Hey everyone! I've been on hiatus forever and I'm still technically on hiatus but I decided I wanted to crosspost this fic from Ao3, so here I am! I wrote this for the BKDK Twin Stars Big Bang and it was such an amazing experience. My partner, rokulinarts on Twitter, is so unbelievably talented - she did the illustrations in the ao3 version of this fic (which you can find on bombshellbrunette on ao3), and the cover image for this version. I hope everyone enjoys this fun Mononoke AU!


The fields were suspiciously still. Though it was mid afternoon, no chirping could be heard overhead, and the normal stirrings of life in the brush were absent. It was strange—at this time, usually the village was bustling with activity, both human and otherwise, but today it was quiet.

Too quiet, thought Izuku, eyes fixed on the village laid out in front of him. His red elk Yakul was galloping down the dusty road as fast as possible, but Izuku's stomach churned with knots of anxiety at the thought of the villagers, alone and defenseless against whatever threat was approaching. If he hesitated even a single moment, unimaginable tragedy could descend upon his already dwindling tribe.

Elder Yagi had relayed to him one simple message: get back to the village. Whatever she had predicted didn't bode well for their survival if her grave tone was to be believed, and Izuku wasn't one for doubting the predictions of someone in contact with the spiritual world. He had to go faster, or else they'd all be damned. That had been the intention of Elder Yagi's warning, and Izuku had heeded it.

Yakul snaked through the stone-paved pathways, skidding from corner to corner as if he sensed Izuku's desperation. He probably did—their connection had long since passed man and beast. They were friends, now, perhaps even best friends. The Emishi had always placed heavy weight on the connection between humans and the natural world, but even among the few remaining able warriors few had a relationship that rivaled Izuku and Yakul's.

Peering into the distance, Izuku's grip on the reins tightened when he saw a healthily plump figure rushing his way. His mother looked beautiful, as she always did—decked out in their traditional garb with her hair twisted into intricate knots atop her head, she was fit to be queen—but her eyes were narrowed in worry, crow's feet spreading like cracks across her tanned face.

"Izuku!" she called desperately, hurrying to his side. "The old man's sent me to warn you—everyone's ordered back to the village."

He slowed to a halt, patting Yakul's firm back in reassurance. "I know," he replied. "Elder Yagi already put out a warning. Did Elder Yagi clarify what the threat was?"

Biting her lip, his mother shook her head. "No," she admitted, eyes swimming with uncertainty. "He just said that the animals were hiding, but I don't really know… I mean, he didn't say anything else."

"I see," said Izuku, heart hammering in his chest. These really were dire straits, then.. "In that case, I should hurry to him. If he didn't have time to explain, the situation is likely worse than I anticipated."

His mom shifted on her feet, clearly balking at the prospect of Izuku's return, and reached out for him. "Please be careful," she whispered, clutching his wrist tightly to her chest. "If something happened to you after your father a few years ago, I don't know what I'd do."

"Mom," said Izuku, voice gentle and steady even as he pried his hand from her hold. "I have to go now, but I'll see you later. Go back to the village, okay? You'll be safe there. I promise."

She nodded reluctantly and took a step back, making room in the narrow path for Izuku to ride on. "I'll see you later, then," she said, shooting him a wobbly smile. Her green eyes brimmed with shiny tears, but she remained resolute, unwilling to let them fall in front of him. "Good luck, Izuku. You're going to be just fine."

Leaning forward to grab Yakul's reins, Izuku forced himself to steel onwards without looking back. He loved his mother more than anything, but there was no time to console her—mere seconds by her side could amount to dozens of lives senselessly lost.

After a few more minutes of riding in silence, Izuku's grip tightened when the watchtower came into view. The lookout—a man some years older than Izuku himself named Aizawa Shouta, wrapped up in elaborate robes and long, dark hair pulled back in a bun—was perched on the roof, peering into the forest that lay beyond. His face was hard to see from down below, but Izuku could clearly perceive the worry in his tense body.

Hopping off Yakul's back, Izuku gave the elk a reassuring stroke before scrambling up the tree and onto the tower. Aizawa reacted to his arrival with a sharp nod of acknowledgement before jutting his chin out in the direction of the forest.

"It's not human, whatever it is," he warned Izuku, voice hushed even in the abnormal quiet. "The forest is practically holding its breath. This threat is unnatural."

Izuku nodded, crouching down beside him to peer out into the dark. "Elder Yagi's already called everyone inside. My mother's on her way back right now."

"She'd better hurry," said Aizawa, eyes narrowed. "Any second now it should be here."

Bow in hand, Izuku reached behind him for an arrow. His aim was good, undeniably; he'd been doing this for years under the experienced warriors of the clan's tutelage. This time, though, he wasn't willing to lose the extra time and risk missing. The arrow had to hit the target head on, or else—

"There," Aizawa hissed, cutting off whatever awful scenario Izuku's mind had been about to produce. "Near the wall. See it?"

"Yeah," breathed out Izuku, pulling the arrow back in the bow. "I see it, Aizawa-san."

Spreading over the wall that separated the village from the wild forest beyond was a viscous black ooze. It squirmed through the cracks, wriggling as if it were alive, and the trees above began to wither, drooping as if they'd been poisoned. The stones were shaking, rattled by the intense pressure of the ooze, and then suddenly they stopped, stilling completely.

The whole world seemed to pause for a moment, and then the wall suddenly crumbled. Amidst the destroyed stones, a giant monster crawled in from the forest dripping thick slime. Its body seemed to be alive, each cell fighting to move the creature forwards, and it moved with desperate jerks, short, stumpy legs burning holes in the grass where it stepped. Even from where Izuku was standing on the watchtower, he could smell the stench of death that oozed from its every pore.

"A demon god," whispered Aizawa in disbelief. "But that's…"

Wormlike slime parting on its coarse skin, the creature reared its head. Its face was that of a boar god but its eyes were milky, devoid of any majesty or life. Whatever this thing was, it was corrupted beyond belief, perverted into something so contrary to its original nature it was hardly deserving of being called alive. Its massive body inched towards the village, destroying the greenery in its path. Ropes of black slick dragged behind it, scorching the earth, and Izuku realized with a start that if he didn't interfere it would burn down everything in its path.

"It's heading toward the village!" Izuku shouted over the din of the burning countryside, grabbing hold of his bow. "C'mon!"

Scrambling off the tower, he and Aizawa leapt on a nearby tree, watching as the monster knocked the tower over in a pile of burning wood. When they landed in a jumble of limbs and leaves, Izuku noticed right away that Aizawa had landed at a bad angle, arm bent unnaturally in his lap.

"Aizawa-san," he began, biting his lip, "I—"

"It's alright," said Aizawa, lips curved in a bitter frown as he stared at the injury. "I suppose I wasn't meant to partake in this battle after all."

They waited for a moment, silent but for the sound of their own strained breathing, until Izuku whispered, "I'm sorry, Aizawa-san, but I have to go now. If I wait, the village could be…"

"Go," Aizawa crowed, voice hoarse, waving him off with a gesture that felt to casual to be genuine. "But don't let it touch you, hear me? If the village finds out I let the prince get cursed I'll never hear the end of it!"

Shooting him one final smile, Izuku climbed down the tree and onto Yakul's back. "To the village," he said, gripping the reins tightly. "And fast."

Together, they raced down the path. The monster hadn't made it far—its big, wriggling body weighed it down—but its reach was large, and the damage it was wreaking on the environment was potentially irreversible. His people had been living on the land for generations; if it was destroyed now, it could be lost forever. A trail of ooze so dark it looked like blood snaked down the hill, leading to where the creature was headed. Yakul's hooves skidded against the loose stones but he kept on, and Izuku was struck with gratitude.

"Thanks," he murmured, bracing himself as they rounded the corner to where the fallen god awaited. "You're a good friend, Yakul."

As if sensing Izuku's fear, Yakul nudged against his hand, and into the face of death they rode. Once they reached the clearing, the gravity of the situation became clear to him. The monster was big, far bigger than Izuku had realized from above. Its body had expanded and it was crawling across the hillside with surprising speed for its mass, dragging its limbs behind it as it went.

Yakul bucked, reluctant to approach the demon. Izuku couldn't blame him—it was terrifying. But for the sake of the village and for the poor, lost god whose identity had been lost to time, it was necessary. Izuku stroked the elk's hide to soothe his worry and whispered encouraging words in his ear, and Yakul pressed on with wobbly legs, sprinting to catch up with the monster.

"O forest god who cannot be without name, why do you rampage so?" Izuku called as they passed by, trying desperately to quell the nausea in his stomach. It smelled like death and a thoughtless evil he'd never before experienced, but he knew that somewhere underneath the horrific pelt lay a revered god, one that had lost its dignity and fallen into despair. He wasn't scared of the monster—he pitied it. "Quiet your rage, I beg you!"

The creature didn't acknowledge his words, pushing on through the grass. It was speeding up now, right on track for the village, and a pulse of fear spiked through Izuku's body. If it got too close, then everything his clan had fought for—generations of rebuilding, all for naught.

"Stop! Don't destroy our village, please!" he cried, urging Yakul on further. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a figure—a woman, by the looks of her—running toward the village, ornate robes dragging in the dirt. The creature was headed towards it, squirming limbs drawing ever closer, and as the sun shone on her braided green hair, Izuku realized with horror just who, exactly, the fleeing woman was. "Mother, run!"

This was a mistake.

She turned at the sound of his voice, dark eyes wide with terror, and her dress snagged on a branch, sending her tumbling to the floor. Struggling to her feet, she started to run again, but it was too late; the creature had advanced during her wall and was nearly upon her now, wiggling, deathly limbs reaching out to grab her.

In a split second, Izuku realized what he had to do. Forgive me, he thought, casting his eyes to the sky. If I didn't have to take his life, I wouldn't. Stringing the arrow along the bow, he pulled his arm back and released. The air cracked with static electricity, slicing the placid sky like a blade, as he moved.

Divine retribution, it seemed to warn, is coming.

It hit the creature straight on, splitting through the black slime and penetrating its skin. Turning from Izuku's mother, a tendril of the ooze lashed out. Aizawa's warning from earlier flashed through his mind, but it was already too late—before he could react, the black substance was curled around his forearm, burning a cursed brand into his flesh.

Izuku gritted his teeth as Yakul rode on, freezing him from the creature's grip, and resisted the urge to scream in agony and anger both. He knew well the consequences of such an action; the toll was immeasurably, irrevocably heavy. When the creature bellowed once more, Izuku nocked back another arrow and let it fly, hitting it dead on once more.

