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He hates the sea. Dabi grunts as he pulls his helmet off, the air thick and warm as it fills his lungs. The sea breeze tickles his hair, stuck up in sweaty spikes. He runs his hand through it, scratching vigorously at his scalp. Below him, the waves crash against the cliff face, like the sea hates him a little too and is trying to claim him for itself. Or maybe it loves him. He needs to stop assuming that everything wants to kill him. That’s what his mother would say.

Then again, there’s a reason she’s not there to say it.

He strips off his armor, the iron scales clattering against one another as he piles it on the warm, scrubby grass. He needs to clean it after that last job, but not here. The saltwater will only rust it out, and he can’t afford to replace it right now. Or, well, ever.

Dabi snorts softly and rubs at his chest, his fingers slipping between the folds of his belted shitagi to massage the ache out of the scar tissue. He’ll need to find another job soon, and a good one, if he’s going to afford anything. Not that it’ll be easy, this close to his father’s territory. His father’s men are like cockroaches with swords. They’ll do half the job for twice as much, but people will hire them anyways. Whatever their price is, it’s better than angering Shogun Todoroki Enji.

Cowards. But no one hires a samurai because they can handle themselves already.

He holds out a hand, palm up, and lets the sea breeze play between his fingers, tickling the calloused skin. It’s almost peaceful there, even despite the crash of the sea. Almost.

Dabi ducks sideways as a blade sings past his ear.

Dabi lets himself drop to the ground and rolls, his fingers digging into the warm earth. He yanks his sword out of its sheath and rolls onto his back, raising the blade just in time to catch the one coming down on him. It’s his wakizashi. Fuck. His fault for taking off his weapons, for assuming he might be safe on the lonely cliff, but the shorter sword is meant for his off-hand, not to be his primary weapon. Unfortunately now he doesn't have a choice.

Dabi uses the momentum to knock his attacker’s blade sideways, knocking him off balance. It buys him enough time to get to his feet, but not much. He has to deflect another blow before he’s able to spring backwards and out of the other samurai’s range.

It’s one of his father’s men. It has to be. His armor is too nice for him to be anything else, the iron scales painted with red enamel so he glitters like a dragon in the sunlight. His helmet is similarly ornate, the front curved like the beak of a hawk that then sweeps backwards, into what could almost be the brow of a furious beast. Flashy. The kind of samurai from a tale, except for the fact that he’s trying to kill him.

Dabi adjusts his grip on his weapon, his palm sweaty. He’s really not surprised his father sent someone to kill him; only that it took him so long.

They circle each other for one heartbeat. Two. Dabi’s eyes dart toward his armor, useless on the ground. No armor, shorter sword, no advantage. Fine. He’ll have to finish this fast.

“Well?” Dabi asks. His lungs are already burning, his breathing hard. “Are we going to fight, or did you just want to dance?”

The samurai leaps forward, his blade raised, and this time Dabi goes to meet him. It is almost a dance, despite the flashing blades. The samurai is one of his father’s men, but he doesn’t fight like one. Todoroki Enji fights like a bull, brutal and sudden and unstoppable. His samurai doesn’t have the same power behind his blows, but he is fast. He darts through Dabi’s attacks like his feet never even touch the ground, as sharp and swift as lightning. It’s all Dabi can do just to keep up with him, much less strike a blow. So much for finishing this quickly.

There’s a monstrous groan behind him as a chunk of rock breaks free from the cliff face, the earth shaking in response to the terrible scrape of stone-on-stone. It’s just enough that the samurai stumbles, and Dabi rushes into the space left behind his defenses. He twists his sword, and it finds the narrow opening between armor. Dabi feels the solid response of metal hitting flesh before the samurai staggers backwards, thrown by a sudden rush of wind off the sea.

No. Not the sea, though it comes from that direction and stinks of saltwater. It buffets Dabi from behind, throwing his hair in every direction, warm and familiar, like the breath of a god on his back.

A god, or a dragon.

The edge of the cliff shatters under a great scaley paw, but talons the size of his forearm dig into the rock, holding it together as the dragon hauls herself over the edge. She’s built like a massive snake, long and sinuous and scaled, except for the thick mane of dark fur around her neck, tangled around her long antlers. Her neck arches, half of her body still hanging off of the cliff, and she roars with another hot gust of air, the force shaking her entire body.

The samurai stares upwards, one hand clutching the shoulder where Dabi’s sword made contact. He pulls off his helmet, and Dabi’s heart leaps to his throat. He knows him. Or, well--he knows of him. His father has a lot of men at his disposal and Dabi took pains not to be aware of most of them, but everyone in the shogunate knows about Hawks. An orphan taken in and raised by the blade. A samurai of legendary skill, and deeper loyalty.

