He sees his mother again on a Saturday, and it doesn’t even occur to him that it’s been as long as it has until he is greeted at the door by his slightly startled looking brother-in-law, whose face shifts blatantly into commiserating sympathy the moment he lays eyes on him.
“Oh, Shouto! You’re coming to see your mother?”
Tarō is a nice man, Shouto thinks, almost apologetically, as he nods his assent. It’s just that he’s unbelievably nondescript: kind, curious to a limited degree, unfailingly polite, and always a little bemused by the family he’s married into. Bar Fuyumi he thinks they all feel the same bemusement where he is concerned; for the first while Shouto felt almost physically incapable of remembering his name or career.
He wonders, as he nods his way half-attentively through his brother-in-law’s small talk, if in marrying her husband Fuyumi hadn’t managed the most successful act of rebellion any of them have yet pulled off: conclusively thwarting the genetic misery of their family by choosing a simple, happy life in spite of the odds.
If that’s right, he wonders what his own choices say about him.
“If there’s anything we can do to help,” Tarō is saying, following a very nice and sensitively-formulated inquiry about the highly publicised and unfortunate circumstances of his life the past few weeks: “If you’d like to take a day off, or someone to help with administrative things…”
“Thank you,” Shouto says succinctly, pushing aside any potentially topical thoughts about the partners his siblings have chosen across the years. There’s nothing his sister can do for him, nor her husband, but then they both know it as well as he does: it’s a symbolic offer. “Tell Fuyumi I said hello.”
“Of course. It’s good to see you.”
It occurs to him as he makes his way into the apartment that there is something slightly odd about his brother-in-law visiting his mother alone. On the other hand, it is rare enough for them all to get together that they could well be far closer than he believes them to be by now.
He considers simply asking his mother about it, finds himself lacking the drive to do so. He’s seen and heard more of his family since his father’s attack than he feels like he ever has, and though he feels nebulously bad for thinking it, the overexposure drains him. Rather leave his extended family's goings-on a mystery.
“You look tired,” Rei says, almost as soon as they’re settled, reaching carefully to trace his cheek. He keeps dutifully still throughout it, resists the urge to close his eyes.
“I am, a little.”
“You work too much,” his mother sighs, a little wry, a little sad, ghosts withholding her gaze before she smiles. “Thank you for coming. You didn’t have to.”
“I said I would,” Shouto dismisses, shaking his head. “And things have quietened down at work, anyways.”
Things have. In the past two weeks, almost every straggler has been rounded up and escorted back to prison; his working schedule has returned to a state of relative calm, give or take Bakugou’s peripheral presence on the job. They're no longer required to partner for the duration of their workdays, only when a specific job calls for it, though in practice they still spend most of the week in each other's company, if only because it keeps their schedules aligned for medical check-ins.
“I'm glad to hear it,” Rei says, white hands steady as she pours them water. “Did you see Tarō on the way out?”
He takes his water with a nod. “Does he visit often?”
“I see him and your sister quite a lot,” Rei replies, noncommittally. “He’s a considerate man, I think. And he loves her very much.”
“Mh,” Shouto acknowledges, sipping his water pensively. This much he has noted about his brother-in-law from the beginning. “They seem happy.”
His mother smiles a private little smile. “That they do.”
He realises, as he tries to decipher her smile, that there is almost nothing in his life he can tell her about for as long as things don’t change. All he really does is work, and work leads back to his father, irrevocably- to the strange state of stasis his life has been suspended in for what feels like an eternity, Kamiya resisting, Enji incurable, his ranking frozen, Bakugou’s Quirk in his body, fighting for freedom. The almost dream-like exhaustion he’s been living with. For every banal anecdote he could share, its context looms large and threatening, tying his tongue. He’s so careful with his mother.
He is saved from having to drag up some obscure topic of conversation when she glances curiously towards his hands and he catches himself sweating sparks.
“They don’t hurt?”
“They’d hurt you, if you touched them,” Shouto warns, though he extends a hand so she can look, focusing hard on restraint. “They don’t hurt me.”
“Those doctors do such wonderful work,” Rei assesses, folding his hand back onto itself as she moves it back to his lap. “It’s the same for Bakugou, I imagine?”
“They’ve made adjustments for him too,” Shouto confirms, curling his fingers reflexively. “He hasn’t said anything about it bothering him. Although he does complain a lot.”
“I see,” Rei notes, lips quirking upwards a little. “How are you getting along? It’s been a while since you’ve worked so much with someone.”
He's a little surprised by the question, and his brief moment of hesitation costs him; he’s not entirely able to make up his mind as to how to answer, and it reads as uncertain when he does. “Ah, fine. We’ve worked together a lot before, so.”
“Well, there’s working together and then there’s working together,” his mother notes, setting her glass down. “You shouldn’t worry if things are a little tense. You’re working under strange circumstances.”
Maybe it’s the oddly normal parental advice, but he abruptly feels keenly aware of himself in a way he is usually not: aware of how little he can actually share with his mother, especially on this subject, and aware of his unusually emotion-driven urge to do so.
“Things are fine,” Shouto repeats, instead, running his finger over the ridges in his glass. He doesn't quite meet her eyes.
Things are probably not fine.
It’s not just the obvious- that as long as Kamiya resists the best efforts of the medical team, his father remains trapped and his career is effectively on hold- though certainly these unfortunate truths have been taking their toll. It’s not even that his usual means of distracting himself has been somewhat indefinitely skewed by virtue of the whole Quirk business. Obscurely disquieting though it is to admit it, even to himself, what has really kept him from throwing himself into a comforting routine is that things with Bakugou are weird.
Weird is the best way to put it. Contrary to all expectations, it’s not that they struggle to work with one another nowadays- they’re not ideal partners, and they butt heads over strategies sometimes, but on the whole Shouto has been quietly unsurprised by the fact that they run like a well-oiled machine. It’s also not even that their new arrangement has imploded in some catastrophic way; Bakugou is as much of a pragmatic over-achiever in this as he is everywhere else.
He doesn’t know how to explain it without sounding intensely childish to his own ears, but his problem is that it doesn’t feel like they’re friends anymore.
He’s evidently never been the best at qualifying his own relationships with people, and he is fully aware that Bakugou in particular has proven historically difficult to categorise, but even so, he feels as though he has come to have a fairly accurate understanding of who counts as his friends. As Izuku’s absence has made abundantly clear, Bakugou qualifies as such- or should. And yet, despite their perfectly civil working relationship and- well, civil’s not the word- after-hours relationship, he can’t shake the feeling that something is missing between them.