The ooze seared through his skin, penetrating layer upon layer with its cursed heat, and Izuku clutched his arm, hoping to force it down. He saw the former god—free of its ooze, which was slinking away back into the dark forest—sway once on its feet, then twice, before it collapsed in a heap, weight slamming against the earth like a commanding fist.

"Izuku!" his mom shouted, hoarse and terrified.

He heard her unsteady footsteps approaching but he could barely keep his eyes open, dizzied by the pain of his arm. "Mom," he breathed, vision swimming.

Yakul knelt, and strong arms picked him off the elk's back, laying him down on the ground. His mom was standing over him with a hand clutched to her mouth, fat tears dripping down her cheeks, and out of the corner of his eye he noticed some warriors tending to his arm with water and dirt, attempting desperately to quell the curse that they all knew would take shape.

My arm, his mind pointed out as waves of sleep washed over him. It's numb.

When he awoke, one of the village's young women dressed his wounds, and told him with soft, reluctant eyes that he'd been summoned to the council. Izuku made his way there slowly, walking on weary legs, and contemplated his fate.

Upon his arrival at the council room, he was ushered inside by an elder and directed to a place opposite Elder Yagi. His mother sat across from him, hands folded in her lap, as she stared at the floor. Her eyes were downcast, and swollen with tears; beneath them stretched a valley of dark circles that seemed to go on for miles. Beside her was Elder Yagi, speaking in hushed tones too low for Izuku's ears to pick up, and across sat the rest of the council, all wearing classic ceremonial robes.

"So you've finally decided to join us, young man," chuckled Elder Yagi when he noticed Izuku's presence, though the exaggerated frown lines cutting into his face betrayed his anxiety. "I thought it would be another millenium before you awoke."

His mom glared. "Everything's fine, thanks to my son," she hissed, though her eyes darted instinctively to Izuku's bandages. His forearm was wrapped in thick bandages, hiding the ringed mark he knew lay beneath. "I prayed for the god's soul, and we burned his remains in accordance with tradition. Nothing less, nothing more."

Elder Yagi gave a resigned, heaving sigh, and gestured to the objects strewn out before him. "The boar god came from the far west," he explained, fingers brushing over a shining red marble at the center of his cloth. "His flesh was tainted with a poison that made him a monster. The mark under that bandage is cursed, Midoriya. It will stay with you until you die."

His mother buried her face in her hands, crying freely once more. "No," she moaned, "please."

"Prince Midoriya, are you steeled to gaze upon your fate?" continued Elder Yagi. He was fighting back tears of his own, Izuku noticed, but his voice was steady as always.

"I must leave," said Izuku. Folding his hands in his lap, he nodded once, brusque and unbothered as he could manage.. "I understand. I made my decision the moment I let that arrow fly."

"But you can't," his mother sobbed, reaching out to grab onto his wrist. Her fingers were tight, digging into his skin as if she wanted to meld them together. "My baby boy, my Izuku, you can't—"

"It's alright," he interrupted calmly. When she looked up, face red with tears, he smiled, shaking free of her grip. "I'm old enough, now. I did this on my own. It's my responsibility to take."

Aizawa slammed his uninjured hand down onto the floor. "It's not his fault," he growled, bloodshot eyes narrowed in anger. "He was defending Midoriya-sama. Shouldn't we be able to make an exception? Can't something be done?"

Elder Yagi shook his head, grave. "Our fate cannot be altered. We can only do our best to meet it head-on." Unfurling his closed fist, he revealed a round object sitting in its center. It was steel, glinting in the low light of the room, and there was something about it that disturbed Izuku, made him want to look away. "This was found in its body, tearing through his entrails and his flesh. He was in agony." He looked up at Izuku, and said, "Calamity has fallen on the west. Journey there, and see with eyes unclouded. There might be a way to lift the curse."

"Okay," said Izuku, bowing his head.

Kan Sekijirou, one of the oldest men in the tribe, exhaled with a pain so great and so deep it was nearly unfathomable. "The blood of our tribe grows thin with the years," he said, wrinkled face marred with sorrow. "And now the youth who was one day to lead us must depart to never return…"

Izuku turned away and took a steadying breath. From his pocket he withdrew a knife, the same knife he'd been using since childhood, and lifted it to his head. His long, green hair was tied in a bun, curls packed tight in a band, and he slipped the blade through its base.

Locks of green hair fell around him like leaves coating a forest floor, and for maybe the first time he realized that he would never be able to return home. He placed the severed bun on the ground and his eyes fluttered shut, squeezing the sight of the councilroom into darkness.

When he turned back to face Elder Yagi, everyone's eyes were similarly closed. His mother was hunched over, wailing, but she was bent down; even she knew better than to defy the rules of the gods in Elder Yagi's presence.

"The law forbids that we watch as you go," said Elder Yagi, thin hands splayed out on the ground, wise blue eyes hidden behind his veiny eyelids. "Farewell, young man. And good luck."

Izuku rose, and walked out of the room without looking back.

He gathered the barest of necessities, pulled a hood and straw jacket over his head, and went in search of Yakul. His elk was tied up at the stables, alongside the others, and Izuku felt a twinge of guilt when he opened the gates and led him into the deserted clearing. The journey ahead would surely prove to be long and treacherous for the both of them.

Sensing his worry, Yakul leaned into his hand, nudging his forehead against Izuku's palm.

"Good boy," whispered Izuku, grabbing the saddle out of his pack and swinging it onto Yakul's bare back. "Thanks."

They trotted out together, Izuku riding Yakul, toward the gates of the village. Night had fallen hours ago, and he was reminded of the many walks he'd taken with Elder Yagi along the same path, discussing the future that awaited the world around them. Never before had he imagined that his last time tracing its length would be so momentous.

The sound of fast, unrestrained footsteps came from behind him. Turning, he saw his mother, sprinting across the clearing with something clutched in her smooth, pale hands. "Izuku!" she called, half whisper half scream.

"You can't be here," he called back, but he slowed Yakul anyways, waiting for her to catch up. He hardly cared to resist the village's rules now that he was going.

When she was finally by his side, chest heaving with the effort of running so far, she reached out and pressed a familiar weight into his hand. "I don't care," she said, eyes shining in the moonlight. "Take this, to remember us by. Please."

It was a dagger, he realized, the very same crystal dagger his father had given his mother as a wedding present far before Izuku's birth. She wore it constantly, hanging from her neck from its worn down red string, the crown jewel to all her regal ensembles. Izuku remembered distinctly how he'd reached out for it countless times as a child with careless, grabby hands, transfixed by its sparkle, before she noticed and smacked him away. Your father lives there, she'd always replied, rocking Izuku in her lap. So treat it with respect, okay?

"I can't take this," he murmured, attempting to place it back in her hands. "Father—"

"He would've wanted you to have it," she said, giving him a bittersweet smile. "Take care of him, okay? And… be safe."

Izuku laced his hands with hers, and finally the tears came, bleeding from the corners of his eyes and dripping down onto his coat. "I won't forget you," he swore, gritting his teeth. "I'll never, ever forget you."

"Now who's crying?" she teased, but she was crying, too, fingers warm against his own. "I won't forget you either, baby. Not til the end of my days."

In that moment, Izuku knew that if he didn't leave now he never would. So with a final squeeze of the hand he let go and turned towards the entrance, cheeks wet, and fled.

It was the last time he ever saw his mother.

The journey was, as expected, arduous. Izuku spent days seated on Yakul's back, traversing mountains and fields alike, and had seen nothing but emptiness. Wherever he traveled, it seemed devoid of life; there were no villages, nor were there houses. There was simply nothing.

"Except that," he muttered, carding a hand through Yakul's short fur. A fire burned in the distance, rising up in puffs of soot, stark against the blue sky. "Wanna go check it out, Yakul?"

The elk gave a disapproving whinny, and Izuku laughed for the first time in what felt like years. "You're probably right," he admitted, "but I'm bored. Who knows, maybe there's a festival?"

They rode on, over valleys and short hills, until finally the fire was in view. While from afar it had appeared contained, now that Izuku was here it seemed wild, out of control; it climbed higher and higher with each minute, bright flames licking at the roofs of nearby houses, and there were audible screams emanating from the town below.

Samurai rode on horses through the town, jabbing out at civilians and warriors alike, and Izuku's mouth contorted into a snarl. Beneath his sleeve, his curse mark was pulsing, and a deep, foreign anger was settled at the base of his stomach, crying out for him to kill. It wasn't like him to be so angry, but in that moment he felt brutal, like he could rip their heads off bare and not feel a shred of remorse. Izuku reached behind him without thinking, lining an arrow up in his bow with one samurai's head, and let it fly. His aim was impeccable, and it sliced through the man's neck, severing his head clean off.

Realizing what he'd just done, Izuku stared down at his arm in horror. It was wriggling with power, alive under his clothes, and bloodthirsty; before he knew, it reached for another arrow and shot through another man's heart, sending him tumbling onto the ground.

"I've got to get out of here," he whispered, imploring Yakul to go faster. Louder, he lifted his head and yelled at the samurai chasing after him, "Let me through! I don't want to hurt you, but let me through, please!"

They continued on, unperturbed, and he loaded up another arrow. Like a magnet, the arrow sliced the target's head clean off from an impossible distance.

"Demons," a samurai spat from behind him, turning around to retreat to the looted village. "Everywhere these days are demons."

He traveled on without stopping for some time, days passing like seconds and seconds stalling like days. Eventually, the protests of his stomach became too much to bear and he halted outside a large village. Yakul, who had kept himself fed with the wild grasses, looked happy to rest; with some sadness, Izuku wondered whether he missed his family, too.

As he made his way to the marketplace, the throng of people stirred with noise. Izuku couldn't quite muster up the energy to care about what they said, but he heard the word demon, hissed on streetcorners and behind subtle palms. He paid them no mind—in all honesty, they probably had a point.

When he emerged from the tents, one gold piece out but a sack of heaping rice richer, and went on his way to exit the village, he heard the sound of someone approaching. They were probably large; their shoes clapped against the ground like they were fighting it.

"What do you want?" he called, eyes still fixed on the road ahead. Even to his own ears he sounded tired, tone dulled by misuse. "If it's a fight you're looking for, I'm not interested."

"Oh, nothing like that!" came a cheerful, decidedly female voice from beside him. "I'm just interested in you. You're an Emishi warrior, right? Wow! That's crazy!"

Startled, Izuku looked around for its source. Standing to his right was a short young woman, wearing thick, tall geta. Her hair was loose and a light brown, bleached by the sun, and framed her soft chin, cutting off right at her jawline. She wore simple, nearly masculine robes, but she was pretty; her brown eyes glittered like shiny coins in the light of day.

"How did you know?" he asked warily. "What's your business here?"