Hatred curls in Dabi’s gut. A pet. A toy. An assassin. He should be flattered, he supposes, that his father sent someone with some skill to kill him.

Dabi’s lips curl into a snarl to match the dragon’s, his teeth almost as sharp. Fine. He’ll send Todoroki Enji back his samurai’s head.

“Stay back,” Dabi snaps, throwing out a hand. “I don’t want you to be a part of this.” Hawks actually looks startled, as if Dabi might be talking to him, until the dragon roars in response. Dabi adjusts his grip on his sword. “I mean it, Benzaiten.”

“You’re a fool,” she hisses, a flicker of blue fire curling between her teeth. Her voice is always higher than anyone expects for such a large creature, reedy like the wind over water.

“I know,” he mutters, but Benzaiten doesn’t interfere as Dabi steps forward again, his sword held out in front of him.

Hawks’ eyes shift downwards, back to Dabi, and Dabi can see resolve harden in his eyes once more. The samurai’s smile twitches. “In my defense,” Hawks says, almost conversationally, “you weren’t supposed to have the dragon.”

Dabi grunts. “I’m sure there are a lot of things my father never told you.”

He doesn’t want to talk about his father. He wants to fight. Dabi lunges forward, his limbs burning with new, desperate strength. Did his father really not know that Benzaiten’s still alive? It feels wrong that the same father that once felt so all-knowing would make such a simple mistake, but it just means that Hawks can’t make it back to his master alive. If not for Dabi’s sake, then for hers.

Benzaiten doesn't like it, but she never likes it when he puts himself in danger, especially for her. He forgets that she’s grown sometimes. Maybe he’s sentimental, but all he sees when he looks at her is a hatchling with eggshell stuck to her nose. Maybe. But the danger is still real. The only thing his father hates more than Dabi himself is his dragon.

“Your pride will kill you faster than this one,” Benzaiten growls. “He looks like a beetle.” She drags herself over the edge of the cliff, her dark scales still dripping from her dip in the sea, and loops herself loosely around their battlefield.

Hawks eyes dart toward her nervously, but he doesn’t falter as he effortlessly dodges Dabi’s sword. He looks at Benzaiten and sees a beast ready to attack, blue flame twisting over her tongue. Dabi sees anxiety in blue scales, her talons anxiously kneading the earth. He hates to worry her, but he hates the thought of Hawks’ sword getting anywhere near her even more. He won’t risk her. Not for anything.

He’d rather die. He just might.

Hawks’ head twists again, always cocked sideways, so that he keeps Benzaiten’s teeth in his view, as if watching them will keep them from closing around him.

“What did my father promise you in exchange for my head?” Dabi says, pulling his attention back. “The shogunate? You’re a bigger fool than you look, if you believe that.” And Fuyumi is the biggest of them all, if she thinks he won’t replace her once Shouto is of age. But that’s not his problem anymore. It really never was.

“Money?” Dabi says, when Hawks doesn’t answer. His feet are coated with dust and dirt kicked up as they wheel and spin around one another, like two dueling birds. “A wife?”

Hawks’ lips curl back from his teeth in a silent snarl, but he doesn't take the bait. Sweat drips down his face, and his injured arm seems to be growing heavier by the minute, the fabric beneath his armor soaked with blood. Good. Dabi doesn’t know how much longer he can keep this up.

Dabi barks an ugly laugh. “Or maybe he promised himself. Would you believe that even I’ve heard the rumors--”

He realizes he’s made a mistake the instant before Hawks is there, inside his defenses, hooking a foot behind Dabi’s ankles and kicking them out from under him. They both go down. Dabi grunts as his back hits the earth, and again as Hawks lands on top of him, made heavy by his armor. For a moment, Dabi can’t breath.

And then Hawks is pinning him down, the flat of his blade held against Dabi’s throat. He’s trembling with exhaustion, his face flushed, but his eyes burn gold. “He promised me,” Hawks says, breathing heavily, “forgiveness.”

Forgiveness. Dabi saw a man who was struck by lightning and lived. Or really, he saw the scar it left behind. Dark skin branching like a tree, like cracks in a vase. That’s what the word forgiveness feels like, cutting through his body, like electricity racing through his veins. Forgiveness his father never gave him. For being his mother’s son, for being his sister’s twin. For being weak when he should have been strong.