If he could, he wouldn’t be thinking about this at all. He’s sure he’s never spent this much time obsessing over anything like it, or at least not since he’d first met and rapidly formed an undying friendship with Izuku. Even the whole mess with his secret criminal brother hadn’t been like this- he’d spent far more time dwelling on justice and legacy than he had actually contemplating the details of their brotherly bond. It’s not in his nature to pay heed to the fact that Bakugou has been sidestepping his instinctive attempts at casual conversation with uncanny subtlety, but it eats away at him anyways, enough that he realises there’s no point in pretending it doesn’t. It’s so frustrating, and he is so rarely genuinely frustrated that he finds it all the harder not to itch to fix it. If Bakugou had actively wanted to get under his skin, he couldn’t have chosen a better way- it's common knowledge that he’s terrible at reading cues, and usually fails to care about this; being forced into a position where his only way out lies in reading into every silence is driving him slowly insane.
He presses a thumb to his forehead, allowing himself a moment of respite as he smooths out his knotted brow. Around him, Tokyo hums with life, streets brimming with chattering teenagers and hassled looking parents chasing after their children.
He has the weekend off, technically, a prospect which looms exhaustingly ahead of him. He normally works at least one day regardless, less out of the need for distraction and more because he genuinely likes to, but he currently has no good excuse for setting foot in the office until Monday; all there is to do is comb through case files. Their higher-ups are too wary of sticking either of them on some major case only to lose one of them as soon as they get their Quirks restored, but giving them minor skirmishes to resolve would be a waste of their time: as a result, they've ended up underworked. Shouto has never been less appreciative of being cut some slack.
On paper, a day off is what he needs, just about now. He’s no longer as physically exhausted as he'd been in the aftermath of the Kajiya fight, having returned to a stable sleeping schedule, though Bakugou’s Quirk still wearies him by the end of the day, but he feels about as mentally drained as he has since he got that damn phone call. It’s most likely a combination of a lot of things he is too tired to look into.
Hypotheticals are all well and good. He knows he could make the most of this- could go do something fulfilling and pleasant, or even just spend the day getting some extra rest in. He was hospitalised twice in relatively rapid proximity a fortnight ago; his body would appreciate the extra recovery time. But this is pure fantasy: he doesn’t think he’s napped once in his life, and even if he tried he knows very well he couldn’t do it. He’s just not wired that way. Normally this wouldn't be an issue, and he could muster up the state of mind to do something relaxing like go to a tea shop or wander through the park, but with the way things are that would be courting disaster- too many people around to recognise him, and too much time spent alone with his thoughts.
He is aware that if he just asked, his is a problem he could easily solve. Momo has been discreetly trying to see him since she returned to Tokyo; any number of his other friends would be genuinely happy to see him, if he called. He wouldn’t even need to leave the apartment- Izuku is awake by now, and they haven’t spoken in over a week.
He feels the faint and unfamiliar pangs of a headache make themselves known as he pushes his building door open, pausing to hold it for two teenagers who rush gratefully by. He misses the flustered smiles he gets in return, struck instead by the realisation that he lacks the ability to regulate his body temperature until the migraine vanishes. His head throbs as if in response, sharp and reproachful.
The thing to do, he tells himself, rubbing absently at his temples, would be to reach out. Call anyone. Anything other than sit in his empty apartment listlessly reviewing files, resigned to wasting the rest of the day to stewing in confused anxiety about Bakugou.
His front door shuts behind him with a decisive click. He sets his phone on the coffee table.
He’ll call tomorrow, he thinks, half-heartedly.
Monday rolls around none too soon, though he can muster no great enthusiasm for his return to the office, somewhat to his irritation. He’s managed to work with far worse in the past- hell, he’d interned with his father twice. That he feels something approaching nervous when he goes to work these days is beyond embarrassing.
It’s the change he doesn’t like, is all. Some component of their dynamic has vanished noticeably, and it leaves him on unsteady footing, unsure how to proceed. He’s never once been awkward around Bakugou before- or not felt it, at least, despite Bakugou’s best efforts to make him, all those years ago. Now, though, his attempts to engage Bakugou in their usual back and forth are met with such persistent suspicion that he feels like he’s dreamt up the past several years of their friendship.
He arrives to work very slightly late as a result of his fitful sleep, tousled and annoyingly sweaty from running into the office, trying testily to stamp down on his unwarranted nerves. They’re still working from Might Tower, both because it has the superior resources and because All Might was extremely amenable to having Bakugou stomping around reading company secrets; he’s gotten used to the sight of Bakugou perched against his cabinets.
“What the fuck crawled up your ass and died?” Bakugou asks, upon sighting him. It's reassuringly normal, makes him relax an inch.
“No shit,” Bakugou judges, absently raking his eyes over him with such a crotchety expression that Shouto wants to smile. “Try getting to your office on time some day, might sleep easier.”
“I think you gave me a stress headache,” Shouto replies, flippantly enough that it comes off as more ambiguous than true. It makes Bakugou give him a funny look anyways.
“Wasn’t for my tardiness.”
“Not that,” Shouto agrees, and then glances towards the folders on his desk, brows rising. “That looks like an actual job.”
He flips open the first folder as Bakugou comes to stand by him, crossing his arms. “It is. Not even an escaped prisoner, if you can believe that.”
This gives him pause, an odd mix of trepidation and relief in his gut as he contemplates the target. An actual job is good- lets him feel less like someone’s broken wind-up toy, for one, and the lack of a prison break connection is a weight off his shoulders. On the other hand…
“Looks like a tough one,” Shouto says, noncommittally, eyes raking over the pictures.
He swears Bakugou stiffens, though when he glances covertly towards him he finds his face stuck in a default disparaging frown. “Not exactly up to standard.”
He’s not wrong. On a normal day, Shouto wouldn’t be particularly concerned by any of the specifics of the operation. All they're doing is playing offence for the NPA as they circle in on some Yakuza branch that’s been playing with robotics- a little tricky, given the machinery, but hardly significant given their track record. He knows this, logically, but his mind still jumps irresistibly to his last two stints in the hospital, and what landed him there.
It’s different, with their Quirks swapped. He can’t quite place the complex jumble of feelings he takes into every fight, but it’s there, too heavy to ignore. He worries for Bakugou, when it comes down to it- some obscure feeling of responsibility, maybe guilt, carried over from the fight in the warehouse. It is observably his fault that they are fighting with each other’s Quirks; whenever fire or ice fails Bakugou he feels sick to his stomach. It’s violently discomfiting, especially because he knows Bakugou is more than capable of getting by with the tools at his disposition, and because he is fully aware of how condescending it would feel were Bakugou to voice the opposite concern.
It’s not like he’s never worried for his friends’ safety before- hell, he’d certainly worried for Bakugou’s all the way back during the Kamino Ward mess. It’s just never been this problematic. Their fight against Kamiya had worked out fine, but he had actively chosen a plan more likely to injure him than to involve Bakugou, and he’s not sure he could justify it if pressed.
The other issue is that Bakugou has picked up on the change, too, no question about it. Not the specific motivation, if he's lucky, but the slightly off decision-making at least. He’d been so pissy after the Kamiya incident that Shouto had half-expected him to retain the bad attitude for the foreseeable, but the outburst had come and gone like a brief clap of thunder on an otherwise sunny day, and proven almost the more disturbing for it.
Bakugou's demeanour since may point to a storm of a different nature, though. Whatever caginess he’d felt from him ahead of the fight has clearly taken the helm since.