She waved her hands around as if to ward off his concerns. "Just business, just business. My name's Uraraka Ochako. How 'bout yourself?"

Izuku remained silent, lips smoothed out into a flat line.

"I see," said Uraraka, letting her narrow shoulders rise in a half shrug. "Oh well. I like a bit of mystery, me. You lookin' for a traveling companion?"

Starting to walk again, Izuku said, "Not particularly, no."

He heard the clattering of sandals, and then Uraraka said, walking alongside him once more, "Well, I am. So let's go! Where ya headed?"

That evening they stopped in a warm cave, lit by the flame of Uraraka's torch. She was surprisingly useful, this solicitous young woman; her charm had got them through several rough patches while Izuku stood by and waited, clutching his arm as it bubbled beneath his coat. He wore a hood to veil the strange color and set of his hair, but he ducked his head every time someone passed, heart thumping in his chest and sweat dripping from the sunburnt tip of his nose.

"So you're going out west to take care of your little curse," commented Uraraka from the other side of the tent, fan in hand. "That's a long journey. Got any idea where specifically you're gonna stay?"

Izuku shook his head, but reached into his pocket to withdraw the poisoned lump that had brought the boar god down. "I was given only this to guide me," he said, thumb brushing over the metal's contours. "If you know anything—"

"Gimme that," interrupted Uraraka, unoccupied hand snaking out to snatch the metal. Raising it to her line of vision, she examined it closely, and barked out a short, surprised laugh. "You're in luck. I know exactly whose this is." Tossing it back to Izuku, she said, "You're looking for Irontown, buddy. It's a big manufacturing town. Used to be called something different, but now that Lady Yaoyorozu took over, it's some kinda factory. Jeez, that woman… Even coming from me, she's crazy. You'd be best off staying far away."

Though he had no intention of following her advice, Izuku nodded. The information had been useful, and despite her obvious shiftiness Uraraka was a good traveling partner, well-accustomed to the winding roads of the local terrain.

"Well, now that I've fulfilled my end of our little give 'n take, why don't you do your part?" asked Uraraka, leaning forward on her spindly elbows. "You ever heard of the legend of the Forest Spirit?"

"No," replied Izuku. "Why?"

Shining eyes wide, Uraraka said, rapt, "Y'see, it's an old folktale from the area. Apparently there's this spirit that rules the forest outside of Irontown, and there's this… Well, some people think it roams at night in this form called the Night Walker, and that chopping off its head can give whoever has it immortality. Crazy, huh?"

"Yeah," said Izuku, scooting back a few paces. There was an almost manic light in her eyes that sent an uncomfortable shiver down his spine. "That does sound crazy."

She laughed, fanning herself with broad, lazy strokes. "I don't believe it either, but rich people will do anything for that kind of stuff," she said, eyes sinking shut. "If you ever see something like that down by Irontown, though, come find me. I scratch your back and you scratch mine, or something. I'm just curious."

Izuku gave her a curt jerk of the head, and turned on his side. They'd be going their separate ways soon enough—there was no need to linger on the unhealthy glint in Uraraka's greedy gaze.

As expected, they parted the next day along the river. Uraraka had told him vaguely the way to go, advising him to stay out of the forest for fear of inciting the local gods' wrath. Izuku didn't mind, though, so he went through the forest anyways, seeking refuge in the mossy tapestries that overlaid his surroundings. They glistened, moist, in the daylight; the sun left dappling, speckled patterns on the floor and Izuku traced them with his eyes, letting them guide him towards the exit.

Kodama sat perched on the trees in gaggles, pale bodies and strange, angular faces facing Izuku and Yakul. Even in the daylight, they gave off a silvery glow, round eyes and mouths stark black against their white skin. They observed him like shy children, chittering but quiet when he deigned to look.

About halfway through the forest they began to line certain paths but not others, chattering their bones disapprovingly when Izuku made a wrong turn. They carved out a path and Izuku followed, unsure of where they were leading him but trusting their judgement nonetheless. What he found at the end of their direction was a long river, placid but alive, lined with rocky pebbles that dotted the land like freckles.

Grateful, Izuku shed his heavy clothing and sank into the water, dipping his head beneath the surface and closing his eyes as the cool river flowed around him. The soft waves lapped at his chest and soothed his burning arm, and he sighed, deep and relieved, as he let the water do its job and wash away the grime of his journey. When he climbed out, wet but clean, he heard frantic chattering from a little farther down the river. Kodama dotted the trees, staring down in dismay at a clearing near a dense patch of trees, and Izuku slipped back into his clothes, climbing over the rocky shore to see what was disturbing them so.

Moored on the dirt-packed beach was a man, whose wounds oozed blood onto the ground and into the clean river. His blonde hair was matted, dirty, and his tanned skin was bruised and battered, but the steady rise and fall of his chest told Izuku that he was somehow clinging to life. A little way's down lay another man, half in the water, awake and waving his arms vigorously to alert Izuku's attention.

"I'm here!" he shouted, voice stark with relief. "Can you see me? I can't get up, but I'm alive!"

"I see you!" Izuku called back. The man would be hard to miss—among shades of green, his bright red hair was vibrant against the leaves. "I'm coming, hold on for a few more moments!"

He traversed the clearing and walked carefully to where the man had fallen. His ankle was bent at an awkward angle, but Izuku was certain that with proper binding it'd recover in due time. His hands were callused from work, muscles sharp, but his face was open and happy.

"I can't believe it," he exhaled, allowing Izuku to hoist him up by his waist. "I didn't think anyone would come. Didya see… Is Kaminari alive?"

"Looks like it," said Izuku, pushing the man toward the bank. He whistled and Yakul bounded in from the forest, and as soon as they crossed the threshold back onto land his elk faithfully knelt so Izuku could help the man onto his back. "Wait here. I'll come get him."

The man—Kaminari, his companion had called him—had severe injuries, but they, too, were treatable. Carrying him across the forest would be nearly impossible, but if there were another way… Izuku looked toward the kodama and they seemed to nod, misshapen heads bobbing.

Izuku let a small, satisfied smile pull at his lips when he lifted Kaminari and carried him toward the clearing where the other man was waiting. Grabbing some bandages from his pack, he dragged the unconscious body toward the river, cleaning his wounds and wrapping them appropriately.

"You're amazing," said the other man, watching from his seat on Yakul's back. "I thought for sure we were goners. I'm Kirishima, by the way. Kirishima Eijirou. The both of us 're from Irontown."

Tying a bandage tightly around Kaminari's thigh, Izuku stood. "We need to go through the forest," he said in lieu of a response. "Can you walk with assistance? Your friend is still unconscious. The road to Irontown is treacherous."

Kirishima dutifully hopped off Yakul, landing unsteadily on his uninjured ankle, though his face was twisted in a fearful knot. Izuku lifted Kaminari onto the elk's back and turned back to Kirishima, wrapping his ankle in bandages thick enough that the swelling wouldn't increase before offering his arm for the man to lean on.

"I really don't think this is a good idea," said Kirishima, arm wrapped around Izuku's as they entered the forest. Yakul trailed behind, Kaminari slumped over but secure on his broad back. "Look at those things! They're staring at us!"

"They're helping us," corrected Izuku. "Do you want your friend to die?"

Kirishima fell silent, and they continued down the path. After an hour or so of walking, they halted for a break, and Kirishima hobbled a few paces away to sip the water Izuku had stored in his pouch.

Satisfied that he was alright, Izuku ventured a little further down into the forest. There was a gap in the leaves that the kodama seemed to gravitate towards, and some curiosity still lingering in his heart pushed him forward. Leaning toward it, Izuku peered inside, and his heart seemed to pause in his chest, stuck in suspended animation.

A boy of about his age sucked at the belly of a white wolf. Blood soaked the creature's fur, and the boy seemed to be cleansing the wound with his mouth. He wore a short fur coat, but his chest was bare, lean and musclebound. His hair was light, and red earrings glinted at his ears, the back of a necklace settled at the visible knob of his spine.

Izuku surged forward in surprise, foot landing hard on a twig right in front of him. The boy spun around, and his face was smeared with blood the same color as his slitted, narrow eyes. The contours of his cheekbones and the slope of his nose were cast in harsh relief, and Izuku sucked in a breath when they made eye contact. The air between them crackled, bending around the inches of space that separated their bodies.

The boy spat, blood landing in a splatter on the ground, and wiped his bloody mouth on the back of his hand. "Fuck off," he said, voice gravely and low, and he hopped onto the wolf's back, riding off deeper into the forest.

Izuku stumbled backwards, landing on his ass on the forest floor. His pulse was racing, and for the first time since he left home he felt alive again, blood pumping with feverish intensity right beneath his skin.

"You alright?" called Kirishima, voice tinged with concern.

"Yes," said Izuku after a moment, staggering to his feet and brushing off the dirt on his knees. "Sorry, let's… Let's get going."

The rest of the trip was uneventful. The kodama directed them well, and eventually Kaminari's breathing steadied and he began to speak, mumbling under his breath. Kirishima coaxed him to a seated position, and within twenty minutes they were babbling cheerfully amongst themselves.

"I seriously can't thank you enough," said Kaminari as they crossed what was apparently the final hill separating Irontown from the forest. "No one ever comes back from these battles alive, y'know? Jirou's gonna kill me. Probably crying all over herself."

Kirishima snorted. "Hardly," he teased. "She's probably thrilled to be free of your ass. As if you worked now; you'll be a bum for the next few months."

Swatting at his friend's arm, Kaminari let out an offended grunt. "Anyway," he said, turning his attention back to Izuku. "Those wolves threw us straight off the cliffside. The others… I dunno what happened to them. Maybe that boy ate them."

"'That boy'?" said Izuku, interest finally piqued. "Who're you talking about?"

Frowning, Kirishima nudged Kaminari gently. "Now you've gone and done it," he groused. "This guy's never gonna stay if he knows."

"There's a kid who was raised by the wolf gods of the forest," explained Kaminari, ignoring Kirishima's warning. "Mitsuki—the wolf herself—made 'im feral. Now he's just like the rest of them. He attacks once a month, threatening to kill Lady Yaoyorozu, and runs off again."

"Feral, huh?" said Izuku softly, more to himself than to anyone else. "Interesting."

There was a beat of silence, then Kirishima whooped, pumping his fist in the air. "Look!" he shouted in glee, pointing to a billow of smoke coming from a fenced in city that stood on a nearby hill. "There's the town! Mina, baby, I'm coming for you!"