Hawks is a fool if he thinks he’ll find his honor at his father’s feet. Todoroki Enji has never forgiven anyone but himself.

Benzaiten is whimpering, her paws hovering uselessly over them, casting striped shadows over Dabi’s face. She can’t do anything, with the blade so close to Dabi’s jugular. Several tons of dragon and blue fire and deadly teeth, rendered useless in an instant. Maybe his father has a point about sentimentality.

Dabi wants to tell her he’s sorry, but he can’t break away from Hawks’ eyes.

“Then do it,” he snarls, baring his teeth like an animal. The edge of the blade presses feather-light against his neck and sweat stings his eyes. “Kill me, and see if you can forgive yourself.”

He wouldn’t have seen it if he’d been looking anywhere else but Hawks’ eyes, but there’s a moment. A hesitation. A fracture. For an instant--he doubts.

Hawks lowers his sword slowly, still pinning Dabi to the ground with his knees. He’s sagging heavily to one side, his injured arm held against his middle. It’s hard to see the streaks of blood against his red armor, but it drips from his shoulder, speckling Dabi with blood.

“You weren’t supposed to have the dragon,” Hawks says again, almost to himself, like he’s starting to ask a question he doesn’t want the answer to.

Above them, Benzaiten’s breath catches. “There are men coming,” she whispers, though her voice still booms. Her coils tighten around them, as if she’s forgotten that Hawks sits in the middle too. “Dabi, they have spears.”

Dabi’s heart jumps, and suddenly he doesn’t care about the samurai pinning him to the ground anymore. He struggles, pushing uselessly at the dirt, but Hawks keeps him down, though he looks more baffled than threatening now. “Go!” He hisses to Benzaiten. “Get out of here! Now!”

There’s not much a sword can do against a dragon ready to face it, but iron spears are a different story, especially in the hands of men who know how to use one. They’re huge and unwieldy and almost impossible to throw. They only have one purpose.

They’re dragon-killers.

“What’s happening?” Hawks demands. He tightens his grip on his sword, but doesn’t bring it back to Dabi’s throat. “What’s she seeing?”

“Your friends,” Dabi snarls, shoving him. Hawks relents, and his weight lifts off Dabi as he staggers to his feet. “Come to finish what you started.”

Hawks lips part, his face clouded with confusion. “I didn’t--” he starts, but he doesn’t get to finish before a massive dragon paw is wrapping around his middle. Hawks squeaks, the sound more than a little absurd coming from a samurai in full armor.

“Touch her with that sword and I’ll rip your spine out through your nostrils,” Dabi growls, less concerned as another paw wraps around him. He prefers to ride on her back, his hands in her mane, but he’s more than used to being manhandled. He turns to glare up at Benzaiten. “Why are you taking him?” Just because he hesitated to kill him one time doesn’t make him their friend. They’re not that desperate.

Benzaiten isn’t listening, which isn’t unusual. At least she’s leaving now. The men are close enough now that Dabi can hear hoofbeats in the distance, like thunder in his ears. They need to get out of range of that spear.

Dabi clutches her toes with both arms as she lifts into the air, her serpentine body twisting elegantly. He looks down, expecting to see his stomach left behind on the ground. Instead he sees his armor, still in a pile.

“Are you fucking serious?” Dabi shouts over the wind. Again, not that she’s listening. Which is why she chose to grab a samurai that was trying to kill him five minutes ago over valuable and extremely hard to replace armor. Fantastic.

And then there are his father’s men, as small as ants against the rolling sea made out of the grassy hills. He can see the spear at their front, wicked black and longer than the horse that carries it. For a moment he’s afraid that Benzaiten is going to dip down and spray them with fire, putting herself in their range as she puts them in hers. But she only climbs higher, the wind roaring in Dabi’s ears, her paw hot around his waist and the air cold against his skin. He spreads his palms against her warm scales and tries to remember how he thought this day would go when he woke up that morning, listening to Benzaiten pestering him about how she wanted to swim today.

He knew there was a reason he hated the sea.

*

Benzaiten lands on the side of a mountain he doesn’t know the name of, deep in the thick prickle of green forest, where a river ambles downwards. She hits the ground hard without her forepaws to steady her, the trees bending to accommodate her arrival.

She sets them down unceremoniously on the ground before slinking into the river, steam hissing off the surface as her scales hit the water. She ducks her head under the water twice and shakes out her mane, spraying droplets in every direction.

Dabi picks himself up, ignoring Hawks doing the same. He goes to Benzeiten’s head instead, resting a hand against her snout. She snorts softly, her breath warm against his face, but doesn’t speak. She’s still breathing heavily, the river’s current stroking her heaving sides.

