Once upon a time, in a small but mighty kingdom, a little prince was born. He was very green and very round, much like his mother, the queen—and she gave him the name Izuku.
Now, the queen was lifelong friends with a very powerful fairy witch, who had helped her keep the lands safe for many years. The witch's name was Mitsuki, and it so happened that she had just magicked into the world a tiny child of her own—a little winged fairy born in an explosion of fairy dust and a rather startling burst of fire.
The fae child came to be called Katsuki. He was the spitting image of his mother; a shock of golden hair on his head, eyes red as rubies, and tiny gossamer wings that were pointed and sharp at the tips, glowing like the colors of an orange sunset. He was a rare kind of fairy, one that could grant wishes. One day a mortal would be born, and Katsuki's fate would be tied to theirs, to come to their aid whenever they were most in need of him.
"He can practice dispensing wisdom on Prince Izuku until that day happens," Mitsuki said, plopping the fairy baby down next to Izuku on the prince's soft blanket. Izuku babbled and tried to put his own foot in his mouth.
"Is that allowed?" Queen Inko asked nervously.
"He doesn't have to use magic to learn how to become a good godparent," Mitsuki reassures her. "Katsuki, look! You have a new friend!"
Katsuki shrieked, smacked the prince in the face with one pudgy hand, and singed off both Izuku's eyebrows with a small yet potent explosion. Izuku's eyes, now browless, widened and filled with tears.
"Katsuki, NO!" Mitsuki yelled, as Inko ran to get ice. Katsuki yelled back.
The two boys were more or less stuck with each other from that moment on.
Several months later, in a township on the outskirts of the kingdom, another baby was born to a wealthy blacksmith—a boy with two different colors of hair and eyes. The first time he cried, baby Katsuki's wings glowed while he slept on, unawares.
The boy was named Shouto and he, too, had magic. Even with older siblings who'd come before him, he was the golden apple of his father's eye. But because of his strange powers he was kept hidden away and sheltered. He knew almost nothing of the kingdom, or magic, or that his wishes could be granted if only he would ask.
So all three of their stories were woven together from the start; but it would be some time before their paths collided.
Katsuki's earliest memory was of being ignored, in a most horrible and unjust fashion.
The details were hazy—if he tried his hardest, he couldn't recall where it had taken place, or if anyone else was there, besides him and Prince Izuku. All he could remember was trying his very hardest to get Izuku's attention; he'd yelled and clapped and smacked his hands upon the ground for all he was worth.
But instead of turning those enormous, bottle-green eyes and ever present smile upon him (throughout the castle, it was said that even when he cried, the infant prince still had a smile on his face), Izuku had swerved instead towards a stuffed toy some stupid noble had given him, picking it up and cooing at it. It was a fairy, with orange wings and yellow hair, clearly meant to look like the famous Fairy Witch's son, and Izuku's companion.
Katsuki had incinerated it. And then he had cried, and Izuku had cried, and so Katsuki's first memory was of being passed over for a rather shitty doll of himself, despite being right there and available for Izuku to coo over instead.
Months after this tragic event, Katsuki met his first ward. As a fairy guide, Katsuki would have many people he would have to help with his powers and wits alike. But this child was special—it was unusual for a fairy to be gifted with their first charge so young, but the other boy was also part-fae, and perhaps it was because of this and because they were so close in age that they were given to one another.
Perhaps it was merely because that was how their fates were bound.
For Katsuki, the other boy appeared to him as if he were dreaming. When he closed his eyes, he saw him—everything else dark behind his eyelids like a starry night sky, and the other boy, a baby like him, floating there before him.
Katsuki couldn't crawl yet, but his wings worked fine; so like a fat bumblebee he floated over to plop himself in front of this new and interesting object. The boy had hair of red and white, and eyes of different colors as well. Katsuki reached out to try and hit him, as he did with all new things he encountered, but his hand passed through the boy's body, leaving him unharmed, and unawares.
Again and again, Katsuki tried to get his attention; first with his hands, then with his magic, firing off bolts of explosive energy at the other boy. No matter what he did, it went unnoticed. For though he did not know it at the time, the other boy (whose name was Shouto) had not made any wishes. And until he did, Katsuki could not appear to him fully—he could only watch, and wait, to be needed.
So Katsuki's second earliest memory was also of being ignored.
He'd never forget it, and it would leave quite a lasting impression on him for years to come—he hated both these boys, and despised his position stuck so close to them. There was nothing Katsuki wanted more than having nothing to do with either of them at all.
The years passed. Katsuki, ever a glutton for punishment, obsessively tracked the growth of the other two, eager for the day when he could be free of them at last.
Todoroki Shouto, as Katsuki eventually learned his charge's full name to be, was heir to a long and impressive line of famed blacksmiths. He was not the oldest child in his family, but he was the most special. His father had fire magic running through his blood, as had his father, and his father's father before that, going on down the line as far as anyone remembered, or historical records showed.
Shouto had the same fire in his veins, but he was also the only child to gain the powers of his mother—an ice fairy his father had wed, supposedly to try and sire a child with access to both kinds of magic, to heat the steel they forged as well as chill it, to make a blade that was unparalleled in strength or sharpness.
Shouto was the child he had sought; but the magic within him was too powerful. And so he was blessed, and cursed: his left hand burned ever hot, while his right was forever like frigid ice. There was no person who could bear his touch. And so he was kept shuttered away in the forge where he learned everything of his father's trade but nothing of the kingdom outside, save for the hundreds of books and fairy tales he devoured, as though he were starved for happy endings.
He was his father's pride and joy, but also a secret most covetously guarded. Most of the villagers had scarcely seen him, and whenever they did, they only glimpsed a beautiful, but utterly filthy boy working in the glow of the forge fires, covered in soot and cinders. So they started to call him Cinderoki, because nobody knew his name.
Katsuki knew his name. He knew everything about Shouto. Every day, Katsuki would find him in the ink of his waking dreams and watch him. He knew Shouto's favorite food, and his favorite bedtime story growing up, and that he loved all animals, but cats most of all. He knew how terribly Shouto missed his mother, who had disappeared after the incident that left his face scarred not long after his powers had manifested, even if he did not show it. But Shouto still knew nothing of him, because he had yet to make a wish.
"Come on," Katsuki would plead with him, words falling on ignorant ears. "Wish for something. Anything! Your life sucks, you oblivious, half-and-half fool, there must be something you want!"
It made Katsuki furious that Shouto never tried to escape. He just wanted to drink tea with his sister, and make his stupid swords, and most of all read his books. But Shouto had barely ever stepped foot outside his family's manor. He was painfully and pathetically unaware of all the things he was missing, and so he still had nothing to wish for.
Why Katsuki didn't just give up on him, he couldn't say.
On the other hand, Katsuki was not responsible for Izuku. And so it irked him to no end that the entire kingdom seemed to assume that he would wind up like Mitsuki, in lifelong service to the crown as though he had inherited the position by being his mother's son.
He refused to be lashed to Izuku's side without even having a say in the matter. Izuku wasn't great or powerful or anything impressive; he was just the kid Katsuki had grown up with, who cried way too often and had once when they were five years old asked Katsuki (who could fly) if he was alright after he'd taken a harmless little tumble off the castle battlements while they'd been playing.
No, Katsuki didn't think he'd very much like to be in Izuku's service, thank you very much. He had had enough of being in the prince's shadow growing up.
There was the time they were still small, and Izuku couldn't use a sword yet, but Katsuki had his magic, and he had shown Izuku under no uncertain terms that he would bow to no useless princes who couldn't defend themselves (and gotten raked over the coals by his mother and all the queen's advisors subsequently).
There was the time they were ten, and enemy goblins had attacked the queen's entourage on a journey to a neighboring kingdom. Mitsuki had been away at the time, and Katsuki had gotten a wing broken trying to stop Izuku from being beheaded. He'd still been shouted at for burning the prince in the blast and failing to stop the goblins roughing him up, as though he'd done nothing, as though the advisors were the voices inside Katsuki's own head insisting over and over that he'd failed. He had shoved Izuku to the ground when the prince, sobbing, tried to tend to his limp wing.
There was the time they were thirteen, and a wicked warlock and his monstrous creatures of sludge and decay had attacked the castle—and Izuku, as thin as a twig and barely able to swing a sword, had rushed at one of the monsters to claw at it with his bare hands when it had caught Katsuki and nearly suffocated him. The prince was chastised for nearly throwing away his own life, just to protect Katsuki. If it ever came down to it, Katsuki knew he was supposed to die in the prince's place, not the other way around.
There was the time they were sixteen, and dark fae descended the mountain to infiltrate the kingdom in the dead of night, after word of Katsuki's magic had begun to spread beyond the boundaries of the land. They had captured him, intent upon siphoning away his magic, and he would have been left little more than a shell of himself had Izuku not snuck out of the palace to come find him, managing to lead a search party straight to him. They all told Katsuki how he should be grateful, how he would have died, if Prince Izuku didn't defy orders again. Over and over to save Katsuki, no matter where he was, or what it meant. Katsuki felt the burden of his own helplessness even more sharply than he was sure Izuku did, heaped as it was upon shoulders that were already preparing to bear the responsibilities of an entire kingdom.
There was the time they were seventeen, and they'd fought so bitterly they had reduced the training grounds to ash, because Katsuki didn't know how to keep his power or his emotions in check, and Izuku was the only one he could trust to receive the full force of them. Afterwards, Izuku had kept them from throwing Katsuki in the dungeons for nearly murdering him. And Katsuki had reluctantly and finally developed the understanding that just because someone was born a future king did not mean they had ever wanted to crush him with the weight of the crown.
There was the time they were eighteen, and Izuku asked Katsuki to become his advisor.
"No," Katsuki had replied, "I'd rather die."
"I thought you'd say that," Izuku said.
Katsuki turned a sour expression on him. "Then why did you ask?"
"Because if I didn't, you'd always be dreading it," Izuku told him. "Now you don't have to worry about it anymore."
Katsuki tossed a fireball at his head, and Izuku, who was by now second to none with a blade, easily sliced through it with his enchanted sword. He stabbed the point against the hard flagstones of the battlements—the very same that Katsuki had once fallen from as a child—and watched Katsuki knowingly.
"Do you want to fight me?" Izuku asked him.
"Do you think you're so far above me that you can just ask me that as a joke?" Katsuki retorted.
"It wasn't a joke, Kacchan," Izuku said. "You're always going to try and tell me what to do whether or not you're my advisor. I don't care what you are, as long as we stay together."
And Katsuki, who had long since resigned himself to the fact that he'd never be free of the prince, extinguished the crackling fire in his hands and grumbled that Izuku was such an idiot that he didn't really have a choice.
They were twenty (Izuku had just turned it) when the royal ball was announced. Soon, the castle doors would be opened to the whole kingdom, and soon, all the young and eligible gentlemen and ladies in the land would gather there, in order to try and secure the prince's hand in marriage.
All of them, it seemed, except for one.
That year, Todoroki Shouto would make his first wish.
Animals had always loved Shouto. Even as a baby they'd flocked to him, birds and dogs and kittens and mice, and he would often be found napping cradled in the center of a warm pile of soft fur or feathers.
When Shouto had turned five, his magic had blossomed; but the bud, when it bloomed, was as poisonous as it was beautiful.