Kaminari strained his neck to see, and let out a similar cry of joy. "Home sweet home," he crooned. "Back to work, back to home, back to Jirou…"

They climbed the remaining distance and began the walk to the gates. The smog around the city was thick, and bright red and white flags protruded from the entrance, warding off all who stood in opposition to their message. People rode in and out on horseback, and merchants carrying barrels of goods followed suit. When they finally got to the front gates, they opened automatically, and Izuku strode in, followed by Kirishima, leading Kaminari in on Yakul's back.

Upon their arrival, the town square halted. People stared, jaws hanging, at the two men who'd been left for dead. They looked like they'd seen a pair of ghosts.

"I'm back!" Kirishima proclaimed loudly. "Mina, darling, forgive me!"

The crowd parted. A woman with a bush of curly, pink hair forced her way to the front. Her skin was dark, tanned further by the intense sun, and her eyes were so dark they were nearly black. She was pretty—her body firm and muscled, she looked like she worked just as much if not more than the two men beside him.

"Eijirou?" she said, lifting a trembling hand to her mouth. "Is that really you?"

"In the flesh," he said, shooting her a sheepish grin. "Sorry if I scared you, I just—whoa!"

In a split second Mina had pounced forward, pushing her husband to the ground in a hug. "I'm so glad you're alright," she said, nuzzling her head into his chest. "I thought I was gonna hafta marry Sero if you didn't come back."

A man standing nearby—Sero, presumably—rolled his eyes. "As if," he said, but he was smiling at the pair of them. "Kirishima would've haunted us until we gave it up."

Kirishima nodded, proud, and wrapped his arms around his wife's waist. "Damn straight," he murmured, stroking her hair. Tears seeped from his eyes, dripping down his chin. "Don't cry, babe, I love you."

"You're the one who's crying," she said, letting him sit up. "And Kaminari's here, too! Lemme go get Jirou. She hasn't said a word since Lady Yaoyorozu got back, she was so beside herself. She'll—oh! Milady!"

The murmurings of the crowd quieted, suddenly, and Izuku looked up from the heartwarming scene to observe what had happened. Standing at the front of the crowd was a woman with long, dark hair pulled up into a long, looping ponytail, held back by a simple clip. She wore a hakama decorated by fans and a blue coat over her shoulders, looking every inch a commander, and Izuku realized just who he was looking at.

"Lady Yaoyorozu," he acknowledged, bowing his head. "I've heard much about you. I believe you were missing these warriors?"

"Yes," she said, a pleased smile stretching across her face. "I cannot thank you enough, young stranger, for what you have done for us. From where do you hail?"

When Izuku said nothing, she threw her head back in laughter. "Fair enough," she said. "Come with me. I would love to extend you my thanks in a more private setting." Looking back to the couple on the ground, she said, "Mina, please alert Kyouka to her husband's arrival. I trust you can handle that."

"You got it, milady," said Mina, ruffling Kirishima's hair. "These guys can't do anything for themselves, huh? Don't worry—we'll get 'em back to work in no time."

Yaoyorozu nodded, satisfied, and gestured for Izuku to follow. "This way, stranger. Someone will put up your elk once Kaminari is brought to the infirmary, but in the meantime we have much to discuss."

They walked side by side to her quarters, Yaoyorozu describing the town's history and its various facilities as they went. It was strange—for a town so focused on machines, many of the daily tasks were relegated to individuals. Yaoyorozu seemed to know every resident by name. Her quarters were located at the back of the town, far away from the gates. They were noticeably larger than the other residents', and the inside was just as elaborate, lined with hallways and various other rooms.

"Come," she said, leading him down the main hall. "Away from prying eyes. I trust my personal guard, but one can never be too cautious."

Her bedroom laid at the end of the hall. Yaoyorozu pushed open the door and laughed a little, quietly, before opening it wide enough that Izuku could enter. "Forgive the state of things," she said, sitting down at the edge of her bed. "Todoroki came in late last night. He hasn't yet awoken."

A strange looking man, hair half red and half white and right eye covered in a large scar, was asleep on the bed, still dressed in full combat gear. His clothes were dirty and bloody, but Yaoyorozu hardly seemed to mind, laying a gentle hand on his head before looking back to Izuku.

"He's the captain of the guard here in Irontown," she explained. "My left hand man, to use his preferred terminology. I trust him unquestioningly. Feel free to speak in his presence, even if he does awaken during our conversation."

Izuku nodded. Clearly they shared a deep, intimate relationship, but he didn't want to ask; it was their business and theirs alone. "There was a boy," he said instead, thinking back to what he'd seen in the forest. "Accompanied by two white wolves. Kaminari said he was feral. Do you know anything about him?"

"Ah, yes," replied Yaoyorozu. "Bakugou. We gave him that nickname a few years back because he has a tendency to blow up supplies when he's angry. Terribly annoying. He lives to kill me, that wild boy whose soul was stolen by wolves."

Izuku said nothing, considering this, and Yaoyorozu cast one final tender look at the sleeping man before standing. "If you'd permit me, I have one last thing to show you," she said. "Follow."

They walked through the darkened village, just barely able to navigate the paths illuminated by the orange glow of the forges. Women worked in the factories, pumping up various machines with their sleeves rolled up, revealing strong, toned arms. So Mina hadn't been an exception, then; Yaoyorozu worked the city's women to the bone.

Finally, they reached a tent pressed up against the back of the city's fortifications. Yaoyorozu lifted a flap, gesturing for Izuku to enter, and gestured grandly to the people within.

They were lepers, so it seemed. Each one of them was covered in bandages from head to toe, wrapped tightly around their limbs, but they were cheerful, hammering away at bits of metal.

"My secret workshop," she said, a proud smile splitting her face. She grabbed a large rifle from the top of a barrel and swung it over her shoulder, metal gleaming in the candlelight. "You see these guns? I devised the formula for this gunpowder myself. Todoroki helps, now and again, but it was me who made the first breakthrough. From a scientific perspective, it's fascinating."

"With all due respect, Lady Yaoyorozu," he began, withdrawing the hunk of metal from his pocket, "I didn't come here to explore your town. What is this?"

She picked it from his palm and turned it over in her hand, regarding it with an almost loving gaze. "One of our bullets," she answered. "Why? Where did you find this?"

Izuku's empty fist clenched, and through gritted teeth, he said, "This thing—a bullet, to use your words—tore through the stomach of a boar god and sent him on a rampage through my village. Because of him, I sustained this." He pushed up his sleeve, more forcefully than ever before, and stared down at the swirling purple marks that marred his forearm. "I'm cursed; the urge to commit acts of horrific violence grows within me every passing day because of your device. What, pray tell, was it doing in the body of a fallen god halfway across the country?"

Yaoyorozu inspected the arm and released an exasperated sigh. "Damn thing couldn't stay down," she muttered. "We'll make sure Mitsuki's dead, never fear. Apologies for the incident. Our village has been terrorized by those gods since we first established ourselves here. It's a pity Nago got loose, but there's nothing to be done. Next time we'll be more careful. I've laid out an extensive plan."

With all his might Izuku tried to suppress his anger, but his arm boiled beneath his shirt, pulsing under his grip uncontrollably. "Those guns almost killed my mother," he spat, nails digging into his skin. "And now, you—"

"Milady!" shouted a woman Izuku didn't recognize, bursting through the door to the tent and interrupting whatever Izuku had wanted to say. "He's here! And with the other wolves, too, they're—they're attacking the village!"

Yaoyorozu placed the gun down and reached for another, a slimmer model. "Let me show you why it's necessary," she said, voice grim. "Alert the troops and tell a guard to fetch Todoroki from my chambers! Bakugou's blood will be hot on our weapons tonight!"

The whole town was in commotion. From afar, Izuku could hear guns rattling, and the sound of explosions echoed through the streets. Civilians fled towards the back gates, prized possessions and children in hand, but Izuku darted out to the main road and ran toward the action.

I have to find him, he thought, eyes scanning the rooftops for any sign of Bakugou. We need to meet again.

A few streets down Yaoyorozu's voice rang out, followed by a familiar rasp. Locking onto the sound, Izuku rounded the corner and sprinted their way. The roads were congested by soldiers and townspeople alike, and Izuku grunted with effort as he forced his way through the throng to where Bakugou awaited.

When he finally made it there, he was already too late to stop the fighting. In Bakugou's hand was a shiny, sharp dagger, and he thrust it at anyone who dared approach, slashing at their arms and chests like a wildebeest. His face was covered by a red oni mask and the teeth tied on the necklace around his neck jingled with every move, their dark red coloring stark against his white chest, but he was beautiful all the same, in the arc of his chest and the smooth movements of his body as he fought.

Slipping his own knife out of its sheath, Izuku ran forward, intercepting Bakugou's blade. The other boy paused for a moment, confused, before he lashed back out, blade clattering against Izuku's own.

"Stop!" called out Izuku, meeting Bakugou's every thrust with panicked fervor. "I don't want to fight you, okay?"

Bakugou didn't register his words, jabbing out with his knife once more before he gave up and leapt back onto the roof, fur coat swishing in the wind as he moved. He tore off deeper into the town, crawling across the roof like he was born to do it, and unbidden Izuku's cheeks flushed with exhilaration.

"He's after milady!" called a man wielding an axe from beside Izuku. "After him, let's go!"

Izuku saw them run off and knew instantly that if he tried to follow he'd never make it on time. Eyes darting to the roof, he uttered an internal prayer to whichever god was observing them before he leapt onto the roof, climbing up some logs that leant against it and landing on its thatches with a satisfying thud. Before he could question the acrobatics he'd just performed he was already chasing after Bakugou, legs carrying him as fast as he could run.

He stopped as Bakugou climbed the highest building, perched among the chimneys. Mask on, the wolf boy stared at the masses, eyes fixed on one spot in particular. Izuku followed the line of his gaze and cursed when he saw Yaoyorozu lurking below with a crowd of gun-toting women following behind, Todoroki standing at her side. Now that he was awake, the captain of the guard was more intimidating; his heterochromatic eyes were steely and unmoved.

"Can you hear me, Prince of Beasts?" goaded Yaoyorozu from below. "If it's me you want, then here I am. If you seek revenge for all the animals we've killed, well, there are two women down here whom I'd like you to meet. They want revenge as well for husbands killed by your wolves."

Bakugou moved, leaping down to a lower thatch, and with a heavy heart Izuku realized what he was about to do. "No, don't!" he screamed, hands cupped over his mouth. The crowd turned to stare at him, the surprised 'o's of their mouths visible even from far away, but Izuku didn't care. "It's a trap, she'll kill you! Don't throw away your life like this!"

Stopping in his tracks, Bakugou turned, head held high, but before he could react a lone howl emerged from the forest, vibrating in the silent air. As if he'd been set on fire, Bakugou took off running down the roof, knife pointed directly at Yaoyorozu. Izuku ran toward him, hoping they'd intercept, but he was too slow; a loud explosion shook the roof and Bakugou tumbled off the edge.

