter of the nation's cellphones, yes? Am I to believe that you have the ability to monitor conversations from each one of those tens of millions of devices with perfect clarity?"

"We obviously don't have the manpower to actively monitor all of them," Skeptic replied, his arms crossed. "We can only tap into the phones we manufacture, which come pre-installed with a backdoor into all calls and metadata. It's completely legal, too- just read up on the National Telecommunications Security Act the Diet passed a few decades ago."

"Oh, I'm quite familiar with it. Those backdoors are intended for government use, but you've appropriated them for your own purposes, it seems."

"I'm glad you can appreciate the irony," Re-Destro replied, beaming with pride. "Thanks to our dear Mr. Skeptic, we were able to seize a tool of government oppression and put it to use for the cause of Liberation. We leave the Feel Good devices owned by the general population untouched, monitoring only those owned by heroes or other individuals of interest. I can see that you're still somewhat dubious, though, so how about a brief demonstration?" A hand perched on his chin, Yotsubashi turned back towards Skeptic. "Why don't you play something for our guests? Perhaps a few seconds from one of Mirko's recent calls."

Gentle could see Seraph's brows hike briefly in surprise at the mention of the Rabbit Hero's name, and it was no mystery why. The number three hero, one of the leaders of Strike Team Fenrir, and Battle Fist's current mentor- this could be valuable information. Tobita glanced back at Skeptic, who seemed somewhat taken aback by Re-Destro's suggestion, one of his bloodshot eyes twitching in disbelief.

"Supreme Commander… with all due respect, showing them footage from two years ago is one thing, but is it truly prudent to grant them access to intelligence produced by our ongoing operations? We should at least wait until negotiations have concluded to-"

"Mr. Skeptic," Yotsubashi interrupted, his tone calm yet forceful, "as before, your caution is understandable. But it is as you said- these gentlemen are our guests, and as long as they treat us with courtesy, I intend to do the same. Think of this as a gesture of good faith between two groups who share a common enemy."

"…Yes, sir." His movements forced and robotic, Skeptic turned back to his laptop and made a few reluctant taps. "If you say so, sir."

More audio came from the speakers moments later- Usagiyama Rumi's boisterous voice was instantly recognizable.

"Yo, Mirai, you there? I just got back from the store, you free for drinks later? Don't try and bail on me, I know your shift just ended."

"You already know what my answer is." Sasaki Mirai, better known as Sir Nighteye, responded, his voice heavy with exasperation. "I don't take nights off anymore, Usagiyama. Not while there's still work to be done, and the Syndicate remain at large. They should be our sole focus right now- if anything, I recommend we both clock back in and review the latest intel report."

"Aw, so you do want to hang out with me after all! Still too shy to say it outright, huh?" Mirko's voice had taken on a teasing tone, and Tobita felt his cheeks flush red with secondhand embarrassment. Is she… flirting?

Another sigh followed from Nighteye's end of the line, followed by a brief pause.

"Your company would be welcome in a professional capacity, but as your coworker, I must once again ask that you to cease these inappropriate attempts at eliciting some sort of... response from me. We have infinitely more pressing matters to focus our attention on than…" He trailed off, and Rumi replied with a peal of laughter.

"It's real cute how you start using big words when you're flustered, hon."

"Hmm."

Oh god, she is. Tobita squirmed a bit in his seat; in spite of all the violence and mayhem he'd partaken in since joining the Syndicate, there was still something about eavesdropping on such a private and personal conversation that felt profoundly ignoble. A quick glance at Iguchi revealed a similarly uncomfortable expression, but when Gentle turned his gaze to Seraph, Midoriya seemed enraptured rather than disquieted, listening intently.

Yotsubashi made a cutting gesture before the conversation could continue, though, and he speakers fell silent; Re-Destro gave a wistful sigh as he turned to face Seraph.

"Ah, to be young and in love. It's quite a curious thing, Midoriya- heroes are cautious by nature, but we've found that they're remarkably trusting when it comes to the more mundane aspects of their lives, such as their mobile and internet providers. Heroes' work devices operate on a separate, much more well-secured network operated by the Public Safety Commission, but only a handful of them bother encrypting the calls and texts from their personal phones."

"Their naivete truly is their greatest weakness." Midoriya broke into a grin, and gave his counterpart a nod of acknowledgment. "They lack the fundamental understanding that men and women like us are willing to do whatever it takes to defeat them. I'm sure you've uncovered some truly wonderful secrets over the years- and to think that the third-ranked hero's cellphone is at your beck and call! Statistically speaking, I doubt she's the only Feel Good user on Strike Team Fenrir, or even in the top ten." Seraph shrugged his shoulders and let out another subdued chuckle. "I can't help but wonder who else you've been listening to."

"I'd be happy to tell you, but it's the most curious thing." Yotsubashi frowned, his brows furrowed in faux confusion, and returned Midoriya's shrug in kind. "I simply can't recall! My apologies, but I'm afraid you'll have to keep wondering for the time being."

"Not to worry. I do hope I'm able to help jog your memory, but all in good time."

"Of course, my friend." Re-Destro's frown had already reverted to a smile, and he began to pace again, returning to the window. "Back to our main narrative, though. About a week after the yakuza raid, we were confronted by another fascinating development; the calls between Toga and her contact suddenly ceased. Our agents watching the League reported that Shigaraki was furious, raging about a betrayal- Toga had finally defected. The next day, Tomura unleashed Muscular, Moonfish, and a few of his remaining Nomu on a busy shopping mall as some sort of twisted 'retaliation'; it was a random, desperate act of violence, not planned-out or aimed at a specific goal like their previous operations. The result was a horrid, grisly scene. Our dear Devout, Phantasm's own niece, happened to be at the mall in question, and I daresay she was lucky to escape with her life." Frowning, Yotsubashi gestured towards the door; Phantasm nodded wordlessly in agreement, a grimace on his pale, hole-marked face.

Another video began to play on the monitor moments later: shaky, eyewitness camera footage of the Kiyashi Ward Mall Massacre. The same as with Hosu, it was an angle Gentle had never seen before, shot from the mall's second-floor balcony, but he hardly relished the prospect of reliving the infamous incident either way. Just as Tobita remembered- or rather, as he had attempted to forget- the mall's tiled marble floors were soaked red with blood, the air echoing with screams of terror and pain. Dozens of civilian bodies were strewn across the first-floor atrium, lacerated or pulverized by the massacre's two principal perpetrators, Moonfish and Muscular. The former was perched midair amid the forest of knifelike blades protruding from his mouth, letting out a stilted, hollow laugh as Kamui Woods swung from balcony to balcony, struggling to avoid the death row convict's attacks at every turn. A few moments later, the camera swung around to the right, panning over to Muscular and the Nomu, who were currently mid-battle with Fatgum and Crust.

"You'll pay for what you've done today, fiend!" Letting out a bellow of rage and exertion, Crust flung a jagged shield from his right hand, slicing one of the Nomu cleanly in two in a spray of grey viscera. "We will not abide your brutality!"

"You don't gotta abide shit!" Muscular shouted in reply, sinking another vicious punch into Fatgum's absorbent stomach; even the famously durable BMI Hero was being driven back by the force of his blows, his face bruised and bloodied. "Just shut up and die like the rest!"

"No can do!" Fatgum yelled back, absorbing two more frenzied strikes before he broke away and ducked behind another massive shield created by Crust. "I guess a spineless coward like you might not understand, but we have something bigger to fight for!"

The shield protecting Fatgum shattered a few moments later after a sustained barrage of punches from Muscular, but it had already bought him all the time he needed; in that short span of time, he'd shrunk down to a fraction of his original size, lean and handsome features emerging as a glowing ball of golden energy accumulated around his right fist.

"Try this one on for size!" Fatgum bellowed, then sank a single, massive blow into Muscular's stomach.

A grunt of surprise escaping from his mouth, the killer was flung backwards by the impact, crashing into Moonfish's blades in a cacophony of cracking metal. Kamui Woods and Crust rushed forward moments later, seizing the opening as Moonfish toppled to the ground, but before they could move close enough to apprehend either of the dazed villains, a swirling purple-black portal opened up beneath the pair. Gone as quickly as it had appeared, the warp gate swallowed both League members in an instant before disappearing entirely.

"Thirty-two civilians dead, dozens more injured." Re-Destro shook his head in disappointment, genuine pain crossing his face. "If only those people had been taught to use their meta-abilities to defend themselves, rather than to cower in fear and wait for a hero to arrive. So much pointless loss of life."

"Yeah, we get it," Spinner snapped- his hands had clenched back into fists, his knuckles white and his teeth grit. "We all remember Kiyashi- you don't have to make us watch it again just to show off your glorious 'surveillance capabilities'."

"I suspected you might have some negative memories of that incident." Re-Destro turned back towards Spinner and stroked thoughtfully at his chin. "Given that just two days later, you-"

"Yeah, I defected," Iguchi cut in, lifting his gaze to meet Yotsubashi's. "Of course I wanted out of the League after that goddamn bloodbath. That shit wasn't what I signed up for. When I joined, I thought Tomura had principles- I thought he was more than a power-tripping thug." Iguchi closed his eyes and shook his head, pausing for a moment to find the proper words. "…But he proved me wrong. So when Toga told me about the new organization she found, about how their leader was more like Stain than Shigaraki ever was…" Spinner turned toward Seraph, pride and devotion clear on his face. "Of course I joined them. And I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Midoriya's mouth turned up in a genuine grin at that, replacing the mocking smirk he'd worn before; he gave Iguchi a silent nod of acknowledgement and gratitude before glancing back toward their hosts.

"I can see it now," Yotsubashi declared, smiling warmly as he glanced between Seraph and Spinner. "The effect you have on those who follow you- the bonds you forge among your trusted allies. The Leagues' own ties were fraying, but you gave Spinner a chance to make new ones, and help preserve those he already had. After Iguchi's defection, his closest comrades from the League were quick to follow- Twice just a few weeks later, then Magne and Dabi the next month, and Mustard shortly after that. Within half a year of the Kiyashi Massacre, the once-vaunted League of Villains had been reduced to Shigaraki, Kurogiri, a handful of Nomu, and the two crazed killers, Muscular and Moonfish."