“We have an hour to prep and get there,” Shouto notes aloud, closing the file. It’ll take them thirty minutes at most.
“Half an hour to spare,” Bakugou echoes, their eyes meeting almost reluctantly. Plenty of time to talk- to ask the questions he's been putting off asking for two weeks now.
“Locker room?” Shouto says, after a beat. Bakugou looks somewhat put-upon.
Shouto finds this oddly heartening.
Everything would be a lot clearer to him if Bakugou showed any signs of regretting their new arrangement, he reflects, cheek pressed against the cool window of their escort car as they drive. Being driven around makes him feel like a kept man, but the NPA are always very sensitive about heroes bringing their own vehicles within the danger radius. It gives him even more time to waste, which he is neutral about on a good day and resolutely resentful of on days like these.
He shifts in his seat, tired of his own nonsense, and refocuses on his tablet, skimming the pictures at his disposal. If Bakugou’s group was around, he’s sure they’d be making references to every kind of robot-based media in the world; all he can see when he examines their blocky medal bodies is the vague outline of two motorbikes pressed back to back.
Odd how these things work. Three weeks ago they’d still harboured the suspicion that Kajiya herself had some kind of technopathic Quirk, or at least had someone with one with her employ. That had turned out to be demonstrably false, and yet here they are on a completely unrelated case where the man behind the weaponry possesses exactly that.
On the other side of the car, Bakugou is giving their driver increasingly dirty looks, presumably for his incredibly cautious driving. Shouto allows himself to observe the increasingly murderous twitch of his brow until he feels the car round a curb with the world’s slowest manoeuvre, turning away just in time for Bakugou to swear loudly and stick his head between the front seats.
“The start time wasn’t given as a fucking suggestion!”
Their tires screech. He presses his face back to the window.
They arrive on-site with five minutes to spare, mainly through intimidation, if he’s being honest. The police have already taken position along the street, two blocks away from their target location; there is an audible hum of anticipation that rises once he and Bakugou step out of the car.
He spots their contact first, a tall grey-haired man named Saito he’s worked with before but tends to forget the name of between missions. He’s not good with remembering names and faces when they don’t matter to him, and he works with so many people nowadays that he can’t muster the urge to try harder.
“Shouto, Ground Zero,” Saito greets, rapidly bowing as he gestures them closer. “There’s been a slight change of plans.”
Instinctively he looks towards Bakugou, expecting some eyebrow quirk or side glance that never comes, the blonde firmly focused on their contact. “That so?”
Saito nods, sending a harried glance backwards.
“These machines are going to be a bigger concern than anticipated. We’ve just had confirmation that they’re essentially bullet-proof.”
Of course they are. “What does that change?”
“We’re not going to be able to assist you as much as we planned,” Saito elaborates, running a habitual hand through his hair. “Most of the troops are reliant on standard protective gear rather than Quirks. Against these machines that’ll be insufficient for close quarters combat.”
He doesn’t display much surprise at the announcement- he can count on one hand the amount of missions he’s been brought in on where there wasn’t some kind of necessary twist to force him into the front-lines. Still, it’s a pain in the ass to have this dropped on them at the literal last minute, if only because it forces a reworking of the plans they’d so carefully gone over half an hour ago.
“Are your guys going to be able to do anything for us?” Bakugou asks, with an unimpressed glower. “If they can’t get past the machines we might as well go retrieve the guy ourselves.”
At this, the officer gives a tight shake of his head. “No. The people we’re after are too flighty. As soon as you start fighting the machines, they’ll be making a break for it. That’s when my men will intercept them.”
“If you’re sure,” Shouto says, tonelessly. He’s learnt it’s best to implicitly shift responsibility over to the NPA when they rearrange plans like this- keep his doubts to himself, since there’s no time for debate, but ensure no one can try to pin the blame on the pro side when something goes wrong.
“Then it’s settled. You two take front ranks, proceeding as planned, and we’ll follow. You are fit to fight, right?”
“Should have asked that earlier,” Bakugou retorts, flashing teeth in a sarcastic rictus as he rolls his shoulders. “Let’s move.”
They set off ahead of the fray, careful as they near the target’s household. It’s a nice residence, extremely spacious by Tokyo standards, with a gated lawn and a two-storey house; Shouto is intimately familiar with the layout.
They stop when they’re just one street back, turning off to scale the building opposite the street. Height is best for any kind of stealth approach; Bakugou propels himself upwards in a burst of fire as Shouto follows more slowly, trying to pace his explosions enough to restrain their volume.
It is bizarrely silent. For a moment he toggles thoughtlessly with his earpiece, casting an eye around as he advances cautiously atop the roof, but the comm isn’t the issue- it’s just that neither of them are speaking.
He’s not sure exactly when he got so accustomed to ambient noise on their stake-outs, but he is confident enough that it’s been a while. Bakugou isn’t exactly famous for his volume control or passivity; as much as he can be quiet when necessary, he certainly never seems to deem it necessary when they’re on the job.
Seemed. Now’s a different story.
Shouto catches himself staring, rips his eyes away to refocus on the house across the street. It does little to shift his train of thought; they’re still waiting on the signal, and unless anyone bursts out guns blazing there’s nothing to do but wait.
He is uncomfortably aware that this is their first big job since the Kamiya fight. Bakugou has been off ever since, committed fully to whatever shift in behaviour he’d already been flirting with post-Quirk swap. If he knows him at all, his anger will have carried over from then; he’ll be watching Shouto with extreme suspicion for any sign of unnecessary exertion.
It occurs to him, not for the first time, that Bakugou’s attitude could just be the symptom of his own concern. It’s the kind of thing Shouto could feasibly have failed to pick up on, and it would explain his overreaction in the aftermath of the fight. It’s not like he’s grasping at straws; he’s seen Bakugou lash out out of worry on numerous occasions. It’s just that he can’t quite convince himself that Bakugou would worry. They’ve always been on even footing where their Quirks are concerned, and Bakugou has always considered him capable, bluster aside. Why he would abruptly start perceiving Shouto as somehow unable to perform the basics of his job eludes him, and besides his skin prickles at the idea. All that would make sense is that the strain of his familial melodrama has begun to show, and if that’s the case Bakugou’s concern would smack of pity.
He’s not quite on the ‘needed to be heavily eased into accepting a rescue mission’ level of pride, but he shuns pity decisively. And if Bakugou really thinks he’s gone fragile just because his father has characteristically upset his routine-
“Movement,” Bakugou says, hunching to survey the windows. Shouto follows his gaze, straightening his posture in anticipation. Sure enough, there is someone inside, retreating away from the light.
On cue, their comms sound the alert, police channels activating simultaneously.
“Pros clear to go. Advance guard moving in in five… four… three… two…”
He takes the lead from Bakugou by fractions of seconds, knees high and arms extended as he arcs downwards, boots landing steadily on the outer wall of the residence just as alarms begin to blare. He’s already halfway to jumping off the wall when the upstairs window bangs open and someone starts shooting, an attempt cut short by Shouto flicking an explosion right at the source of the gunfire with quite Bakugou-like precision.