"Yaoyorozu-sama, we can strike him easily on the ground," said Todoroki, voice as cool as his eyes. "Permission to fire?"

"Granted," said Yaoyorozu, lips pursed as she watched Bakugou fall. "Aim for where he lands."

Squeezing his eyes shut, Izuku reached for one of the roof's beams. Pulling upwards with the full strength of his cursed arm, he tossed it towards the men advancing upon Bakugou's prone form, exhaling a sigh of relief when it bowled them over and blocked their path.

He jumped off the roof, running over to where Bakugou lay, mask on the ground and breathing shallowly, pale eyelids fluttering against his closed eyes. "Wake up," he urged, shaking the boy's shoulders. "Come on, wake up!"

Bakugou's eyes flew open, flashing crimson, and he jumped to his feet, knife still at the ready. He slashed out and Izuku had to shove his own knife in front of him in defense, just barely blocking the tip of Bakugou's blade. Instead of pursuing the fight, Bakugou pushed past him and dashed toward the crowd. He took a flying leap and, catapulting his body off the flat top of a man's head, flew over the crowd. Breaking out into a run, he went straight for Yaoyorozu when he landed, the hilt of his knife pressed against his chest and the blade sticking right out.

From within her hakama, Yaoyorozu withdrew her own blade just in time, parrying his blow with ease. With her other hand she found another knife, small but deadly, and thrust toward his neck, slicing off some of his coat's hairs in the process. A circle of spear-wielding townspeople surrounded them, spurring Yaoyorozu on with a ferocity Izuku had never seen before, and with a start he realized that if he didn't interfere, Bakugou would surely die.

Letting out a deep breath, he pulled away all of the resistance he'd been putting up against his curse, letting it spread from beneath his shirt into the air. Black, wormlike sludge circled his arm, engulfed by a glowing dark light, but he paid it no heed. Men ran at him, swords in hand, but they didn't matter; he simply twisted the blades, unbothered by their whimpers as he continued on. Todoroki stood near the outer rim of the circle's perimeter, but when Izuku lifted his arm he sidestepped gracefully, allowing Izuku to walk by.

Making his way to the center of the circle, calmer than ever before, Izuku grabbed Bakugou's arm with his cursed one and Yaoyorozu's arm with the other, halting them in place. Bakugou struggled, biting the cotton of his shirt, seemingly unaware of the curse; the black markings had disappeared, hidden once more under his clothing.

"What are you doing?" she snarled, wrenching her arm out of his grip With her long blade, she attempted to stab Izuku's shoulder to get to Bakugou, growling in anger when he parried with his own. "I had him!"

"That boy is mine," said Izuku, blade steady against Yaoyorozu's. "There is a demon inside you, and inside him. But there's one inside me, too." The dark aura swirled around his arm once more, snakelike tendrils elongating, and the crowd collectively stepped back. Bakugou, too, fought to get away, kicking against Izuku's shins as hard as he could manage. "Look at what hatred did to me! It rots my flesh and summons my death!"

"Enough talk of your curse," said Yaoyorozu, ready to lunge forward. "I'll slice the damn arm off mys—"

Before she could finish the sentence, Izuku slammed the butt of his blade against her stomach. She crumpled to the ground, rendered unconscious by the force of the blow, and horrified murmurs rose up from the crowd. Taking advantage of the people's surprise, Izuku rammed his elbow into Bakugou's stomach, knocking the already weakened boy out cold in one fell swoop.

"Todoroki-san, if you wouldn't mind collecting her you'll find that she's still alive," said Izuku, taking a step forward toward the gates with Bakugou clutched in his arms. "I'm leaving."

Todoroki ran to her side, fingers pressing over her pulse, and let out a quiet sigh of relief when he presumably felt her heartbeat. "Go," he said, beckoning behind him. "I can't promise that the others won't try to stop you, but I won't."

A woman stepped forward from the crowd, gun blazing, and stood in his path. Her face was set but her arms shook, terrified, and her eyes swam with uncertainty. "I—I'll shoot," she threatened. "Don't go on, y'hear? I'll shoot!"

Izuku simply blinked and kept walking, stepping past her and onward toward the exit. No one else dared interfere—the whole city held its breath, waiting for something to happen. Suddenly from behind him, Izuku heard a woman hiss, "Hatsume, stop!" and he felt a burning sensation rip through his body. Looking down at his abdomen, he saw blood gushing from a hole, but he hardly felt hurt at all; the wound was numbed by the adrenaline coursing through his veins and pumping through his blood, strengthened by the curse mark.

He moved through the streets, dripping blood with every step, and he felt the gazes on him, the countless eyes following as he approached the entrance of the citadel. Yakul trotted out from the stables, falling into step behind him but otherwise silent, unwilling to interfere in his master's ascent. Finally, the great wooden gates loomed before him, tall and mighty even in the darkness. The two guards dressed in bandages standing out in front exchanged nervous glances, until one—Kirishima, Izuku realized—whispered, "The gate can't be moved, sir. I don't want to hurt you, but you're not getting out of here tonight."

"Stand aside," Izuku commanded, slinging Bakugou over his back. Once again inhaling, deep and steady, he pressed against the wood pillars. They were heavy—impossibly, immovably heavy—but after a few seconds they began to move, squeaking through the grooves in the floor until they gave way and lifted. A pool of blood had gathered beneath his feet, but he could hardly care; the wolves were waiting outside, growling, and there were more important things to do than to fuss over his own injury. "Your prince is safe!" he said, holding up Bakugou so they could see. "I'm going with you. Yakul, come!"

Stepping out of the city, he let go of the doors, not bothering to watch as they slid back into place. He pushed Bakugou onto Yakul's saddle, climbed onto the elk behind him, and wrapped his arms around the feral boy's neck.

Within minutes, he was unconscious.

He awoke to Bakugou's low, threatening voice in his ear.

"Did you die already?" the boy said, crouched down beside him. When Izuku attempted to move his mouth to answer, Bakugou continued, "Why'd you stop me? Answer now, while you're still alive!"

"I didn't want you to die," said Izuku, words slow and garbled in his mouth.

Bakugou's eyes narrowed and he snapped in reply, "I'm not afraid of dying, if it'd get the fuckin' humans out of the forest."

"I knew that from the moment I saw you," breathed out Izuku. "But… I wanted you to live."

Arms reaching out to flip Izuku onto his stomach, Bakugou was suddenly upon him, knife pointed against Izuku's throat. The tip threatened to break the skin with every shallow breath he took, but Izuku wasn't afraid; he was transfixed by the shine of Bakugou's red irises, by the ring of gold around his pupils.

"I'll cut your throat," he warned, pressing the knife further into Izuku's neck. "That'll shut you up."

Izuku smiled, staring up at Bakugou, and said, "Live."

"I don't listen to humans!" Bakugou shot back. His wild hair was cast brighter in the moonlight, and the shape of his lean muscles were just as breathtaking as they'd always been. This was, somehow, the thing that Izuku had been looking for all along—this crazy, stunning boy.

"You're beautiful," said Izuku, dreamy gaze meeting Bakugou's.

The boy scrambled back, cheeks aflame, and Izuku drifted off back to sleep, lulled by the soft light of the stars from above and the woozy pain of the bullet in his stomach.

Izuku dreamt of a deerlike creature with many horns. Clawed toes padding toward him, flowers bloomed with its every step, vibrant and colorful until they died with the next, rotating like the ebb and flow of the seasons. It ducked down and laid a kiss on his wound, and when it lifted its head, the world had faded back to blackness.

When he next opened his eyes, it was to Yakul's doleful gaze in his face. Laughing, he nudged his cheek against the elk's soft fur, sitting up in his place. "Good boy," he said. "You stayed with me all this time?"

Yakul tilted his head as if to say 'what do you think?' and gestured with his head to the hole in Izuku's shirt.

Curious, Izuku looked down to see the place where the bullet had punctured his skin clear of all injuries. "Amazing," he breathed out in awe. "I wonder if…" Lifting his arm to his eyes, he winced when he saw that the curse mark had expanded, shooting further down his hand. "I see."

"You better thank Yakul, dumbass," came a voice from behind him. "He wouldn't leave you alone for a goddamn second. Practically had to force him to eat, that's how worried he was."

Looking up, Izuku saw Bakugou standing beside Yakul, hand stroking his fur absentmindedly. It was the first time Izuku had ever heard his voice not in the throes of anger, and he decided he liked the calmer timbre. "How'd you know his name?" asked Izuku, voice still slowed by injury. His jaw ached, and so did the rest of his body, heavy as lead and twice as painful.

"He told me everything about your life, Midoriya Izuku," Bakugou explained, brushing the underside of Yakul's chin with his index finger. "Your village, the forest… That type of shit. Anyway, the Forest Spirit decided that you deserved to live, so I helped Yakul nurse you back to health. Don't read into it or anything."

"Thank you," said Izuku, an honest smile tugging at his lips. "I promise I won't. I appreciate the hospitality."

Bakugou grumbled, but he didn't protest too much. Venturing to a stretch of land a few paces away, he returned with edible tree bark. He shoved it in Izuku's direction and commanded, "Eat this."

Izuku's jaw flexed, but he couldn't manage to chew. His teeth were sensitive and his mouth was still numb; every movement felt like it was through inches of cotton, clogging up his every sense. Sighing, Bakugou snatched back the bark, chewing it himself before leaning down.

Izuku opened his mouth and allowed Bakugou to feed him, swallowing the morsels gratefully. It had been days since his last proper meal, and he was starving. Chewed-up bark was at least better than an empty stomach.

The brush crackled and Bakugou looked up, eyes darting to whatever had made the noise. Turning around to observe, Izuku saw what had stolen his attention. A huge, white wolf walked through the woods and out onto the clearing, massive paws disturbing the leaves with every step.

"Katsuki," the wolf said through snarled teeth. "Be careful."

Bakugou—or Katsuki?—looked like he wanted to protest, but from the other side of the clearing a boar emerged, nostrils flaring at the sight of the wolf.

"Why are there humans here, Mitsuki?" he asked, and more boars came up behind him, flanking his squat body.

"There are humans everywhere these days," Mitsuki replied, nose scrunching up at the sight of them. "The blond one is my son, Katsuki. The other was chosen by the Forest Spirit. They are both currently under my protection."

"He isn't our enemy," said Katsuki, standing up to his full height. "He was shot by his own kind and the Forest Spirit healed his injuries. No matter how much the other humans are fucking bastards, this one didn't do anything. I swear."