"Jin and the others could see which way the wind was blowing," Iguchi muttered; after a few moments spent staring at his empty glass, he begrudgingly held it out toward Curious, who filled it with a smug grin as Spinner continued to speak. "After Kiyashi, the heroes went after the League hard, forced them back underground. All that goodwill and popularity we got from associating with Stain?" Spinner made an exploding gesture with his hands, then let out a bitter chuckle. "Poof, gone overnight. Suddenly, the public despised the League, and I can't blame 'em." Iguchi lifted his glass up to his lips and took a long swig of wine, a clear attempt to drown the unpleasant memories away.

"Getting the rest to switch sides was like pulling people off a sinking ship- once me, Seraph, and Toga had a chance to actually talk to them, they didn't need much convincing. Apparently, Tomura kept spiraling downhill after I left. Kurogiri always tried to calm him down, but when that stopped working, he got paranoid- started accusing people of disloyalty, claiming that they were gonna betray him next."

"A self-fulfilling prophecy, in many cases," Midoriya added, graciously accepting the bottle from Curious when she offered to hand it across the table. "I still remember Mustard and Magne's accounts of Shigaraki's behavior quite vividly- with each rant and outburst about traitors, he was driving his remaining followers closer to defection." Once he'd split the remainder of the cabernet between Tobita's glass and his own, Midoriya set down the bottle and let out a sigh, then turned his gaze back towards Yotsubashi. "As I recall, he would often speak at length about finding the defectors and feeding them to his Nomu, or letting Muscular and Moonfish have their fun with them. As I'm sure you're aware, such behavior does not, in fact, inspire loyalty. Poor Mr. Compress, the last to part ways with the League, was nearly killed in the process of doing so! How did he escape again?" Seraph turned back towards Spinner, his brows furrowed in contemplation.

"By the skin of his goddamn teeth," Spinner grunted in reply, shaking his head. "When Tomura and Kurogiri found out Atsuhiro was planning to leave, they sent Moonfish and the Nomu after him, nearly caught him- he had to compress himself and slip through a sewer grate to keep from getting sliced to pieces. He got swept all the way out into Tokyo Bay as a marble, managed to swim back to shore. Once he got out of the water and dried off, he came straight to us."

"Now that's a story I hadn't heard!" Re-Destro raised his glass toward Spinner and Seraph, his grin growing wider. "It's a shining testament to your organization's talent for clandestine activities that we lost track of the defectors so quickly after they departed. For a few months, all was silent, and we soon concluded that it was pointless to continue to devote so many intelligence assets to tracking both the defectors and the skeleton crew that remained of the League. Isn't that right, Mr. Skeptic? As I recall, it was you who made the call."

"It was," Skeptic declared, his tone striking a balance between respectful and defensive, "and I stand by it. Judging from we knew at the time, the defectors were all laying low to the ground, and wherever they were, they'd covered their tracks so well that it would've been more trouble that than it was worth to hunt them down. As for the remnants of the League, Shigaraki was still paranoid and pathetic, hiding from the heroes he'd enraged while struggling to keep Muscular and Moonfish under his control. I lowered the League's threat designation to 'Minimal', and reassigned most of our surveillance team." Skeptic sighed and rubbed at his heavy eyelids, then took a lengthy sip of cabernet.

"Of course, I left behind a handful of agents tasked with documenting any further public attacks committed by Shigaraki's forces, but over the next two years, those were few and far between, isolated hit-and-run raids nowhere close to the scale of Kiyashi or Hosu. Chatter regarding the League on the Hero Network gradually died down, and I personally considered the matter all but closed, until we began to notice some… irregular activity affecting one of our operations."

Re-Destro nodded solemnly, frowning as he picked up where Skeptic had left off.

"This country's black market, for all its supposed volatility, is in fact a surprisingly stable and predictable arena over the long term. For some years now, the players in the market for weapons and support items have been largely the same: the three primary buyers are comprised of the yakuza, an assortment of small-time criminal gangs, and a handful of less-than-ethical private security corporations looking for cheap armaments without the lengthy permit process. On the other side of the coin, the four main sellers consist of the Russians, the Chinese, a lively little cabal of corrupt military officers auctioning their surplus hardware, and finally, my own dear Detnerat."

Gentle's eyes widened in surprise, and he nearly choked on his wine mid-sip. I suppose I shouldn't be too shocked, given the way they utilize the other companies that they're connected with, but all the same…

"Goddamn, I knew there was something fishy about all those commercials." Iguchi crossed his arms and gave a grunt of disappointment. "Everyone in em's always way too happy, like a goddamn Disney movie."

"We'll take that feedback into advisement," Curious quipped back, grinning as she gazed across the table at Spinner. "Come to think of it, I'm sure you three would make a lovely little focus group for Detnerat's PR department. What do you think, Skeptic?"

"Too small of a sample size to be useful," Chikazoku muttered, his eyes still fixed on his laptop's screen. "And far too biased. You were speaking about the weapons market, sir?" Glancing back up at Re-Destro, Skeptic clasped his hands together and waited patiently for the Supreme Commander to continue.

"Indeed I was." Yotsubashi gave a nod of gratitude in his lieutenant's direction as he took another sip of wine, then cleared his throat with a cough. "I wouldn't want to bore our guests by explaining something they're already familiar with, though! And you are quite familiar with this topic- aren't you, Seraph?"

Rather than wait for a response, Re-Destro continued to speak after a brief, tense pause, slowly pacing back in the direction of the table.

"You should be, at least! Given my company's role in the sale and distribution of support items to various criminal groups throughout the country, we pay very close attention to the status of the black market. Needless to say, it piqued my personal interest when a small-time seller based in Nagoya began to make some shockingly rapid advances in weapon and support item sales, just a few months after those last few defectors left the League. Whoever they were, this mystery supplier was eating up our clients at a record pace, producing incredibly high-quality weapons and support items at a rate that would only be achievable with a dedicated factory and a team of top-notch engineers. Try as we might to trace them, though, we couldn't find any such facility in the vicinity of their operations! Satellite scans, thermal imaging, even emissions testing, it all came up negative. Once again, we were at a loss- where was this mysterious arms factory hiding? Where had they procured the personnel to staff it? Poor Mr. Skeptic was quite confounded."

"Another temporary setback," Skeptic replied, forcing a smile onto his face, "and one that I overcame through patience and diligence. After several weeks spent establishing a cover identity as a small-time villain gang new to the area, a group of Liberation Army soldiers was able to secure a meeting for a sale. Tell me, Seraph, Spinner- does any of this look familiar to you?"

Skeptic held a hand to his ear and murmured a few commands; on cue, two more of his puppets lurched through the door to the conference room, carrying a sealed metal crate in their arms. Their movements as robotic and disconcerting as ever, they set the crate down on the floor behind Skeptic and flicked back the latches, reaching inside to lift up its contents. A few moments later, the pair set an assault rifle on the table with a heavy thud. Tobita could tell that its design was heavily modified from standard-issue military weapons; custom attachments were mounted on the scope, stock, and magazine, and the rifle's design was notably unique- simple and ergonomic, yet strangely elegant. Two high-tech arm bracers followed, fitted with small barrels for firing some sort of projectiles, and finally, a set of boots complete with miniaturized rocket boosters.

"The Vermillion Dragons." Seraph snapped his fingers and shook his head; after a brief, almost imperceptible moment of confusion, he'd swiftly returned to a curt and businesslike demeanor. "That's what your undercover team called themselves, yes? I remember this sale. And if I recall correctly…" Midoriya turned to face Iguchi, who was staring at the collection of items with wide-eyed disbelief. "You were part of the team that made the trade, Spinner."

"Y-Yeah… It was me, Shinso, and Magne."

Running one stunted hand through his hair, Spinner reached tentatively for the rocket boots with the other, only to freeze halfway through the motion when Phantasm and Amplivolt both took a step towards him in unison.

"Jesus, chill out!" Iguchi shot a frustrated glance in the pair's direction, his arms raised in the air. "I just wanted a closer look!"

"Let's treat this like a museum exhibit, yes?" Re-Destro gave Spinner an apologetic smile. "Look, but don't touch. Our technicians have removed all the devices' fuel and ammunition, and stripped out any potentially hazardous components, but one can't be too careful. Longshot is quite a talented mechanic, after all, and with Pandora's aid, almost no form of advanced technology is out of your grasp- for all we know, they could be keyed to activate some hidden protocol based on your DNA signatures."

He's actually right about that. Gentle swallowed and dabbed nonchalantly at the sheen of sweat on his forehead, struggling not to flinch or otherwise give away his surprise. Hatsume told me about it herself while we were hiding out in Okinawa- every weapon and support item the Syndicate sells comes with a built-in self-destruct program, in case our buyers ever attempt to turn them against us, or are captured by the heroes. It can be triggered by either a remote signal or a concealed physical switch keyed to our genetic codes, but there's no way to tell if they've already found that feature and bypassed it.

"Your caution is understandable," Midoriya replied, smiling softly, "and I'm sure Hatsume would be quite honored to receive such high praise from the CEO of a support item company as prolific as Detnerat. So, then." He leaned back in his chair and held out his hands expectantly. "I suppose this is when you inform us that your buyers were recording the meeting all along? Perhaps Skeptic can go ahead and queue up the video."

"As I'm sure you're well aware," Yotsubashi replied, returning an equally friendly smile in Midoriya's direction, "an artificially generated field of EM interference around the meeting site prevented them from doing so. Quite a clever security measure, but their eyewitness testimony of Spinner and Magne's presence was all we needed- confirmation that the mysterious weapons distributors and the group that had absorbed the League defectors were one and the same!"

Re-Destro snapped his fingers to signify the revelation, then chuckled and gestured toward his lieutenants.

"You should've seen Curious and Skeptic's faces when we received the report- the shock, the fascination! This was long before you revealed yourselves on the national stage, but to say that our interest in you began to grow would be a grave understatement."

"It really was a thrill." Curious let out a nostalgic sigh, resting her chin against her palm. "It's the same feeling I got whenever I made a break in a story back during my reporting days- that glorious moment when all the pieces come together, and you can finally see how everything's connected."