He had been playing with a pet—his mother's favorite brown tabby—the same as he always did one day, and the cat had frozen solid in front of his very eyes.
His mother had found him bawling his eyes out, and had thawed the cat out there and then—and the cat was fine. But following the incident the cat wouldn't come near Shouto. And he never forgot.
After that, the way his mother looked at him some days was cold, cold, colder than even their magic. It was the way she looked at his father when he was cruel. It was the way ice withered and disappeared when exposed to fire.
The next time he had gotten too close to one of the cats, she'd tried to stop him with her magic. The ice was like needles under his skin, bit and burned him as scalding as any flame, and when his mother came back to herself and realized what she'd done to her son, it was too late. He'd bear the scar over his left eye forever.
And then everything had changed—he couldn't control his magic, his father hid him from the world, and his mother had gone away.
Fifteen years later, a messenger would arrive in town, bearing a bushel of letters.
This unusual visitor would send the whole town into uproar. In no time at all, every household was in a tizzy, from the baker to the carpenter to the butcher. The messenger, seeming quite oblivious to the commotion he left in his wake, approached the last house of the village: the blacksmith's estate at the end of the lane.
It was uncommonly large, for a smithing forge and blacksmith's home. Even the messenger, who had heard of this particular forge in this particular village, was caught unawares. But undaunted, he ventured to the great doors of the forge, and he knocked.
What he wasn't prepared for at all was to be met by two spindly, steel limbs, emerging from the opening door. Two more followed, and then another four, like a great mechanical spider of untold proportions. The messenger fell back in fright as the door was pushed open even wider for the horror to come through.
But to his shock, it wasn't the beast he was expecting that emerged; it was a boy—though he did have very strange hair and eyes. What was more, the steel appendages seemed to be attached to him—no, on closer inspection, he wore them on a harness… They all sprouted from it to extend around him, enclosing him, like they meant to entrap him—but he controlled them as if they were his own arms, extending them toward the messenger.
"Hello," said the boy, "is that for the blacksmith?"
He was referring to the letter, which the messenger still held in hand, though he had quite forgotten to get on with his announcement, so awestruck was he at the sight of the boy. Now he snapped back to attention.
"Greetings! I am here to deliver a letter from the palace!"
The boy's eyes widened the tiniest fraction. "The royal palace?"
"Indeed, young sir!" said the messenger. "From the crown prince himself!"
He held out the letter he'd brought, and the boy gingerly took it with one long metal arm, grasping it with a clasp that he seemed to maneuver with his real hands, as deftly as if he'd been doing it his entire life. His grip was exceedingly gentle despite the hard edged steel. The messenger then noticed a pallor of frost lay over the base of the metal right arm, while the left gave off shimmering heat vapors.
"Thank you," the boy said, as if nothing about him were at all out of the ordinary.
"A fine day to you, sir," the messenger said. He swept off his hat in a bow, and then was off, not wanting to linger and be caught staring.
The boy, he thought, looked about the age to be able to accept the invitation. Hopefully, he would not bring his giant contraption to the ball. It would be very hard to maneuver about the dance floor like that.
Shouto stared down at the letter. Even as skilled as he was using his element-proofed mechanics, he was still almost afraid to hold it, afraid it would crumble in the grasp of his steel. But it was far safer than touching it with his bare hands, and his control did not waver. The letter sat carefully pinched in one metal claw, unharmed—even so, he adjusted his grip even further with a couple careful flicks of his fingers, minutely twisting one of the metal dials on the arm. The dial sizzled under his touch, but he wasn't burned.
Then he slowly carried the letter to the sitting room, where he knew the rest of his family would be waiting.
He couldn't help but be lost in his thoughts as he walked. He was thinking not so much of the letter, yet, because he didn't know what it said; his thoughts were more on the messenger, and the look on the man's face when Shouto had opened the door.
Not being able to touch anything with his bare hands since the age of five had been, to put it mildly, a real bitch of a situation. As a child, it had been nearly impossible; only the lingering memory of the frozen cat had managed to keep him somewhat in check—but it was out of fear, not any real understanding of his powers.
But he'd grown, and with age had evolved his skill as a blacksmith, and a tinkerer, and an engineer.
He had fashioned himself these extra limbs in order to be able to be more self-sufficient, adding to them and improving them over the years until they were practically an extension of his own body, so intuitive were they in their use to him. Little birds and squirrels would perch there on the cage of his limbs, arcing over his back like scorpion tails from the harness where they were attached. He had experimented with special extensions he could swap in and out, for pouring tea, or reading books, or braiding his sister's hair—he had gotten so good it never even tangled.
It was a stunningly complex feat of smithing and mechanics, and even he had to admit that without his magic, he might not have had the skill to create them. So the cage was made by his magic, to protect everyone else from his magic. And if that wasn't a metaphor for his entire damn life then he didn't know what was.
But he knew what it made him look like to other people: a monster, unnatural, half a boy, and half something else (the other half was actually fae, but that would probably go overlooked by most due to his great big robot spider legs). Locked away as he was, he could sometimes forget about it—but seeing the look on the messenger's face that morning had reminded him.
His father kept him locked away because of his magic, his potential, and his importance as an heir. Shouto kept himself locked away because he was a freak, and he knew it.
He shook himself from his thoughts as he reached the door to the sitting room, tapping on it with one of the cage limbs.
Shouto opened the door and poked his head inside. "Good morning."
His father, sister, and brother were all there, taking their tea while the morning light was in the perfect position to light the room airy and glowing. Fuyumi waved at him.
"You're awake already?" she said. "This is early for you!"
"It's not that early," Shouto said, even though she was right. He liked to stay up late reading, and stay in bed late sleeping.
"Was that you who got the door?" Natsuo asked. Shouto nodded.
His father sighed deeply. "We've spoken about this."
"I was right next to it."
"I don't want people trying to poke their noses into our business—"
"Nobody wants to poke their nose into our business," Shouto said. "We're blacksmiths. Our business is obvious. It says so on a sign."
"You know what I mean," Enji said.
What he meant was that he didn't want any other prospective blacksmiths catching wind of Shouto's powers and going on a mad quest to curry favor with the northern fae people in order to wed one of their ice fairies and produce a cursed heir with out of control magic that would make him the best blacksmith of their age. The thought was, frankly, so stupid that Shouto didn't bother dignifying it with a response.
"What did the letter say, Shouto?" Fuyumi asked quickly.
"I haven't opened it," Shouto said. "But it's from the castle."
His siblings exchanged a surprised glance. "Let's see it, then," Natsuo said. Shouto deposited the letter in his hand, and he opened it.
"Dear esteemed sirs and ladies, the royal palace hopes this letter finds you well," he read. "On behalf of her majesty, Queen Inko, and her son, Crown Prince Izuku, this letter is addressed to all unwed citizens of the kingdom of marriageable age. You are cordially invited to attend a royal ball at the castle, as is tradition, for the prince to meet with eligible suitors."
"A ball?!" Fuyumi's hands had flown to her mouth.
"At the castle!" Natsuo said, eyes shining, tossing the letter aside. Shouto picked it up from where it had fallen on the couch. "Think of all the people there'll be to dance with… they're bound to be more interesting than anyone in this village!" He snapped his fingers. "Maybe we can find you a wife, Fuyumi."
Fuyumi covered her face. "Natsuo, please."
"Don't joke, Natsuo," their father said sternly. Natsuo rolled his eyes. "This isn't an opportunity we should allow to pass by lightly. The letter said this is a chance for the prince to go courting. I have heard he's a bit soft, but, well… the two of you would make fine enough consorts to the crown, and our family already has influence with the queen."
"Yeah, because we make their soldiers' swords," Natsuo said dryly. "The prince is going to marry some princess, or duke, or other noble."
Unnoticed by the rest of his family, Shouto read the letter over again. It was indeed as Natsuo had read—a ball, at the castle, and a chance to fall in love with a prince. It was like something out of one of his books.
"This ball is just a formality," Natsuo was saying.
"Even so, you are no mere commoner," Enji said.
"Who said we want to marry the prince, anyway?"
"I am not sending you to the castle so you can drink some fancy wine and chatter at empty-headed fools all night!"
"You don't have to send me, I'm going to go myself—"
"We should go," Shouto said quietly.
His father and brother both said as one, "Right, Shouto," before turning to look at each other furiously.
"As the Todoroki family, it is our duty to have a presence there," Enji said. "Not as drunkards or dandies, but as a respected family of this kingdom."
"They invited everyone, they're not expecting him to talk to every single person that shows up," Natsuo insisted. "We can go 'have a presence' there all we want without looking like we're going to shoulder everyone else out of the way to get to the throne."
"What princess deserves it more than this family?" Enji said. "When I have armed the defenders of this kingdom—"
"You are so dramatic—"
"Does this have to be a fight," Fuyumi sighed.
"Yes," they both said emphatically without looking at her.
"I meant," Shouto said, "that I want to go, too."
"See?" Enji said. "Even Shouto— what did you just say?"
The argument ground to a halt. Fuyumi and Natsuo turned to him, eyes wide. Shouto blinked back at them.
"I said I want to go," he said. Then he clarified: "To the ball."
"To the…" Fuyumi shook her head. "But, Shouto…"
"I'll use the cage," Shouto told her. "It will be fine."
They all looked very much like they doubted it would be fine.
"Shouto… how would you dance?" Natsuo asked.
Shouto snorted. "I won't. I don't even know how."
"But then why—"
"I just want to see!" Shouto burst out, unable to hold back. The cage limbs rattled uncertainly. "I just want to see what it's like, somewhere that isn't here. It will be far from the village, and like Natsuo said, everyone is going, so there will be hundreds and hundreds of people there. Thousands, even. Nobody will even notice me."
"Um…" Fuyumi said, staring at the cage.
Shouto wilted. "Well, at least, nobody will know who I am."
"Oh, Shouto…" Fuyumi said softly.
Then his father said, "No."
Shouto whipped around to face him. "But—"
"No," Enji said. "I forbid it."
Natsuo glared. "Oh, come on—"
"It's too dangerous!" said their father, voice rising in volume and temper. "And beyond that, you are very noticeable, Shouto. What if the prince becomes curious?"
"Then let him," Shouto said.
"Absolutely not," Enji told him. "I won't have you taking an interest in some flippant, foolish boy and deserting the family business."
"Oh, but that's fine for me and Fuyumi," Natsuo said.
"You and your sister are not the ones who will keep these forge fires burning after I am gone," Enji growled. "Besides which, need I remind all of you, that neither of you would burn the crown prince's bloody hands off."
He glared at them all, breathing hard through his nose, and they stared back. Fuyumi was wringing her hands. Natsuo looked furious.
Shouto, meanwhile, was unsurprised.
"Shouto will not go to this ball," Enji said with finality. "The two of you will. That is the end of the matter."
Shouto left the sitting room, unable to bear his siblings' sorry looks, or his father's feigned indifference. It was only after he'd made it back to his room and shut the door behind him that he realized he'd nearly shredded the letter with the cage.
He knew why it was a bad idea to go. He didn't need his father's excuses for that. But for a brief moment, he'd thought of his fairy tales, and how far away the castle was from the village. How it would just be him and his brother and sister, and how they could talk about it for years afterwards. That one glimpse of freedom had gripped him until he was saying things even he himself didn't believe, wanting things he'd never before wanted.
