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Kingdom Of Ash

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While it was that Bakugo trusted the sea, loved her even; another jewel had caught his eye.

With a beauty so grand, so pristine and perfect; there was no way he could have denied his want, even if it were to be that this jewel could not give him that which he desired most of all—desired with a fervency that held to it a strength that would shame any tempest storm.
It had followed Bakugo from his childhood, well into the years of maturity without loss of his yearning, but instead growing in strength that saw his dreams pestered, his sleep shattered with a pounding heart that beats in time to the promise he has given a thousand-fold…

And now, after so long, there came the chance to fulfil his promise.

The book was close.

Close enough that he could see the ribbon of grains of her wood; the smoothness of her quarterdeck and rails, still as strong and sturdy as the redwood from which they were carved. Close enough, that he could see the height of her masts reaching in the sky, holding the soft golds of her sails that shone in compliment to the sun as they catch the breeze that pushes her through the water with dignity and grace, creating gentle rolling waves as she raced the Golden Skua to the horizon.

And yet as beautiful as the Naurn vessel stands to be; it was not her that Bakugo wanted, but the cargo she carries.
He was close enough that he could almost touch it.

“Jiro! Bring the ship about. Sero, I want you to stay on-deck. I don’t want any of those Naurn soldiers thinking they can invite themselves onto the Skua while we’re busy claiming our prize!”
“Aye Captain,” the pair reply in chorus, taking their marks as ordered: Jiro, behind the dhow’s wheel to pull her closer to the opposing ship that, rather than standing to fight and protect its precious cargo, is choosing to flee. She was an empress of the sea, and one of Ered Naur’s fastest, lightest ships. But the Golden Skua was faster.
She gave chase to the larger ship, teasing in the way that she rides the bow waves with the wind in her sails, sharing the eagerness of the crew who, under the order of their captain, stood ready, armed to the teeth in preparation to board the fleeing ship.

“With me!” Bakugo yells out above the sound of the sea, the crashing waves and the whooping cries of his crew as Jiro mans the Skua, pulling sharply on her wheel that she rams the fleeing brigantine, giving a cheer when the extending blades bite the Empress’s hull, anchoring the two vessels together until it was that Bakugo would order the blades withdrawn.
But the man isn’t thinking of such things just yet when it is his mind focuses itself on the fight unravelling before him. He is ready for it, aching for it, halfway up the foremast’s halyard as the ship lurches; the rope of which he holds snapping tight. Bakugo swings from one deck to the other, swords already drawn to come crashing down on the unsuspecting helmet of a Naurn soldier.

Behind him, the crew follows; swords flashing in the midday sun, their battle cries jubilant to the song of steel; as addictive to the clink of coins heavy in their pockets.

Bakugo could feel the energy flowing through him, beneath the heat of the sun and the feathering chill of remaining spring in the breeze that ruffles his hair. He doesn’t think for the world beyond his own garden that blooms between the falling blades of soldiers; his swordplay a dance as fluid as the water that churned beneath his feet, his movements sharp and unpredictable; like a silk scarf caught in the strength of a sea breeze.
Years behind a blade had honed his skill to the level it is now; his eye just as sharp as his blade that lets him find faults in the form of his opponents for an unblocked strike, grinning when he leads them into a trap that disarmed them, bleeds them, forces them to withdraw from the fight when it stands clear that he is the better swordsman.

With every new soldier, Bakugo chases the rush that came with the sparking of steel upon steel, adrenaline of being alive that, while present in every moment between waking and sleeping, is far stronger with the weight of a sword pressing blisters into his palms with every swing upwards and against whoever stands before him.
The feeling is allowed to grow stronger when the blond chooses to hold back the most harrowing of blows against better opponents, if only to extend this chance of feeling for one moment more.

Bakugo held no love to killing. He didn’t care for how many bodies he cut down or the lives cut short by the swing of his blade. It was the fighting he sought for; the life it breathed into his lungs, the pain it pressed into the straining muscles as his balance shifted to steady himself beneath the flourish of his cutlass to disarm a man far taller, far stronger than himself.

While it was that Bakugo sparred often enough with each of his water-born family, there was never weight of anything more than chance of injury; no real risk to a spar for either, no matter who the man challenged. It is why Bakugo is reckless now, chasing the laughter that poured from his lips, darting in once more in invitation to continue; a gravity of his own drawing in a second soldier, a third, until it was that he stood defending against a knot all his own.

For a moment, it was Tokoyami who fights alongside his captain, shoulder to shoulder against the armoured Naurn.
Then it is Mina, then Tooru who laughs beside him, throwing one bottled concoction after another, summoning rising smoke plumes in small explosions that blind the remaining soldiers that still strive to resist defeat.
They might outnumber the pirates three to one, but the Naurn have trained themselves in drills and runs and constructed order that has no place on battlefield; be it the flat clearings of the Sunbow grasslands, or the sea-rocked deck of a Naurn brigantine.

It was inevitable that their numbers would dwindle; the injured surrendering to nurse their pride on bended knee, heads bowed from the shame of falling to the band of mis-matched fighters that had fallen upon them as sudden as a summer storm.

The adrenaline and demand of the short-spent fighting had been enough to plaster the less stubborn strands of Bakugo’s hair against the back of his neck and drip a line of sweat between his shoulder blades. He is sweltering under the weight of his armour, but makes no show of such, choosing instead to inspect the scored marks of attacks that he hadn’t been quick enough to deflect. Two to his chest. A third to his thigh.
A note is made in the back of his mind that when the day grows older and the crew have nursed whatever injuries they have sustained, then a spar or two with the quicker of his men should quell any self-turned prickles of inadequacy.