"I immediately reformed the team that had been watching the League, and assigned them to monitor you." Skeptic nodded in their direction, his fingers steeped and his brows furrowed. "As the Supreme Commander previously mentioned, your people are quite adept at tracking their movements, but we quickly determined the approximate location of your Nagoya headquarters, and began cataloguing a list of your members. At my direction, the Vermillion Dragons continued to purchase weapons and support items from you on a semi-regular basis, but it would still be some time before we determined how you were manufacturing them."

"And despite all this effort and attention, it would be another year and a half before you finally contacted us in Okinawa." Seraph shrugged his shoulders as he turned to face Skeptic. "If we were truly that fascinating to you, why wait?"

"Opinions on how best to proceed were deeply divided at the time." Re-Destro paused to sip at his cabernet, his expression contemplative. "Some favored contacting you immediately, to extend an offer of recruitment in recognition of your group's obvious talent- others wished to exterminate you before you could grow large enough to threaten more of our operations."

He cast another knowing glance toward Curious and Skeptic, and it didn't take a brilliant deductive mind for Gentle to guess which of them had favored which solution.

"Then, as now, I saw your potential; I knew it would be a tragic waste to stamp you out. All the same, though, it was too soon to approach you directly, given all the unknown variables involved. And thus, I made the decision to watch and wait, and see what you would become."

"And what do you think?" The corners of Midoriya's mouth turned ever so faintly upward. "Of what we've become."

Yotsubashi paused for a moment at that, choosing his words carefully as he continued.

"It's safe to say that our opinion of you has evolved considerably over time. For quite a while, we believed that your group intended to remain permanently in the shadows- building your wealth and operations, expanding from city to city, but never openly confronting the heroes and police, never displaying any sigh of an ideology aside from a desire for power and financial gain. We watched you exterminate any gangs or arms dealers who opposed you with ruthless efficiency, and observed your shadow crusade against Shigaraki and his loyalists. Your raid on his base in Kobe, for instance, was a stroke of tactical genius! Eliminating the League's strongest remaining members in a single, swift stroke, and avoiding needless casualties in the process- I was thoroughly impressed. We didn't have any agents close enough to obtain direct footage of the attack, but the aftermath speaks for itself."

Another set of images illuminated the monitor, muted news footage from the fiery explosion in Kobe that had razed a seemingly empty warehouse to the ground- originally thought to be some sort of industrial accident, it took several days for police to identify the charred remains buried amid the rubble as belonging to Muscular and Moonfish, two of the nation's most reviled fugitives. The remains of several bioengineered Nomu were uncovered as well, and in the end, the precise cause of the explosion had never been identified.

'Butchers behind Kiyashi Massacre confirmed dead in blast', the main headline read, as a helicopter-mounted camera panned across the twisted black wreckage from above, cordoned off by police tape and swarmed by officers, heroes, and forensic workers. 'Status of League of Villains ringleader still unknown'.

"I'm still proud of this one," Spinner declared, pointing at the screen. "Me and Compress were the ones who set the charges. Turns out, pointy blades and big muscles don't mean jackshit if you get incinerated in your sleep before you can use 'em."

"A sound strategy, and an excellent usage of Yaoyorozu's meta-ability- at least, I certainly imagine she was the one who provided the explosives." Re-Destro cleared the screen again with a wave of his hand, then turned back to face Seraph. "And then, just a few short months ago, the coup de grace. The death of Shigaraki Tomura, the capture of Kuorgiri- the end of the League of Villains. Such a dramatic scene, positively radiating with pathos. Your bitter rival lying broken and defeated on the floor, stripped of all his followers, all his dignity." Re-Destro settled back into his chair opposite Seraph, watching Midoriya's expression intently as he spoke. "Did it feel good, exacting your revenge on Shigaraki? Finally seizing your long-awaited payback for the way he rejected you?"

Rejected him? Gentle's eyes narrowed in confusion, and he shot a brief glance in Seraph's direction. What does that mean?

"Ah, I see you never bothered to inform your newest colleague." Meeting Tobita's gaze, Re-Destro shook his head in disappointment. "How rude! Allow me to fill you in, Gentle Criminal- while were watching the League, we noticed-"

"I met with Shigaraki, a few weeks after Hitoshi, Mei, Neito, and I first struck out on our own." Cutting Yotsubashi off midsentence, Midoriya turned to face Tobita, his mouth turned down in a slight frown. "I tried to negotiate a merger between our group and the League, but he turned me down. In hindsight, it was a foolish and impulsive decision to approach him in the first place. I apologize for not telling you sooner, but frankly, it didn't seem relevant."

"O-Of course- I understand." Struggling to form the right words as all eyes in the room landed on him, Tobita cleared his throat and continued in a calmer and steadier tone. "Shigaraki was already dead by the time I joined, and we've been quite thoroughly preoccupied since then- there were more pressing matters at hand than such a trivial fact."

"Seconded," Spinner grunted, shifting in his chair. "I was there when Tomura met with him, Toga and the others too. But that's ancient history now, so don't try and twist the facts on us, okay?" Iguchi threw a leering glance in Yotsubashi's direction.

"Hardly my intent," Re-Destro replied, holding up one hand as if to protest his innocence. "I was simply ensuring that we're all equally informed on the matter at hand. Back to my question, though." Yotsubashi turned again towards Midoriya, his brows hiked in anticipation. "How did it feel to kill Shigaraki Tomura?"

"How it felt is irrelevant." His hands steeped together atop the table, Midoriya's face was a mask of perfect calm. "What matters is that I accomplished my goal."

"And what goal was that?"

"I cleared away an obstacle. You said it yourself- Shigaraki was infuriated by his followers' defections. He would've continued to hunt them if we hadn't neutralized him."

"If that's the justification you wish to use, so be it." Re-Destro leaned back in his chair and shrugged his shoulders. "But forgive me my skepticism- Shigaraki was an unsightly nuisance, grasping at power and recognition he hadn't earned, and we owe you a debt of gratitude for your role in his death. In fact, it was after his demise that we resumed internal discussions on the prospect of formally contacting you. We were still unsure of your long-term goals as an organization, but you had proven your worth and skill a dozen times over, and many of my lieutenants were growing eager to fold your group into the Liberation Army."

"And? What stopped you this time?"

"I hardly think I need to remind you, but let's review the facts, shall we? A few recent first-editions should help jog your memory, courtesy of our dear Curious."

Reaching down beneath her chair, Curious lifted up of a stack of newspapers and spread them across the center of the table. There were four in total, arranged chronologically from right to left- the first featured a picture of a collapsed skyscraper in Osaka, smoke and dust still wafting up from the pile of shattered concrete and twisted steel. 'Tragic collapse in downtown Osaka,' the headline proclaimed, in urgent, bold characters. '#9 Hero Yoroi Musha and several sidekicks wounded, perpetrators still at large'. The second paper's front page was dominated by the school portraits of Ochako Uraraka and Todoroki Shoto, with smaller pictures of Ryukyu, Nejire Hado, Tsuyu Asui and Overhaul alongside them. 'Two U.A. students abducted by villains!' the topline shouted, with a smaller, secondary caption underneath: '#7 Hero Ryukyu, intern, and sidekick severely wounded in clash, fugitive yakuza group led by Chisaki Kai thought to be involved'.

This was the incident that occurred the same day Midoriya recruited us, Tobita mused, frowning as he thought back to the frantic headlines that had begun to dominate the news shortly after he and La Brava first met with Seraph. Despite his best efforts to brush past it, Gentle found his eyes settling on Uraraka's picture- on her cheery, innocent smile, and bright, youthful eyes. I never did approve of the way Midoriya treated that poor girl. Shoving a computer chip into her head… I wouldn't dare say it aloud, but part of me is glad Hawks managed to free her. Ashamed and conflicted, Tobita let out a quiet sigh and took a long sip of wine, doing his best to purge the thought from his head.

The third paper was dedicated to the battle at the docks in Niigata- occurring the same morning as the clash in Yokohama, the incident had received relatively light news coverage compared to the previous two, but Gentle still recalled the basics of the event. 'Multiple wanted yakuza apprehended at Niigata dockyards by Battle Fist, #3 Mirko, and #10 Lemillion', the headline read, beneath a picture of multiple plague-masked Eight Precepts members being led into quirk-suppressing iron maidens. Off to the side, a smaller image showed Kendo Itsuka and Mirio Togata giving thumbs-ups to reporters, flanked by Mirko and Sir Nighteye. The second line of the caption was likely what had drawn the Liberation Army's attention, though: 'Mystery villains sighted as well- same group as Osaka incident?'

The subject of the fourth and final newspaper's front page was almost impossible not to predict; Gentle let out a quiet sigh as his eyes roved across portraits of All Might and Hawks, centered beneath two stark, simple words: 'NATIONAL TRAGEDY'. In the lower right corner of the page, a smaller image, captured from the Syndicate's debut livestream, showed Seraph mid-speech as he issued his challenge to Hawks; Gentle quickly spotted himself in the background, his gloved hands planted on his hips as he stared defiantly at the camera. 'Symbol of Peace and #1 Hero Hawks murdered by terrorist 'Syndicate',' the headline accompanying the picture proclaimed, mincing no words when it came to describing the Black Day's perpetrators. 'Missing U.A. students revealed as leaders of criminal group.'

"Bringing back any memories?" Rising to his feet again to get a better angle on the papers, Yotsubashi flashed a smile in Seraph's direction as he made his way to their side of the table. "We can bring you a fifth one tomorrow morning, as soon as it hits the presses- it's safe to say that your little graduation assault has the national media in hysterics all over again."

"Oh?" Seraph's eyes widened in curiosity as he lowered his glass from his lips. "Do tell- unless you simply wish to keep us in suspense a while longer. You have me at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to events that transpired in the last few hours."

"I'm sure you're familiar with the details of your own plan- needless to say, it was quite a dramatic scene." Pausing just behind Seraph, Re-Destro reached out and took the second newspaper in hand, a disappointed expression on his face as he gazed down at Uraraka's picture. "What a tragedy, for instance, that a such a gifted young girl had to die in such a gruesome way. I suppose the heroes got their consolation prize, though- to think that Toga Himiko would finally be captured!"

