One of the darkest parts of the Forbidden Forest wasn't the deepest, or the most secret. In fact, it was only a little ways into the woods that one came to it—a secluded, hushed thicket where the trees grew so close together that even in the middle of the afternoon it felt like twilight.
Twigs snapped beneath Katsuki's feet as he made his way through the forest. He'd come straight after his last class of the day had finished—Arithmancy, which had succeeded in numbing his brain as usual, no matter how hard he tried to pay attention. The fresh air and sounds of creatures skittering about in the underbrush were a welcome change of pace. He'd left his robes at the edge of the forest, and rolled his sleeves to his elbows, green tie thrown over his shoulder.
As he moved past one dense area of trees, he happened upon a peculiar sight. There was another boy already in the forest, his back turned to Katsuki. His hair was practically a bird's nest, quite literally—Katsuki could see some errant leaves caught in the curls. He was crouched down on the mossy forest floor, and it didn't appear as though he'd heard Katsuki approaching.
Katsuki grinned. "Oi, Deku!"
With a yelp, the other boy tried to scramble around to face him. He ended up falling into the leaves on his rear end as Katsuki doubled over with laughter.
"You didn't need to shout," Izuku said, glaring at him.
He hadn't thought to take off his robes before venturing into the forest, and the hem was already muddied, places on it torn where it had clearly caught on branches and the like. Katsuki shook his head—they'd have to do a lot of tedious spellwork to patch it up before heading back to the castle, or Professor Aizawa would assume they'd been fighting again.
They were both fifth years, now, and hadn't gotten into a good brawl since their fourth, but the teachers were always suspicious of their ability to get along. Considering how fraught the prior years had been, it was a fair assumption. But since second year, and more importantly since Quidditch, after they were made rival Seekers of their respective house teams, Katsuki had discovered that win or lose against that damned know-it-all, all he wanted was Izuku's eyes on him (preferably on his back, as Katsuki swooped ahead of him to snatch a winking glint of gold out from under his nose).
Battling in the air had helped them mellow out while their feet were on the ground, but it was these treks into the Forbidden Forest that had made Katsuki understand a great deal more about his changing feelings. They weren't just sneaking into the forest for fun, although that was how it had all started. The reason he had followed Izuku into the forest that day was…
"Oh, hello there," Izuku said, frown disappearing as a small, skeletal black shape butted at his chin with the top of its head. "Katsuki, you made me worry Amica."
"You're the one who fell over," Katsuki reminded him with a snort, but he approached to sit on the ground near Izuku, reaching out a hand to pet the small Thestral foal they had both been looking after for the better part of two months.
They'd found Amica injured when Katsuki had dared Izuku to go into the forest and then followed him after Izuku had unexpectedly taken him up on the prospect. They still didn't know what had torn her thin black wings, but they could guess—many wizards believed Thestrals, with their frightening appearance, to be bad omens. She had probably been attacked while flying.
They'd spent the past months nursing her back to health, bringing her and the herd food as they looked after her, making sure the wings were mending with spells they'd learned from Koji Koda, one of the boys in their year who was particularly knowledgeable about Care of Magical Creatures.
"She's doing really well," Izuku said proudly. "I checked her wings already and you can barely tell where they were torn anymore. They're completely closed up."
"Really?" Katsuki asked, surprised.
He was pleased, definitely—but it had also taken a much shorter time than he'd expected. He was starting to get used to these meetings in the forest; just the two of them, and the herd of silent, watchful Thestrals, all of whom had become accustomed to the two boys. Amica's mother, Umbra, had been skittish at first—but now she would regularly leave to hunt for food while Katsuki and Izuku stayed and tended to her foal. She must have flown off when Izuku had arrived, before Katsuki joined them.
Amica let out a shrill screech, trotting around in front of him, stretching her freshly healed wings and tossing her mane like she could sense his surprise. Katsuki patted her rump placatingly.
"Very impressive," he conceded. "Does this mean you'll be giving me a ride sometime soon?"
"Maybe when she's a little bigger," Izuku murmured. He laughed at Amica's prancing, and she butted her head against his until he got the idea and began rubbing her draconic nose with his large, steady hands. Katsuki watched them intently for a moment, thinking back on all the time he'd spent the past couple of months with Izuku, watching those hands gently tending to the baby Thestral. Some bubbling feeling of warmth fizzed inside his chest, before he realized how hard he was staring and glanced away.
"You're here a couple days earlier than usual," he said, noting the hint of gruffness in his voice with annoyance. "Did you really come out just to check on her, or…"
"Or what?" Izuku asked.