"You lie," accused the boar, hoof stirring up dirt as he kicked it against the ground. "Why would the Forest Spirit choose a human and not Nago? Not Nago, who stood tall and strong? You must have begged for his life."

Mitsuki's large tail thumped against the ground, sending leaves flying. "Don't forget your place,"she said. "Life and death are the Forest Spirit's domain. You would do well not to question that."

"You did not beg for Nago," repeated the boar, more agitated this time.

"Nago was afraid to die," said Mitsuki, voice rife with irritation. "Now I, too, carry within my breast a poisoned human bullet. Nago fled; I remain, and contemplate my death."

Katsuki looked stricken, and Izuku realized that this was probably the first time Mitsuki had mentioned such a thing in his presence. "You have to ask him to save you," he rasped out. "If you don't, then you'll—"

"I've lived long enough, Katsuki," Mitsuki interrupted, casting him a look of finality. "I only hope that my death will be a good one."

"Nago was beautiful and strong," the boar squealed, snout twitching in anger. "He would not have run from anything! You wolves must have eaten him."

Katsuki turned away from his mother, shoulders tensed, and said, "Shut up, you filthy pig. Your Nago was a fucking coward."

"Gods of the mountain, please listen to me," started Izuku before the boars could respond to Katsuki's provocation. "Nago died far from here, and I was the one who killed him. He had become some kind of demon. One day he attacked our village. If you want proof, look at my hand where he touched me." Staring down at the mark that spread across his hand, he said, "I came here to beg the Forest Spirit to lift Nago's curse from me. He healed the bullet wound in my side, but the demon mark remains. First it will tear my soul apart, and then it will kill me."

From among the boars, an older-looking one stepped out. His body was grey, eyes milky and glassed over, and Izuku realized that he was blind. "I believe you," the boar god said, "and thank you for saying it, young one."

"Lord Okkoto," another boar protested, but the older one merely stood his ground, empty eyes staring into the distance.

"O mighty lord," Izuku said, bowing his head in reverence, "is there a way to lift Nago's curse from me?"

Okkoto's teeth curled, and he said, "Leave this forest, for the next time we meet I will be forced to kill you. My tribe grows small and stupid, and soon we will be nothing but squealing game. If we don't attack now, we never will."

Mitsuki stepped in front of Izuku and Katsuki protectively, hackles raised. "You'd risk everything on one last battle?" she said, incredulous. "That's just what the humans want."

Okkoto's misty eyes remained unchanged, but when he spoke, his tone was frosty. "We do not seek the wolf tribe's help," he said. "Even if every last one of us dies, it will be a battle the humans will never forget."

Riding on Mitsuki's great back, Izuku and Katsuki rode to a cavern amidst the forest brush. It was small, furnished by fire and blankets, but comfortable; the wolves' fur was warm, and burrowing himself in their heat, Izuku drifted off to sleep shortly after their arrival.

In his dreams, Katsuki brushed the curls out of his eyes, tipped clear water into his mouth, and sang to him a soft, low melody. Brightened by the fire, the feral boy's edges seemed rounded; the slope of his nose curved, eyelashes light and long against his tanned cheek.

He awoke to a sharp pain coursing down his arm. It was shaking unconsciously, fingers trembling as he tried to move them, and he sighed. The curse was worsening with every hour. Soon, he'd have no time left. Looking to his side, he smiled a bit when he saw Katsuki curled up in his furs, snoring softly. He looked less bitter when asleep, and Izuku was glad for it.

Walking out onto the plateau, he stopped when he saw Mitsuki, long white body stretched out over the rock like a blotch of paint.

"Does it hurt?" she asked, head resting on her paws. "You could end it all by jumping. When your strength returns, it will become unbearable."

Izuku didn't respond, looking out onto the trees dotting the landscape below. "Katsuki's so angry," he said instead, "but he tended to me, didn't he? Why?"

Mitsuki let out a rumbling laugh, and said, "Don't bother with such useless questions. I should've killed you when I had the chance." She paused, eyes fixed on the moon, and said, "Go back into the cave, boy. The boars are advancing. I'll stay and wait for that woman, dreaming of how good it will feel to finally crush her head in my jaws. That's enough for me."

Izuku sat down at the edge of the cliff, letting his feet hang in the cool night air. "Can't humans and the forest live in peace?" he asked no one in particular. "Can't this be stopped?"

"They're already gathering," Mitsuki responded. "Soon they'll arrive. It's too late for doubts."

"And Katsuki?" said Izuku, turning his head to look at her as anger welled in his stomach. "What of him? When this war ends, where will he find himself?"

Mitsuki hissed out a cruel laugh, and said, "Selfish, just like a human. Katsuki is a child of the wolves. When the forest dies, so too will he."

Izuku's mark squirmed, desperate for release, and he spat, "Set him free. He's a human and you know it."

"Silence!" Mitsuki commanded, angry for the first time since he'd met her. Spit dangled from her jowls and her fur stood on end, as if she were trying to fight the truth they both knew was hanging in the air. "What can you do for him? Your kind—his own damn parents—left him in my path when he was but a baby. I took him in, and raised him for my own. He is neither wolf nor human, yet both. My poor, ugly, beautiful son—you really think you can save him?"

"I don't know," Izuku said honestly, "but together we can live. I promise you that."

Casting her head toward the horizon, Mitsuki said, "There is nothing you can do, boy. Soon that scar will kill you. Leave here when the sun rises."

Back in the cavern, Izuku settled down on the fur. His wounds were basically healed, and for once he felt physically sound, rooted in the ground. From beside him, Katsuki stirred, slivers of his red visible from his half lidded eyes.

"Can you walk now?" he asked sleepily, still curled up on the ground.

"Thanks to you and the Forest Spirit, yeah," replied Izuku, smiling. "I'd be lost without you."

Katsuki smiled back—unwitting and small, like Izuku had coaxed it out of him—and said, "Damn straight." Snuggling back into his fur coat, his eyes drifted shut again, and his steady breathing resumed.

Izuku laughed, grabbing a nearby blanket and pulling it up to Katsuki's chin. "Sleep," he said, and laid back down on the patch of leaves next to him. It would surely be a busy day tomorrow.

Izuku woke to an empty cavern. His things—the pouches he carried with him, his sword and scabbard, and the hood he wore to cover his distinctive hair—were piled on the floor next to him, tied up and wrapped neatly. On unsteady feet he rose, scooping his belongings in his arms and rushing out to find Yakul.

His faithful elk was waiting outside, and so was a great white wolf, sitting on the rock. Izuku jumped onto Yakul's back and the wolf began to move, clearly intending for him to follow behind. With Izuku in tow, the wolf descended down the mountain, leading them down to the place where the forest and Irontown met.

"It's so quiet," commented Izuku, eyes drifting between the empty trees. "All the kodama are gone…"

At the base of the forest, the wolf stopped. This was it, then—Izuku could even smell the ironworks in the distance, the scent rising like smoke from every pore of the city. "Thank you for guiding me," he said, reaching for the crystal dagger his mother had given him when he left all those weeks ago that he kept around his neck. It glimmered in the morning sun, and it reminded him of that life, the humanity he'd left behind. He didn't need it—the mark on his arm was a constant reminder that he was painfully human—but there was someone who needed to see it, feel the weight of humanity in his savage hands. "Can you give this to Katsuki, please?"

The wolf nodded and Izuku pitched it at him, breathing out a sigh of relief when the wolf caught it in his jaw, letting the crystal hang from his sharp teeth. It dashed into the forest, seeking out Katsuki, and Izuku let his eyes fall shut.

"Let's go," he said after a moment's pause. "We have work to do, Yakul."

From within the forest, Katsuki crouched, watching the humans prepare for battle. The way they held their weapons, readying themselves to butcher anything they came into contact infuriated him, and hearing their tinny voices from afar made him even angrier. A nasty smell wafted from the campsite, and Katsuki's nose scrunched up in disgust.

"I can't smell shit," he growled. "Is that what they're trying to do?"

"Yes," said Mitsuki, angling her head toward the smoke that billowed from their cannons. "Trying to lure out the boars in any way they can. Okkoto knows it, too; he's not a fool, but he's proud. The last of his clan will go down charging forward."

Reaching forward to grab onto his mother's arm, Katsuki buried his face in her fur. They weren't a family of physical affection, but somehow he knew that if he didn't do it now, he never would. "I'm going," he said. "That dumbass Okkoto is blind. I have to lead him or else they'll all fucking die."

"Go, then," said Mitsuki, voice more subdued than ever before. "Though there is a life for you among the humans, you know. With that boy."

"I fucking hate him," said Katsuki. Even he could hear the lie in his voice, but Mitsuki didn't call him out on it. "All those humans can burn."

They stood there for a while, intertwined, until one of his brothers came up from behind him. In his jowls was a knife, sharp and dangerous looking, that glittered; its colors spun in dizzying patterns, casting rainbow shadows on the brush below. Sticking his nose into Katsuki's side, his brother beckoned for him to take it.

"From Izuku?" asked Katsuki, grabbing the dagger. He examined it in the sunlight, eyes widening as the rays bounced off each other. "Damn, that's pretty…"

"You two go with Katsuki," said Mitsuki, interrupting his thoughts. "I'll stay with the Forest Spirit."

With his teeth, Katsuki ripped the tie holding the dagger on the necklace. Wrapping it around his neck, he tied a hasty knot and jumped onto his brother's back. "Let's go," he said as they traveled away from his mother. "I'm gonna flay that fucking bitch Yaoyorozu if I get my hands around her little neck."

They rode into the stream of boars all racing toward the city. Painted with battle markings, the boars ran together as a singular unit, unstopping.

"The tribe of Mitsuki's fighting those bastards too!" he said, trying to keep up with their furious pace. "Where's Okkoto?"

One of the boars near him squealed out the answer, directing him, and with a hushed thanks he changed direction, diverting from the river of boars and to a glen a little way further down.

A sea of arrows rained down from the city's watchtowers.

Indiscriminately, they blanketed the battlefield. Boars and men alike fell, struck down by the hellfire Yaoyorozu was unleashing on the countryside, and Izuku watched with sick impassiveness and the piles of bodies grew taller and taller. Soon enough they'd be stacked higher than the city itself, looming over its ramparts like a disapproving god.

Irontown was being attacked by samurai, under siege, but its commander was nowhere to be found—he'd searched for Todoroki and Yaoyorozu but they were long gone, leaving the city in the hands of its capable but alone women.

Stepping down from Yakul's back, Izuku waded through the rows of the dead, searching for someone who could provide answers. Huddled near the end of the third row was a group of men dressed in rags, faces grim and pale like they were spirits returning from a lost world.