Tobita couldn't conceal the pain, regret, and surprise that flashed across his face in rapid succession as Yotsubashi spoke, and despite the fact that Midoriya was facing away from him, Gentle had a nagging feeling that Seraph could sense his dismay all the same. I know Uravity's death was part of the plan, but what does he mean by 'gruesome'? A shiver raced up Tobita's spine, and he gulped down another sip of cabernet. Hatsume mentioned that the Baku chip could be triggered to kill its bearer almost instantly, so I presumed that it would be quick and painless. And what's this about Toga being captured? Surely that's a bluff, meant to knock Midoriya off-balance.

"Come now, Re-Destro." Seraph shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair, showing no sign of outward distress at the news. "Surely you can't expect me to defend our performance when I don't know the full circumstances. It's quite possible that we were forced to improvise, and as for Toga, I'm afraid no plan is foolproof."

"Quite the improvisation, forcing Uraraka to put a knife through her own neck. And after compelling her to use her meta-ability to murder her own teacher, no less!" Re-Destro shook his head as he set the newspaper back down, resting one hand on the back of Seraph's chair. "I can't help but wonder what Uraraka Ochako did to rouse your anger so intensely. Was it something that occurred during her captivity? Or perhaps long before then?"

"Rouse my anger?" Midoriya cracked a grin and narrowed his eyes in confusion. "I'm not sure what you mean. There was no special consideration given to her- she was an asset for the operation, nothing more. I'm also a bit puzzled when you say we 'forced' or 'compelled' her to anything. Surely she explained that she joined our cause willingly over the course of-"

"Oh, spare us the bullshit." Skeptic glanced up from his laptop and cut Seraph off midsentence, dismissing Midoriya's attempted explanation with a wave of his hand. "It's too early to tell whether the heroes bought it, but I know brainwashing when I see it. I'm not sure if you used an enhanced version of Shinso's meta-ability or some type of mind-altering chemical cocktail, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that the girl wasn't acting on her own free will."

"You seem quite confident of that," Midoriya replied, still smiling.

"I am, because I have data to back me up." Skeptic leaned forward and smirked, one eye visible through the gap in his bangs. "It took you months to win Yaoyorozu and Tokoyami over to your side, judging by the extensive gap between their abduction and their first field operations. There's zero chance you could have convinced Uraraka Ochako to murder her teacher and commit suicide in the Syndicate's name over the span of what, a week?"

"Let's put a pin in this particular point, shall we?" Re-Destro clapped his hands together and gave Skeptic a conciliatory nod. "I fear we're at risk of becoming derailed. Today's incident aside, though, we were quite confounded by this sequence of events at first." Gesturing down at the papers, Re-Destro raised his hands and widened his eyes in an exaggerated gesture of confusion. "Osaka, Yokohama, Niigata- after two years of doing everything you could to avoid the public eye, to fly beneath the heroes' radar, suddenly you were confronting them in open battle, brazenly stealing away U.A.'s star pupils from beneath the top ten's noses! Not to mention your sudden partnerships with a fugitive gang of yakuza and a notorious internet showman, neither of whom would be suited to your traditional stealth-based skillset. What could have possibly brought on such a 180-degree change in your group's operational philosophy? We were at a loss, until the Black Day."

"Oh, are you going to you play back the livestream for us?" Midoriya turned to face the monitor, an eager expression on his face. "I enjoy rewatching it every once in a while, seeing as I was preoccupied with other matters for the majority of the live broadcast."

"Yes, your assassination of All Might." Re-Destro nodded, stroking his chin. "Quite the feat, to infiltrate U.A. and bring down the Tokyo Police as you did, but I was much more captivated by your initial speech than the day's… festivities. The way you and your comrades explained your ideology piece by piece, laid bare the societal grievances and shortcomings that drove you to action- you read us your own manifesto, live on national television. And after a year of watching and wondering, I finally understood you!" Yotsubashi's eyes were shining with glee- the same zealous sheen that Tobita had seen in Midoriya's own gaze many times before. "In that moment, I knew that I had to meet you, to speak to you in person."

"You guys dropped completely off the radar after the Black Day, though, and no mystery why." Curious stretched her arms in the air and let out a yawn. "Every hero in the country was desperate for a piece of you after what you did. And while the Public Safety Commission was floundering around and holding press conferences to apologize to the public, we quietly mobilized a few thousand undercover personnel to mount our own search for you- got lucky and managed to track down your little cabin in Sapporo after a week or so. But as far as we could tell, only about half of your people were there, and we had no clue where the rest were hiding until we bumped into you in Okinawa."

"Bumped into us?" A dubious expression crossed Seraph's face. "You mean to tell me that after all the effort you put into your search, our meeting there actually was a coincidence?"

"Fate often works in strange ways," Re-Destro replied, his eyes still aglow with disquieting fervor, "and you know what they say, Seraph- great minds thing alike. Perhaps you could call our meeting the product of convergent evolution; entirely independent of each other, both our organizations decided to target the American military database at Kadena, and to place a high value on the visit of one Doctor David Shield. As for what happened next, I mentioned before that it was Mr. Skeptic's decision- tragically, I was caught up in Tokyo with official Detnerat functions that day."

"Tragic indeed, but it's comforting to hear that our fate was in the hands of someone so… charming and amicable." Midoriya gave Skeptic his friendliest smile before turning back to Re-Destro. "I am quite curious what your organization's intentions with the Doctor might have been, but I suppose it's entirely possible that you've 'forgotten' that piece of information as well."

"Just so," Yotsubashi declared with a sigh of mock disappointment. "I'm afraid you'll have to forgive me my unreliable memory, Seraph."

"Oh, of course." Midoriya nodded in understanding, then reached again for his wine glass. "Perhaps you could refresh my own memory, Skeptic- you said that your actions on Okinawa were meant to 'test our capabilities', yes? How exactly would you assess our performance?"

"…I threw you into a fairly challenging set of circumstances," Skeptic responded after a moment's pause, his concession as begrudging as ever. "The American military, two highly capable young heroes- I anticipated that at least some of you would escape, but I suppose you dealt with them all quite efficiently, with minimal injuries. I would have-"

"Minimal injuries?!"

The rage that had been building up in Tobita's chest from the moment Okinawa was mentioned suddenly boiled over all at once; before he could even process his actions, he'd slammed one of his stunted fists down onto the table and shot up to his feet, his voice rising in fury as he leveled an accusing finger at Skeptic.

"I'll have you know that your 'challenging circumstances' almost killed the woman I love! Aiba was bedridden for days, half her internal organs shredded by bullets! Perhaps this is all some sort of sick game to you, but if we didn't have Overhaul, she would've…"

Tobita trailed off, his breath escaping in ragged pants- in the blink of an eye, Phantasm had phased directly behind him, one hand pressed against his back, and by the doorway, Amplivolt had aimed his right index finger in Gentle's direction, electricity crackling around its tip.

"Sit. Down." Phantasm growled, his breath hot in Gentle's ear for the second time in as many hours. Steadily, cautiously, Tobita complied, raising both his hands in the air for good measure. On the far side of the table, Re-Destro, Skeptic, and Curious all watched and waited patiently, their expressions entirely unphased by the sudden development.

"But you do have Overhaul," Skeptic replied once Gentle had settled back into his chair, his arms crossed. "Obviously, I factored that in. Even if someone had died in the chaos, he could've revived them, assuming you made it back quickly enough."

"And what if-"

Tobita halted mid-retort when Seraph turned and laid his mechanical left hand on Gentle's arm- his expression was calm, his eyes sympathetic, yet his grip was firm and assertive. Exhaling a deep breath, Gentle nodded silently in understanding, and ran both his hands through his tangled mess of silver-white hair. Hold it in- just hold it in for now. Don't let your emotions sabotage Midoriya's plan, whatever it may be. To his other side, Spinner gave Gentle a conciliatory pat on the shoulder, and Tobita returned the gesture in kind; meanwhile, Phantasm and Amplivolt had both returned to their places after a nod of dismissal from Re-Destro.

"As I was saying," Skeptic resumed, "you responded to the test with a satisfactory level of efficiency. "The Supreme Commander was impressed by your performance, and approved my request to procure a member of your organization as leverage for the expected negotiations. The fact that we came away with two was pure chance."

"I see," Seraph replied, one hand on his chin. "How unlucky for us, then."

"Regardless of the number," Re-Destro cut in, waving his hand dismissively, "this wasn't purely a means of acquiring leverage- it was another test as well. After the Black Day, we were satisfied with your ideology and your skill at planning complex operations. After Okinawa, we were more or less satisfied with your skill at improvisation as well- at adapting to unexpected obstacles." Re-Destro was counting off on his fingers as he listed the Syndicate's strengths, up to three now. "But we still wanted to know how strong your members' internal bonds were- how you'd respond when one- or, in this case, two- of your own were abducted. We also assumed that it would be a convenient and expeditious way to summon you to us- once you arrived to negotiate their release, I would have given you this same little speech, and the real negotiations would have begun. Given all the clues, Mr. Skeptic and I were confident you could locate us within a day or two at most, but…"

Yotsubashi leaned forward and widened his eyes, grinning as he scrutinized Midoriya's expression.

"Imagine our surprise when an entire week passed in silence. And during that time, you continued with your regular operations, no less- you even launched an assault on the most heavily guarded graduation ceremony in the country! We knew that you'd found us in less than twenty-four hours- that was when we first detected La Brava's attempts to breach this building's internal security system. With that in mind, it was hard not to feel a bit insulted." Yotsubashi sighed and shook his head in disapproval, gesturing toward Gentle and Spinner's missing digits. "And I'm afraid Mr. Skeptic may have taken some of that frustration out on your poor friends. If another day or two had passed without a reply, he was considering placing Tobita and Iguchi's fingers outside of your various crime scenes and headquarters- a rather macabre gesture, but clearly we needed to do something to grab your attention."