He tried to ignore the way his eyes felt hot and irritated.
"I…" he whispered, feeling stupid and childish and desperate. "I wish I could have gone."
In the next second, he found himself stumbling away from a small yet potent explosion of fire, smoke, and extensive swearing. He backed away from it until he was pressed against the wall of his room, watching in alarm as someone—a person, a young man about his age with fiery, sunset wings, stepped out of the grey, dissipating cloud.
This man (a fae, he had to be) looked right at him with eyes like glowing coals and an ugly expression on his otherwise beautiful face.
"It's about fucking time, you sloth-ass bitch!" he snarled.
The fairy's name was Katsuki, and he could grant wishes.
"Like… any wish?" Shouto asked. He was sitting on his bed now, staring up at Katsuki. He really was a real fairy; not that Shouto didn't think they were real, since he was half-fae himself, but he'd never met another one besides his mother before.
"Within reason," Katsuki answered. He kept rubbing his temples as though he had a headache. "I'm not going to grant any wishes that are actively dangerous or evil, or anything."
"But where do you draw the line?" Shouto asked.
"Wherever I want to," Katsuki snapped. "Listen—I didn't wait twenty years to play twenty questions with you, you got a wish or not?"
"Why did you wait twenty years?" Shouto asked.
Katsuki inhaled deeply through his nose. It looked like it took a great deal of patience.
"Because," he said, "I couldn't appear to you before you made a wish. So I watched you, hoping you would wish for something, anything, to make your sad little life better, so that I could grant it and finally stop worrying about you once and for all. But you never did. You just sat there in your dark little room with your boring little books and your pathetic little face all wistful and annoying, never once actually doing anything about it! But now you finally have, so let's get this over with."
Shouto waited a moment to see if the tirade was over. When the fairy said nothing more, only glared with his wings buzzing agitatedly every now and again, Shouto asked,
"You were watching me all this time?"
Katsuki threw his hands in the air. "Yes! Now tell me what you want to wish for!"
"I wish I could go to the royal ball for Prince Izuku," Shouto finally told him.
Katsuki screwed up his face. "That's it?" Shouto nodded. "Why?"
"It seems fun."
"It's not going to be fun." Katsuki scowled. "It's going to be terrible. You have to have a better wish."
"I want that one," Shouto said.
"I can do literally anything," Katsuki said, and then seeing Shouto open his mouth again hastily added, " within reason, and you want to ask me to go to a dance? That you could just go to on your own anyway?"
"I can't go on my own like a normal person," Shouto said. "I've never even been off our estate. I don't know how to get to the castle, plus you may have noticed—" He pointed at the cage. "I'm not exactly hard to spot. My father will make sure I don't try to sneak in and this is sort of a dead giveaway."
"Alright, fair enough, you are absolutely horrifying," Katsuki conceded. "I still don't know why you'd want to go to a ball. There are more… fun things to wish for than being stuck with a bunch of snooty, stuffy assholes dancing and drinking."
Shouto nodded. He didn't disagree with that, however… "I want to meet the prince."
Katsuki snorted. "You do. And are you hoping he'll marry…" He gestured vaguely at Shouto.
"No," Shouto said. That was a ridiculous notion. "But I want to know what he's like. If I can meet him, then maybe I'll know the difference."
"Between real life, and the stories I grew up on," Shouto tells him. "I can finally stop wondering what it's like."
Katsuki crossed his arms and stared at Shouto for a long time. Finally he said, "He's nothing special."
But his voice was odd when he said it. Too familiar—like he was talking about an old storybook he'd read over and over and over, until he'd worn off the images on the pages, until the ink had sunk right into his fingers and the tales lived beneath his skin instead.
"How do you know?" Shouto asked.
"Because I know him better than anyone else in the world," Katsuki told him. Shouto's eyes went wide, wide, and the fairy made a noise of disgust. "Ugh, alright. I'll help you get to the stupid ball."
Shouto clasped his hands in his lap to keep from throwing them in the air. "You will?"
"Don't get too excited," Katsuki said. "We've only got a month, and a lot of work to do."
"What are we going to work on?"
Katsuki cast him a long, unimpressed look up and down. "Everything."
It soon became evident that he wasn't joking (Shouto doubted whether Katsuki had ever joked in his life. His siblings said Shouto was serious, but Katsuki made him look like a court jester in comparison).
Everything about Shouto was, apparently, wrong. They had begun right away in assessing his flaws, which were numerous. To name a few: he was a hopeless dancer, he had no idea about etiquette, he didn't even know the names or titles of a single member of the nobility. According to Katsuki, he was an inelegant fool.
The blacksmith's estate had sprawling, disused gardens that Shouto had rarely ever spent time in growing up, afraid of accidentally setting the whole thing alight. They had been his mother's gardens, and after she had disappeared nobody had bothered to care for them. Rather than dying off, they had instead grown rampant and wild. They were a perfect place to hide, with just the right amount of space for Katsuki to prepare Shouto for the ball ahead. More importantly, Enji never set foot in them, so the likelihood of Shouto being found there was low (Katsuki could disappear at a moment's notice, so he wasn't much at risk, Shouto had pointed out). So it was there that they began a rigorous training camp, daily, whenever Shouto had time to spare from the forge. It was tiring work.
But for the first time in his life, away from the heat and black iron of the forge, in the open air among the hundred differently colored flowers, Shouto didn't feel so shut away from the world. Katsuki was bringing it to him. He just wasn't exactly nice about it.
"You'd be more likely to fool them into believing you're a saucepan than make them think you're a noble fit to meet the prince," Katsuki said, after the fourth time Shouto mixed up the Earl of Storkshire with the Duke of Yorkshire in less than an hour. He was meant to be matching their portraits to their title using a set of cards Katsuki had conjured up.
"I feel like I nearly had it that time," Shouto said.
"You didn't," Katsuki said, looking pained. Somehow, Shouto found Katsuki's expressions of great distress almost worth how terrible he was at these insufferable Guess the Noble tests.
It was the same with the table manners lectures. Shouto had thought that he mostly understood these, given his father's own tendency toward particularness. But even Enji couldn't match the maddening amount of cutlery varieties Katsuki attempted to drill into him day after day.
"Who is it hurting if I use the salad fork instead of the fish one?" Shouto mumbled into the tablecloth, where he had planted himself face down in despair.
"You wanted this," Katsuki said, unsympathetic.
"I don't recall wishing I could impress people with my knowledge of dinner utensils."
Katsuki smacked a hand on the table right next to his nose. It took all Shouto's willpower not to jump in surprise and give the fairy the satisfaction. "If you get invited to dine at the queen's table you'll need to know all of these like the back of your hand!"
"Putting aside the fact that I won't be—do they really care about all of this?"
"The royal family? No." Katsuki leaned a hip against the table. He had a very narrow waist, Shouto kept noticing. Maybe it made him more aerodynamic? "But their advisors will and unfortunately, they like to act nosy."
"Will the prince care much about what his advisors think?"
"Why are you asking me, I'm not the prince."
"You always seem to know what he'll think, though," Shouto said.
Katsuki had a lot of stories about the prince, most of them told with the aim of disabusing Shouto of his more outlandish notions about Izuku. Shouto had yet to tell him his attempts were backfiring spectacularly—in fact, he now felt more intrigued by the prince than ever before. Izuku sounded noble and brave and just, but in equal parts foolish and silly and awkward. From Katsuki's stories, he sounded human, and that made him more intriguing to Shouto than any gilded notion of him.
Shouto had also learned that the two of them had grown up together, and he found himself vastly preoccupied with the thought of what that must have been like. After all, growing up as the best friend ("We aren't best friends," Katsuki insisted every time he said this) of the prince must have been interesting in and of itself. But on the flip side, so must have been growing up with Katsuki, who was an utter, insufferable monster.
Shouto had always thought of himself as a bit monstrous, but Katsuki was a different kind, and Shouto liked that there were two of them. Where Shouto looked the part, with his deadly touch, and his hulking metal claws, and his scarred face, Katsuki was all unattainable beauty. Golden hair, angelic visage, gossamer wings—and his personality was complete shit, ruining the whole effect.
Shouto thought Katsuki was perfect. He thought maybe the one thing they had in common was that, like the dragons and trolls and giants in stories, everyone was always afraid of the two of them. But as fellow monsters, they had nothing to fear from each other.
"I'm pretty sure the prince is going to think you're an idiot regardless of whether or not you know which fork to use for fish," Katsuki said.
"Great, we can stop doing this then," Shouto said, very optimistically.
"Nice try, asshole. Recite them again."
As exasperated as he was with Shouto, Katsuki kept at it—he was single-minded and determined about Shouto's improvement, even if his way of encouragement was to whack Shouto over the head with a book or twig or whatever else was at hand when he got things wrong.
Another thing that was excitingly unfamiliar was that Katsuki wasn't at all perturbed by the cage. Maybe it was because he'd been watching Shouto all their lives (and what an odd and lingering thought that was), but he barely seemed to notice it. When Shouto asked him how they'd tackle that particular little problem, Katsuki had merely told him not to worry about it.
There was no way to ignore it, however, when they went to practice the dancing.
"This is impossible!" Katsuki hollered, after the third time nearly getting his eye poked out that day by one of the cage's arms. "I can't teach you anything like this!"
They were standing several feet apart, miming the movements with air partners, as they had been for the past two weeks. Yet Shouto still showed no improvement, and Katsuki was still in danger of tragically losing his depth perception.
"I really don't think it's going to matter too much," Shouto said. "No one's going to dance with me anyway when I'm wearing this."
"I already told you to quit worrying about that," Katsuki said. "Right, okay—take the damn thing off."
Shouto froze, sure he had heard wrong. "What?"
"Take it off," Katsuki demanded. "We're never going to get anything done otherwise."
"Now, Todoroki, or I'm gonna explode it off of you—"
"Okay!" Shouto said quickly, because Katsuki would follow through on that threat. "Hold on…"
The harness of the cage wasn't exactly simple to remove. Katsuki tapped his foot as Shouto undid all the metal clasps and buckles, the leather ties, that secured it in place. The harness split in two like the huge carapace of an enormous insect, spitting him out of its insides, arms adjusting to balance it upright as he'd built it to do once it stood alone. It looked as though it had a life of its own, and divorced from it, Shouto could see just how awful it must appear to others. It was why he rarely ever took it off.
Katsuki barely glanced at it. He stepped closer to Shouto, and Shouto watched warily. He felt naked, useless, hands hanging limp at his sides, careful not to touch his clothing. He couldn't do anything.
"Right," Katsuki said, and then he grabbed Shouto's left hand.
"What are you—" Shouto nearly shouted, trying to yank away, but the fairy didn't let him.
"Calm down!" Katsuki shouted back. "Look!"
Wrenching his eyes towards their clasped hands, Shouto was already prepared for the worst, prepared to see Katsuki's skin bubbling, melting, burning—but it wasn't. Katsuki was holding his hand, and Katsuki's fingers were… fine.
He looked back at Katsuki in disbelief as the fairy started to laugh at him.
"Your face," Katsuki wheezed. "Finally I got you to show an actual emotion!"
"It's not hurting you?" Shouto asked, sounding as dumb as Katsuki continually said he was. He was too shocked to even be upset.