"Stranger," one of them said with surprise, picking up his head to stare at Izuku. It was Kirishima, ankle bound tightly and red hair tied back behind his head, dark circles branching from his eyes like valleys. "Thank the gods. I thought you were dead! Kaminari said—"

"I'm alive," Izuku interrupted. "Where is Lady Yaoyorozu? The ironworks are under attack. Some samurai lord took the opportunity. The women are there, but… they're completely alone."

Kirishima's face paled, and Izuku remembered that he had a wife in the city. A wife who, at present, was fighting to survive. "She's out looking for the Forest Spirit with Todoroki. We need to go back," he said, moving toward the mercenaries that stood a few feet away, staring out at the front lines. "Hey, did you hear? He said Irontown's under attack! We need to go back now!" The mercenaries remained silent, watching the battle before them, and Kirishima let out a raw sob. "Listen to me, you bastards!"

Looking to the remaining men, Izuku said quickly, voice hushed, "Did any of you see the wolf boy? He must've been on the battlefield somewhere. I—is he still alive?"

"I saw him," said one man, face practically grey. He rocked on the floor, hands pulling his knees to his chest, and continued, "They're throwing grenades into the crowd, y'know? We were at the front lines. Your little buddy was running with the boars straight into the explosions. If he survived, it's a miracle."

Izuku's jaw was set, firm, and he stared out at the countless boar corpses stretched out before him, hoping to find some truth within them. As if answering his prayer, a white snout poked out from the pile a few paces down from him, followed by a large foaming mouth. It was one of Katsuki's brothers—the wolf who had escorted him down the mountain, who'd held the dagger in his jowls and delivered it faithfully.

"Where's Katsuki?" he asked, frantic, trying to push the bodies that weighed the wolf down and trapped him. The wolf squirmed, unnerved, and Izuku chided, "Don't struggle, I'm trying to help you."

The men stood and stared, shocked, and a mercenary burst through, eyes livid above his covered mouth. "What are you doing, brat?" he hissed, weapon at the ready. "Move so I can kill it!"

"He's going to bring me to Yaoyorozu," Izuku winced, pushing a boar free. The wolf was about halfway out now, but managing it alone was difficult; his body was still weak from the injuries he'd already sustained, and it wouldn't take much if the mercenary decided to kill him. "I need to tell her about the ironworks."

"So you're on their side?" the mercenary said. "Then I'll—"

"What's more important, the Forest God's head or an entire city?" said Izuku as he struggled under the weight of yet another body. "This is these men's families we're talking about. They're dying, alone, because of some stupid legend!"

The mercenary blew a dart and it stung Izuku's arm, sending poison through his system. Immediately his arms folded and he collapsed beneath the boar, suffocated by its coarse hairs. There was a struggle going on but he couldn't see, and then suddenly dozens of arms were lifting the boar from his body, freeing him from beneath its stomach.

"Give me a hand!" he urged the men who had come to his defense, and together they pushed out the remaining corpses, allowing the wolf to wriggle its large body free.

Yakul leapt to its side and they smelled each other, relaxing as they took in their familiar scents. The men looked on in wonder, and Izuku nearly smiled. Perhaps his dreams of harmony weren't so far fetched after all.

Turning back to the men, he said, "The riflemen are with them, but be careful." He swung his bow off his back and placed it in Kirishima's open palms. "Take it. My last arrow is broken." Casting one final look at Yakul, he said, "You stay with them, okay? I'll be back!"

Without another word he ran toward the Forest Spirit's pool. Katsuki was waiting there—he had to be.

Something was wrong. They'd been making progress, he and the wolf, but at the top of a cliff they'd stopped, suddenly. The wolf sniffed the air, eyes wide, and dove down, speeding them down into the forest beneath. Whatever it was, something was happening—something bad, probably, something that put Katsuki's life in danger.

They tore through the mercenaries that lined the forest floor, and out of the corner of his eye Izuku saw a familiar hakama. He wanted to accompany the wolf—wanted it so badly—but he knew he couldn't so he said, "Go on without me," and jumped into the fray, landing unsteadily on his feet right opposite the woman he'd been searching for. "Lady Yaoyorozu!"

She stood before him, Todoroki at her side, guns blazing. "So you survived," she said. "Good. I was worried, despite everything."

"The samurai are attacking the ironworks!" he called, ignoring her jab. "If you don't act now, the city will fall! You need to return to them—the men are already headed back, but it may be too late!"

Her face twisted with worry, but she shot back, "And where's your proof, boy?"

"I have none," he said, hands in the air. "But if I could, I'd be fighting beside them right now." Eyes drifting to Todoroki, he added, "I know you care about your subordinates, Yaoyorozu. Make the right decision. The ironworks and the forest can live in peace."

With that, he turned to follow the wolf, praying that she'd heeded his words. The distance between the glen and the lake was small, but it felt unbearably long. Each step reminded him of the danger Katsuki was in, reminded him of the forest's struggle, reminded him of the women fighting a fruitless battle for their lives.

When he got there, Katsuki was gone. The only creature that remained was Mitsuki, half in the water, eyes shut. She wasn't dead, but she looked near it—on the verge of collapse.

"Katsuki!" he cried, looking around the clearing. "Where are you? Katsuki!"

Before he could question more, Okkoto stepped out from the forest. He'd become a demon already, and black blood oozed from his body, surrounding him in the same aura that Nago had been engulfed in back home at the village. From inside the tendrils, Izuku could see two red eyes staring at him, desperate and scared, and he realized what was happening.

"Let him go!" he screamed, launching himself toward the boar god. There were mercenaries all around, poison darts ready to shoot, but he didn't care—Katsuki was suffocating inside the demon's grip, and his body was moved by some primal urge to save him, one that he couldn't stop even if he wanted to. Clawing through the bloody mess, he grasped Katsuki's hand briefly, and was about to pull him out when Okkoto shook his body and launched Izuku into the lake.

Izuku surfaced, spluttering, to the sight of the Forest Spirit's strange face looking into his. Frantically, his eyes sought out Yaoyorozu, who was poised to fire her gun right at the deer god's neck. Next to her stood Uraraka, dressed in formal robes, with a tall, blue-haired man holding a box. With a sickening jolt, he realized she meant to take the spirit's head with her.

"Don't shoot!" he yelled as the Forest Spirited walked along the water to the shore, clawed feet sending ripples down the lake with each step. "The Forest Spirit is not your enemy!"

The red and black blood surrounding Mitsuki and Okkoto, who were face to face on the shore, slumped over and dead, faded to grey, and slipped away like water. Izuku crawled out of the lake and grabbed Katsuki from the fray, diving back in to free him of the demon's influence.

They came up together, clean, and with wide eyes stared at the sight unfolding before them. The Forest Spirit was transforming, neck elongated in a star-patterned, translucent bridge into the sky. Its horns grew, too, a soft blue illuminated by the moon's glow. It was stunning, breathtaking—Izuku couldn't take his eyes off it. He heard the scurry of feet, though, and wrenched his gaze to see Yaoyorozu standing a few feet away, gun pointed at the long neck.

"Stop!" he said, voice hoarse from anger.

Yaoyorozu smirked, and the Forest Spirit looked at her, curious eyes unreadable. Her rifle burst into bloom, flowers crawling up its barrel and jamming its shot. "Damn," she muttered, and pressed her finger to the trigger.

A bullet ripped through the air and shot straight into the Forest Spirit's neck. There was a pause, infinitesimally short, and then the head rolled off its body, falling to the ground with a dull thump. The starry substance spilled from the headless body, pooling over the world around it, and the flowers underneath it died; they withered into nothing from full bloom, curling into themselves with a sad, lifeless wilt.

Katsuki trembled beside him, awake and alert, red eyes wide and bloodshot. Izuku held his hand, and they watched in silence as the world died.

Uraraka went off toward the forest to grab the head, eyes gleaming with gluttony. Yaoyorozu was running away, too, sprinting at full speed toward Irontown with Todoroki in tow. Out of nowhere, Mitsuki's severed head leapt up and tore at her arm, ripping away everything below the shoulder. With a shocked yelp, Yaoyorozu fell back into Todoroki's arms, unable to run any longer.

"Yaoyorozu-sama," said Todoroki, inspecting the damage with scared eyes. "Your arm, it's—"

"I knew she'd get me in the end," said Yaoyorozu through gritted teeth. "Even dead wolves can bite."

Izuku scrambled out of the lake, running to her side. Exchanging a glance with Todoroki, whose head was bowed and somber, he ripped off a sleeve and tied it around the stump, trying to stop the bleeding. "Your people need you," he said, eyes narrowed, when she looked at him in surprise. "I'm not doing this for you."

"Thank you," said Todoroki, hand clutching Yaoyorozu's. His gaze was fixed on her twisted mouth and the beads of sweat rolling down her forehead, and he barely seemed aware of what he was saying; the worry on his face was evident. "I don't know how we'll ever be able to repay you. Yaoyorozu-sama will be happy to provide—"

"He's looking for his head," interrupted Izuku, rising from the bank to his feet. "We can't stay here." He paused, then said urgently, "Katsuki, help me, please."

Katsuki backed away, teeth bared. "Fuck off," he swore, knife clutched in one hand and the other balled into a menacing fist. "You're just like the rest of them, you disgusting human. Take that cursed bitch and go to hell."

Hurt flashed through Izuku's chest, dropping low in his stomach like a weighty stone. "Katsuki," he said, voice more pleading than he intended, "I…"

"I hate humans," Katsuki growled, but his arms were shaking, legs wobbling from underneath him like he was about to keel over. "Get away from me, Izuku. You're nothing but fucking garbage!"

Izuku took a step forward, and when Katsuki didn't back away, he said with finality, "I am a human. But so are you, Katsuki."

Shaking his head like he couldn't bear it, Katsuki punched his fist against the skin of Izuku's bare chest, right against the mottled markings that had spread across his skin. Izuku wrapped his arms around Katsuki's broad shoulders and pulled him into an embrace, resting his head in the crook of Katsuki's shoulder as the feral boy burrowed into his skin. Wet tears dripped onto his collarbone, but Izuku didn't say anything; Katsuki needed to grieve quietly, and that was fine.

"I'm sorry," Izuku whispered after a moment had gone by. "I tried to stop it. I really, really tried."

Behind them, the Night Walker's headless body stepped forward into the forest. Its behemoth limbs crushed everything in its path, sending the beautiful, verdant trees toppling to the ground, and the kodama fell from the branches into the water, sinking like pebbles tossed carelessly into the sea.

"It's done now," said Katsuki, voice broken with trembles, and he closed eyes so as not to see the damage. "The forest's really dead now. We couldn't change shit."