"The headquarters they know about, at least, which ain't many of 'em." Spinner let out a raspy chuckle, a smug grin on his face. "They tried hard to break us, Boss, but we didn't talk. They didn't get jackshit from either of us."

"We know enough to cripple your organization if we need to," Skeptic shot back, one vein on his temple bulging visibly as he brushed a hand through his bangs. "The interrogations served a different purpose. Rather than gloating about how well you endured them, I'd think about asking your 'Boss' why he left you to rot for seven days when he knew exactly where you were after just one."

A frown spread reflexively across Tobita's face at that, and doubts began to gnaw anew at his chest- the same doubts that had plagued him for much of his captivity. Midoriya's not denying it- he did know, and he chose to leave us here all this time. But it must have been part of some strategy, yes? I'm sure there was a good reason he waited- there must have been. To his left, even Spinner looked somewhat discouraged by Skeptic's words; when Midoriya turned to face them a few moments later, his sympathetic expression indicated that he was well aware of their concerns.

"Rest assured, gentlemen- when La Brava discovered your location, we all wanted to free you as soon as possible, but it would have been a disservice to both of you to rush blindly into the enemies' hands without first carefully assessing the situation." Seraph gestured towards Re-Destro, his smirk slowly returning. "At the time, still unfamiliar with the intentions of our gracious host, Pandora and I feared that this could all be a trap, a means of luring me or the other Founders into the enemy stronghold to trap us or dispose of us. Even in the best-case scenario- assuming that your captors were willing to negotiate in good faith- it was obvious that they intended to use you as leverage. If they attempted to impose unreasonable demands on us and we refused, your lives would be in considerable danger."

Spinner nodded in understanding, and Gentle found himself somewhat reassured as well. Yes, of course- I have to think about it from their perspective. He's right, after all- they did admit that they wanted Seraph to follow us here.

"With all those factors in mind, the Founders decided unanimously to attempt a covert rescue operation before making any overtures toward diplomacy. If we could free you and remove the Liberation Army's leverage, the Syndicate would be in a much stronger position for any negotiations, and you would both be safe from harm. And to properly carry out such a delicate operation, we needed both time to plan and a sufficient distraction to draw our foes' attention on the day of the operation- our assault on the U.A. commencement ceremony seemed perfect for the role."

"All that waiting and planning, and where did it get you?" Skeptic's perpetual scowl had turned back to a haughty grin. "You changed nothing. In the end, you're still here, and we still have both of them."

Midoriya widened his own smile and leaned back in his chair.

"What can I say? It was worth a try. And thanks to Chaudron, I can now speak freely with you for as long as necessary, while the other 'me' continues to carry out the Syndicate's business. It's not exactly ideal, but it's a satisfactory arrangement."

"I'm inclined to agree," Re-Destro chimed in, sipping one more at his wine. "Copy and Double- such a frightfully potent combination of meta-abilities, given Monoma's lack of the mental block that seems to shackle Bubaigawara! If someone more bloodthirsty- someone like Shigaraki, for instance- had his hands on the Syndicate's wheel, those two alone could have swept through this tower with an infinite horde of fighters, overwhelmed our forces through sheer numbers and struck a crippling blow to our operations. Then there's Longshot, prodigal inventor and flawless marksman from five kilometers' distance. Carmilla, the perfect infiltrator and assassin, endowed with a natural talent for stealth in addition to her Metamorphosis. Synapse, a peerless counterintelligence agent, able to turn even the most loyal devotee of one's enemies into a mindless puppet."

As Yotsubashi spoke, the faces of the Syndicate members he referenced began to flash across the screen of the monitor, followed by a litany of details and statistics ranging from their birthday and blood type to their weaknesses in combat. 'Engage in close-quarters or melee if possible,' Shinso's entry read. 'Speak to Synapse under no circumstances, and avoid eye contact if possible- suspected to possess secondary visual activation upgrades.'

"And of course, let us not forget our dear Pandora, the true identity of the 'factory' we once believed you to possess." Re-Destro let out a subdued chuckle as Yaoyorozu's image filled the screen, then glanced back at Curious. "She was quite the thorn in your side today, yes? As I recall, you've taken a particular interest in her."

"Pandora provided me with a wonderfully compelling challenge," Curious replied, grinning as she touched a hand to the bandages covering her left cheek. "The pampered rich girl-turned-revolutionary, with a genius mind and a meta-ability that could bring a nation to its knees. More than anyone else in the Syndicate, my instincts are telling me that she's hiding the story of a lifetime underneath that prim and proper exterior." Chitose sipped at her wine, then let out a longing sigh. "It's such a shame that I wasn't able to spend more time talking with her today, but then again… I'm confident I'll get the chance sooner or later."

Curious shot a wink toward Seraph, and Gentle felt a chill race up his spine. She may be quite adept at laying on the charm, but she's just as bloodthirsty as the others when the chips are down. I do hope Midoriya doesn't underestimate her.

"A fascinating girl indeed," Re-Destro concurred, nodding, "endowed with one of the most powerful and versatile meta-abilities we've ever encountered. And just the same as Monoma and Twice, I daresay she could have destroyed this building- this entire city- if she so wished. I'm sure the thought has crossed your mind more than once." Yotsubashi fixed his gaze on Midoriya, narrowing his eyes. "The dreadful things she could create, given the order. A few grams of the right molecule, placed in the proper mechanism, and she could become a goddess of destruction- the most dangerous woman in the world."

Silence reigned for several long moments- Gentle felt another cold bead of sweat trace its way down his temple as the images conjured by Re-Destro's description flashed through his mind. No, Pandora would never condone such a usage of her quirk. He shook his head, banishing the thought from his mind. At the end of the day, she's doing this all for a higher cause, not for the sake of wanton destruction.

"But like the Syndicate itself, it's not merely her raw capabilities that have drawn our attention. She possesses convictions, a concrete philosophy, a clear-headed view of the failures of the current system- the same failures Destro sought to rectify, which we will right in his stead."

Re-Destro paused and took a deep breath, his smile fading as his expression grew serious, his tone sincere.

"Once, we believed you to be little more than reckless children, wielding unearned power in furtherance of petty vengeance and greed. You have proven us wrong. But all the same, I would like for you to tell me in your own words, Seraph. What future does the Syndicate wish to create? What world would you build, given the opportunity?"

Another tense silence followed; Tobita found himself unable to tear his gaze away from Midoriya's face as his brows furrowed in silent contemplation. It was difficult to determine exactly how many seconds ticked away, but Seraph's clear and confident voice seemed to echo through the room when he finally spoke.

"All men are not created equal. I learned that lesson a long time ago, but for many years afterward, I refused to truly accept it. I did my best to play by the rules of the flawed system laid out before me, naively hoping that if I only tried hard enough, society would reward me for my efforts alone. I believed with fervent passion that once the world saw my worth, they would do the right thing, the 'fair' thing, and elevate me from my miserable, mundane existence to the life of a hero, the life I deserved, that I'd earned. I wanted it so badly, yearned for it with every fiber of my being- surely, if I could make them recognize that, it would be enough, yes?"

For a brief moment, something resembling genuine pain and frustration seeped into Midoriya's voice, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. It was the first time Tobita had seen him speak with so much candor and emotion since the Black Day; with each sentence, he felt himself listening all the more intently.

"But it wasn't," Midoriya continued, exhaling in amusement and exasperation. "I was rejected by those I admired, my lifetime of dedication scorned and dismissed. Soon after, I had an epiphany: If the current system refuses to give me the respect and status that I know I deserve, if it attempts to turn me away, then the only logical option that remains is to change the system- to take that status by force, and demonstrate firsthand the flawed nature of the current set of rules. Over time, I encountered many who felt the same as I did- men and women who had been rejected by the same system that had spurned me, tossed aside or exploited." Seraph nodded towards Spinner, then gestured at Yaoyorozu's image on the screen. "Others, like Pandora, were able to live comfortably within the existing structure, but recognized the urgent need for change all the same. In the end, we all share the same aspiration: the desire for change by any means necessary."

By any means necessary. Tobita felt his eyes widen instinctively as Midoriya paused to take a breath, his heart pointing feverishly in his chest. Is that truly my desire?

Despite his best efforts to concentrate on the matter at hand, Midoriya's talk of rejection and despair had dredged up memories of a past Tobita preferred to keep submerged deep beneath the surface; familiar sights and sensations flooded through his mind, each one stabbing at his heart like a dagger.

The bus rides home from his failed Provisional License Exams. One, two, three, four. Sitting alone at the back of the room while his classmates celebrated their achievement. 'Takeshita,' they chanted, lifting the boy up on their shoulders in recognition of his perfect score. 'Takeshita! Takeshita!'

The sickening thud of the window cleaner's body as it hit the pavement, a crescendo of snapping bones followed by a piercing cry of pain when his platform came down on top of him. The silent, horrified gazes of the other bystanders, boring through the back of his head, then the rough hands of the paramedics, shoving him aside to rush to the man's aid. 'Obstruction of official hero duties', the police officer declared, his hands planted on his hips. His eyes, full of contempt and disgust as he shoved Tobita into the back of his patrol car, in full view of the jeering crowd.

The sharp smack of the TV remote against the back of his head, flung from his mother's hand as her shrill screams overlapped with his father's deeper shouting. Ten minutes to pack his bags, they'd given him. Couldn't take it anymore, they said. Failure, failure, failure.

Takeshita's confused expression, his gaze devoid of any semblance of recognition. 'Uh, who are you again?'

Before he knew it, tears were beginning to well in the corners of his eyes, but Tobita blinked them away, forcing his attention back to Midoriya. The same, hm? I suspected, but I never realized that he-

"The Syndicate is the embodiment of that shared dream." Seraph declared, his arms outstretched as his clear, confident voice cut through Gentle's scattered thoughts. "For two years, we hid ourselves, amassed power, talent, and wealth, all in preparation for the events currently unfolding before your eyes. Piece by piece, we have begun to dismantle the decaying pillars of the current structure, to tear down the festering, corrupt foundation of hero worship that has poisoned this country for centuries."