“You took your sweet time, didn’t you?” Jiro teases playfully when Bakugo draws close enough to where she leans against the Empress’s railing, counting her knives and cleaning those that have been dirtied in the fight. She is without the usual bite to her tone that would suggest a missing kukri, nor a breathiness that would indicate injury, but there is still something that dictates the syllables sharper than their intended purpose of probing Bakugo to determine his mood.
“It’s not fun if you don’t make them think they have a chance,” the man says cautiously, his own words reflecting her use of tone, questioning without the need to use words. He can still feel energy burning beneath his skin, but that doesn’t mean he is blinded to the scarce of something weighing against his Quartermaster.

Where the captain’s strength stands in fighting, swordplay and anger, Jiro held sway to the strengths in her words.
She was a diplomat among squabbling children; her silver tongue laced with words that can calm, convince or confuse, depending on how she chose to wield them.
And yet in this moment, she chooses to wield none, instead simply falling in time with Bakugo as he sheathes his swords. He doesn’t need to push for an answer—as fruitless as it would be—and she doesn’t offer up a distraction that would make him forget when already the energy of the fight still lingers like electricity in the soles of his feet.

Bakugo feels confident. Phlegmatic. It is reflected in his stride, his posture, in the simple tilt of his head as he gestures towards the rear of the brigantine and Jiro follows with clipped heels and a forced bounce to her step.

While her tension is noticeable for the Captain, who has known the girl since he first learnt to hold a sword, to the others, they don’t see past her thinly veiled disguise of silence; hands busied with her kukri once more, turned away to avoid conversation. Tokoyami raises an eyebrow, but says nothing, followed suit by both Shoji and Sato who are glaring threateningly at the soldiers they have herded into submission on the main deck; demanding they turn out their pockets behind the tip of brandished swords.

Shoji, not being one for many words, needed or otherwise, simply nods his head in recognition towards his captain.
Sato salutes the man with a shit-eating grin stretched across his face, before turning back to shaking down one particularly petrified soldier that keeps glancing at the side of the boat, like he’d prefer the endless depths of the ocean to some muscle-bound pirates and their shiny swords.
If a comment was to be made, Bakugo never had the chance, with Jiro suddenly by his side again, pushing him past, before he can terrify the remaining soldiers before they all dive into the blue.

“He’s an ass.”
“Oh come on, he’s just in high spirits,” Jiro says, giving a gentle nudge to push him along. “He’s celebrating. We’re all celebrating. We’ve just fought a brigantine of soldiers and came out the other side practically unscathed. Just give them this, Bakugo. Who knows when we’ll be back, fighting for our lives…”
Absentmindedly, she continues to fiddle with one of her knives; still pricking the tips of her fingers with its sharp edge.

Bakugo decides to take the bait.

“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, all things considered; this whole thing has been far easier than I thought it would be. Calm winds all the way from the Calen Isles. No escort ships in Naurn waters, and a company that didn’t think to arm themselves to the teeth. I have to admit, I had been expecting something more.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Bakugo warns her, choosing to reply in kind to the turn of cheek given to what clouds her thoughts. As unnerving as it is that she feels the need to keep herself armed, it isn’t worrying enough to share after invitation, so Bakugo will her take her lead for as long as her patience can hold out.
And his.

“Stop being superstitious. Just because I say we’ve had it easy doesn’t mean—”
“Careful. You don’t know which god might be listening,” Bakugo says, tone level but as sharp as the kukri warming her hands, ignoring the spark in the girl’s eye when she rolls them skywards.
Jiro might not believe in the old gods, but she would never dare to ridicule her captain, or anyone, for choosing to believe that the old gods of songs and stories were still roaming the world. She wouldn’t deny the comfort it gave those that needed to believe in something greater than themselves, and those like Bakugo, who found it easier to live through hardships when he could place the blame on a cruel trick of the old gods.

But even mortal’s tricks could be damaging.

“So which unlucky idiot managed to get a swipe in?” Jiro says, accepting a diversion as she gestures at the small and insignificant cut that bleeds colour across Bakugo’s shirt just above his hip bone. It has long since stopped bleeding, and considering Bakugo hadn’t even noticed a blade breaking his defence, he’s not all that concerned about it. Maybe a little annoyed that another of his shirts has been ruined, but other than that…
Although the same can’t be said when he gestures to Jiro’s own cut that traces the length of her forearm; noticeably longer and significantly deeper. This time, its Jiro’s turn to shrug away the gifted concern with a wave of her hand and a flourish that is aimed more to distract.

“Jiro—”
“I’ve still got have my arm, haven’t I? So we’re good.”
She makes another flourish of her hand, shaking herself out so that Bakugo can hardly get a decent look. Still, he takes precaution, even with the smartest of his crew. “When we’re finished here, get Sero to take a look at it. And no complaining if it needs stitches.”
“Only if you get yours looked at too.”

Noise attracts Bakugo’s attention before he can think of a witty reply; eyes drawn to the rear of the deck where there remains one last Naurn soldier; still holding his own against the combined baiting of Kaminari, Mina and Ojiro.
While it is that they’re playful in their approach, dancing back and forth, it’s clear to see that they’re struggling to gain ground.
Familiarity tells Bakugo the reason why.

“Todoroki?”

The name falls from his lips with the weight of pain echoing in his pounding heart, his breathing as deep as the ocean. As cold as its depths.
Bakugo freezes where he stands, his mind stumbling on a face he hadn’t thought he would see. And yet, as the ship continues to rock beneath him, some small thought in the back of his mind realises that this is right; that of course it would be Todoroki to take charge in carrying the book to Ost’Aura.

It made perfect sense.

But as much as it makes sense, Bakugo feels lost in understanding.
And, afraid.

The boy wears a scar over his left eye; withering in a redness that should suggest pain. Unsightly at first glance. But the length of Todoroki’s two-toned hair would allow him to hide as such in any manner of style, and yet the lengths are braided with the same simple elegance that sees him parry Kaminari’s blade. He chooses not to hide the scar.

Bakugo finds himself curious.
And still afraid.

“Bakugo?”