He lands on the lawn, smoke clearing as the shooter audibly swears and retreats, thunk behind him signalling Bakugou’s presence, and has about five seconds to get his bearings before somewhere around a dozen machines come bursting out from each side of the house, followed by a loud metallic whirring that Shouto takes to mean they’ll soon be joined by bigger problems.
He slams his palms together at their approach, ensuing shockwave enough to blow the first wave back so that he can take the time to shift into a more apt fighting stance, then spins to direct an explosion outwards that manages to skewer two bots in one hit. He registers their relative fragility as he moves, dodging a blast that leaves a scorched black hole where he’d been stood.
These machines are of no real concern to them, which they’d anticipated; despite their hard shell and dangerous aim, they weren’t made to withstand glaciers or double-strength dynamite. The real issue will be dispensing with them fast enough that the bigger machines don’t catch them unawares- and whilst avoiding too much damage to the stronghold. They need the mob alive.
He slides underneath a horde of advancing bots so that they crash into one another, rolls to his feet with one hand already aiming behind him as he turns. The explosion bursts from him with ferocity, ripping clean through one of the machines and sending one of the others into a wall hard enough that it snaps in half. The last one remains standing a while longer, mechanical beeping gone distorted from damage; Shouto weaves closer without even the assistance of his stolen Quirk, too quick on his feet for the attempted blasts to pose any real threat, then hits the machine smack in its centre, curling up to avoid shrapnel as it bursts into pieces.
Blows rain down on him from two different directions, and he launches himself swiftly upwards, the crackling burning of his palms still walking the line between pain and pleasure as he ascends. He wastes no time on semantics; as soon as he has a clear shot he lets himself free-fall, mimicked AP-shots firing in rapid succession to skewer the incoming bots.
He lands cleanly atop one of the overturned bots, clunking sound accompanying the movement, and meets Bakugou’s eyes from across the courtyard, suddenly aware of the sound of his own lightly increased breathing as he notes the absence of machines blocking them from one another’s sight.
He licks his lips distractedly, about to make some comment about which of them took out his portion of the bots faster if only to provoke some competitive annoyance (he’s fairly sure it was a near-tie, given that the smouldering pile of metal Bakugou is crouched atop is still smoking heavily) when Bakugou’s eyes flash with alarm; Shouto is airborne before he can even think to move, just in time for a hail of bullets to rain down where he’d been stood.
He redirects, shifts mid-air, pulse a little skittish. There are four new bots rolling in, bigger this time: where the others had stood about as tall as All Might or a Nomu, these easily double that, and there is a funny glint to their surface that makes him think that…
Bakugou directs a wave of fire towards the advancing machines. The wave unfurls right back at them.
Shouto lands heavily, bracing for impact as he ducks beneath the flames; the dampness seeping through the lawn means Bakugou intercepted with ice, and smoke is descending heavily around them, obscuring his visibility as he falls back.
“Two ‘o clock!” Bakugou barks, over the comms. Shouto vaults forwards, missing the burst of gunfire aimed his way, and uses the momentum to break into a sprint, explosions lifting his feet off the ground so he can twist ahead of the fray, releasing one arm to aim a colossal blast at the first gleam of metal he sees closing in through the settling smoke.
His shoulder aches a little from the recoil as he swings backwards, but as he suspected the blow lands- the back of the bot caves in hard from the impact, machine whirring loudly as it sparks. He shoots off a second to finish it off, resounding boom signalling impact as he drops out of sight.
Well, there’s that hypothesis confirmed, he thinks, a little short on breath as he touches down.
“They’re reflective only to a certain degree. If you hit them up close they can’t withstand direct damage.”
“Copy,” Bakugou replies, sounding sort of harried himself; as Shouto glances sightlessly in his direction ice spears right through one of the bots with a forceful crack, gunfire slowing into inaction from the remaining husk.
The arm of one of the machines nearly hits him, a crushing blow he avoids only by virtue of having felt the smoke disperse around him ahead of collision; he punches up, rapid explosion ricocheting with enough violence that he barrels off a second one to nullify it midway, cursing silently as he launches himself into the air.
He’s getting distracted again. Like Bakugou can’t handle a fucking robot.
Pent-up frustration sings in his veins when he sees the machine move again, his feet firmly planted as he tempers its approach, deflecting bullets with a continuous stream of explosions until it’s close enough to make another grab for him. His next hit is slightly over-scale for the space they’re in, palms stinging and feet digging hard into the lawn as the force rips clean through the machine, giving him a clear picture of the yard for a second as he stares through the gaping hole in its centre. There are two new bots incoming.
“Company,” Shouto warns, using the collapsing bot as a stepping stool as his hands crackle. He feels impatient, all of a sudden- eager for this to be over and done with, tired of his newfound combat hypervigilance. It’s like he’s back at UA failing some kind of assessment- aware that he’s off his game, doubly aware that he’s being watched, caught in a feedback loop that leaves him tetchy and frustrated.
His forehead is slick with sweat when he pushes his hair back, both hands falling in front of him with cool focus as he awaits the bots’ approach. Their shots are easy enough to deflect; he just needs to wait a second longer. Up close he needs to focus on scale, but if he stays put he might as well just level both of them in one go; his stolen Quirk is certainly itching for it, waspishly buzzing inside him as he sets his jaw.
He stops the low-caliber explosions just long enough to brace in-between rounds of the machines’ shots, twitching with concentration as the power surges into his hands, hounding for release.
Just one more step. One more. Bullets are bursting forth right towards him, but it’s too late; he can feel the explosion rattling through him, and-
Bakugou, suddenly, Bakugou in his line of vision, one swift ice-embedded kick through the motor, metal splintering on impact, and Shouto’s hands igniting, his chest pounding with heavy panic as he aims blindly sideways instead, power rippling through him with unstoppable speed as the blast hits the next machine instead, reverb sending him flying into the air as his ears ring nauseatingly.
“What are you doing?” someone asks, in an unsteady raw tone of voice, and it takes him a second to register that the question came from him, his heart beating out of his chest.
“Trying to stop you,” Bakugou snaps, strung-out over the comms, and Shouto levels an incredulous stare in his approximate direction as he steers himself downwards, knees locked into a landing stance when he touches the ground.
Movement, light; Bakugou visible, closer now, flames crawling over him. He is quite literally incandescent.
“Yeah, stop you. Why didn’t you blast them from up close like you just fucking told me to do?”
“I could take them from afar by using a stronger hit,” Shouto replies, disbelief mingling with dawning anger. “I nearly hit you just now.”
“You keep overestimating how strong of a blast your body can handle,” Bakugou snarls, fists clenched tightly by his sides. “Happened last time too, in case you forgot sometime while you were passed out.”
His arms are still shaking lightly, and he’s sure Bakugou would take this as confirmation of his hypothesis. It’s not.