"I'm a fire fairy," Katsuki said, enunciating the words like he was speaking to a small child, one who wasn't particularly bright.
"You're a fire fairy," Shouto repeated. He looked down at their hands again, then back up at Katsuki. Katsuki was touching him, and he wasn't hurt.
He didn't realize how intense his stare must have been until the shit-eating grin faded from Katsuki's face and the fairy looked away, face getting redder.
"Gross," he said. "Don't look at me like that."
"How am I looking at you?" Shouto asked.
"Like it's a good thing I came along to save your sorry ass from itself," Katsuki said. "You'd be a mess if not for me."
Shouto pinched Katsuki's ear with his frozen right hand, and Katsuki, who was not an ice fairy, yelped so loudly that Shouto had to force him to hide for fear someone might have heard them, which proved much harder to do while Katsuki was trying to explode his face off.
From there, the dancing lessons proceeded about as well as could be expected; which was to say, still catastrophically. Shouto could not stop himself from turning the wrong direction, or stepping on Katsuki's feet, or mixing up the movements of each dance. Sometimes he got so flustered he forgot himself, resting his hand on Katsuki's shoulder—after a mere few seconds, the chill would get so intense the fairy nearly got frostbite. Eventually, they settled for placing a thick towel folded multiple times on Katsuki's shoulder and continued on practicing with that.
It wasn't just that Shouto had no idea what he was doing (that was a large part of it, but not all). It was also impossible to focus. The instant Katsuki took Shouto's hand in his, and planted his other on Shouto's waist in a grip that was just shy of bruising, Shouto lost the ability to think about anything but how warm his touch was even through layers of clothing, how close they had to stand together, how true the red of Katsuki's eyes was when he was only inches away.
It was immensely distracting. He stepped on Katsuki's foot again.
Katsuki swore, but didn't rebuke Shouto further, which only went to show how resigned he was at that point. Instead, he turned those fierce scarlet eyes to Shouto's face and said, "Can you smile, for the love of— smile, what are you doing?"
"I'm smiling," Shouto said. This was a blatant lie.
"That isn't a smile, that's an expression of deep regret." They made a slow circle, and while Shouto managed to pull off the turn properly without making any mistakes or injuring any feet, it meant he wasn't thinking much about his facial expressions. "Do you want the prince to think you're constipated?"
Shouto leveled him with an exasperated stare. "I don't smile often."
"Yeah, no shit," Katsuki said.
"You're already teaching me everything else," Shouto said. "Maybe we should work that into the curriculum."
"No," Katsuki said flatly.
"Because I don't know how either."
Shouto sighed, pulling away from him to sit on one of the stone garden benches and catch his breath. To his surprise, Katsuki came and sat with him after a moment.
"I already know I'm a disgrace at this," Shouto told him. "I've never danced before."
"That's not true," Katsuki said.
It took Shouto a second to realize what he'd said. Once he did, he glanced at Katsuki in confusion. "Yes, it is."
Katsuki shook his head. "You've danced before."
Shouto snorted. "With who?"
The memories hit him in an overpowering wave. He fell silent, clutching the edges of the bench as they filled every nook and cranny of his mind, bursting into being.
Except… were they memories? It was almost like he was watching himself in a dream: small, not even five years old, held in his mother's arms as she waltzed around the room with him. They were both laughing. She was humming something, some tune nearly forgotten, one he only remembered now when he closed his eyes. But he knew it, he knew it.
"She used to dance with me," he breathed, and his voice may have trembled but he didn't care to hide it. "All the time… I'd ask her to dance like they did in the stories. It was my favorite… my favorite part."
"Yeah," Katsuki said, and then swiftly shattered the fragility of the moment. "So imagine my surprise that you suck at it."
"How am I only just now remembering this?" Shouto asked.
"Because I never forgot it," Katsuki said. "I remember watching you."
Katsuki tapped his temple. "All from up here."
Those were Katsuki's memories of Shouto. They were fragmented, but the short flashes Katsuki had shared were bright and clear as a spring morning. Shouto didn't even know how he'd remembered—they were nearly the same age, so Katsuki would've been as small as he was. Maybe fairies just had better memories. But there was a warmth to the visions, and Shouto couldn't tell if that was how he himself recalled it, or if it came from Katsuki.
No wonder he wanted to go to this ball so much, no wonder Katsuki was pouring every ounce of effort into training him. This was all Shouto had ever wanted. He'd just buried it deep, deep down, believing that chance to be gone for good.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"Don't thank me yet, you've still got about seven left feet I can't seem to do anything about," Katsuki said, waving him off. "Anyway, it's—not a big deal. The dancing isn't actually as important, the prince is terrible at it, too."
"It is important," Shouto said. He stood up, and extended his left hand toward Katsuki. "Thank you for reminding me. I'll work harder."
Dubiously, Katsuki took his hand, letting Shouto pull him up. "I guess if I can just get you to not stomp his feet off at the ankles, we can consider that a win."
"Even if I don't smile?"
"Eh, he's had to deal with me for years. You're a real gem in comparison."
Shouto wasn't so sure about that. For all Katsuki said about the prince putting up with him, from all his stories it sounded much more like the prince couldn't do without his feisty winged companion, constantly by his side no matter how Katsuki tried to paint it as a chore. Katsuki would probably rather bite off his own tongue than admit it, but the two of them had something special—the kind of bond Shouto could only dream of having, like the friends who watched each other's backs in any good adventure tale.
He couldn't be jealous. They'd known each other their entire lives, and he'd always been alone.
And yet, here he was—falling for a fairy who couldn't stand him, and a prince he'd never met, through stories like the ones he'd grown up on.
They practiced, and practiced, and practiced—until Shouto could recite the names and titles of every noble in his sleep, knew the proper etiquette for virtually any situation, had all the dances memorized (even if he was still a little stiff in his movements).
The day of the ball approached with a swiftness that startled him. His siblings prepared to attend while simultaneously trying to get their father to relent and allow Shouto to join them, but as Shouto knew he would, he refused. So when the evening finally arrived, Shouto stood by the gates to the estate, seeing them off while his own bubbling, secret excitement coursed through his veins.
"We'll bring you back so many sweets," Fuyumi said tearfully.
"Don't cry, Fu," Shouto said. "You look beautiful, by the way."
Her mouth trembled. "Thanks."
"We could still get you out there," Natsuo said in a low voice, casting a baleful glare at the carriage waiting for them. "Could have a couple of my friends swing by in an hour or so, once we're far enough away."
Shouto shook his head violently. The thought of being stuck in a horse-drawn wagon with some of Natsuo's friends, all staring at him like he was some sort of festival oddity, made him want to set something on fire. Fortunately, he'd made his own arrangements.
"Please don't do that." When Natsuo sighed heavily, he added, "I'm fine. Really. You two just go and… have fun, okay? That's all I want."
Fuyumi reached out to comb her fingers through his hair like he was a child again. "This is how you always are. You never try to…"
To want anything for myself, Shouto thought. He could practically hear Katsuki's huff of agreement.
"Bring back extra cream puffs, though," he said. Mollified by this, she nodded, and they went to join their father.
Shouto waited until the carriage had disappeared down the road, before turning and heading for the gardens. He'd seen them more the past month than he had the last fifteen years of his life, but he and Katsuki usually ended their sessions before the sun had set. At this time of day, things felt different all over again—the twilight paths through the hedges and vine-strewn trellises, the colors of the flowers changing in the sunset glow, and the expectation of something new about to happen.
He arrived at their usual spot by the rose bushes, but nobody else was there. Katsuki had told him to wait, and Shouto presumed he was busy preparing for the festivities at the palace, so he sat down on a bench and tried to be patient. His nerves thrummed below his skin. It was hard to believe tonight was the night.
He had been sitting by himself for nearly half an hour before a soft boom behind him signalled Katsuki's normal explosive arrival. Shouto turned to face him, and promptly forgot how to speak.
Katsuki's usual garb, often casual and occasionally singed, had been swapped out that night for ink black formal wear—fae-spun silk from the look and cut of it, a darker shade than human dye could ever hope to achieve, with fiery stitching embroidered over the sleeves. It was perfectly fitted to Katsuki's lithe form. If Shouto had an issue not dwelling on Katsuki's narrow waist before, he might as well give up now.
"Wow," Shouto said.
"Yeah, yeah," Katsuki grumbled. "I look like an asshole."
Shouto shook his head. "No, you don't. You look fantastic."
Katsuki shot him some kind of sharp, shocked look that might have been disgust, or possibly rage. Shouto couldn't tell; he had just learned it was usually one of the two when Katsuki's face went red like that. Shouto schooled his face into his blankest expression.
But Katsuki just scoffed, the irritation falling away. "Don't waste your flattery on me tonight." Shouto wanted to say it wasn't flattery, but decided not to push his luck. "Ready to do this?"
"You still haven't told me what 'this' is," Shouto said, though he was already undoing the harness of the cage to step out of it.
Katsuki sneered at him. "I know you've read enough books to know what building suspense is," he said. When Shouto cast him a less than impressed look, he rolled his eyes. "Ungrateful, that's what you are. Fine—thank me when we're done."
The fairy clapped his hands together once, the sound resounding throughout the garden, before aiming both his palms in Shouto's direction. As this gesture usually preceded an explosion of some sort, Shouto didn't think he was wrong to feel alarmed.
The blast rocked the garden. Shouto staggered back, expecting to feel flames engulfing him—but when the smoke started to clear and he opened his eyes, he saw nothing had been destroyed.
Instead, he had changed. Or rather, his clothes had.
Gone were his old, worn down, soot-covered blacksmith's vestments. In their place, he found himself wearing a powder blue suit, perfectly fitted to him. The material was thick and luxurious, but still soft to the touch; the shirt was spotlessly, impossibly white, the polar opposite of the clothes Katsuki wore. It might have been cleaner than anything he'd ever worn in his life. Two more tiny explosions, and he was wearing gleaming white leather boots. Katsuki flicked a hand in his direction and one final blast blew his hair back from his face, but instead of settling back down it remained coiffed, swept back and off his forehead.
Katsuki snapped his fingers, and a looking glass appeared out of thin air. Shouto stared into it, and didn't recognize himself. For one thing, his hair was not only styled, but Katsuki had turned it entirely dark, an extra layer to his disguise. For another, he looked as elegant and dashing as any prince, any storybook hero.
"Holy shit," he said.
"You're welcome," Katsuki replied. He crossed his arms and looked Shouto up and down.
"Careful," Shouto said, "you almost look impressed with me."
"Well," Katsuki said, "you look good."
He sounded pleased. Shouto was so taken aback that for a blissful moment, he forgot entirely about the cage; but then he glimpsed it in the mirror, the maw of the harness gaping open, waiting to swallow him again. His reflection's face fell.
"It'll ruin it," he said. The cage pinched and grabbed and stained any clothes he put on—it would rend straight through fabric this fine.
"Come here," Katsuki ordered.
The fairy pointed imperiously at the ground in front of him, so Shouto reluctantly went to stand before him.
"Close your eyes," Katsuki said.
"Because I said so." When Shouto continued to watch him suspiciously, he snapped, "Did I, or did I not, just give you a sickass suit?"
Shouto dutifully closed his eyes.
"Good. Now, hold out both hands."