A tree crashed behind them, its leaves whisking by Izuku's ears, but when he looked up there was hope, somehow. The sky, for all its eternity, stretched out infinitely into the great beyond—stars tossed, haphazard, on its blue expanse winked down at them like old friends. There was something to be saved after all if the sky still smiled upon them; there had to be.

"It's not," he protested, pulling away from Katsuki to stare deep into his vibrant red eyes, which welled with fat tears. "We're alive. Can't you see that? We're alive. You can still help me."

Katsuki stared back. His gaze was uncertain, and Izuku could tell that he didn't quite believe that there was still a chance, but he nodded anyway, wiping the tears off on the back of his hand. "Then let's go," he said, looking up at the hill that lay before them. "This mess isn't gonna fix itself, right?"

They rode in tense silence past Irontown in pursuit of Uraraka and her companion. The Night Walker's deadly fluid rolled down the hillside in sickening clumps, each wave bringing with it a more potent agent of death. Hands dipped down into the forest from the creature's body, searching fruitlessly for the head that had been stolen from it.

"They'll probably be safe in the lake," commented Katsuki, sharp eyes scanning the valleys below for any trace of Uraraka. "Unless those idiots can't even follow such a simple order."

"Not helping," muttered Izuku under his breath. "Not in the slightest, Katsuki."

Katsuki scowled. "Sorry I tried," he said, leaning forward on the wolf's back. "Sucks that humans don't have a sense of humor."

Izuku sighed, but didn't say anything in response. It would be useless to have this conversation now. Katsuki seemed to have reconciled himself somewhat with the idea of his own humanity, but getting him to admit it verbally would likely constitute another long-fought battle. That is, if we make it out of here alive, he thought grimly, tipping his head back into the wind.

"I see her!" said Katsuki suddenly, attention diverted from their spat. "She's right down there. Some other bastard's carrying the head, but they're sticking pretty close; we can confront them together."

They leapt down the hill, trying their best to outpace the typhoon of the Night Walker's body, and jumped off the wolves' backs. Uraraka was struggling to carry the box, the blue-haired man behind her pushing them both up the hill, but her eyes swirled with the same hungry power as before.

"Wait!" Izuku cried, stepping out in front of her.

Uraraka practically jumped in her skin at the sight of him. She was dripping sweat, forehead glistening with it, and her hakama was slipping down her shoulders, sash barely holding the outfit together. "You survived!" she said happily, beaming her most charming smile. "Excellent! I was really quite worried, y'know. Seeing you back there was a real shock."

"I'll give the head back," said Izuku, ignoring her overly familiar tone. "Put it down and get out of here. Nothing good can come from this."

Looking up at the sky, Uraraka pouted. "Aw, but it's almost morning," she whined, voice shaking despite her false bravado. "In a few minutes that dumb beast will be nothing but a wrinkled worm, and we'll all forget this ever happened."

The blue-haired man holding the other end of the box looked nervously behind him, and said, "Uraraka-kun, it's coming. We must hurry."

"Yes, yes, thank you Iida," said Uraraka. Turning her attention back to Izuku, she added, "I know you must think I'm crazy. But it's so very human to crave all between heaven and hell, isn't it? Surely you can understand that." When Izuku merely glared, she laughed. "Maybe not. In time, if you're really desperate enough, you'll learn." Holding onto the box, she rushed forward, Iida stumbling after her as they tried to escape the Night Walker's deadly grip.

Izuku tore after them, ready to chase for as long as was necessary, but Uraraka tripped over a rock and bowled down the slope of the hill, petite body clinging onto the box for as long as she could manage. Swearing under his breath, Izuku turned to follow, grabbing onto Katsuki's wrist and leading him back down the hill. Fall finally breaking on a large boulder, Uraraka scrambled to the sliver of dry land on its top, clutching the severed head like a lifeline. Izuku jumped on at the last second and pulled Katsuki up with him, and then there were three on the boulder, all breathing heavily. As the gap between the rock and the viscous fluid filled, Iida climbed on too, chest heaving with effort.

"It's too late now," gasped Uraraka before Izuku could even speak. "Don't you see? We're gonna die because of your stupid intervention. The whole forest's dead now anyway—what do you think you're gonna achieve, huh? You think—ha, you think your curse is gonna get healed now? Look at you! You're both gonna die here and now!"

Looking down at his chest, acceptance settled at the base of Izuku's stomach when he confirmed what she'd said. The mark had spread throughout his whole body, marring his skin with gashes of red and pink scars.

Pushing a finger into Uraraka's chest, Katsuki said with a quiet viciousness that snapped Izuku out of his thoughts, "Shut your fucking mouth."

"Human hands must return the head," said Izuku, reaching out for the box. "If you give it to me now, there might still be time."

Uraraka swayed on her feet, eyes darting nervously between him and Katsuki, but, realizing she was out of options, she simply heaved a deep sigh and shrugged, letting Izuku take the box. "Don't say I didn't warn you," she said, limping over to where Iida stood. "Good luck, stranger."

Together, Izuku and Katsuki opened the lid of the pot and lifted the head to the sky, hands dripping the bloody green fluid it was encased in. The curse marks grew further, spreading across the expanse of his skin and onto Katsuki's, too. Soon they were both covered, but it didn't matter anymore—Izuku felt at peace, comforted by their matching afflictions.

"Forest Spirit!" he shouted, arms trembling under the weight of the head. "Take your head and be at peace!"

The great, stumbling body leaned down, attracted to the sound of Izuku's voice, and with a long, thin arm, grabbed the head from their arms. The spot where they connected exuded a golden glow that spread across the horizon as dawn fell upon the forest, and then it stopped. The Night Walker craned its long, dark neck up to the sky for the final time, and collapsed into the lake, slopping water onto the shores and blowing away the remnants of Irontown's structure.

And then the world was born anew.

Two weeks later.

Starting the process of recovery had been the most difficult part. The newly green valleys, coated in fields of fresh grass and wildflowers, had ruined the agriculture of the area and the forges were destroyed, hidden under layers of moss and vegetation.

There had been no attempts to change this, though. Lady Yaoyorozu had insisted that they stay untouched.

When she'd summoned Izuku to her chambers to see her after everything, her hair had been freed from its knot, hanging loosely by her shoulders. Her coat covered her missing arm with elegance, but there was no doubt that it was gone; she didn't seem to want to hide, nor to fix it. Sitting on a chair by her bedside was Todoroki, faithful as always, snoozing away.

"I see not much has changed," Izuku had joked, testing out the waters. "Todoroki-san really is a good captain."

Yaoyorozu had laughed, a carefree sound, and smiled ruefully. "We can't very well get married now that I've lost my ring finger," she'd said, "but that's okay. We don't want to, anyway."

They'd spoken for hours about Irontown, pouring over its future and the plans for future industry that wouldn't pose a threat to the local environment, until Todoroki woke up and demanded in turn that Yaoyorozu sleep 'for better health.'

It was good, the way Yaoyorozu had changed. She still carried with her an intrinsic authority, but she didn't seem to want to prove it; it flowed naturally with her movements, obvious from the way she spoke that it was there, but left unsaid all the same. Irontown had changed, too, as a result. Flowers bloomed around every corner, and the children tucked them behind their small, tanned ears, chasing each other underneath the afternoon sun. The forges were no longer operational, but the women were still hard at work rebuilding the city's walls under Yaoyorozu's steady guidance.

Uraraka had apparently escaped unscathed. That didn't surprise him, somehow—she struck him as the resilient type. According to Todoroki, the last thing she'd said before setting off for the city had been a sighed, "I give up. You just can't win against fools."

The thought made him laugh.

Staring up at the gates of the city that had changed his life, Izuku rubbed his eyes. He was tired—profoundly, deeply tired—but he couldn't sleep yet. For starters, he had no idea where to go. Izuku had offered to stay in Irontown and help out, but Todoroki had fixed him with a knowing stare and said bluntly, "You're a coward if you decide to live away from what you want, Midoriya. If you want that boy, then go get him. It's not that difficult."

He hadn't seen Katsuki since that fateful day when everything changed. They'd walked around for a while, soaking in the purified air, but before long real life crept in—worries about the future, questions about what there was between them and what could be sustained. Katsuki had said, eyes shifty, that there was much to be done in the forest and that they'd see each other around, and unquestioningly Izuku had agreed, to nervous to ask for more. And now here they were, back to the way things used to be.

Well, not anymore. Izuku, through Yakul, had asked Katsuki to meet him so they could discuss… stuff. What precisely that stuff was going to consist of, he still didn't really know. It probably wouldn't be too hard to—

"Yo," came a familiar voice from a little way down the road, cutting off Izuku's thought. "Sorry I'm late, some shit came up. Why'd you want to see me?"

Izuku started, whirling around on his feet. "Katsuki!" he managed, words caught up in his mouth. The other boy was dressed in his typical furs, but the crystal Izuku had given him laid on his bare chest, gleaming in the sun. "I didn't hear you approach. I did want to see you, indeed."

"I know," said Katsuki, blinking. "That's why I said you did, dumbass. Did you finally lose your last brain cells?"

Cheeks going an embarrassed red, Izuku laughed nervously. "I guess I did say that already," he said, rubbing the back of his head. "Haha… Um. Right."

This was decidedly not going as planned. During the incident, finding the right words had been easy, but now that they were returned to real life it felt impossible. Would Katsuki even care about Izuku if they weren't working together? Would he want the same things Izuku wanted?"

Katsuki stared at him as if he'd grown a second head, and stepped forward, knocking on his skull. "It's not hollow," he muttered, "so there's gotta be something in there, but I just don't—"

"I'm in love with you," Izuku blurted out, unable to hold the words in for any longer. "And I know you're going to think it's weird, or object, but I just—you're so beautiful, and alive, and I want to be by your side for as long as you'll allow me to be."

Eyebrows shooting up his forehead, Katsuki stumbled back, face red as a ripe apple. "Stupid Izuku," he hissed, clawing at his red cheeks. "You can't just say stuff like that, you scared the shit out of me. I think I almost died just now." A few seconds later, when Izuku didn't say anything more, Katsuki sighed in aggravation and admitted, "I want to stay with you too. For—I guess for the same reason you do. Maybe."

Izuku's heart was racing, and he took a step forward, lifting his hand to Katsuki's jaw. "Tell me if this is okay," he whispered, breath hot against Katsuki's lips.

"It's okay," whispered Katsuki back.

"Okay," said Izuku, and he pressed his lips to Katsuki's firmly, eyes sliding shut as they kissed in the light of morning.

From a nearby tree a kodama chittered, and Izuku thought that maybe everything would turn out just fine after all.