“I’m not overestimating anything,” Shouto says, low and clear. Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. It’s not Bakugou’s place to make these calls- not Bakugou’s place to take stupid risks like that just to rectify Shouto’s miscalculations. “If you keep underestimating me you’re going to get yourself hurt.”
“I can handle myself,” Bakugou retorts, like a punch to the stomach, and Shouto doesn’t know what his face does but he thinks it shows, because something panicked flashes through Bakugou’s face before he looks away, jaw clenching.
“You’re unbelievable,” Shouto says, and this isn’t the time and place, but two weeks’ worth of confusion and suspicion are fighting for purchase in his chest and he can’t help himself. “If you have some problem with me you might as well just come out and say it.”
This gets Bakugou’s attention, gaze snapping to him instantaneously, and for a second Shouto thinks he’s about to come clean, confess some ulterior motive that will somehow demystify everything. There is a tremendously loud grating sound behind the house, tell-tale tremors beneath their feet, and still he waits, expectant, for Bakugou to make sense again, for some answer that Shouto is clearly not going to obtain otherwise.
The house trembles, automated whirring approaching, and Bakugou shifts, eyes narrowed.
“My problem is that you clearly fucking have one. You’ve been off your game for weeks now. If we’re stuck working together for god knows how long you can’t be acting up for no good reason.”
There is no time to respond: with a grating scraping sound, a new machine emerges from behind the house, walls splintering at its passage. Before Shouto has even made it out in its entirety he is moving on instinct, spurred into action by the familiar sound of a machine-gun.
The ensuing blast hits the machine hard, enough that it spins slightly, gun pointing away from them for a moment’s reprieve, but he has no time to feel vindicated- within instants the bot has spun around, revealing a second machine gun, and he is throwing himself into the air to avoid being struck down by about fifty bullets.
Wave upon wave of shells rain down on them as they move this way and that, the noise ear-splitting and the roving guns making it impossible to land out of harm’s way; he keeps up a small stream of explosions that function as a shield, aware that they need to move into the offensive or risk exhaustion getting the better of them.
He’s not very injured- a couple of bruises and scrapes, nothing more- but that won’t last, with this one, the obvious final boss of the confrontation. It’s colossal, easily the size of the house, shell a hard metal that no doubt resists attacks as well as the previous wave; with every roll of its wheels stone and grass fly upwards, tiles cracking under its weight.
He glides past Bakugou, who is attempting to construe an ice wall to buy them some time, feels his gut clench with directionless anger. It’s not the time or place, he knows, but it doesn’t matter- he recognises this uncontrollable frustration, now, knows he is functionally at its mercy. The last time he felt so dominated by emotion despite the combat stakes was during their provisional license exams, rising helplessly to Inasa’s bait. This time around he feels just the same- aware of the petty nature of the argument, incredulous that it’s even happening, and yet too slighted to let it go like he damn well should.
Stupid, stupid, letting this unravel now, getting wrapped up in something so meaningless. Meaningless and entirely foreseeable, though he’d been somehow expecting an alternative.
It’s no surprise that Bakugou’s problem is his problem- a slight circumstantial increase in protectiveness, which naturally Bakugou sees as a flaw, something to rebuff harshly like Shouto isn’t a grown adult capable of keeping himself in check, like Shouto’s actions in the Kamiya fight had been completely devoid of rationality. Of course Bakugou had seen his hesitation and immediately stopped acting like they were friends at all; he’d told himself there was nothing emotional to his attraction, and clearly his assessment had been spot-on, because the moment Shouto displayed any kind of momentary emotional weakness Bakugou had reneged any of the growing familiarity of their relationship completely.
Bakugou is an asshole, that’s nothing new- Shouto’s own fault for letting his emotions factor into his work, Shouto’s own fault for thinking their growing familiarity was something he could rely on.
Heat pulses through him with sudden venom, and he is flying, spinning, evading shots left and right; his boots slam into the bot’s right arm hard, metal groaning on impact, gun spinning confusedly to follow.
“The fuck are you-“ Bakugou starts, then gets it, hairs on Shouto’s neck standing on air from the chill as he slams his own palms into the junction where robotic shoulder meets arm, ensuing metallic groan ringing violently through the momentary pause in gunfire as the bot whirrs furiously to lock onto his position.
He jumps just ahead of the burst, noting one lone bullet grazing his elbow with annoyance, lands heavily atop the machine, jaw finally unclenching with some difficulty.
“I don’t have a problem. I’m just adjusting.”
There is a crunching sound as the machine-gun fires fruitlessly into solid ice, arms still grabbing blindly at Shouto, and he can’t see Bakugou but he can imagine the way his face twists.
It’s said in this tone, like Shouto’s lying, all dismissive double entendre, and Shouto’s hands spark reactively even as he drops onto one of the bot’s arms to launch himself rapidly overhead, machine guns swerving up after him as he concentrates on remaining within its blind spot, distracting from the advancing curve of ice. If Bakugou’s going to insinuate- if this is how he’s going to be, after two weeks of waxing hot and cold inexplicably, then what exactly is the point of correcting his assumptions?
“Clearly I miscalculated in thinking I could adjust well enough. Won’t happen again.”
He sways too far left, blocks an incoming hail with a blast, dropping back down to shoulder-roll over the top of the bot; out of the corner of his eye he can see the ice crystallising on the grass near them. For all his force Bakugou’s containment needs work.
“After all of your bullshit- should have known that was it,” Bakugou scoffs, sounding angry despite himself, and then Shouto has to dodge and drop rapidly when the bot finally detects his advance, swerving to unleash its guns upon Bakugou as he volleys towards them in a flash of white-blue-black. Too late, though: fire erupts from his hands with volcanic heat, so strong Shouto can feel himself sweat responsively, and the metal groans as the guns begin to curve downwards. Over the comm Bakugou sounds more aggrieved than strained.
“This was predictable to you.”
“Fucking said this was a terrible idea, didn’t I?”
God, the asshole.
“Yes, you were right,” Shouto retorts, even as he dives just beneath the bot’s grasping arm, the thunking sounds above signalling Bakugou’s handspring over the top of the bot. “I apologise for having pushed for this foreseeable fiasco. Obviously I haven’t been in my right mind lately.”
“Foreseeable,” Bakugou repeats, violent crunching preceding the halt of the second gun’s fire as Shouto gets into position beneath the extremely volatile bot, dodging kicks as he goes. “That’s fucking rich.”
A metallic heel almost catches him in the stomach; he grits his teeth, repositions himself. “We don’t have the most tender of track records.”
“That’s right,” Bakugou says, in a horrible sarcastic sort of tone. “You only decided to get all buddy-buddy once Izuku left. Not apt replacement, in the end?”
Shouto’s delicately calculated explosion rips through the robot’s shell so hard it hits all the way up into the engine. His head is throbbing so that he feels like he can’t see properly, arms working mechanically to boost him up inside the shaking body of the machine, and as he fixes his sights on the pulsing engine he feels momentarily like he’s about to tear out some dying beast’s heart.