"Can't you just—"
"Hold 'em out, Half-and-Half!" Shouto stuck both hands out and Katsuki harrumphed. "Endless bitchin', after all I've done…"
Something soft dropped into both his hands, but he kept his eyes shut until Katsuki told him, "Now you can look."
He opened his eyes. In either hand was a single rose: blood red in his left, snow white in his right. They were freshly plucked—they must have come from the very garden they were standing in.
Shouto didn't understand. "How are these supposed to…"
Katsuki raised an eyebrow. "You don't see?"
Shouto looked down at the roses and then realized—the red rose wasn't burning. The white rose wasn't freezing.
"How?" he gasped.
Katsuki reached out, pressing his open palms against the backs of Shouto's hands. They were hardly strangers to touching, now, but the proximity still made Shouto feel giddy.
"Watch this," Katsuki said, all cocky self-assurance, and before Shouto could ask what he was supposed to be watching, he saw.
It started at his fingertips: a shimmering, sparkling light, and he couldn't tell if it was fire burning or water gleaming in the moonlight or something in between. Then it moved down his fingers and the only thing he knew for certain was it was magic—and it was old, and powerful.
"What is this?" he whispered.
"Shh," Katsuki said, and when Shouto glanced at his face he saw Katsuki had his brows furrowed in concentration, and the slightest beading of sweat had appeared on his forehead. He had never shown any signs of effort when using his magic before.
Shouto looked back at his hands. It was almost as though the lights dancing there were weaving themselves down his hands, and then he realized they were. As they traveled down, over his palms now, inching toward his wrists, gloves of pure white appeared. Shouto didn't know what material they were made of; they had a slight sheen, but were impossibly soft, and fit him—well, like a glove. Not tight enough to be uncomfortable, but there was no slack to them either. It was as though he wore a second skin, thin enough that he could still feel the roses in each palm; then as the gloves finished knitting themselves just past his wrists, suddenly each blossom shimmered, too, and were gone as though they'd never been. The only trace of them were two intricately stitched roses, one in each palm. There they faintly glowed, one red, one white.
He raised his hands in front of his face, turned them over in wonder. "Is this…"
"Try and burn something through those," Katsuki said, clearly pleased. "Or freeze, whatever."
Shouto held his hands up to his face—with gloves this thin, he should be able to feel heat, or cold—but there was nothing.
Hesitant, he touched a finger to a vine winding around a tall pillar. It didn't burn.
When he spun back around to look at Katsuki, the fairy looked insufferably smug.
"Took me forever to figure out how to pull that off," he said.
"You've been working on this all month?" Shouto asked, awed.
Katsuki frowned. "Month? No, idiot… I've spent years putting that spell together."
Katsuki shrugged. "I always figured that'd be what you wished for. I still don't know how to reverse the curse, so…"
"So you found the next best thing," Shouto said. "I'm… This is…"
"I know, I know." Katsuki waved a hand. "I'm amazing, it's fine to say it."
Shouto said frankly, "You're the best friend I've ever had."
Katsuki's jaw clenched in that way it did when he was embarrassed. "I'm, like, the fifth person you've ever spoken to in your life."
"Yeah," Shouto said, nodding, "that's how I know for sure."
"Okay," Katsuki said forcefully, "you need to get moving, the spell's gonna wear off at midnight. You don't have time to stand around like an idiot!"
"Oh—wait, how am I going to get there?" Shouto asked. Should he have taken Natsuo up on that ride from his friends?
"Come on," Katsuki scoffed, "this is where you doubt me? You think I don't have a ride lined up?"
"I don't see one anywhere."
"Then you better hold onto that cute little butt," Katsuki muttered, and before Shouto could process that, he put his fingers in his mouth and gave a clear, sharp whistle.
A huge shadow came swooping down from the sky, blotting out the moon as it soared past. Shouto looked up, open-mouthed—before he realized the shadow was descending, getting closer and closer, right on top of him.
He sprinted out from underneath, as a massive red dragon landed in the center of the garden, cracking one of the stone benches in the process. Katsuki, who had thrown himself in the other direction to avoid getting squashed, was bellowing at it from out of view.
"Are you serious?! Are you trying to kill him before I can even get him to the ball after I spent a month sorting him out? Watch where you're planting your ass next time!"
"Is that," Shouto said faintly, "a dragon."
It wasn't even a question, because it was obviously a dragon. He just felt he should point it out. It was very much a dragon, here, in his family's garden.
"Yes," Katsuki said, "and he's how you're getting to the ball."
There was a beautiful red and orange carriage attached to the dragon, like a fireball that would trail through the sky in his wake. Shouto wondered if he wouldn't get nauseous. But before he could feel too apprehensive, Katsuki was hurrying him to get in, and he had no choice but to climb aboard.
"Now remember," Katsuki said, leaning through one of the windows, "the spell will wear off at midnight, so find Kirishima before then—"
"Him," Katsuki said, gesturing vaguely at all the dragon. "Find the big red dragon, and come back home, or your dad will definitely recognize you."
"Got it," Shouto said.
"Don't screw up," Katsuki said.
"I'll try," Shouto told him. Then, on a whim: "Katsuki."
Shouto leaned forward and brushed his lips hastily against the fairy's cheek. "Thank you."
Katsuki didn't even seem that angry about it. He blinked, and then said, "You know, the prince might actually be dumb enough to like you. You'd make a matched set."
"Still not convinced I'm even going to get his attention," Shouto said. "But I appreciate the vote of confidence."
As Kirishima the dragon, and the carriage, and Shouto inside it began to lift off, Katsuki took a step back. Shouto watched him grow smaller, the gardens grow farther, the estate falling away as he left it for the first time in as long as he could remember.
Before he lost sight of Katsuki completely, he saw the fairy put his hand against his cheek, where Shouto had kissed him.
Traveling by dragon was fast.
Despite his late start, Shouto found himself soaring over the castle in no time at all. Below him, in the purple dusk of nightfall, he could see all the lights of the city flickering like hundreds of candles. And up ahead, the path marked by dozens of lantern-lit carriages winding their way to the royal palace.
It glowed like a beacon. Maybe it was magic, or maybe it was just how long he'd dreamt of seeing it, but the sight of it called to Shouto, beckoned him onward.
And it was getting very close—Kirishima was diving, and Shouto's heart jumped into his throat as they swooped down—the ground seemed to be rising up far faster than was advisable—he braced himself against the door and grit his teeth to stop himself from shouting—
With a bone-rattling crash, the dragon and carriage landed in the roundabout in front of the steps leading up to the main entrance of the castle, narrowly missing taking the head off the resplendent old statue of one of the kingdom's past kings in the center plaza fountain.
It took Shouto some time to catch his breath. He wasn't sure if his legs were going to be steady enough to even get out of the carriage. He wished he had a mirror with him, but it seemed Katsuki's magic was strong enough to have kept his hair in place despite the rough landing.
It was the thought of Katsuki mocking him for hiding inside the carriage compartment that finally spurred him to moving. The door opened for him on its own, and he stepped out—the first thing he noticed was that there were a great many people about and they had all given the carriage a wide berth. The second thing he noticed was that they were all looking right at him.
Every instinct in him screamed to dive back inside, but the door snapped shut behind him as though it knew what he were thinking, and he remembered—it was fine for them to stare. Nobody would know who he was, and he was free of the cage besides. He straightened up and smoothed the front of his jacket.
"Thanks, Kirishima," he said.
Stunned, Shouto turned around—to see the dragon had disappeared. In his place stood a handsome young man with red, spiked hair, not unlike the dragon's horns. When he grinned, it was to reveal a mouthful of pointed teeth.
"Just go straight in through those doors, there," Kirishima prompted him. "Good luck!"
He waved goodbye, so Shouto had no choice but to go, up the steps and through the grand entrance with everyone's eyes still on him, and then…
He was inside the royal palace.
It was like a dream. The soft glow of the lighting, the undercurrent of excitement in the murmured voices, the sumptuous attire and graceful gaiety of the crowd—it was all just as he'd hoped it would be, but a thousand times more wondrous to be in the midst of it all.
Shouto followed the flow of the other guests, and soon found himself entering the massive ballroom. Crystal chandeliers dripped from the high ceilings, and the floor swirled with a kaleidoscope of color, the jewel tones of hundreds of dancers all mingling and weaving together and apart.
Spellbound, Shouto drifted among them. Now that he was just another face in the crowd, nobody paid much attention to him. He kept his eyes peeled for Katsuki, but knew he didn't have much hope of finding him. And Katsuki had never said he'd find Shouto at the ball—Shouto was sure he had been left to fend for himself. Still, he thought he would have liked to see Katsuki while he was there.
A thought struck him, one he hadn't been concerned with before: would he see Katsuki again after this?
It wasn't something they'd discussed. When they had first met, Katsuki had even said that he just wanted to get the whole wish granting business over with so that he wouldn't be stuck with Shouto anymore. And he'd done it, gone above and beyond merely getting Shouto to the ball. He'd done everything to make sure the night would be as close to perfect as possible.
Did that mean they were done with each other—that Katsuki was done with Shouto?
The thought was so overwhelming that it dulled his brilliant surroundings. Not watching where he was going, he knocked into someone very tall and solid.
"Sorry," he mumbled, with an apologetic nod.
"You should be more mindful of your surroundings," remarked the person he had bumped into, and Shouto nearly had a heart attack.
Todoroki Enji stood before him, staring down at him with what Shouto was sure would be a look of detached irritation, if he were foolish enough to meet his father's gaze. Katsuki's magic hadn't disguised his eyes, and he knew if his father saw his face, he would still recognize him.
"Have we…" Enji began to say, and Shouto startled away from him. Not trusting himself to speak again, he kept his head down and bowed, before turning to flee into the crowd.
He slammed right into one of the palace servants, of whom there were many whirring about the castle laden with trays of food and drink. This one was no different, carrying what must have been a polished tray with a hundred crystal flutes of some fizzing drink on it.
To his horror, Shouto watched as the entire tray was upended by the impact, flipping over as the girl lost her grip on it. It fell to the ground with a resounding crashing and clanging, the hundred glasses shattering across the floor as people shrieked and danced out of the way. Then there was only ringing silence, as if the whole ball had been brought to a halt by his outstanding clumsiness.
"Sorry," Shouto managed to choke out again, and then he ran.
That could not have started off worse. Not only had he run right into the one person he was meant to avoid, he'd attracted more attention to himself than Kirishima had as a dragon nearly destroying a royal ancestral landmark.
He escaped out the first door he saw, and found himself on a small balcony overlooking the castle grounds. The night air felt cool on his skin; he hadn't realized how flushed he was. He grabbed onto the railing and willed his breathing to slow. This was fine. Perhaps this balcony could become his new home. It wasn't as though he had an agenda for the night, aside from sampling the food and watching the dances. He could just wait out here until everyone forgot he existed.
As the thought passed through his head, he heard the door open again behind him. Panic rising, he turned, sure he was about to come face to face with his father in a towering rage.
But it was only a boy.
Or rather, a young man, around Shouto's age. They blinked at each other, equally confused by one another's presence.
"Hi," said the other boy, "sorry, I didn't mean to startle you!"
"Oh," Shouto said, "I'm okay, I'm just…" Hiding.