Now, Seraph's words had grown more familiar- memories of their public debut beneath the cherry blossoms in Shikoku flashed to the forefront of Tobita's mind, of watching Midoriya and the other Founders with a sense of awe as they explained the fatal flaws of a hero-obsessed society in concise yet eloquent terms. Clips from their livestream had circulated the net extensively in the days afterward, before government censors blocked a majority of them- as Tobita recalled, Pandora's speech had been the next most popular behind Seraph's main address, garnering over ten million views and endowing her with a devoted group of primarily young male fans. A popular meme making the rounds in the days after the attack had referenced Yaoyorozu's more feminine assets as supposed proof of the Syndicate's superiority.

"I know you of all people need no reminder," Seraph continued, nodding towards Re-Destro, "but our laws, customs, traditions- the government uses all of these artificial constructs to direct the actions of populace, to ensure their continued dominance. Under their ever-watchful eyes, they permit this society to develop only along the paths they desire, and quickly stifle any dissenting voices. Thanks to them, we remain trapped in a state of decadent stagnancy- 'villains', they label those who would seek change, while the upholders are the status quo are 'heroes'." Midoriya stifled a laugh, and wiped a stray tear of amusement from the corner of his eye. "Social engineering at its most simple! What upstanding citizen could possibly speak out against the government when its agents are portrayed as pure and uncorruptible paragons of virtue? The most cunning and devious achievement of our current leaders was to convince the people that the world is black and white. The Syndicate exists in shades of grey."

Across the table, Re-Destro nodded quietly in understanding, though his expression remained inscrutable. Maintaining a respectful silence, he took a sip of wine as Seraph let out a sigh and paused to collect his thoughts.

"Of course, the structure was already crumbling well before we arrived- teetering at the edge of collapse. All we've done is help the process along, accelerate the inevitable. You heard as much from Pandora, in her address on the economy- this country was just years away from financial ruin well before the Syndicate took to the stage." Midoriya narrowed his eyes and smiled. "Think of us as agents of entropy, rather than its masters."

Something in Midoriya's tone sent another chill down Gentle's spine; whether he was feeling fear or reverence or something else entirely, it was difficult to say.

"And once the demolition is complete, the time will come to rebuild. Men are not born equal, but we intend to create a future where all are granted equality in the only possible sense- equality of opportunity. A future in which each individual will possess an absolute right to shape their lives as they see fit, without the stifling laws and restrictions that the government uses to keep the populace docile and malleable. Without the bloated institution of 'heroes', stifling and suffocating every aspect of our society. If one wishes to improve their life, to raise their standing, to gain more wealth, they will be free to achieve this goal through their own ability and intelligence, by any means necessary. No laws will hold them back, no traditions will dampen their ambitions. Over time, the strongest, smartest, and most capable individuals will rise naturally to the top, and in place of the corruption and nepotism that infects our institutions now, we will have a meritocracy in the truest meaning of the word."

Silenced filled the room once again, and all eyes fell once more to Re-Destro, both sides awaiting his response with bated breath. Yotsubashi's hands were steeped together atop the table, his face locked in deep contemplation; after a few more moments of maddening tension, he began to speak, his eyes growing misty.

"It's a beautiful dream- truly. And not at all incompatible with our own vision of Liberation, either. The Syndicate's philosophy, your raw prowess, your technical skill… in spite of your transgression earlier this afternoon, you've proven that your organization is nothing short of admirable." Rising again from his chair, Re-Destro straightened his tie and clasped his hands behind his back. "In my capacity as Supreme Commander, I would like to extend a formal invitation for the Syndicate to join the Meta Liberation Army."

Gentle felt his mouth fall open in shock, and at his side, Spinner seemed equally flabbergasted. Next to Re-Destro, Skeptic's face had flushed red with indignation, his hands balled into fists as he struggled to keep himself from protesting; Curious, by contrast, looked genuinely intrigued. Seraph's expression, though, was still sculpted from stone: calm, cold, and immutable. When he finally replied a few moments later, it was with a single word.

"But?"

Yotsubashi let out a soft chuckle, followed by long sigh. A sympathetic smile spread across his face, his brows furrowing.

"But indeed. You're correct to assume that there are conditions to my offer. Given your familiarity with Destro's writings, I'm sure you're well-aware of Chapter Five, Section Two." Re-Destro took a moment to clear this throat, then began to recite the verse in question. His tone was charged with respect and piety, like a preacher reading from a holy book.

"The meta-less are deserving of our pity, not our scorn. They see the wave of change sweeping across humanity, and in their hearts, they know that they are a dying breed, destined to be replaced by our superior kind. They lash out at us only because they fear the inevitable. But do not allow your heart to be darkened by those who call for their extermination, as they have sought to exterminate us. Natural selection shall ease them quietly and steadily into the annals of history, just as it wiped away the Neanderthal to give rise to the Homo Sapiens. Until that time comes, though, they must not be allowed to steer this nation back into the past, nor can they help lead the charge for Liberation. It is our responsibility to our brethren, both living and yet unborn, to remove the meta-less from positions of power- peacefully if possible, forcibly if necessary."

Another stretch of silence followed- Gentle was unable to tear his eyes away from Seraph, his heart pounding in his chest. From what I've gleaned, his quirklessness is a rather personal subject for him- I've certainly done my best never to mention it. But as grave an insult as this is, he wouldn't lose his temper now, not after making it this far.

"I assure you, I have nothing but respect for your leadership," Re-Destro gestured in Seraph's direction with his wine glass, shaking his head in apparent regret. "You've done a splendid job guiding the Syndicate this far, in spite of your… disability. But if your organization is to join with our cause, then I'm afraid we must insist that you step down from your position."

Fear began to rear up in Gentle's mind as Re-Destro's words echoed in his ears, in place of the shock and elation that had filled it moments earlier- fear that he might be tied back in a chair for more interrogations within the hour, depending on Midoriya's emotional state. His life, Spinner's, the future of the Syndicate; everything hung on their leader's response. A solitary bead of sweat traced its way down the bridge of Gentle's broken nose, hanging for a moment at the tip before dropping down to the table.

Midoriya, for his part, lifted his wine glass to his lips and took a slow, steady, sip. He showed no outwards signs of anger in response to Yotsubashi's demand- his breathing was steady, his expression calm, his eyes bored rather than enraged.

"Well, I can't say I didn't expect as much." Seraph lifted his gaze back up to Re-Destro and smiled. His voice was colored with a slight tinge of disappointment, but none of the wrath and fury Gentle had worried he might display. "Asking you to break free from the century-old dogma shackled about your ankles for my sake alone would be quite a tall order, after all. Do go on, though- how exactly do you envision a pitiable Neanderthal such as myself fitting into your vision? Mopping Detnerat's floors as part of the custodial staff, perhaps?"

"Destro's words are indeed rather harsh," Re-Destro conceded with a sigh, "but entirely understandable, given the time he was living in. Do not confuse us with the short-sighted fools who denied you the life you aspired to, though- I know talent and passion when I see it, even in a meta-less body." Yotsubashi perched a hand on his chin, deep in thought for a few brief moments. If he'd been offended by Midoriya's negative characterization of Destro's philosophy, it didn't show.

"Cede control over to the Syndicate to one of your advisors- Pandora or Synapse, perhaps- to lead the organization during the transition process. In recognition of your skill and intellect, I'm willing to offer you a position as a tactical advisor once the Syndicate has been fully integrated into the Meta Liberation Army. A full twenty percent of the population remains meta-less; you could play a key role in our outreach to that demographic after the Liberation Revolution."

"And what exactly would our 'full integration' entail?" Midoriya set down his glass and gestured toward Gentle and Spinner. "Not more severed fingers and broken bones, I hope."

"Heavens, no!" Re-Destro looked genuinely aghast, holding a hand to his chest in dismay. "You would be full-fledged members of our cause, not potential enemy agents. After a transition period to familiarize your members with our procedures and ideology, they would be distributed among our various operations groups according to their areas of expertise. Longshot and Pandora, for instance, would excel at Detnerat's R&D division, where we'd give them free rein to design and build anything they desire. La Brava would likely be partnered with Skeptic on our propaganda team, while Synapse would be perfect for the espionage division, and so on. All of your members' meta-powers would be put to good use, I assure you, and they would have plentiful opportunities to rise up in our ranks."

"Not an unreasonable proposal, but they've spent the past two years operating as a team, learning to complement each other's weaknesses and strengths." Midoriya frowned, crossing his arms. "Their effectiveness would likely be significantly decreased if you broke them apart and scattered them across the entirety of your army."

"The specifics of the transition are all up for negotiation, of course." Re-Destro narrowed his eyes and grinned. "I'm sure there are a few additional incentives you could offer us if you wish to keep your team intact. But before we get into the finer details, I'd like to clarify- in order to progress this discussion any further, you'll need to confirm your willingness to join us. I have no intention of spending the next few days haggling, only to be rebuffed in the end. There are also several lines in the sand which we won't be willing to cross."

Yotsubashi leaned forward across the table, supporting himself with one hand as he held up three fingers with the other.

"First, you must step down from your position, as I explained- I'm afraid Destro's word is non-negotiable. Second, when the time comes for us to reveal ourselves, the next Syndicate leader must make a public declaration of loyalty to the Meta Liberation Army. And third, you must turn your remaining facilities and resources over to our control, including all hard drives and weaponry- we can't have new members maintaining their own secret hideaways and armories."

Seraph nodded silently, clearly lost in thought as well, then clapped his hands together and tilted his head slightly to one side.

"And, hypothetically speaking, what would result if I were to refuse your exceptionally generous offer?"

Re-Destro let out a long sigh, running a hand along his temple. Beneath his bony fingertips, Yotsubashi's shadowy birthmark danced ominously across his forehead for a few brief moments, only to recede just as quickly as he replied.

"War, I'm afraid. If the Syndicate won't join us, then I'm afraid its destruction would be the only option." Once again, Re-Destro had put on his most sympathetic smile, shrugging his shoulders in disappointment. "Co-existence might have been an option before the Black Day, but you've become far too well known to the public since then- enough to be a rival, if you refuse to be our ally. The Syndicate would become martyrs, noble sacrifices paving our rise to power. The fighting would be fierce, and after today's events, I have no doubt that our losses would be great, but the leader of the revolution to remake this twisted society must bear Destro's name. I truly hope things don't come to that, Seraph, but if you don't consent to my terms, I'll be left with no choice."