Jiro, waiting at the point of his elbow, is holding her breath as much as he. Her earlier apprehension makes sense now, carried even this moment of waiting for Bakugo to make the first move. She had known, perhaps before boarding, perhaps even before the voyage, that Ered Naur’s Prince would personally attend to matters of peace, no matter how far from the palace it would take him.
And she knows now, that a war wages inside her captain; barely any of it seen beneath the crumbling of his mask as he watches Todoroki meet swords with Ojiro and halt his advance.

“Bakugo? What are you orders? What do we do now?”
“Nothing’s changed. We came for the book.”

The man sheathes his swords, trying for nonchalance as he steps once more into the role of captain who has come for a prize so precious to him, he would let no one stand in his way.
Not even his brother.

Trepidation slows his feet, words burning in his throat, but everything Bakugo wants to say is forgotten as old memories rise from the graves in which he has buried them.

The boy, now no longer a boy, has taken the years in stride, growing into someone who no longer stumbles with a sword in hand.
Todoroki dances as Bakugo does, holding balance between height and strength with such skill, yet remains insouciant when it gives him one of many advantages over his adversaries: his carefulness exemplary, his counters exact.
Todoroki’s ability has only progressed in the years apart, demonstrated in quickness as he pries Mina’s sword from her; the thin of his rapier slipping delicately between hilt and hand, a simple flourish disarming her; the cutlass snatched from the air before it had even begun to fall, held even to meet the swing of Ojiro’s blade.

Todoroki holds professional beauty in his stature, in each parry, each attack.
And yet, Bakugo can still remember when it was that the young Prince rolled his eyes at every snap of words their swordmaster had given in one of his many speeches on etiquette during their mandatory lessons. He and Bakugo had preferred to take their spathí to the gardens; to the streets; to the forests beyond the palace grounds; away from the watchful eyes of anyone who dared to tell them how to hold a sword properly, of all things.

Bakugo had never seen Todoroki take sword fighting seriously before.
Now, it seems he has mastered it.

Mina, although unarmed, stays in the fight, periodically darting in and back again to draw Todoroki’s attention as much as she is able, to allow for one of her brothers to take the upper hand. Kaminari manages to get inside the Prince’s guard to prick his arm—a shallow wound that barely bleeds—and in retaliation is knocked out of the spar with a precise blow to his skull that hurts more than it harms, while Ojiro fares better in the sense that he still has his swords and his natural agility keeps him far from Todoroki’s reach.
But the Prince has a few skills of his own.

Throwing Mina’s claimed sword is effective enough to startle his aggressor, but while thrown from his usual rhythm, Ojiro is quicker than Todoroki has predicted, catching his rapier and holding it with strength just as unexpected. But the Prince is stronger and he is able to throw Ojiro backwards with enough strength that he loses his balance.

“Ojiro is resilient. Even if you’ve knocked him over, he’ll get back up again.”

The words, the voice, cause Todoroki to stumble slightly, forgetting where he is long enough that he searches. The tension from the fight leaves him the instant their eyes meet; the tip of his rapier bowing as the boy drinks in the sight of Bakugo leaning on the Empress’s railing, unable to hide an all-too familiar grin that the man cannot keep from his lips.
While fear prickles his fingers, warmth bleeds from his heart.

“Bakugo‽”

Todoroki calls his name, Bakugo’s memories lingering close enough to the surface of his mind to hear the child within; his voice as achingly familiar as the sweet scent of caramel and freshly cut grass.
There is a tightness to his voice, though, which paints a different colour to the canvas of Bakugo’s nostalgia, and yet he remembers it all the same, in the moments when heated voices echoed from behind closed doors. And Bakugo, powerless but to wait until after.

But he’s here now.

Here, after having left first, so there cannot be any comfort given to his presence, and yet in the way Todoroki stares, it’s as if he finds some measure of peace, as if the inevitably of their reunion was something he hadn’t believed in. As if Todoroki accepted it impossible to have Bakugo here, after so much distance and so many years have pulled apart the threads that wove their lives together; years having pulled apart more than just their strands from the intricacy they had tied, thinking their bonds unbreakable in this breakable world.

Ojiro shatters the peace when he charges the man from behind.
And Bakugo cannot help but laugh: “Well, I did warn you.”

Ojiro managed to catch the distracted Prince off-guard, knocking his rapier from his hand just as Mina and Kaminari charge in too, taking the opportunity their captain had inadvertently given them, to restrain the last Naurn soldier that still struggles against the arms on him.
But Todoroki’s struggles are half-hearted when he searches, not for escape or the fight to continue, but for Bakugo, who had every chance to avoid the boy, and yet after all the years that divided them and he stands there now, wearing the grin of an inside joke, waiting for Todoroki to catch up and start laughing too.

“Bakugo? Is it—Is it really—?”
“Of course it is. Do you know anyone else who could be this charming and handsome?” the blond says lightly. And yet, he is too brash in movement, pivoting hard on his heel to return back over the distance of the quarterdeck with a too-fast stride that holds little light to the playfulness that chimes in his words.

Jiro clears her throat pointedly.
She has followed her captain from the main deck, standing close, but not close enough to make it seem that she is intruding on what should be a private conversation. As if Todoroki’s presence is the provocation needed to reignite old memories, there is something in the way she stands that reminds Bakugo of the past, be it the polite silence she cloaks herself in, or the way her hands are folded in careful decorum before her.

Jiro’s expression is plain, but there is a tension that still sharpens the edge of her being—shoulders rigid, back unnaturally straight—speaking to a discomfort far more clearly than the smile and barest bow of her head when the Prince’s eyes are cast to her and beyond. It isn’t expected for Todoroki to recognise her, but she recognises him, and learned etiquette of serving the royal family reminds her to lower her head to the prince.
But he only has eyes for Bakugo.

Under Todoroki’s gaze, something squirms in the captain’s chest—an odd, unsettling feeling that anchors in his gut and weighs against his nonchalance—something other than the pain that comes with remembering. But the man refuses to acknowledge it is there.
As does he refuse to acknowledge the meaningful glare Jiro is once again giving him from behind the heads of his confused crew. Whispers pass between them in search for an explanation but none dare to raise their voice in question.