"I saw what happened…" the boy said. "Are you alright? After all those glasses fell?"
"I'm fine," Shouto reassured him.
The boy beamed at him. He had a very friendly face, with lots of freckles. "Thank goodness—I was really worried."
"Yeah! You ran out of there so fast I was worried you got hurt."
"Oh, no, that was just… mortification."
The boy fluttered his hands at Shouto as if to reassure him. "It happens to the best of us!"
"I've actually never had the opportunity to break quite that many things at once before," Shouto told him. Burn them to ashes, or freeze them until they cracked and shattered, maybe. "I don't get out much."
"Ah! Is this your first time to the castle, then?"
"It's my first time out of my—" He stopped himself before saying house, which sounded too pathetic. "My village."
The boy's eyes went round with wonder. "Then you definitely can't spend the night out here!"
"I won't, I'm just—" Shouto wasn't sure how he was going to explain the entire situation to this boy who had just appeared out of nowhere. Thankfully, he was at that very second given the perfect excuse. "Shit."
Shouto, who had just seen his father heading toward the balcony doors, said, "Nothing. Uh—I have to go, someone's looking for me and—"
"And you don't want to talk to them?" asked the boy. He was watching Shouto's face very intently.
Shouto didn't see any reason to lie. "I really do not."
"Okay then," said the boy, "follow me."
Without a moment's delay, he grabbed Shouto's hand—Shouto flinched instinctively, but the gloves held true, and the boy wasn't burned. They slipped back inside, still unseen, and Shouto let himself be led by hand onto the ballroom floor.
"Do you know this dance?"
Shouto did know it; he knew all of them now, and when his new and unexpected dance partner took his hand for the waltz, he found he could fall easily in step.
"I'm not the best dancer," the boy said, leaning in so Shouto could hear him over the music.
"That makes two of us," he confessed.
The boy laughed, and Shouto found himself transfixed. He could count on one hand the number of people he'd ever made laugh in his life. He was glad this man was now one of them, with the way it made his eyes crinkle shut and everything about him glow warm and bright.
"I just figured if we danced together, nobody would want to take you away from me," said the boy.
They had only known each other for five minutes and Shouto was already utterly resistant to the thought of anyone separating them. If anyone tried, Shouto would fight them. He'd even fight his own father.
"I don't think I asked for your name yet," the boy said.
"Shouto…" The way the boy said his name was lovely; like he was discovering some wonderful new idea. "I think I'm glad you broke all those glasses, Shouto."
He gave Shouto another crinkle-eyed smile. "Because that's how I saw you."
And just like that, Todoroki Shouto fell in love.
It had always bothered him before to be seen, even when he told himself he could ignore the way strangers looked at him, his dirty face and clothes, and his cage. The few times he'd ever interacted with other people, even when their expressions remained neutral, their eyes told the full story. He unnerved others. Frightened them. Even in his own family, his siblings looked at him with pity. His father never truly looked at him at all. And his mother had hated to look at him so much, she'd scarred him and then disappeared forever.
Now he was here, at the royal palace, in the arms of someone who saw him and wanted to dance.
A smile tugged at his lips in return, small but unstoppable. "I'm glad, too," he said. "But I also feel really bad for whoever had to clean all that up…"
The boy laughed, and Shouto was carried away on that sound, and the music, and the whirling of the chandelier ceiling above him as they spun round and round. He was still hopeless, but his newfound partner wasn't much better, and every time they stepped on one another's feet it made them laugh more than wince and their apologies themselves became a joke shared between them, because it was hard to feel sorry when you were having the time of your life.
They danced another song after the first, and another after that, and then another, even though Shouto knew it was proper to switch partners. It seemed neither of them cared, and so there was no need to stop—until yet another song ended, and someone cleared their throat loudly right next to them.
"So this is where you got to," a voice said, sudden and familiar.
Katsuki had appeared behind them. Shouto jumped, feeling oddly guilty; he opened his mouth to respond, and then realized—Katsuki wasn't even addressing him.
"Been looking all over the damn place for you," he was saying to the boy.
"Ah, sorry, Kacchan!"
Shouto looked back and forth between the two of them. He was now starting to suspect something.
"You could've told me before you went wandering off," Katsuki said, still annoyed. He hadn't looked at Shouto, yet, which was making Shouto's own annoyance mount.
"Hi," he said.
With the reluctance of a man being led to the gallows, Katsuki turned to face him. "Do you need something?" he grit out.
The boy was watching them with wide eyes. "Do you two know each other?"
Before Shouto could respond, Katsuki replied, "Never seen him before in my life, Your Highness."
The boy, who was actually Prince Izuku, said, "Oh."
Katsuki, who was ignoring the fixed stare Shouto was piercing him with, said, "Dinner is about to start."
"Already!" Izuku exclaimed, looking toward Shouto. "You'll join us, won't you?"
"Um," Shouto said. He thought he caught Katsuki rolling his eyes, but didn't dare look at him, not while he was still reeling with realization. "I can do that?"
"Consider this your formal invitation," Izuku said, holding his hand out. "I'd like to, um—I'd like to talk to you more."
There was no way in hell Shouto could say no to that; so, still avoiding Katsuki's eyes, he nodded and took the prince's hand.
He was led to the table where the royal family and those closest to them were seated. Katsuki had a spot there, as well as a woman who looked very much like him. There were quite a few of the advisors Katsuki had warned Shouto about, and many other nobles. Katsuki sat on one side of Izuku, and Shouto, whose awkwardness levels were climbing to their peak, sat on the other.
Everyone was far too interested in Shouto for his liking. Izuku was very enthusiastic in introducing him, which meant he couldn't simply pretend not to be there. He recognized the titles of all the nobles Izuku rattled off thanks to Katsuki's tutoring, and when he smoothly selected the correct fork to use for the salad, he could have sworn he caught Katsuki exhaling with relief.
On the other hand, Izuku was so engrossed in what Shouto had to say about working as a blacksmith's apprentice (Shouto conveniently neglected to mention that his father was the blacksmith in question) that he picked up the wrong set of cutlery entirely, and nearly missed his mouth with his fork.
"Your Highness…?" one of his advisors asked, looking distressed at this grave lapse in etiquette.
Izuku looked at him, smiled, and went back to using the wrong fork. On his other side, Katsuki smirked, stabbed a large hunk of quail on the end of his knife, and shoveled the whole thing into his mouth.
Toward the end of the meal before dessert had been served, Izuku was pulled up to make a speech to the ballroom, which left the seat between Katsuki and Shouto vacated. Shouto checked to make sure the rest of the table was focused on their own conversations before swiveling to face Katsuki.
"Why are you being weird?" he whispered.
The fairy scowled at him. "The hell does that mean?"
"Pretending we haven't met?"
"What do you want me to do, introduce you as the guy I've been secretly training to sneak into the ball because his dad's a paranoid asshole?"
"You could make it sound more normal than that. Say I'm your friend."
"Coming from me, that would be even weirder. You're the one who didn't want anyone to notice you in the first place!"
"Not the prince, though," Shouto muttered. "I just didn't expect to get to talk to him this much."
"Well, congratulations," Katsuki said. "Everything you hoped it'd be?"
Shouto didn't know what the fairy saw in his expression—he wasn't sure what his face was doing, but whatever it was, it made Katsuki roll his eyes.
"That's what I thought," he said. "Knew you two would be all gross and lovey-dovey right off the bat."
He said it like he couldn't care less. Shouto frowned.
There was something he kept wondering the past few weeks while listening to Katsuki's stories, the thing he couldn't put his finger on, the reason his stomach had started feeling funny as soon as Katsuki had turned up and he had figured out who Izuku really was.
"Spit it out," said Katsuki, so Shouto did.
"Are you eligible to marry the prince?" He wasn't sure that Katsuki had heard him at first. The question was met with a blank stare, almost no change in expression. "The invitation said—"
"I know what the invitation said!" Katsuki hissed, suddenly furious. It wasn't like his usual brand of anger, which was harmless and quick to fade. There was a glint of alarm in his eyes that gave him the appearance of an animal backed into a corner, ready to strike.
Before Shouto could try to backtrack, Izuku returned and Katsuki went silent, leaving Shouto to regret opening his mouth at all.
"Glad that's over with," said the prince, dropping back into his chair. "I'm no good at giving speeches." When neither of them answered him, he started to look concerned. "Did something happen while I was gone?"
"No," Katsuki said, before Shouto could speak. "Your speech was so boring I nearly fell asleep listening."
"The elders rejected most of the changes I wanted to make to it," Izuku said glumly.
"You should just let me write them from now on," Katsuki said.
"As much as I appreciate the offer, I don't want to scare everyone away, either," said Izuku. "Shouto, how are you finding everything?"
"Good," Shouto said, despite still feeling like there was a large and heavy stone in his stomach. Katsuki was back to not looking at him.
"I was thinking, after dinner," Izuku said, "maybe I could show you around the castle? If you'd like!"
Shouto would have liked nothing better—only he couldn't stop thinking about Katsuki's wide eyes, and obnoxious smile, and how he talked about Izuku like he couldn't help but know him better than anyone else in the world.
But it was Izuku looking at Shouto, hopeful and a little hesitant, and Shouto only had one night of freedom.
"If you have enough time to spare," Shouto said, and the prince's entire face lit up even brighter.
They snuck away just after dessert. Izuku waited until the advisors at the table were sufficiently distracted and then motioned for Shouto to follow him.
"It seems like you have to do a lot of escaping from your advisors," Shouto observed.
Izuku had the grace to look abashed. "They mean well… they're just a little overbearing."
"Believe me, I know what that's like," Shouto said.
"Yeah, my dad is a little intense."
"Is that why you've never left your village?"
Shouto sighed. "That's most of the reason."
"Ah, we don't have to talk about it, if you'd rather not," Izuku said, picking up on his reticence. "Sorry, I'm just so curious after… well, anyway. What parts of the castle were you interested in seeing?"
"Uhhh…" Where to even begin? "All of it?"
Izuku grinned. "Good answer."
As it turned out, the crown prince was a bit of a history buff. He knew all the most interesting spots in the castle, and was able to talk about the history behind each and every room—and he could really talk, a mile a minute, illustrating his stories with expansive gestures to Shouto as he waxed on about that tapestry here, that suit of armor there.
Shouto got to see rooms both big and small, grand and simple. The kitchens were huge but functional; the throne room was shining and ornate; the library he could have lost himself in for days.
The palace was as wondrous as he could have hoped for, but the main thing he found he couldn't tear his eyes from was Izuku.
He was different to what Shouto had expected. He wasn't exactly handsome, not like in the stories. His cheeks were too rounded, eyes too big, curls too wild, to be called manly and dashing. His smile was a bit wobbly around the edges, and he was constantly a bit sweaty, even long after they'd stopped dancing. He was every bit as human as Katsuki's stories had made him sound.
But somehow he shined like the brightest characters from the pages of a novel; not just a prince, but a hero. He'd even swooped in to rescue Shouto when he'd needed it most.
It was no wonder Katsuki was so loyal, despite how much he acted like he couldn't care less.
Even knowing it was a bad idea, Shouto had to ask. He couldn't go without hearing the other side of the story after spending so much time with Katsuki. By the time they'd made it out to the palace gardens, he'd worked up his nerve.