"You know what," Katsuki said, elbowing him. "Still sulking after our match?"
Gryffindor and Slytherin had played each other the previous weekend, and that time, it was Katsuki who'd emerged victorious, Snitch clutched between his fingers at the end of a long, hard-fought match. With all the celebrating, he hadn't gotten to talk to Izuku much afterward—not that he was going to chase after him. But now, perhaps, was his chance.
"I'm not sulking," Izuku said. "It was a good game. I enjoyed it."
It was a good game, but it had knocked Gryffindor out of the running a little early. It couldn't be helped, of course—but now all that was left was to play Ravenclaw, and Katsuki couldn't find himself quite so excited about the prospect of that final match. He shook his head to clear it. He couldn't be thinking about that, not when winning should be his priority.
It was just that playing against Deku was when he felt the most like he was flying.
"It was," he grunted. "Best you've ever flown, I'd say. If you'd been playing anyone but me, you'd've won."
His remark was met by silence, and when he finally turned to look at Izuku—what, had Katsuki offended him just from that—it was to see the other boy utterly frozen, staring at him, eyes so wide they were noticeably green even in the dimness. It was something Katsuki could never help noticing. The color was as concentrated as the most expensive inks. Always struck him as strange, that Izuku had his house colors reflected there, while Katsuki had his.
"What?" Katsuki snapped.
"Kacchan!" Izuku squeaked, eyes filling with tears. Katsuki blanched. "Was that—did you just—"
"Don't overthink it."
"You complimented me!"
"You're imagining things—oof!" He stumbled back as Izuku flung his arms around his neck in a very unexpected hug. "What the hell are you doing, Deku—"
"You—better—beat—Ravenclaw!" Izuku sobbed. Katsuki couldn't help but think that he was very warm. Awkwardly, he patted the other boy on the back.
"I will, I will," he said. "Obviously."
Izuku sniffled loudly. "Good." He pulled away, wiping at his wet face, glancing anywhere but at Katsuki. Suddenly, he gasped. "Katsuki—Amica, look, she's—"
Katsuki twisted around, just in time. Perhaps tired of her friends ignoring her, or just excited to finally test if she'd healed enough, Amica circled the thicket once at a loping pace, before spreading her black bat-like wings wide and springing into the air. Izuku and Katsuki shot to their feet in surprise.
"She's flying again!" Izuku yelled.
"Be—be careful!" Katsuki called up to her before he could help himself. "Don't overdo it!"
"Worrywart," Izuku said, only to let out a loud gasp as the Thestral plunged into a dive towards them, looking as though she would run straight into them. Izuku screeched, but she pulled up again expertly, right before colliding with them.
"Did you see that?!" Katsuki demanded, refusing to admit how his own heart had leapt into his mouth. "Top notch Wronski Feint right there!" He tried to raise his hand to point, and realized suddenly that Izuku had grabbed it when Amica had dived at them, and was still holding it.
Katsuki felt as though he'd been hit with a Pepper Breath hex—he was sure his entire face must be on fire, and that flames would come spouting out of his mouth at any second. He didn't try to pull his hand out of Izuku's; only belatedly did he realize he didn't want to pull away at all.
Izuku showed no sign of being embarrassed, and he didn't let go of Katsuki's hand. He turned to face Katsuki instead, his entire expression lit up.
"We did it," he said. "Thank you."
Katsuki shifted awkwardly. "For what?"
"For always coming here with me," Izuku said. "For helping me with everything. For being kind." He brushed his thumb over Katsuki's knuckles slowly.
"Y-yeah, well," Katsuki stammered. "We don't have to stop coming here. We should… should…" It was all rambling, but Izuku was smiling up at him, and so he kept talking, desperate. "We should sneak our brooms out here. So we can fly with her."
Izuku's mouth fell open. "Really?!" He grabbed Katsuki's other hand, squeezing tightly. "You really want to?"
"Yeah," Katsuki said. They'd be breaking at least twenty school rules, and who knew how many house points they'd get docked if anyone caught them, but they could cross that bridge when they came to it. Right now the only thing that mattered to Katsuki was Izuku's smile.
A smile that, he now realized, seemed to be getting closer. He stared, transfixed, as Izuku leaned toward him.
"I want that, too," Izuku said softly. "I'd really, really like that…"
Katsuki swallowed. "You'd better, since I offered."
Izuku grinned. "I want to keep flying with you."
He pushed up onto his toes, and Katsuki's arms went around his waist as Izuku closed the last bit of distance between them—and then Katsuki felt as though he'd really found out what it felt like to fly.