They have withdrawn the hold they had on the Prince at the quartermaster’s insistence, and see no reason not to, now that they have realised Todoroki no longer has thought for fighting.
His rapier remains where it has fallen upon the deck, having no intention to pick it up when instead his hands reach for Bakugo, wanting, but slow, as if constrained by his status and the pretences a Prince should hold, no matter the company.

But it’s more than that. It is as if he is held by the fear that, should he move too fast, should he touch too soon, then Bakugo would disappear.
Like mist under the warming sun.

Todoroki’s eyes are swift and precise in their movement as they roam the features of Bakugo’s face. As his, it had been changed by time. But the smile worn, whilst teasing and sharpened with bared teeth, is as familiar as the one that had often accompanied the pealing laughter echoing throughout the palace halls.
Bakugo’s hair has kept its unruliness in sharp bristled spikes, his eyes the same rich ruby jewels that glitter in challenge and invitation to bait this tempest storm from the calm at sea. They flicker to the sword at Todoroki’s feet, but the Prince does not follow. His hand, still reaching, hesitates for a moment. Eyes widening, as if he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing.
As if he’s caught between the decorum of a Prince and that of a boy who has found someone he had thought lost.

Eyes widening again when his fingers curl around the man’s wrist.

Holds on.

“Bakugo?”
There is a flicker of tension at his mouth, the start of bitter words, or an anger that builds and falls in the confusion of suddenness that comes from their meeting. It is barely there, barely anything more than a thought in Bakugo’s mind before it melts into a soft smile that pulls gently at the Prince’s lips in a way far more familiar than the lilt of his voice, or the pinch of his eyes that strains behind burnt skin.

And yet, his voice sounds tense, as if the question he asked was not the one he meant to.

“What are—What are you doing here?”

Bakugo just rolls his eyes, loosening his smile so that it doesn’t feel so fake. He is careful enough that the sludge-slick-worry that boils in his stomach is barred from being seen as uncertainty in movement and expression alike. As long as he smiles. As long as his words flow.

“What can I say? Calm seas. Strong winds. A lone Naurn vessel that chooses to run from a pirate ship than stand against her? Anyone would think that she was carrying something precious, wouldn’t you?”
He turns then, heel pivoting, smooth and slow and practiced like the steps of a waltz, far less familiar than that of sword-fighting, far smoother than before. The simple movement breaks Todoroki’s hold on him, without Bakugo even needing to try; pushing past the prince towards the Captain’s cabin. And the prize that awaits him.

Todoroki, unbarred by the crew, follows.

Beyond the reach of the wind’s song and the ocean’s reply, everything felt distant in the muted dark of the Captain’s quarters; every creak of taut rope dulled, every groan of aged wood subdued, as if the world was holding its breath.
Bakugo joined them in their trepidation, waiting for something Todoroki is yet to give. Anger. Hate. A raised voice and hurtful words that he has every right to say.

He can feel the weight of the Prince’s stare against his skin; Bakugo’s expectancy for anger growing even as he displays no sign of such, choosing instead to waste his time playing his fingers against the salt-weathered wood of the ship’s walls as he pushes further into the room.

Todoroki follows, abandoning the pretences that come with a crown, now that it is only the two of them. He still has a thousand questions, each of them bubbling up and spilling out of him with a desperation that doesn’t come from the need of answers, but something else.
Something far more frightening.

“What happened to you, Bakugo? You’ve been missing for—for years. Where have you been?”
“Here. There,” Bakugo says simply, parrying the question with an ease of indifference, not even bothering to face the prince. “Wherever there is a rich merchant. Wherever the tradeline remains unwatched by your ships. Wherever there’s gold for the picking and booze for the drinking,” he says, the blasé of his uncaring beginning to scratch at the Prince’s patience; trailing after with more questions burning against his lips.

“Bakugo it has been seven years!”
“Has it? It doesn’t feel like it.”

The man’s smile sits plainly on his lips; Todoroki’s soured into a thin line reminiscent of his father’s—a shock enough that Bakugo’s mask frays at its edges.
His body loses some of its fluidity; a retort stagnant in his throat, body glacial despite the warmth of the room; sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

“Katsuki,” Todoroki says, hurt warming his throat. “Why did you leave?”

This time, Bakugo does freeze. He has been outrunning his past since taking the first step all those years ago, and now it has finally caught up to him. Cornered him.
In the pale blue light of the Captain’s quarters, it feels like there is a needle at his throat and an abyss beneath his feet. As if one misstep could crumble everything around him.

Anger builds to his brother: to the boy that he had grown beside inside the palace walls, beside him all those years. Beside him when their worlds were turned upside down. He was there. Todoroki knows the reason why Bakugo left, and now, for some reason or another, he wants Bakugo to tell him, as if he doesn’t?

But whatever swells in his chest, his throat, burns his teeth like molten lead—

“Who gave you that scar?”

It’s Todoroki’s turn to freeze.

His eyes, glazed; his hand absentmindedly reaching up to brush against his scar, over its ridges and around its jagged edges, as if he had forgotten the stain across his pale skin; the milky white fish bone streaks stapled around its edges from healing; the hurt folded into the layers of skin that pucker and wrinkle.

Todoroki offers nothing, but Bakugo already knows the answer.
There was only one man he knew who would burn his own son for the sole reason of proving he could, without consequence. The same man that turned both their worlds upside down and expected them to carry on without question to his commands.

But the man isn’t here and before Bakugo can allow his anger to rise once more, he turns from the conversation and pushes deeper into the room.

Sunlight glitters in through large stain-glass windows that lined the back wall, obscured by veil curtains that cast a thousand shades of blue into the quiet with a gentle shimmer, as if the room was underwater.
There is calm in their colours; calm that Bakugo cloaks around himself to turn his bladed-tongue, to dull the edges of his frustration just so that, if he were to lash, Todoroki would only hear his words and not feel them like a noose around his neck.