Bakugou is not a replacement for anyone, he knows. He knows, and thinks he should say, because Bakugou is never usually so vitriolic, and that speaks of- something, but he is so unfamiliarly, uncontrollably angry at himself and Bakugou both that he doesn’t care. Apt replacement. Like that’s what this is. Like that’s the type of person Shouto is.
Bakugou has carved himself a place in Shouto’s life that is far bigger than he realised up until this exact moment, and the fact that he has let him, when Bakugou is- petty, and spiteful, and harsh, makes him feel vividly, viciously young, makes his spine rigid with humiliating defensiveness.
“You’re not a replacement,” Shouto says, hands steady on the vibrating engine. “We’re barely even friends, remember.”
The blast rips the head clean off the machine.
They emerge from the smoking debris to streaming sunlight, the crowd applauding rapturously as Shouto squints silently at the sunbeams reflecting off the twisted shreds of metal littering the yard. It looks like some kind of post-apocalyptic graveyard.
“In a word, wow,” one of the younger officers says, or is saying, as police begins to make their way carefully towards the house. “I mean, tremendous work as always, Shouto-san, it’s an honour-“
“Thank you,” Shouto says, and doesn’t blink when flash goes off behind them, from where bystanders have begun to press just past the gates, wide-eyed in recognition.
Police lines crackle to life; Saito’s voice now, a little strained but mostly more contented than Shouto’s ever heard him.
“Target safely secured. He gave up much faster than predicted once he understood who was on the scene. Good work, Ground Zero, Shouto.”
Neither of them replies until Shouto, distantly, hears himself make some kind of acknowledgement.
They drive back to NPA headquarters, give their report. Then back to Might Tower for much the same. He silently holds the door to the conference room open for Bakugou, who nods at him as he walks in.
When it’s over, his neatly redacted mission statement joining Bakugou’s on his desk, he glances cursorily over at the board. Nothing else scheduled for the afternoon. He’d known that this morning- had planned on some routine patrols to fill the time.
“I’m patrolling this afternoon,” he informs Bakugou, skimming through his schedule.
“I’m doing recon for the office.”
He thinks he says goodbye, though he can’t quite recall. They’ll see each other tomorrow in the afternoon, most likely- medical checks, again. Thirty seventy odds of good news, the doctors had said.
Patrols are, of course, uneventful. He stops a minor robbery at a grocery store in about a minute and a half flat, till returned and robber left tied up and immobilised for the police to retrieve. At some point in the afternoon, he has a thought that actually sticks, which is that he wishes there was something worse happening for him to resolve. This in turn makes him think irrepressibly of his brother, and then he has to stop walking for a second to get his Quirk under control.
His work phone rings at some point as he heads home, and he answers habitually, though it takes him several rings to actively register the sound.
“You’re ignoring your texts,” Akaba says, all half-hearted reproach. It brings him back somewhat from wherever he’d been, blinking at his surroundings. “I told you to stop keeping that thing on silent.”
“I forgot,” Shouto says, which is truer than it usually is.
“Yeah, well,” Akaba sighs, in the tone that signals she has more pressing matters to attend to. “If you’re looking to avoid bad news, cutting your phone isn’t going to do much.”
“Bad news?” Shouto asks, feeling himself tense. Before he can begin conjecturing, Akaba clicks her tongue dismissively, an oddly familiar sound.
“No, no, I think you’ve had enough of that for the next while. And thank god for that, too- any more and we’d lose your marketable good looks.”
“Good news,” Shouto surmises, looking at his palms.
“Good news indeed,” Akaba agrees. “Now, of course, your position is still frozen until we get this whole Quirk situation sorted, but they’ve done the monthly tallies, and no matter what happens between now and then your points are too high for anyone to challenge your spot.”
“My spot,” Shouto echoes. He seems to be unable to contribute anything else to the conversation. Akaba only snorts.
“You’ve made top five. Wide margin. All these high-profile fights the last while, and resolving the Endeavour situation- and the public is frothing at the mouth over you, which I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“Oh,” Shouto says, glancing upwards, where the sun is drifting slowly downwards. Top five.
“We’ll have to work on your reaction for the press junket,” Akaba answers, dryly. “Some intonation, maybe. Multiple words, even.”
How many years has he been working towards it? His whole life, it feels like. Unlike most children that’s probably an accurate assessment.
“Hey,” Akaba says, voice gentling a little. “Congratulations. It’s well-deserved.”
He thanks her, he’s pretty sure. He doesn’t check the rest of his notifications, though; doesn’t check much of anything until his feet lead him back to his apartment, the door shutting with a firm click as he stares at the living room, eyes caught on the coffee table.
He feels- bad. He thinks- no, he knows. He feels bad. He has accomplished something he has wanted to accomplish for a long time, and he must be proud, somewhere, but he feels bad. Worse than he has in some time, even through all of the low-level unhappiness of the past few weeks, which he has tried so hard not to acknowledge.
He sits. He should change, shower, but this seems a tremendous effort.
He knows- obviously he knows that this whole debacle has made him miserable. He’s not oblivious. His estranged father has been viciously attacked, dragging all of his entangled feelings about his family to the surface; he’s been thrust head-first into an intensive high-stakes plot to kill him and unleash his psychotic brother. His Quirk doesn’t belong to him. His best friend is an ocean away. These are not things that make him happy, but he hasn’t had the time- there was nothing to be done, and he was working fine, up until today, except for the Bakugou thing, which-
His breath feels a little caught in his lungs. He takes a long inhale, wills the shudders away. He doesn’t do panic attacks.
He calms himself forcefully, waits for his breathing to regulate. God, if Izuku had seen that whole embarrassment- if anyone had… He hasn’t- he is not the type to fight, confrontational only when conflicts demand it, and he can’t recall the last time he got caught up in something so stupid. If they’d slipped up on the job-
He is upset, he realises. He is upset enough that every ounce of unhappiness that has laid dormant inside him is threatening to erupt in a haze of misery, and he is this upset because of Bakugou. It’s like some absurd vicious cycle of awareness, where the fact that he is so affected by this upsets him even more.
He feels like he could cry, which makes him get a grip, pushing himself out of his huddled position on the couch. He has to- do something. Go out, except he can’t possibly show his face to the outside world like this, can hear the words PR-disaster ring through his head like an alarm. He could sleep it off, but his brain feels staticky, and it’s not even dinner time.
Helplessness sinks into him heavily, followed immediately by furious denial; he sways a little where he stands, feeling rooted to the spot.
He shouldn’t be vulnerable to this sort of thing. There is no reason for him to be this affected by this sort of thing.
His eyes, roving the room aimlessly, catch on the book-shelf, and for a second his mind clears, eyes focusing; he moves, plants himself in front of it, breathing evening out as he looks. This is where Kirishima had decided to deposit his photos, stuck in unbelievably tacky plastic frames- Shouto had protested, uncomfortable with keeping someone else’s pictures, but he’d insisted that he had plenty to spare, and besides, Shouto was in them, so he had as much claim to them as anyone else.