"Ah, well if you had no choice, you could hardly be blamed, no?" Midoriya responded to Yotsubashi's faux disappointment with faux pity of his own, his expression a perfect picture of empathy. "But something's become quite clear to me as I listened to you pontificate. From the moment you sat us down, you've gone to great lengths to convince us that you possess all the leverage all this situation. All those videos you showed us, the tapped audio from Toga and Mirko, the rather unsubtle implications that you're watching our members and facilities…"

Still mimicking Re-Destro's tone and body language, Seraph ran a hand along his own forehead and matched Yotsubashi's disappointed shrug.

"While impressive, it's been a fairly transparent effort to demonstrate the strength and capabilities of your surveillance branch- to create the impression that your army can see all and hear all, that your forces could wipe out the Syndicate at the drop of a pin if you gave the word. But let's be honest with each other- would it really be that easy?"

Midoriya leaned forward, a soft grin on his lips as he locked eyes with Yotsubashi.

"Let's not insult each other's intelligence, Re-Destro. You've praised my tactical mind quite a few times now- do you think the real Seraph would be stupid enough not to have contingency plans in place, in the event of an all-out conflict? Do you truly doubt that I've made preparations for a counterattack? You let us track you to this town, to this building, all but told us that Detnerat and Feel Good Inc. were your front companies. You're even aware of La Brava's attempts to breach your systems, and yet you still seem to believe you have the clear upper hand."

For a moment, it looked as if Midoriya were restraining himself from laughing, his eyes practically shining with amusement as he combed his fingers through his green-black curls. Now, as before, Tobita was transfixed by the sight- his body was frozen in place, and his eyes adamantly refused to glance to the left and ascertain their rivals' reactions. Soaking in the tense silence with visible, cathartic amusement, Seraph leaned back in his chair and took a painstakingly slow sip of wine before continuing.

"Well, allow me to correct that assumption. We've had anonymous packages ready to deliver to major news outlets and hero agencies for several days now, filled to the brim with hard evidence on the existence and activities of your little secret society. I doubt your troops would be capable of hunting down and destroying the Syndicate while your headquarters are being swarmed by Best Jeanist and Gang Orca, Battle Fist and Mirko. If just three of my operatives were able to cause all this chaos, how do you think you'd fare against a few dozen of the country's strongest heroes?"

Pausing to let out an exaggerated sigh, Seraph shook his head and gestured to the room's walls and windows.

"The Syndicate may not be able to touch you directly, thanks to this lovely little interference field you've created, but we could topple the rest of your empire in a day, if necessary, and no number of spies or tapped phones or veiled threats could stop us. No matter how many soldiers you threw at us amid the chaos, no matter how many of our bases you raided, you'd never be able to finish the job- not as long as we have Kurogiri, a guaranteed escape route from anywhere in the world. So please, my esteemed Supreme Commander…" Midoriya spread out his arms, his palms upturned. "I'm all for negotiating, but don't pretend to have us cornered."

Rather than respond right away, Re-Destro began to pace back toward the windows. On the horizon, the sun was beginning to set, its dull red disk sinking back behind the low mountains that surrounded Deika City, and the scattered clouds in the sky above had been illuminated by a brilliant gold-orange glow.

"Do you play poker, Seraph?" Yotsubashi turned back to face the table with an affable smile; his Stress mark had spread across half of his forehead, but its progress seemed to be steadily receding. "If you don't, you should certainly give it a try! You have a natural talent for bluffing."

Midoriya exhaled in wordless amusement, his arms crossed as he cocked one eyebrow.

"But let's play along for a moment, shall we?" Re-Destro shrugged, his palms upturned. "Let's assume you have the information you say you do, ready to distribute, and that we wouldn't be able to intercept it. Perhaps La Brava did get the best of our firewalls without Mr. Skeptic's knowledge- perhaps you've managed to capture some concrete proof of our more underhanded dealings, in spite of the litany of precautionary measures we take to ensure that they can never be traced back to any of our respective companies. The simple, inescapable fact of the matter is, you've had a week to make contingency plans against us, but we've had over a century to make contingency plans against the heroes."

Skeptic nodded wordlessly, a smirk on his face, and Curious' expression seemed quite confident as well; Seraph, for his part, was still listening attentively.

"In addition," Yotsubashi continued, holding up one finger, "you seem to have forgotten the most important advantage we possess over the Syndicate- setting aside our sheer numbers, our two hostages, our dozens of covert facilities, we're upstanding private citizens, perfectly legitimate businessmen! Each of the three of us at this table has an army of corporate lawyers at their beck and call, ready to drown the Public Safety Commission in lengthy legal proceedings at a moment's notice should the heroes come knocking. Fugitives such as yourself lead a much more precarious existence, by comparison. You've already proven your guilt in the public eye, forfeit your personal rights! The police, the heroes, the Commission- they all want you dead, no matter what platitudes they spout about arresting you and bringing you to justice. You've slaughtered and crippled their officers and pros, made fools of them on a national stage. Give them the chance, and they'll gun you down like dogs. But myself, Curious, Skeptic…"

Re-Destro placed a hand on each of his lieutenants' shoulders, beaming with pride. They, in turn, were watching him with reverent expressions, like churchgoers listening to a sermon- it was the same pious fervor Gentle had seen in the other Syndicate Founders' eyes many times before, whenever Seraph addressed the group.

"We contribute to this country's economy, provide thousands of jobs! Detnerat's board of shareholders alone includes two dozen top luminaries from across the support item industry, all of them tightly connected to the Safety Commission and top hero agencies, and our team of lobbyists in Tokyo is second to none. Layers upon layers of redundant support systems insulate us from any direct action by the heroes, and our informants are well-placed to alert us if those measures should fail. Money talks, Seraph, and legitimate money earned through legitimate business has a much louder voice than the pile of black-market cash you've accumulated."

Seemingly exhausted by his lengthy rebuttal, Yotsubashi closed his eyes and rubbed at the bridge of his prominent, pointed nose. Opening them again a moment later, he held a hand up in Seraph's direction.

"You no doubt have a well-thought-out response ready and waiting- I'm sure that the two of us alone could continue this back and forth for hours. But before we waste the evening away trying to poke holes in each other's strategies, let me ask you again, Midoriya Izuku. Are you at all inclined to agree to my preliminary terms? Are you willing to consider stepping down from your position, so that the Syndicate may join our righteous cause? Or will you choose more bloodshed, more violence?"

"You said yourself that we have all the time in the world, yes?" Seraph's reply was almost immediate, his expression still bemused. "So why the rush? Surely it wouldn't be unreasonable of me to request some time to think on the matter, given how serious the consequences of my decision will be."

"Not at all!" Re-Destro glanced back at the windows; the sun was almost fully beneath the horizon now. A light purple tinge was beginning to set in across the eastern half of the sky, and the moon had already risen, a faint silver crescent shining down on the city. "Why don't you sleep on it? We can reconvene tomorrow morning. Each of the three of you will be provided with your own bedroom, and while we can't promise you free rein of the building or access to the outside world, you won't be subjected to any physical restraint or discomfort."

Gentle's could feel his heart swelling at the prospect of sleeping on a real bed again; relief washed over his body like a wave. It's not the freedom I hoped for, but it's a start, I suppose.

"Before we adjourn, though," Midoriya replied, cutting Tobita's internal celebration short, "something rather important occurred to me as you were speaking. It's because of my quirkless- my meta-less nature that I wouldn't be able to retain my position of leadership, yes?"

"That's correct," Re-Destro answered, a somewhat puzzled expression on his face. "It's quite regrettable that your genes dealt you such a cruel hand, but fate is often-"

"And what if I did have a meta-ability?"

Seraph's grin faded, and his eyes narrowed.

"What if I told you that given a bit more time, I- the real me, that is- could obtain one?"

Shocked silence fell across the room like the blow of a hammer, and once again, Gentle felt his jaw slacken, his brows furrowing in confusion. This time, not even Re-Destro could keep the surprise from his face, though Curious was the first to reply.

"That's… you can't be serious." Kizuki shook her head, one hand covering her mouth as her black and green eyes bulged in disbelief. "Obtaining a meta-ability… you're talking about…"

"All For One," Yotsubashi finished, the shock slowly fading from his expression as understanding took its place. "That's what you're referring to, yes? The sole power in the world capable of granting abilities to the meta-less."

"The one and only," Midoriya replied, nodding. "Locked away in Tartarus, deep beneath the waves. And, if your information on today's events is accurate, the woman I love will be whisked away to the very same place within a matter of days. Several close associates of my esteemed colleague Overhaul are even there already! Quite the twist of fate, don't you think?"

"And what exactly are you proposing?" Skeptic leaned forward and slammed his palms down against the table, one bloodshot eye twitching. "That we help you stage a breakout from the nation's highest-security prison, then sit back and watch while you ask one of history's worst dictators to give you the most dangerous meta-ability ever recorded?!"

"No, not exactly. While appreciated, your help wouldn't necessarily be required. I'm confident that the Syndicate can breach Tartarus on our own; we've been planning it for some time now, after all."

Gentle's eyes widened once again, and his lips turned in a slight frown; he certainly hadn't been privy to any such plans- nor had Spinner, judging from his own stunned expression- but it was no secret among the ranks of the Syndicate that the Founders kept some details of their future designs to themselves. A prison break from the lowest pit of hell… now that would be the stunt of a lifetime, if we can pull it off. Across the table, Yotsubashi was listening intently, his interest clearly piqued.

"Frankly," Midoriya continued, his hands clasped together, "it's my intention to kill All For One, not to take his power. But, if circumstances dictate that I acquire a meta-ability, it would be a relatively simple matter for Synapse to force him to grant me one. And for the record, I have no interest in taking his inborn ability, even if he could transfer it- one of the many lesser powers he's collected would do."

Skeptic scoffed in reply, his mouth twisted in a sneer.