"Last stop," Izuku announced, indicating the rose bushes with a sweeping gesture of his arms. He gave a dramatic little bow. "We at the royal palace hope you enjoyed your complimentary tour, and also that the tour guide didn't bore you to tears."
Shouto shot him a look of reproach. "Don't be ridiculous." When Izuku started to laugh, he belatedly revised to, "Don't be ridiculous, Your Highness."
"Nice save," Izuku said, still giggling. "Though I think having said that, at this point you could just call me Izuku."
"If you want!"
It was so strange how it really felt like he could. Maybe it was because he knew so few people, that Izuku didn't feel off limits or out of reach just because he was a prince. It wasn't like Shouto had a lot of non-prince references to go off of. But he got the feeling this was just how Izuku was.
"I never thought I'd get to do something like this," Shouto said. "Not just… come to the castle. To meet someone and have them want to—to talk to me…"
Izuku watched him quietly. When Shouto floundered, unsure of how to continue, he prompted, "What changed?"
There was one answer to that question, one person who had literally exploded into his life and turned it around by granting a single wish.
"Can I ask you something?" Shouto asked.
"Of course," said Izuku immediately, "anything."
"Do you love Katsuki?"
For the second time that night, Shouto observed as he made someone's eyes go wide over a question that was far too personal, and thought, you'd think I would have learned my lesson the first time. But instead of looking trapped like Katsuki had, Izuku's expression transformed into something different—something that looked almost like relief.
"I do," Izuku said, and now he was smiling again. "I always have."
Shouto's breath caught in his throat. There it was; the answer to the question he'd had all these weeks. He hadn't realized he'd been dreading it until it was too late.
"Shouto," Izuku said, "I wanted to—"
The clock struck midnight.
Shouto jerked away from Izuku—all night, he had only wanted more time, even while he knew he had to be mindful of how late it was getting. But Izuku's charm and cheer had made him forget, or perhaps he just ignored the clock in a futile effort to make things last. But now his time had run out.
"I have to go," he blurted, backing away from the prince.
"What?" Izuku asked, confused. "Right now?"
"Yes, I—I'm sorry—" With horror, he saw the ends of his suit cuffs were starting to fray. "I can't be here."
He turned and ran back along the garden path, wanting to escape before Izuku saw him in his blacksmith's rags. He ran from the prince who looked at him and saw just another boy, not a monster; ran from the fairy who had taken his hand and pulled him out of his cage.
He ran from them both, because he could never have chosen between them, and he knew they would never choose him over each other.
The path led him around, back to the front of the castle where Kirishima was waiting. He could see the red carriage now, a safe haven right in front of him as his pristine white boots melted back into the clomping, soot-caked footwear he was used to. The soft blue of his suit was melting back into work pants and a faded white shirt scarred with burns and dirt. His hair was beginning to fall into his eyes. Only his gloves still seemed intact.
He reached the carriage and flung the door open, but the prince had caught up to him.
"Shouto, please wait!"
Before Shouto could decide whether to leap inside or turn and face him, Izuku reached out and grabbed his hand, his fire-cursed left.
All the fear and pain came rushing back to Shouto at once, as strong as they had been when he was five, and he thought he'd killed his little feline friend. Only this was Izuku, this was the boy Katsuki loved—Shouto couldn't bear the thought of ever hurting him. He thought of Katsuki, looking at him the way his mother had before she disfigured him. He'd rather be locked away forever.
"No!" he cried, tearing his hand from Izuku's grasp. Izuku had grabbed him so tightly that his glove slipped off, but he let it go and jumped inside the carriage. "Take me home, Kirishima," he whispered, and somehow the dragon must have heard him, because with a huge sweep of his wings, they were in the air.
Izuku braced himself against the gust of wind, looking hopelessly up at the carriage. "There's something I need to ask you, too!" he called.
But by then they were too high up, and the prince and the castle were getting smaller and smaller. In the reflection of the window, Shouto could see the black of his hair fading back into red and white. Beyond it the castle still glowed, but that too faded as they flew farther, back toward home, back toward his cage.
He touched his fingers to the glass. It was only then that he realized there was no frost spreading over the glass, no icy barrier appearing to block his view of the world beyond.
Katsuki's magic was still working, stronger than any curse or midnight bell.
One thing Izuku never forgot was that he loved Katsuki.
He had for as long as he could remember. It was something he'd grown up knowing—and it was why it had hurt especially when they were small and Katsuki had pushed him away, been angry with him for reasons Izuku couldn't understand. It was why he'd never given up trying to mend whatever thing it was that had broken between them. It was why when they had started to feel like friends again, he was so happy he'd never even considered pushing for more. He would love Katsuki however Katsuki would let him for the rest of his life, and he was content with that.
So when Izuku had learned about Shouto when they were still kids, he had actually been pretty damn pleased about it.
He hadn't found out from Katsuki—it was Mitsuki who had let it slip to him one day, and in her defense, he didn't think she realized her son had never told him. Katsuki, bless him, still thought Izuku had no idea. As painfully sweet as it was that someone like Katsuki spent so much time worrying over his charge, Izuku knew he would be horrified to hear anyone else had realized, let alone Izuku of all people.
But it was also a bit idiotic to think Izuku didn't know anything about it, not when they could never escape each other. Izuku knew Katsuki almost better than he knew himself, sometimes; it was hard not to notice him poring over books and spells regarding elemental magic, disappearing for days on end and returning with frost on his clothes. Sometimes he mumbled Shouto's name in his sleep.
Izuku never wondered if Katsuki ever dreamed about him, too. And things were getting better between them by the day and—well, wasn't that the most he could ask for?
He had spent so many years… never expecting anything, but hoping. How he'd hoped.
But it had still seemed impossible, until he'd turned twenty, and the plans for the ball had been announced, and Katsuki started to act even more abrasive than usual. He'd raged at the advisors for insinuating Izuku was only to consider certain "viable" choices from the guest list, before turning around and snapping at Izuku for suggesting he be allowed to choose who he spent the rest of his life with for himself, thanks. He'd even been rude to the queen over the table decorations (although he had apologized to her later—she was the only one who could ever get him to say sorry).
He'd been in general even more insufferable than normal, until one day, a little over a month before the ball, he'd up and disappeared. When he turned up the next day, something had changed; Katsuki was happy, or as close to it as he ever got, and even with the ball approaching, he seemed strangely to have made his peace with it. And somehow, Izuku just knew.
The next time Katsuki had left the castle, Izuku followed him—the fairy could teleport, but that wasn't going to help him hide his tracks from Izuku, who was obsessive, possessed a freakish level of attention to detail, and most importantly, had befriended Kirishima years ago. They both had a sixth sense when it came to Katsuki, and with how fast Kirishima could cover ground it took almost no time at all to locate the village on the edge of the kingdom where he'd been disappearing to. There was some guilt that came along with the spying, but it was also a good idea to make sure Katsuki wasn't planning some sort of coup against the kingdom in order to get out of attending the ball (he had attempted this once when he was nine which, incidentally, was how they'd met Kirishima). So at least there was some moral precedent, however slim.
But they could spot no coup-planning to speak of, once they'd arrived. Instead, they found only a forge, and a strange quiet boy, living inside a cage.
It was Shouto. Izuku had never seen him before, but he knew it had to have been. It was Shouto that Katsuki was lecturing, dancing with, telling stories to—stories about him and Izuku, their adventures, their victories and defeats. Shouto listened to him with rapt attention, as though they were tales of great heroes, and not just two foolish boys with a knack for leading each other into trouble.
It was the first time Izuku had ever heard Katsuki talk about him like that, talk about them like that, with so much pride (though he tried hard to disguise it—Izuku would take what he could get). For maybe the first time ever, Izuku had proof that it wasn't only him that had cherished those times: the freedom, the thrill of feeling like it was the two of them against the world. Katsuki wove threads from his memory to drape over all three of them, like a warm soft blanket pulled up to Shouto's chin, whose wide eyes begged to know: and then what happened?
And Shouto's only wish had been to meet the prince in those stories; to see for himself what Izuku was really like.
This was how Izuku fell in love all over again for the second time in his life. Except he didn't love Katsuki any less, only more. After that, nothing seemed impossible.
Nothing except getting Katsuki to admit he was in love with Shouto, because Izuku had been trying for weeks now with no luck whatsoever. He'd tried in the month leading up to the ball, but Katsuki remained tight-lipped about where he was going and what he was doing (and who he was seeing). He'd tried at the ball, but either they'd agreed to it beforehand or Shouto was just following Katsuki's lead, because they had pretended not to know each other. And he'd tried after it was over, after Shouto had run away out of fear Izuku would discover who he truly was; but Katsuki still wouldn't tell him even now that they'd met.
The problem was this: Katsuki was determined to act like he had no idea who Shouto was, likely because showing any emotion other than "murder" was unthinkable to him. And then Izuku realized of course Katsuki had to pretend not to know; he still thought Izuku didn't know. And Izuku couldn't very well say, surprise, I've known about your secret and extremely adorable pining for years, I just didn't want you to kill me if I told you, so now here they were. Stuck.
(Izuku could very well have said he knew about the secret pining, but the truth was that he still did not want Katsuki to kill him if he found out, so he was admittedly being pretty chickenshit about it. Regardless, he wanted to exhaust all other avenues before walking face first into sure and certain doom.)
This had led to Izuku becoming a little bit desperate. Which was how the Kingdom-Wide Search for the Owner of the White Glove plan was born.
"This is so fucking stupid," Katsuki said.
They were standing outside the forge of a small village—the wrong forge, in the wrong village, a fact of which Izuku was aware, and was also aware that Katsuki was aware. Katsuki, on the other hand, just thought he was an idiot, but what else was new.
"You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take, Kacchan," Izuku replied cheerfully, though on the inside he was dying. This would be so much easier if they both weren't so good at dramatically miscommunicating with each other.
Izuku hadn't thought it would be this difficult at first. Honestly, he kinda thought someone else would be able to tell him pretty quick who Shouto was—this assumption proved vastly incorrect.
"Why didn't you find out his last name, you fool?" Katsuki asked, not for the first time.
"That would have seemed, I don't know, weird and forced?" Izuku said. "Plus, he seemed to not want to talk about his family much…"
"Since when has that stopped you from being nosy as hell?"
"Kacchan! I just—I didn't want to…" Izuku sighed heavily again. "I liked him."
It felt strange to admit out loud in front of Katsuki, given everything he knew, and everything he'd felt over the years.
But Katsuki merely looked resigned. "I know you did. So you better get a move on."
This forge wasn't the first they had visited, and it almost certainly wouldn't be the last, the way things were going. The blacksmith's family that lived there were just as congenial and accommodating as the last they'd visited. They were shocked to have the prince and his very recognizable fae companion come calling; naturally, because none of them were the boy Izuku was looking for, and had no idea what he wanted. He soldiered on anyway.
"You are all too kind!" Izuku told them, after being offered tea, and sandwiches, and cakes. "But I am on a mission of great haste and cannot tarry."
Katsuki made some kind of nauseated sound from behind him, which he always did whenever Izuku used his "brainless prince voice," as he called it.
"What mission, Your Highness?" asked the blacksmith.