But Bakugo didn’t come here to talk.

Beneath the pillars of blue, Bakugo couldn’t see his prize, but instead a half-dozen chests lining the room; each of them bearing the branded crest of Lefnui’s reigning monarch.
The Pirate Captain throws a grin over his shoulder, ignoring any lingering feeling that remained from Todoroki’s earlier questioning. His brow remained cocked; his teeth sharp. “So now the Scorched King is demanding ransom money? What is he holding over Queen Kayama to have her pay up a decent shipment of gold?”

“Nothing. It is a gift,” Todoroki counters with a level tongue. He still keeps a distance, yet to shed the emotions that plague him, unable to shake them from his voice as the other so easily had. Instead, he falls upon the comfort of practices from court, where both had been taught how to sit, to stand, to talk and walk without giving offense to visiting diplomats. While it stood as a memory Bakugo had long-since banished, Todoroki still lived those days in present.
Bakugo recognises the distance in the Prince’s tone; knows the stance his body has fallen into without even needing to turn his head.
“An expensive gift,” he hums, using his knife to leaver the chest open to reveal countless golden rhyne.

“It is necessary,” Todoroki says, voice louder this time. A ripple of tension rolls across his body, shaken out in the three paces that bring him to Bakugo’s side. “And beneficial for both parties. Whilst strengthening our bonds with Lefnui, the gold will aid in Ost’Aura’s continued growth. It is important that we receive contribution from the other countries in alliance with—”

“You sound like him.”

Bakugo cannot fight the wave of guilt that surges inside him and bleeds his tone with sadness; struck by the thought that he should be held to blame for this, when he can’t deny that he abandoned Todoroki. Abandoned him to save his own sanity, and left Todoroki with an empty palace, save from the man that dares call himself his father.

“Bakugo. Ost’Aura is not as prosperous as it used to be, despite the King’s plans for the future and all the celebrations surrounding the success of this voyage. We need this gold to give the kingdom and its people a chance to thrive once more. You cannot take it.”
“Well then, it’s a good thing I didn’t come for the gold.”
Because, while inviting as its shine may be, Lefnui’s wealth was not the prize that had drawn Bakugo aboard the Empress. He had come for something far more precious— far more important than a handful of coins that could buy his happiness tenfold.

Bakugo ignored Todoroki’s renewed protests, pushing further into the room. Past the shifting light columns that danced between the veil curtains and the gentle rocking of the ship, past the filtering blue light that spiralled into simple yet elegant patterns as it wove its magic to bring the pair back into the falsity of calm they pretended they were, if only for the sake of continued conversation.
But the time for talking has been and gone, when Bakugo pushes back the gossamer veil, to reveal the source of blue light.

And there, on a pedestal at the bow of the ship, with its pages warmed by the golden sunshine, sits the Book of Peace.

“Bakugo…”

Bakugo ignores his name, his eyes finding the book and nothing else. He cannot recall how many nights he has spent dreaming of one day laying eyes upon its pages, of every thought, wish and prayer to the gods that he would one day read it’s words and speak them aloud: to fulfil his promises and right the wrongs befallen those he had abandoned, before the past had been be shattered into a thousand shards.

He’s so close.

“Bakugo.”
A hand appears around his wrist, grounding the man to the present before his mind can wander too far from the reality that he still has a long way to go. And yet, he’s so close.

“Bakugo, you can’t,” the prince says, putting strength into his words. He’s beginning to sound like himself again; like the boy that Bakugo knows and not some prince from some far-off kingdom.
Undeterred by the false-order, Bakugo moves closer to the pedestal, breaking Todoroki’s grip in the same movement. He’s come too far, searched for too long to be simply falter at his brother’s demand, especially when it is spoken with the voice of the King.

The book holds far more grandeur in its old pages than Bakugo had first thought: simplicity in blue-hued ink that scrawls across the creamy pages that emit their own light, as if alive somehow. The written words spiral and weave and dance in movement within the winter landscape of brilliant white, no sense to their order, no drop of past, present or future in their intricacy that would give Bakugo an answer to the thousand questions that have followed him into manhood.
He moves closer, mind steep and sharp; fangs bared in threat—in demand for an answer. He leans in, leans closer to the swirling words that hum with the magic imbued into them from when they were written, teasing him with the knowledge that he knows lie within these words, but reading them and understanding them are tides apart in this ocean of wisdom that drags heavy at waterlogged limbs and waterlogged lungs.

The humming is louder now.
It thrums in the air, in the sunlight, in Bakugo’s heart as he leans even closer, caring not for the fear that turns his stomach and the warning of his name that goes unheard under the humming, growing louder and louder. Another sound joins in; a rushing of wind and water that pulls as much as it pushes, Bakugo finding that he has to hold onto the pedestal just to keep himself still, to glimpse a word, a letter, anything at all—

Aŋġɼėŋȯȿʈ.

There—!

The hum roared with the power of a waterfall; the roar echoing in Bakugo’s ears, pulling him closer as the oceans sing in climax—

The song is silence by Todoroki’s shout and the abruptness of his tug that pulls Bakugo from the pedestal and the siren’s calling where he can hear more than the ocean and the gods, but the familiar lullaby of his mother and the soft, gentle laughter of his father, the echoing call of another voice calling Bakugo’s name—

“Are you crazy Bakugo? You can’t read the book! It’s magic is too powerful— You cannot read it without guarding yourself, or at least sharing the burden with—with…”
Todoroki tugs on the man’s arm again, pulling Bakugo several paces from the pillared light. His eyes are wide and worry-filled, harsh in the blue light that ignites his fear and bares it to the naked eye.

But Bakugo stands oblivious to his brother’s plight.
Instead, he rejoices at the word he had found beneath the tides of wisdom; something that, whilst having longed for, for what he feels to have been an eternity, there was always the lingering doubt that he would never find it.