"Even if you're not bluffing, which you are, and even if that plan had a chance at working, which it doesn't, you'd be exploiting a stolen power, a meta-ability torn forcibly from its user by All For One."

"I would be liberating one of the countless meta-abilities stolen during his reign," Seraph countered, his brows knit together and his mouth set in a hard line. "Avenging one of All For One's countless innocent victims, and respecting their sacrifice by putting their power to good use rather than letting it go to waste. And once it's done, we can do whatever we wish with the tyrant himself- judging by our discussion up until now, though, I think it's clear that our intentions for him would align."

Skeptic opened his mouth to offer another objection, but Re-Destro silenced him with a wave of his hand. Yotsubashi's eyes were deep in thought, and when he spoke up in reply, his tone was careful and deliberate.

"You have given me… a great deal to contemplate, Seraph. And like you, I find myself in need of more time to weigh my options." Glancing back at Midoriya, Yotsubashi exhaled briskly and broke into an earnest grin. "I had high hopes for this meeting, and I daresay you've exceeded them. As I said, we'll adjourn for now, but I'm very much looking forward to continuing this conversation." Leaning forward, Re-Destro reached his hand across the table. "It's been a pleasure."

Smiling once more, Midoriya returned the gesture in kind, and the two men exchanged a firm, cordial handshake.

"The pleasure's all mine."


Present Day

Syndicate Headquarters, Nagoya

"And that's the last of it," Midoriya declared, letting out a long sigh of relief.

Following an exhausting, marathon viewing session that had stretched from around 5:00AM- shortly after their return from Yokohama- well into the afternoon, Seraph and the other Founders had finally finished watching the footage sent to their private email sever by the Liberation Army, a thorough recording of the three long days of secret negotiations carried out by Midoriya's double. The final, written agreement reached by the two parties was nearly thirty pages in length, and Re-Destro had given the Syndicate's leadership forty-eight hours to acknowledge and agree to the terms. Once that was done, both groups would attend an in-person signing ceremony at a neutral site, at which point Gentle and Spinner would at last be free to return.

To Pandora's chagrin, the attack on their base in Yokohama had simply been one part of the settlement. Re-Destro had adamantly demanded recompense for the Syndicate's bloody assault on the Liberation Army's Deika headquarters, and after a spirited, thorough discussion, Seraph's double had named their base in Yokohama as a sacrificial offering in the name of a lasting peace, with the additional concession that the Syndicate would not attack the incursion team once they decided to withdraw, just as Re-Destro had allowed Pandora, Chaudron, and Setsuno to leave Deika peacefully.

"I certainly hope that's the last of it," Yaoyorozu declared, rubbing at the newfound dark circles beneath her eyes. "We're already going to be giving up more than enough, assuming we actually go through with this- I don't need any more unpleasant surprises."

"So, are we?" Shinso sipped at a steaming mug of coffee, his seventh of the day. "Going through with this? I know the Tartarus operation was already on the table, Izuku, but using my Brainwashing on All For One? Forcing him to give you a quirk? I have no idea if it would work, but it sounds like an easy way to get us all killed if it goes wrong."

"And all for what?" Monoma cut in, his arms crossed and his brows furrowed in anger. "So we can play second fiddle to their 'Liberation' routine, join their army and bend the knee to Re-Destro? I don't know why we're considering this in the first place, Izuku. My apologies to La Brava and Twice, but we have no choice but to reject the offer- their threats of destruction are a bluff, and we can recover from the loss of Gentle and Spinner. We'll relocate to new facilities, leak all our information on the MLA, and watch as the heroes tear their 'army' apart. They won't be able to touch us, mark my words."

"That's my decision to make." Seraph countered, his tone tinged with annoyance as he locked eyes with Monoma. "Please, Neito- as much as I value your input, don't presume to make it for me. I thought you would have learned not to underestimate these people after Deika and Yokohama, but I can see that the lesson still hasn't fully set in."

Midoriya rose to his feet and ran his hands through his hair, yawning as he gazed down on the bustling city streets outside the penthouse office's windows. His own mug of coffee had run dry some time ago, and fatigue was threatening to settle in- nothing that a few Boosters from Pandora couldn't fix, though, Yaoyorozu's custom-designed patches of slow-release stimulants. I can't afford to sleep now- we have a busy day ahead.

"While they wouldn't be able destroy us," Seraph continued, shaking his head in frustration, "it's likely that they could do a great deal of damage to our operations. Our weapons sales would dry up, our missions would be harassed and disrupted at every opportunity, any data they collect on us would be leaked to their undercover operatives among the heroes, and lest we forget, they've developed countermeasures to Kurogiri's quirk as well; if full-scale war broke out, I have no doubt that they'd deliver the technology to the Public Safety Commission on a silver platter to spite us. And just as they can't fully destroy us, it's safe to say that we can't fully destroy them either."

Chaudron bristled, seemingly offended at the suggestion, and scoffed silently in reply; Seraph grinned in amusement as he settled back into his chair, perching a hand on his chin.

"Oh, you think we can? Do tell then, Neito, how exactly you'd picture a group of twenty-odd people defeating an army of over 100,000, equipped with highly advanced surveillance infrastructure and an arsenal of combat support items that dwarfs our own by comparison. Say we do leak all our info on them, say their legal defenses fail and their front companies are shut down."

Midoriya shrugged his shoulders, then leaned forward and narrowed his eyes.

"Do you think a man like Re-Destro doesn't have a dozen different escape routes already planned out for himself and his inner circle? Do you think they keep a single list of all their members sitting in a file on their main server, waiting for La Brava or the heroes to breach it? And that tower in Deika, the one we failed to infiltrate undetected, do you think it's their only facility? With tens of thousands of operatives spread across the country, do you have any idea how many hidden sites they must maintain, none of which we've managed to find? I'm far from enthusiastic about the terms they've laid out, but we can't forget that rejecting their offer would mean launching ourselves into an endless guerilla war."

"So what, we're supposed to just lay down and accept everything they've done to us?" Monoma made no attempt to hide the contempt in his voice as he replied, gesturing across the table at Pandora and Longshot. "Just a few hours ago, they mutilated Hatsume, nearly killed Yaoyorozu and Kamakiri. Are we to take that in stride?"

"To be honest," Mei cut in with a shrug and a grin, "it's not that big of a deal, Neito. Sure, they cut my forehead up a bit, but Overhaul fixed it in what, five seconds?" She rubbed at the spot where the wound had healed as a demonstration, then leaned forward, her golden eyes wide with anticipation. "And come to think of it, I'd really love a chance to see what Detnerat's R&D lab is like. Before we ditched U.A., they were one of my top choices for work after high school, and now that I know they're into the same shady shit we are?" Hatsume leaned over and pressed a kiss onto Shinso's cheek, giggling at his deadpan expression. "As long as I have you guys with me, and I get to build what I want, it doesn't matter if I'm working here or in Deika."

"I'm not entirely happy with the way this morning's… 'concession' was handled," Yaoyorozu added, a frown crossing her features as she paused to sip at her tea. "But looking at the bigger picture, there would be numerous tangible benefits to working with an organization as large and well-established as the Liberation Army. Some of their tactics are rather problematic, but adding their resources to our own would raise our chances of successfully reforming this society's flaws by a significant degree."

"You can't be serious," Chaudron protested, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. Monoma's cheeks had flushed red with anger, and his voice was rising in volume. "You're actually considering this?! How can any of you possibly-"

"Neito," Synapse interjected, his eyes wide with surprise and indignation. "What the hell has gotten into you? They told you why they're considering it- don't make them repeat themselves."

An uncomfortable silence followed, one which was finally broken by an exhausted sigh from Midoriya.

"Well, we have a great deal to contemplate, and luckily, we have two days to do so. Scimitar's debut will proceed as scheduled in a few hours, then Todoroki's 'training mission' tomorrow. Whether we follow through with this accord or not, though, one inevitable obstacle remains."

Reaching forward to tap a few keys on his laptop, Seraph projected an image to the monitor mounted above them: the Tartarus Detention Facility, rough waves crashing against its towering metal walls. Six mugshots filled the space beneath the prison in rapid succession- Toga Himiko, smiling gleefully at the camera, followed by five of Overhaul's captured lieutenants.

"The opening stages of the plan are already in motion," Seraph declared, gazing at each of the other Founders in turn. "Coordination with the Recruits will be essential- Hierophant is the keystone of the operation. Now, all that remains is for Emperor and Temperance to determine the time and route of Carmilla's transfer. And once that's done…" Scrolling across the laptop's screen, Midoriya's eyes settled on a recorded camera feed from All For One's cell- it was old footage from one of his past interrogations, the camera slowly zooming in on his mutilated face and twisted smile as he mocked and belittled his guards.

"Once that's done, everything will be in place."


And so ends this story's longest chapter by far! I had no idea the Syndicate-MLA negotiations were going to end up being so gargantuan in length when I started writing this one, so apologies for the delay. As you can see, though, there just wasn't really a good stopping point to divide it into multiple installments, especially since it's wrapping up a flashback. Originally, I intended to get all the way to Kamakiri's debut, but it'll just have to wait until next time.

It's safe to say that this chapter is a reflection of my unabashed love for Re-Destro and the MLA- or at least, their manga versions, that is. The anime made some pretty brutal cuts to the MVA arc as a whole, but Re-Destro got the worst of it by far, so I'd highly recommend you go check out the arc in the manga if you're anime-only, starting with Chapter 218. Yotsubashi's manga introduction is one of my favorite scenes in MHA, and it's an absolute tragedy that it was dropped.

Let me know your thoughts on the chapter in the reviews, and where you think the Syndicate and MLA's relationship will go from here! Plus, Midoriya's next major target is finally revealed- it's Tartarus time! I seem to jinx myself every time I make a promise about when the next chapter for drop, so for now, I'll just say that I hope to be back with more soon, either with more Entropy or with the next chapter of Rhapsody in Green.

Additionally, please let me know if you have any confusion about the timeline or the order of events! I've done a good bit of jumping back and forth over the past few chapters, but from here on out, everything should be pretty straightforward again. We also got to see some major events from the past for the first time- did you guys have a favorite from among those?