“Is it okay?” Hawks asks tentatively. He’s gotten to his feet, though he looks smaller than he did before. His armor hangs crooked, and he’s clutching his shoulder like his hand is the only thing keeping it together.

“She doesn’t fly well,” Dabi says. His eyes flicker toward Hawks and then away again, dismissively. “It takes a lot out of her. More than it should.” Especially with passengers. He rubs his knuckles against the soft skin between her nostrils, and her eyelids droop contentedly. “It’s her fire,” he says after a long moment. “It burns too hot. Sometimes it takes all the magic in her just to keep her alive.”

Sometimes he can see it, flickering between her teeth or behind her eyes. Sometimes when she breathes deep her ribs pressed tight against her skin, and he thinks he can see a faint blue glow between them.

(He can still remember when she was small and couldn't control it, still feels the heat against his skin in his nightmares, but he doesn’t tell her that. She still presses her nose against his scars and whispers apologies, no matter how many times he tells her that she’s forgiven.)

“Oh.” A pause. “Why tell me all that? It’s more than I asked.”

“Maybe I’m hoping if you know too much, she’ll eat you.”

Dabi snorts as Hawks’ face blanches. If only. But Benzaiten brought him along for a reason, even if she’s chosen not to disclose it, and Dabi doubts it’s as a light snack. When a dragon gets an idea in her head, it’s impossible to dissuade her.

She wants Hawks alive, for better or for worse.

“Take off your armor,” Dabi says.

“Excuse me?” Hawks’ hand reaches for his sword, but it’s gone, left in the dirt back overlooking the sea.

“If we wanted you dead, Benzaiten would pick you up and throw you off the mountain. No need to play coy.” He jerks his chin. “You’re going to bleed out if we don’t look at that soon.”

Hawks’ grip tightens on his injured shoulder. “You’re the reason I’m bleeding.” He sounds incredulous.

“And you’re the reason I’ve got to pull a new set of armor out of my ass somehow,” Dabi says. “So we’ll call it even.” Less than even, but he’s being generous. Hawks’ skin will heal, but Dabi’s armor sure as hell won’t. “Take it off.”

Hawks hesitates, his eyes darting toward Benzaiten like he expects her to enforce it. The dragon doesn’t move, but her eyes are strangely intense as she watches him. Dabi’s nerves prickle. Why is she so interested?

Finally, Hawks relents. He grunts as he unlatches his armor, letting it fall to the ground with a clatter. Dabi actually eyes it for a moment, before considering better. Red isn’t his color anyways.

Hawks stands hunched on the riverbank, looking strangely vulnerable without his armor, like a snail pulled out of its shell. His shirt is stuck to his skin with blood, clotted so thick and dark that it’s not even red anymore, but nearly black. It makes his chest look like a battlefield. But that’s not what Dabi stares at.

It’s the wings.

He doesn’t realize what they are at first. For a moment they’re only shadows, until they begin rising off of Hawks’ back. They’re red like a phoenix, like the vermillion bird, like a thousand myths and legends and truths. Dabi doesn’t know how they hid under his armor, but it must have hurt, judging from the way they stretch now. The air snaps as he shakes them out, and the wind ruffles Dabi’s hair.

“Tengu,” Benzaiten says, lifting her snout out of the water. “I could smell the magic on you.” Her nostrils quiver. Dabi forgets sometimes that as a dragon, a creature made almost entirely of magic, she exists at a different level than he does. He couldn’t imagine the world through her eyes if he tried.

“Half,” Hawks snaps, pulling his wings in again, so they’re almost hidden again as they slot against his back. “My father was a tengu. He only gave me these wings.” He only gave me this shame. Hawks doesn’t say it, but Dabi hears it nonetheless. Benzaiten is a creature of magic and Dabi isn't, and that’s the natural order of things. Hawks is something else, something in between and unnatural. Something that probably should have been drowned as a whelp.

They have that much in common.

Dabi begins to laugh, the sound starting in his chest and radiating upwards, until his shoulders are shaking.

“What?” Hawks demands, his face flushed. His wings twitch, like they’re angry too. Dabi laughs harder. “I can still kill you, you know.”

Benzaiten growls lazily, dissuading that option, but she also flicks her tail at Dabi, splattering him with water.

Fine, fine. “You really thought killing me would make my father forgive you for being what you are,” Dabi says, coughing on his laughter. It’s more than he’s laughed in a long time. “I always thought tengu were wise--but you’re only half, of course.” He adds with another bark of laughter as Hawks’ wings slowly puff up.