For a long time, having never seen the book, and only ever having heard stories and rumours and tales from visiting ambassadors, Bakugo hadn’t ever fully believed the book to be real. And if it was, he had thought, with all his childish wisdom, then it couldn’t possibly be as powerful as the rumours told. That maybe, the book wasn’t magical at all, and it was simply a lie—a tool—for the sovereigns of the Five Great Kingdoms to rule the populace.

A cynical thought, perhaps, and one not meant for a child, but having grown up in the palace of a King who cared more for control than his subjects, Bakugo knew why his distrust had taken root.
And why, despite his hopes, there was always the shadow of darkness that sat upon his shoulder, like a breath before the plunge.

And yet…

“Todoroki, do you understand what this means?” the man says, caught up in the elation that has him turning back to the book once more, wanting.
“Its magic is real.”

And yet he is kept from it by the hand that moves from wrist to arm.
Holds tight.

“Bakugo stop it. You can’t take the book.”

This time, Bakugo does stop.

He turns, slow, taking note of the alarm painting the boy’s face; of the pain igniting his forearm; brittle icicles biting his flesh as Todoroki’s nails dig deeper. Whatever joy sparked within the Captain is snuffed out in an instant, his mind for Angrenost and the world beyond the blue pillars drowned from thought as Todoroki pulled on his arm again. As if the Book of Peace poses a threat.
But it’s not the book that the Prince looks to fearfully.

Sweat presses lightly across his brow despite the cool of the shade; the calm dim light pulsing serenity, yet not powerful enough to ensnare the Naurn whose eyes are wide but crystal in clarity when his gaze flickers between the Pirate Captain and the prize he had crossed a dozen oceans for.

Had he heard their voices? Had he heard their singing?

Silence draws in around them.

It is long and stretching; a divide carving the space between the two men, despite the grip that anchors them together. Bakugo stares from across the rift, sickness churning in his stomach at the feeling that stands far too familiar to that which plagued him in the days following his leaving.
He has neither the words nor the strength to shatter it, left to wait and see where Todoroki steers this ship; be it to catch a simple tide, or face the storm.

“You cannot take the book. It is what keeps the Five Kingdoms safe. Ost’Aura, as well. Its’ magic provides the lands with peace and prosperity—”
“Ost’Aura could stand to lose some of its’ prosperity,” Bakugo muttered bitterly. His annoyance barbs his tongue with needle-prick pain as if the words hurt him when they rolled off his tongue. His guard has risen, and while disappointment lingers from Todoroki’s obliviousness to the answers Bakugo had found, he concedes that it isn’t disappointment flourishing spite between them but something a little closer to home.
Having expected anger upon their reunion, Bakugo isn’t ready to admit he feels unsure to where the current path leads him.

Something flashed across the Prince’s eyes; a shadow—electric and hurting—pulling his voice tighter. Cold as it brushes up against Bakugo’s skin. “This isn’t you, Bakugo. You’re not selfish. You wouldn’t risk everyone’s lives for— for what? For a few chests of rhyne? For the sake of getting a jab at the King because you chose to steal the book when it was under his protection? Under my protection.”
“I didn’t know it was you—”
“But it doesn’t change the fact that it is me, Bakugo. It doesn’t change the fact that the book is bound for Ost’Aura, or that it is needed there. You wouldn’t forfeit lives for money. That’s not you.”

And yet, although as desperate and cold and demanding as his voice strikes, like iron against the stale air, Bakugo is chilled more so by the waver echoing deep within the hum of his words: the faintest of truths that Todoroki’s anger stands a mask, concealing the doubt of which he wants to ask, but cannot make himself speak.

Because Todoroki doesn’t believe himself.

And why should Todoroki believe himself?
As he has said, it’s been years since the boys last saw one another. They were still kids back then; still children in the world of power and politics, who thought the world was theirs to carve, to culture, to command. They thought their crowns made them invincible, that the power and wealth they were born into was a given.
But they were children and they were wrong.
The world could never be so kind.

“The Bakugo I knew might’ve been an irritable bastard, but he would never be so selfish.”
“The Bakugo you knew was a child. I’ve grown up since then.”

And that was it, wasn’t it?
Because despite the war of thought, mind and heart, Bakugo cannot turn away from the one constant: that he is faced with the familiarity of a boy he knew, and the mind of a man he did not.
Bakugo had returned to a stranger.

And he had returned a stranger in Todoroki’s eyes, who still looks upon him with a mix of fear, confusion and anger; questions and fires ignited inside him.

Bakugo had dreamt of a thousand reunions between the pair of them, and yet despite having thought he had imagined every possible argument, every word, every insult, every reason for anger and heat to temper their throats…
He had never imagined their reunion would lead them here—would leave Bakugo here, drowning in unknown waters. Because he had thought that his leaving made sense; that just like he had done, Todoroki would forge his own path throughout the years that was more than what his Father demanded of him—that he had come to understand the kind of man his Father was and risen above his greed.

But in the years spent apart, Todoroki had changed. As if he was not completely himself.
As if Enji had corrupted something inside of him.

“Todoroki—”
“Reasons aside, it is my duty to take the Book of Peace to Ost’Aura. I will not let you take it.”

In the same moment that he speaks, the Prince moves.
With one foot, he takes a definitive step back, one hand slipping to his coat, to bring forth a knife. It was a short blade, gold-hilted, jewel pressed; something given to him for the sake of ceremonies and not a tool crafted for defending oneself.
And yet Todoroki holds it with the intention of a sword.
He holds it with the coldness of Enji within his eyes.

Bakugo feels his stomach twist.
How easy it had been for cast aside the years of distance and fall into the familiar routine of quarrelling; he, loud and stubborn with the truth in his hands, and Todoroki caught between mediating and arguing where Bakugo’s cantankerous personality bleeds into him. It had been as it always has in their childhood, when arguments led to something more, with curled fists and blood-bitten insults and curses that would hurt deeper than either would let on.