“That’s not how fucking ownership works.”
“Don’t be a spoilsport, man.”
Staring, now, at the frozen faces of his friends, laughter and warmth in the immortalised vignettes despite his own awkwardness in front of the camera, something unclenches in his chest.
He has another option. It’s one that makes his skin crawl, but it is measurably better than staying here alone.
His phone is in his hand, suddenly. Turns out it’s not so hard to use.
Momo doesn’t pick up immediately, but she calls back so fast he spares a thought to wonder if she’s put him on some kind of emergency alert setting at some point. He doesn’t remember what he even says to her- it’s all very dry and reluctant- but she can clearly hear through it, because by the time he hangs up she’s already rescheduled some kind of work obligation and promised a rapid arrival.
He’s not sure how much time passes; he makes tea, at some stage, which is still steaming when his intercom buzzes and he lets her into the building.
“Hello,” Shouto says, when she appears atop the stairs, stood hovering in his doorway with tea in hand. “I made tea.”
If it were Izuku, he is entirely sure he wouldn’t have been able to bear the obvious worry radiating off him. Momo is made of subtler stuff; she accepts the tea graciously, and though her eyes are searching her stance is not that of someone who has just rushed through Tokyo traffic to get to him.
They sit. She looks around the apartment, makes appreciative noises. Sometime in high school Momo learned to pretend to find normal people’s housing something other than terribly cramped.
“It looks lovely. Lived in. I’ve been meaning to stop by and see for myself.”
She says it like it’s her own fault for getting busy rather than Shouto’s continuous reluctance to extend any invitations, which makes his stomach turn faintly leaded with guilt. His jaw feels clamped shut.
Momo sips her tea, sets it delicately down, turns dark eyes on him, gaze soothingly cool.
“Are you okay?”
It’s direct for Momo, which is most definitely for his benefit. He still can’t quite bring himself to do anything but incline his head.
Momo’s expression twists a little, hands smoothing her skirt. “Forgive me, but I don’t- I don’t think you are.”
Her hands are still moving, and it’s this nervous habit more than anything that spurs him into action, despite the crawling discomfort in his skin.
“I,” Momo starts, then clasps her hands together to stop them from moving.
“Shouto, ah. I’ve been very worried for you. And I- we all know you are more than capable of looking after yourself. But I- this has been such a terrible, terrible time, and if you’re- if it’s getting to you, that’s normal, you understand? It’s normal.”
When he says nothing, feeling somewhat blindsided, she gets a determined glint in her eyes, leaning forwards.
“I understand this has been- very intense. I’m sure there has been no time to process how you feel. Your professional behaviour has been commendable. But you can’t fault yourself if you feel overwhelmed.”
He feels his head jerk a little in denial, fingers curling around his teacup.
“I’m not- it’s not…”
She waits him out; he exhales, relaxing his hold around the cup.
“It’s not just the- that. I would have- I could have dealt with that later.”
Momo doesn’t contest this, which makes his chest ache with abrupt appreciation for her. “So there’s something else.”
Last chance to change his mind, Shouto thinks. Last chance to divert- to bring up any of the other things that have been plaguing him, Kajiya’s anger or his father’s will or the fact he sometimes thinks he will always be like this, conscious of his failings and yet powerless to cope with them any better.
Momo looks at him expectantly, mottled bruise high on her cheekbone, nails carefully trimmed, hair tidily tucked behind her ears, and he gazes away.
“It’s uncomfortably personal,” Shouto says, in warning. His tone is strange.
“And also a secret. You’ll probably want to tell a lot of people and not be able to.”
He pauses in thought, then adds, for good measure: “It could ruin whatever image you have of me forever.”
This finally breaks Momo’s textbook ‘I am listening’ posture, her brows shooting up, and for a moment he thinks he might have been a little amused under different circumstances, watching her try and fail not to think of the most salacious of secrets that he might be hiding.
It only lasts a moment; her brows descend to polite levels, then furrow, determined set to her shoulders as she nods.
“If you want to tell me, I’ll listen. I won’t tell anyone.”
He could probably confess to murder and she’d hold to that, he thinks, though somehow this does not particularly erase the weight of his confession. He manages a nod.
“I’ll spare you the details. The point is-“
He has never been so halting in his life. Concern bleeds into Momo’s expression; to prevent any further speculation, he mentally shakes himself, digs his nails into his sweating palms.
“I fought with Bakugou today.”
It’s not what he meant to say, but in a sense he supposes it answers the question. Momo’s hands have stilled, and she pauses, then nods.
“Are you upset you fought, or what you fought about?”
“Both,” Shouto says. He’s better with the direct questions. “It was like that time with Inasa, at the provisional license exam. I felt like I was out of control.” He pauses, swallows. “It was on the job.”
“I see,” Momo says, after half a second, concern less nebulous now. “But you worked through it, correct?”
“It didn’t affect our performance,” Shouto agrees, dully. Small mercies. “It got ugly. I don’t think I’ve ever fought like that with someone outside of my family.”
Momo hesitates audibly, then her hand shoots out to grab tentatively at his, fingers wrapping around his when he stops tensing so hard. He’s extremely conscious of how uncomfortable it must be for her, holding on to his hot and sticky hand, but she shows no sign of it, worrying her lip with indecision before she seems to reach a conclusion.
“I’m surprised that you fought.”
It sounds like an admission. For a moment he wants to say something more intelligent; then he considers it, inclines his head.
“So am I.”
“It’s just,” Momo starts, delicately, “You’ve- you’re close. Or- it’s always seemed to me like you were, at least for these past few years. Especially since Midoriya left.”
“I think we are,” Shouto says, with some difficulty. He’s so sweaty. “But I’m not sure I really knew that until recently.”
“Oh,” Momo replies, understanding. “Well- he is a little difficult.”
This makes him give her a look, to which she has the decency to smile guiltily.
“Maybe more than a little.”
“Maybe,” Shouto echoes, sobering. “I don’t think I’m very good at showing affection either.”
“I think you’re better than you think,” Momo counters, turning a little shy when he looks up at her. “I- I’ve certainly felt quite confident in our friendship for a long time now.”
“You should,” Shouto says, quick, serious. It makes her smile again, eyes darting aside briefly before she nods.
“I don’t want to make this about myself, but- I’m not always very good at letting people know how I feel, either. And I’m better now, but when I first went to UA I was very prone to keeping things to myself, blaming myself for my own unhappiness. Nowadays I try not do to that, but when- something bad happens, it’s hard, I think, not to fall back on old habits.”
Their gazes meet. “I’m not saying it’s the same for you, but- I was a little worried, when you stayed here by yourself. Then things seemed to be going well, and then, with your father-“
“This wasn’t about that,” Shouto starts, but Momo only shakes her head.
“I know- it wasn’t only about that. But if you’re- unhappy, and angry, and trying not to feel it, because of all these other things, then I don’t think it’s surprising that you got into this fight, Shouto. And if it was immature of you I don’t think that’s unexpected.”