“He told me so,” Hawks snaps. “He’s going to take my wings, if I only do this. So I can be normal. So I can…” He falters.

“He told you so,” Dabi repeats slowly, “but he didn’t tell you that I’d have a dragon?” Hawks flinches. “He sent men with an iron spear half a day’s ride behind you though, didn’t he? Why would that be.”

Hawks’ jaw clenches, but he doesn't answer.

Dabi snorts. “Maybe because he was hoping his worthless son would kill his cursed samurai, and then he could be done with the both of us.”

“I don’t want to believe that,” Hawks says, a tremor on the last word.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” he counters. “The truth is the truth.” He gestures impatiently. “Come here. Benzaiten won’t let me kill you.” Sentimental beast. He knows it’s hard for her, being away from the other dragons at his father’s palace, not that they were ever particularly kind to her anyway, but this? Surely they can at least find a real tengu if she wants a magical little friend.

Hawks doesn’t look totally convinced, but he steps closer, until Dabi can properly see the wound. It’s not deep, but it’s in a bad place, where his shoulder meets his body, so that every movement only exacerbates it.

Hawks shivers, but doesn’t flinch away as Dabi presses his fingers against the area around the wound, inspecting it. His knife is lost to him along with his armor, so he has to rip the fabric with his hands before he can peel it away from the wound. Not that any of it was salvageable anyways, unless tengu are exceptionally good at stain removal.

“Do you even know why my father wants me dead?” Dabi asks as he words, his fingers quickly turned slick and red with Hawks’ blood.

Hawks inhales sharply as the fabric pulls away from where it’s been glued to the skin with blood. “You tried to kill him,” he says. “You tried to burn down his palace.”

And halfway succeeded, but of course his father would play that down. “You would too, if you really knew him,” he says. “He hated me from the day I was born my sister’s twin. I was sickly and weak, and my mother begged for my life. So I lived, and I grew up, until my sister and I were old enough to be given dragons, and then I had to beg for that too.” He would have been as good as dead, if he hadn’t. All of the shogun’s children received dragons--it secured their place in the hierarchy of the shogunate. If his father had refused him one, everyone would know that he was no longer Todoroki Enji’s son. Which would be preferable now, but only because he has Benzaiten.

Dabi works another strip of fabric away from the skin. “When she was still young, she lost control of her fire and burned me. I was drugged for months before I could stand the pain, and when I fully woke up, my father put a sword in my hands. He told me to kill her. She was too dangerous, and my honor too compromised already.” His grip tightens. “I decided that I was done begging.”

Hawks eyes flicker from him to Benzaiten, who has left her head from the water and is watching them, her eyes a hypnotic blue. Even with her mane wet and dripping, she looks noble. “What did you do?”

“I waited until my father had gathered everyone in the square. Everyone, even the servants. He always liked his punishments to be public, so the shame hurt worse than the pain.” Dabi is quiet for a moment. He can still see the rows of people, waiting, shivering in the cold morning air. Shouto in Fuyumi’s arms, too young to understand. Natsuo, quivering with rage. Their mother was gone by then, exiled far to the north. This father’s dragon Bishamonten lurked in the distance, his scales glittering like fire against the dawn.

“And then I broke into where Benzaiten was being held,” Dabi says, “and we escaped. But not before burning everything we could to the ground.” Benzaiten had never flown faster than when she was breathing blue fire along the roof of his father’s palace, her potent magic finally unleashed. They had never felt more free.

They’re quite for a long moment as Dabi washes the blood from the wound with handfuls of river water. Dabi squints at it when he’s done, finally able to see the tear in the skin properly. It’ll need sewing. Too bad he doesn’t have his needle anymore either.

“And if I was done begging for forgiveness?” Hawks says unexpectedly, and when Dabi looks up, he finds his golden eyes watching him. “What would I do then?”

Dabi feels a puff of breath on his back, and he steps aside as Benzaiten leans her great head in closer. It’s like standing next to a furnace, her breath fanning over them, but he never wants to move away. He rests his hand on her cheek as she looks down at Hawks. She tips her head forward and touches the tip of the snout to Hawks shoulder. Hawks’ breath hitches, and when Benzaiten pulls away, the skin is unbroken again.

Dabi’s heart stutters. He’s never seen her use her magic on someone else before. Truly, he didn’t know that she could.

“You would help us take back the shogunate,” she says, her voice as heavy with magic as the blue fire in her heart, “and kill Todoroki Enji once and for all.”