Back then, Bakugo had rarely seen the need to hold himself back from his ire—be it a flickering flame that warmed his throat, or an inferno that would consume his entire being, his voice and mind—anchored only with the weight of his sword in his hand and the force of an opponent clashing iron and steel and whatever else that would keep them from Bakugo’s metal bite.

But now, in this moment, despite the argument that divides them and the differences of their minds, Todoroki is not someone who deserves, nor should be given, any semblance of his hate-blame-anger-rage. They have barely allowed themselves to talk—no time to breach the years of silence, no time to break walls that have been built to protect themselves from the still lingering pain that came from Enji’s hand. The pain that came from Bakugo’s hand…

“I won’t face a defenceless man,” the Naurn Prince says, choosing his words to avoid ambiguity. His tone has returned to that of his title; apathetic and detached that allows him to level the dagger between them.

Bakugo and Todoroki had only every sparred with one another. Never with real swords. Never with intent.
Never with rage in their blood, nor indifference in their eyes.

“Shoto—”

But the word has barely slipped past his lips before Todoroki’s patience leaves him.
He moves first.

With the same show of lightning speed that he had defended against the pirates above deck, Todoroki took the first attack before Bakugo could settle his feet beneath him.
But just as the Prince has bettered himself with the sword over the years, so had the Pirate Captain, who’s agility and keen skills sees his own weapon in his hand before he’s even given it a thought; arcing through Todoroki’s swing to meeting steel and the bright of the pillared light.

“Don’t do this,” Bakugo warns. He doesn’t beg—no, Bakugo does not beg—but there is a longing for Todoroki to turn the other cheek from this fight. But such hope is fleeting, and Todoroki’s dagger does not waver.
“If you are serious about stealing the book, then I will be serious in defending it.”

He gives no further chance for conversation, darting in once more, dagger angled backwards to avoid the sword’s parry, twisted in his fingers to angle it forward, finding only thin air where Bakugo dodged backwards. He feels the familiar sparks of adrenaline buzzing in the soles of his feet; arms tensing, ready to meet a second swing—strong, but not as strong as he had expected.
Emotions knot and tangle inside his chest, some heavy, others light and playful as if a wind blooms within him, pulling his arm into his chest to avoid a strike, before blustering out once more to catch it on the reverse.

There’s a hesitance on both sides. Havering.
Vacillation between attack and defence.

Todoroki’s eyes are clear and sharp in assessment, every movement thought through before he acts; but all subsequently silenced by the raw skill of his brother. While Todoroki has endured the best lessons his Father’s money could buy, Bakugo has spent the last seven years battling all manner of men on the high seas. He isn’t bound by expectations and rules within a sparring match; doesn’t care that his sword is mightier, heavier, sharper than the ceremonial dagger—so much that one full-strength-swing would be more than enough to cripple the Prince.

But there’s a hesitance. Havering.
Vacillation between the moment of defending and the demand to attack.

By the Prince’s fifth lunge, Bakugo realises Todoroki is holding back.
Not enough that he unbalances the fight any further than it is already, but enough that when Bakugo’s mind blanks at the sudden opportunity arisen from a break in the Prince’s defences—one that would see his sword-tip against his throat—the blond finds that his sparring partner cannot follow through. His hesitance stalls him. Stills him.
Long enough that Todoroki should be able to take him across the gut, the throat, wherever he damn well pleased—

But rather than push forward, the man pulls back.
He is hesitating.

The same understanding Bakugo wears is reflected upon the Prince’s face; a series of emotions shadowing his eyes and pulling his lips into a small-lipped smile that could be anything from polite to condescending and everything in between.
They share a moment of silent mirth—just long enough for Todoroki to catch his breath, and then it is Bakugo’s turn to strike.

Without either of them having realised, the air has changed between them.

When Bakugo aims for Todoroki’s armpit with a quick swing-then-thrust, having tossed his sword into his left hand to confuse, he finds that he’s focusing more on showing off than dealing any real damage. He presses the tip of his sword into the clothing underneath Todoroki’s defending arm—doing very little to rip the padding, but enough to show his speed.
And again, before Todoroki could react more than a stumbled step, Bakugo darts back to his place beside the pedestal; poor in his attempts to act like he had yet to take a step.

He’s smiling. He can feel the grin stretching his lips, watching the same emotion steep into Todoroki, edged with the understanding that, had this fight been as serious as they’re pretending it is, then it would already be over.

Now it is Todoroki’s turn to express his skill. He spins his dagger once, and then steps in for a mock thrust. Bakugo sidestepped, but feels the trick of the second blade press into his gut without having even to look down. Todoroki grins. Seems he isn’t as proper as he had allowed Bakugo to previously believe.
“You sly bastard.”

Bakugo thrusts with his own blade before the man can gain too much distance—finds it parried—before darting backwards to take another angle. His next attack starts as a swing downwards, but when he sees Todoroki’s blades flicking upwards to deflect—to catch—he quickly changes it into a sideways swipe.
The attack hit the Prince in the ribs with the flat of the sword, and had Bakugo used his full strength, he certainly would’ve broken multiple bones considering said Prince is wearing no protective armour besides his padded coat. Instead, all it does is make Todoroki grunt, and deepen his amusement, his irritance, and every other emotion he feels that fuels the next strike from his dagger—one thrown that forces Bakugo to dodge, sword up for a glancing blow, but meets Todoroki’s strike instead, balance shifting, weight pushed in to hold the Prince back—

Suddenly the floor of the boat heaved upwards and smacked Bakugo in the face.

His vision faded for a moment; just long enough that, when it resettled, Todoroki was by his side, a hand holding him instead of his sword. There is confusion on his face, the same confusion echoed in Bakugo’s eyes when the world lurches again and they’re thrown into the nearest wall.
“The fuck?” the blond hisses through gritted teeth, but he barely gets the word out before whatever had rammed the ship rams it again and he almost bites his tongue as his back slams into the wall for the second time; punching out what little air remained in his lungs.
This time, it is Bakugo who keeps Todoroki standing.