He thinks, immediately, of the defensiveness roaring in his chest, of the way he’d shut down two weeks prior, of the day Bakugou had thrown cereal bars at him because he couldn’t bring himself to eat. That was you before UA, his mind declares, Momo’s hypothesis neatly substantiated. Except…
“I don’t usually start fights when I get like that.”
“No, but Bakugou does,” Momo says, and just like that Shouto recalls, stupidly, the numerous brawls Izuku and Bakugou have gotten into, recalls their source, recalls that he knows that Bakugou baits people into fighting him when he’s upset.
His chest does something funny; he is entirely distracted from the subject at hand, trying to fill in the pieces.
“He baited me into it,” he hears himself mumble, aloud. “I don’t know why he did that.”
Momo is quiet for a moment, then she shifts. “Is it- were you on good terms before today?”
No, Shouto thinks. Evidently not.
He shakes his head. Momo nods.
“Then maybe he didn’t know how else to approach it. I don’t- I think he’d be best placed to explain.”
“He does so love explaining his feelings,” Shouto mutters, flat, staring at their joined hands. In his head he keeps replaying Bakugou’s yelling; he sags.
“I think he’s been angry at me ever since we swapped Quirks, but I don’t think it’s because of that. Then for a while- I don’t know. I don’t understand what he wants from me.”
There is the longest pause yet, and then Momo asks, almost apologetically: “And what exactly do you want from him?”
It hits him like a physical blow, which he thinks she expected, judging by her little wince when he stares at her. His stomach is in knots again.
“I don’t know.”
He’s thinking- he’s thinking that he feels like an alien in his own skin, foreign with emotion, and he’s thinking that he feels raw, and that this whole mess hurts more than it has any right to. He’s thinking, violently, of Inasa, and then trying not to, his brain stuck on the phrase. Love hurts. Love had certainly hurt when he’d been growing up, or had that been the absence of love? This is not that- couldn’t be, isn’t. This is just- different, hurts different, doesn’t hurt most of the time.
Third year, sprawled in the dirt, dripping blood. Aching in a good way. Feeling like-
“I don’t know,” he repeats, with less conviction. Shit. “I think I’ve been looking at this the wrong way.”
“Looking at what?” Momo asks, so gentle, so practical that he can stand to answer it.
“I think I want-“ Shouto starts, stops. “I know what I want, I just don’t know how I want it.”
He’d thought about this, after the kiss. Laid it all out, logically. Carefully omitted any examination of the most unlikely of possibilities. Why, in retrospect? Why the reluctance to be thorough? Why had his primary explanation been the unlikeliness of Bakugou’s feelings?
They look at each other, and her brow smooths like he’s just confirmed a theory, eyes flickering briefly wide before she sucks in a breath and squeezes his hand.
“I’m sorry that I’m going to be presumptuous,” Momo says, eyes shining with a determination he recognises all too well. “But I think it would do you well to say it, either way, so.”
Her grip on his hand tightens. His lungs constrict.
“Shouto, do you-“
“Yes,” Shouto says.
Yes. Before she can finish. Before he can really think it through. Somewhere in his mind it has just clicked that in every way that matters the answer is the same.
Yes, he cares about Bakugou. Yes, he enjoys his company. Yes, he finds him attractive. Yes, he panics when he is in danger and it feels like his fault. Yes, it hurts his unduly sensitive feelings when Bakugou shuts him out. Yes, he has most likely known all of these things for a long time now. Yes, he finds them simultaneously excruciating and not at all.
Yes, he loves him. Yes, he is quite probably in love with him.
He feels slightly concussed.
“Sorry,” he says, for the interruption, feeling slightly out-of-body. “I- yes. To whatever you’re asking. For a while.”
“Oh,” Momo says, at a brief loss for words. When he levels her with a look she makes an aborted expression that’s half smile half wince, uncharacteristically sheepish. “That- oh.”
“Not what I expected either,” Shouto concedes. Her free hand flutters towards her mouth, as if to politely spare him a moment’s further shock, then resettles.
“I understand better why you turned me down in high school,” Momo manages, mouth twisting like she’s not sure if she’s allowed to smile, and it hits Shouto with unexpected relief, his own brows rising as her smile spreads.
“Ah, I- sorry.”
“Tough competition,” Momo dismisses, and then really smiles, a little helplessly, as Shouto feels his own lips quirk upwards.
“If I had good taste I would have said yes.”
“Acquired taste,” Momo attempts, fighting slightly hysterical laughter. “I’m sorry, this is so inappropriate-“
“Don’t apologise,” Shouto says, distantly, still feeling lighter than he has in eons. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
To this, Momo can’t quite help but make a doubtful sound. Shouto smiles a fraction.
“Maybe slightly less.”
Only slightly, though. He thinks back to the direction his thoughts have taken, over the last few years- the discussions he’s had, love and marriage and the forms they take. A month ago he’d still been abstractly contemplating marriage to a woman, despite his complete lack of attraction to the female sex. Stupid, of course- naive, more generously- to expect to fit the mold here, when he never has elsewhere, when he knows no one who does, really. All the healthiest relationships he knows are unconventional in spades- and he knows that loving people is never rational, never expected.
Maybe his inner fatigue with his eternal failure to connect the right dots shows, because Momo squeezes his hand again before she sits back to pick up her tea. Shouto glances at her, wonders if she’d run the numbers for him, if asked- if she could give him the correct strategy, or confirm his odds.
He doesn’t ask; his finger traces the rim of his cup thoughtfully.
Love. He loves him. And Bakugou-
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
Momo is nothing if not adaptable; she mulls this over around a mouthful of tea before she shakes her head firmly.
“I don’t think anyone does, with these things. And you’ve never seemed especially constrained by what you were supposed to do.”
“Following my instincts hasn’t worked very well for me of late,” Shouto replies, slowly, though he knows as he says it that this isn’t quite true- if he’d followed his instincts, he would have done things differently, this past while. Shouted more. Chased Bakugou out of that practice room. Spoken his mind instead of holding his breath. Done something other than stew in silence in his empty apartment.
“It’s your choice to make,” Momo says, sympathetic, before her gaze goes soft with something like faith. “You’ll make the right one.”
He doesn’t know if she’s right. He knows, though, that he feels like a fog has lifted, and like he could blow up half the street with surplus adrenaline, battle-ready and a little heady with it.
“Even if it works out, it won’t fix anything else,” Shouto notes, to remind himself. “It’ll just make everything more complicated.”
Momo very reasonably does not dispute this, but there is something auspicious in the way she smiles.
“But happier, I hope.”
He inclines his head, neither an admission nor a dismissal, and she sets her finished tea down.
“You’re off work tomorrow,” Momo says, a subdued twinkle in her eyes. “Sleep on it. But talk to him. And- for the everything else, if you’ll accept my advice…”
“Buy a cat.”
“I really wish I had better taste,” Shouto says, mostly honestly, and Momo bursts into irrepressible laughter.