“This isn’t you?” Todoroki asks, trying to catch his breath. He must’ve hit his head too, because there’s no way Bakugo could attack the ship, or would order his crew to sink the damned brigantine when they had already beat the Naurn soldiers aboard.
Bakugo was about to tell Todoroki as much when the ship tipped them off the wall and onto the floor, the sound of wood creaking, crashing, breaking, snapping—

“LOOK OUT!”

Bakugo feels the ship breaking rather than sees it, his mind torn between giving a hard shunt to his brother and the force of being knocked backwards as something large and heavy pierces through the wall of the ship, sending thousands of wooden spears raining down on top of the pair of them. His back meets a beam, something harder and heavier slamming into his stomach. It forces him down and keeps him there.

Above the sound of the ship’s pain, he can hear Todoroki calling out for him.

“I’m alright, bastard, quit your worrying,” Bakugo growls from where he lay, pinned beneath a timber beam and parts of the wall. There is enough weighing down on him that he can’t shift it with his strength alone.
But Todoroki is there, climbing over the broken wall and a shattered chest of gold; his robe torn, skin flecked with blood where he had been too close when the wood was blasted apart.
Bakugo knows he looks just as bad, if not worse. He can feel it like ants crawling across his skin; but there’s no time to think about it beyond checking that both arms are there, both legs still attached. As long as that’s the case, then Bakugo can fight whoever thought it would be a good idea to attack this damned ship while he was still aboard.

Todoroki seems to have the same idea, and once the heaviest of the wood has been shifted, he’s snatching up his decorative foil and Bakugo’s sabres, returning them to him. Bakugo grips them firmly, ignoring the pain in his hands and the blood on his knuckles.
Later, he tells himself, think about it later, when there is time for Sero to patch him up and he can take the lecture alongside a drink.

Now, though, Bakugo is in the midst of a battle and needs his head on his shoulders if he’s going to fight his way out of it.

He and Todoroki are rigid in their movements; tense as they listen out for the whistling of a cannon ball in flight, eyes searching the trail of destruction left in its wake. But there is nothing to find beyond mounting confusion as Bakugo struggles to his feet, a hand on Todoroki and the debris to steady himself, searching for answers—

Where the outer wall once stood was now nothing but a gaping hole. Bakugo can feel sea spray like rain against his skin, washing away the flecks of blood, dampening his clothes until they stick to his skin. He can hear the crashing of the waves, see their rise and fall, hear the torrent of shouting that echoes from above deck.
But all of that means nothing to him when his mind focuses on a large, monstrous hand that has plunged through the wall and gouges the floor; wrapped in a protective cloak of bronze scales, each the size of a coin and as hard as stone. Each of its three webbed fingers was tipped with a talon as thick as his arms.

“What in five kingdoms is that?” Bakugo hears himself yell, stumbling backwards as the claws drag across the wooden floor, tearing into it like a knife to cloth. He can hear the commotion coming from above deck; he can hear Kaminari yelling; he can hear Jiro barking orders above the panic.
And he can hear the monstrous tortured screams of a monster that belongs in the Realm of Corbureus, deep beneath the ocean’s depths.
Not here, on the surface.

Its screeching cry pierces Bakugo with an unbearable strength; unbalancing in a way that would’ve been embarrassing, had Todoroki not been struggling to keep his feet beside him. But the pair of them, if not resilient, then stubborn, remain on their feet, gripping their swords and strength, shoving their way past shattered chests and the room’s destruction to reach the quarter deck.

“Dear gods,” Todoroki muttered, losing all breath in his lungs.

The sight that met their eyes was that of a nightmare.

Towering high above them was a creature of the deep; five heads of fury snapping and shrieking and screaming, their eyes red with hatred as they looked upon the humans that swarmed across the deck of the ship, flitting about beneath in panicked confusion. It’s bronze scales glittering like gold under the light of the sun, but with none of the beauty; only a dark sense of dread that clawed its way up from Bakugo’s gut with the too-familiar sickening feeling he had abandoned within the palace walls.
He can see Shoji and Tokoyami wearing their fear on their faces, and yet, they are still as close as they can get to the beast’s underside, swinging their swords and yelling to the soldiers that cower behind them to either pick up a weapon or get out of the way!

“Bakugo move!”

Bakugo feels weight around his middle, sees something rush close, knocking him off of his feet just as a large hand comes sweeping towards him. Instead of severing his body in two, the bronze-scaled monstrosity blows past Bakugo’s head and smashed into the wall of the aft deck instead.
Wood splintered and shattered like it was made of glass; Bakugo thanking Jiro, who grabs him by the hand and hauls him to the feet, looking just as shaken and far too pale for the touch of summer that has chased them from the voyage in the south.
“Glad you finally decided to join us,” she quips, as only Jiro can do when facing down such a terror; but her voice is strained and the attempt at humour falls short. Bakugo couldn’t blame her, considering the ocean demon has woken from slumber and now tears the wooden ship with monstrous claws and pierces the cry with a terrible shriek that has them throwing their hands over their ears.

“What’s the plan?” Kaminari asks from beside him, pulling air into panicked lungs; and yet he is ready to follow his Captain’s orders as soon as the man gives them. He pulls Todoroki to his feet, a slight dip of his head acknowledging their difference in status, but little more when the creature screams and takes another swing, forcing all four of them to take cover behind the mizzen-mast.

“Jiro, Kaminari; get the others and get them to the Skua. Take her clear of the Empress before that thing gets a chance to pull both ships beneath the waves.”
“Yes Captain,” they chorus in unison, standing moving, but Bakugo couldn’t follow with Todoroki holding onto him; a hand bunching a fist across his chest tight enough to hurt; as if the thought of his brother disappearing again could be fought, as long as he held on. “No, Bakugo. You can’t just leave.”

Bakugo just flashed him a grin, edged with a fierceness that had the young Prince hesitating.
“And miss that chance to take down a sea monster? You must’ve hit your head harder than a I thought.”