"I am seeking the hand of a lost love," Izuku said, "for I know not to whom it belongs, and have only this single token to guide my path." Amidst a chorus of sympathetic gasps, he produced The Glove—still perfectly white and unwrinkled. "Whosoever fits this glove must my true love be!"
Following this grand declaration was a period of stunned silence. Izuku tried not to let his smile falter.
"Er…" the blacksmith said, "I think… our youngest attended?"
The girl in question gave a start. "But I didn't—"
"You wore white gloves, didn't you, dear?" her mother insisted.
This was the most awkward part—when people realized that all they needed to do to gain a prince as an in-law was have their single sons or daughters fit their hand into a simple glove.
With no small amount of ceremony, Izuku approached her to have her try it on. She gulped as he bowed and then held out the glove, and as everyone watched with bated breath, she gingerly slipped her hand inside.
It went on easily; technically speaking, it fit. But her hands were small, nothing like a true blacksmith's hands, and the glove was loose and overly large, visibly sagging at the fingertips. Her parents deflated a little in disappointment. It unmistakably did not belong to her.
But this was the part on which his plan hinged.
Izuku rubbed his chin and then said, "Wow… I think we've got a winner!"
Everyone looked at him in shock. "Y-your Highness?"
"What," Katsuki said flatly.
"I suppose we'll have to bring you back to the castle—we'll need to go through a few more tests, naturally—"
"Izuku!" Katsuki hissed.
"Yes, Lord Katsuki?" Izuku said politely. Katsuki grabbed him by the arm and pulled him outside the room. "Give us just a moment!" Izuku called out to the family.
"Have you gone insane?" Katsuki demanded.
"What do you mean, Kacchan?"
"The glove didn't remotely fit!"
"It did fit," Izuku pointed out. "It went on."
"It was about to fall off of her damn hand."
"Your complaint last time—"
"My complaint last time," Katsuki growled, "and the time before that, and the time before that, was that the glove doesn't fit any of the people you're putting it on, but you seem to be somehow blind to that fact!"
He was right. They'd been to several forges now, and even with a wide variety of hands to choose from, not a single one could have been taken for Shouto's. The glove just didn't suit anybody else.
"That woman two towns back was pretty close, though!" Izuku said.
"She was at least forty," Katsuki said, "and married. And a woman."
"He was disguised, Katsuki," Izuku reminded him.
"Not that disguised!"
"You're probably right," Izuku sighed. "Well, I guess we'll just have to move on to the next—"
"Do you not care about him at all?!" Katsuki demanded, voice rising dangerously. In the next room, their hosts had become very quiet.
Izuku dropped his flippant tone. "I do care. But so do you, Katsuki." Katsuki turned away from him, gripping at his hair in frustration. "You're not telling me something."
"I can't." Katsuki looked at him again, a plea bleeding into his voice. "I promised I wouldn't."
Oh. Oh—Izuku had been so stupid.
He knew a little bit about wish granting fairies, he had to have picked up some things after so many years. He knew after the initial wish was granted, they generally had to step back out of the picture and let things run their course. They were never intended to make events turn out perfectly; only to give things a nudge in the desired direction. And on top of that, if somebody had asked Katsuki not to interfere, especially if it was the person he'd been tasked with helping in the first place…
"Okay," Izuku said. "Okay…" He cast his mind about, trying to search for an answer that wouldn't cause his friend to feel like his help was a betrayal. A conversation he'd had weeks ago, before he'd started his search, came bubbling up in his memory. "When I was asking around for information, I spoke to a few of the messengers we sent out to deliver the invitation. One of them mentioned… he'd met somebody really strange at a village forge. A mechanical boy, but he hadn't seen them at the ball…"
Katsuki looked torn between hope and uncertainty. He was still unwilling to give up the secret Shouto had entrusted him with.
"I know there was something Shouto didn't want me to know," Izuku said. "Some reason why he was stuck in his village, and why he had to run away. Maybe this mechanical boy has something to do with it? It might be good to go check it out."
It had taken forever, but he thought he might finally have made some progress when Katsuki, looking relieved more than anything else, nodded in agreement.
There was something especially bitter about risking freedom for one night, only to lock himself back up in the end.
Shouto knew in his heart it was for the best, but that didn't make it any easier. Coming home and tucking his remaining glove away inside his favorite book brought him to tears, even if they were quickly wiped away. He would have to return to the cage again, now.
He'd gotten what he wanted; he had spent his night at the castle. He should have been happy.
What he hadn't planned for was to fall in love with both his new friends—to find they were both so much more real and wondrous than any ink and parchment. But they loved each other, and there was no space for him between the pages.
He hadn't even caved when Katsuki came to find him, because Katsuki didn't know. Neither of them realized how they felt about each other, but one day they would, and Shouto couldn't get in the way of all that history. It would be even worse to be discarded then. He made Katsuki swear he wouldn't tell Izuku where he was.
Izuku would never find him. He was Cinderoki; nobody knew his name.
The thing about the heroes in fairy tales was, they always found a way to win, and they always found a way to save the people who needed them.
He spent more time in the garden now than he had before meeting Katsuki. It was still a bit painful because of the memories, but he preferred that to having none or avoiding it entirely because it reminded him of the absence of his mother.
There was one huge tree that happened to grow outside the garden wall, its boughs overhanging a bench Shouto liked to sit on. He liked that the tree had snuck inside to join the other plants; it was a connection to the outside world.
He was sitting under the tree, hidden away from everything but his own thoughts, when a rustling in the leaves caught his attention. He looked up, expecting to see one of his squirrel or bird friends.
Instead, he found himself staring into a pair of huge green eyes, set in a very familiar freckled face.
"What," he said, sure he was seeing things, and then Prince Izuku yelped and fell out of the tree right in front of him, landing with a horribly loud thump that suggested it wasn't his imagination at all.
"Owowow," Izuku said, sitting up wincing.
An explosion signalled Katsuki's arrival next. He dragged Izuku to his feet, already berating him.
"How are you so bad at everything, I told you to be careful—"
"The branch broke, what am I supposed to do about that?!"
"Pick a better branch next time!"
"When is there likely to be a next time—"
"Um," Shouto said, and they both stopped arguing, "what the hell?"
A smile spread over Izuku's face like a cracked egg releasing its golden, delicious innards everywhere (which was a weird way to think of it but Shouto was, at that point, half-mad with missing him).
"It is you!" Izuku cried out, pointing at him in triumph. "Katsuki, we found him!"
"Wow, it's a damn miracle," Katsuki said, voice so dry it was in danger of going up in flame.
Shouto remembered himself. "I have never seen either of you before in my life—"
"For fuck's sake," Katsuki said, "just make him try on the glove, I'll hold him down if I have to."
"You swore you wouldn't tell," Shouto said, giving up on the pretense, since it was obviously no use.
"He didn't," Izuku said. He took a cautious step toward Shouto. In his hand, he held the glove. "I figured it out. He kept your secret, which was very stupid of you both, by the way."
"It's not stupid," Shouto said. He felt like he was choking. He wanted to reach out, wanted to put on the glove, Katsuki's gift to him. He wanted to feel safe again. "Why did you come looking for me?"
"Do me the favor of seeing if this fits," Izuku said, "and we'll tell you."
He couldn't resist that any more than he could stifle his own magic. And he wanted to know. Shouto held out his hand.
Izuku's own hands were steady as they slipped the glove on. Even with the threat of being burned he didn't waver, and Shouto trusted him, and he didn't burn him. The glove went on perfectly smooth.
It occured to Shouto that he'd stepped inside the cage in order to get the glove on. He'd almost forgotten he was wearing it at the sight of them, and now Izuku had ignored it entirely to get close, undeterred by the sharp ends, the nightmare silhouette. The arms encircled them both.
Izuku took Shouto's hand in both of his—took the hand of the boy at the heart of the monster. Some heroes slayed dragons; others befriended them.
He flipped Shouto's hand over, right as the rose sigil in the center of the glove began to glow.
"See," Izuku said, and when he looked up at Shouto, it was with that wobbly smile, eyes wet to match. "I knew you were the one."
He drew Shouto into a hug, and Shouto didn't protest—just hugged him tightly back, careful to keep his frozen hand at a safe distance. Izuku was solid and warm.
Over Izuku's shoulder, Katsuki was watching them.
"You really didn't tell," Shouto said.
"No," Katsuki told him. "But I wanted to, you asshole. That was a shit thing to make me swear to."
"I know," Shouto said.
"Why?" Izuku asked. He drew back from Shouto to look at him, which made Shouto feel bereft. "Why did you run?"
"Because…" Shouto looked between them. What could it hurt to confess now? At least he'd gotten to see them one more time. "I love you. Both of you."
They looked astonished. "But," Izuku said, eyes wide, "then why did you run from us?"
Shouto almost rolled his eyes. How could they still not know? "Because you're both in love with each other!"
He hadn't wanted to do that—it wasn't his place to say it for them. But also… it served them right.
Katsuki stepped forward after a long moment of silence, hands balled into fists at his sides. "You oblivious idiot," he said, voice shaking. Shouto braced himself for the oncoming fury. "You absolute coward!"
"Kacchan!" Izuku gasped.
The accusation hurt, but Shouto didn't flinch from it. "If it means you two will be happy, then I don't care what you call me."
"To hell with that," Katsuki said. "You don't get to run away!"
"You just met us, and you're already giving up!" Katsuki shouted. "I waited twenty years for you, and I never gave up on you! I messed up everything with him our whole lives—" He stabbed a finger in Izuku's direction. "—and he never gave up on me!"
Shouto sucked in a breath. "Wait—"
"You didn't need me for twenty years, and Izuku sure as hell doesn't need me after everything I did, but I tried everything to make it so you could be together!" Katsuki stormed closer, close enough to grab the limbs of the cage and rattle them. "You don't get to run away."
Shouto barely registered Izuku extricating himself from the cage, sliding his hands over Katsuki's to ease them off. He was too shaken to process anything properly. He'd thought he was helping. He was so used to shuttering his own happiness in darkness that he'd never even stopped to consider what it meant to them when he had turned his back on them.
"You—" He could barely get his voice above a whisper. "You want me to stay?"
Izuku shuffled his feet. "I need to tell you both something." Listening seemed easier than talking for Shouto, so he just nodded. Katsuki watched the prince expectantly. "I've… I knew about Shouto the whole time. I have for years."
Well. That was a revelation.
Katsuki's eyes were narrowing dangerously. "You little—"
"I thought you didn't want to tell me," Izuku said hurriedly. Shouto got the impression he wanted to say everything he needed to before his demise. "I could—could tell you loved him, and I figured maybe you'd leave one day for him. And I was okay with that! Or—I thought I was, but then I saw you two together, and I met Shouto, and I… I still want you both to be happy together. But I don't want that to mean I lose either of you."
"Oh…" Shouto said.
"I wanted to ask you something at the ball, remember?" Izuku said, turning to him. "Shouto, I wanted to ask if you were in love with Katsuki, too."
Shouto stared at him, shocked. That's what he wanted to ask? And if Shouto had just stayed, had answered him instead of running… the answer had been so easy. He'd really overcomplicated this.
Katsuki wheezed, "You're both the worst."
"Yeah," Shouto said, "I love him." Izuku, who had known the answer all along, smiled.
"I hate you both," Katsuki said.
"Can we take that to mean you feel the same way?" Izuku needled him.
Katsuki put his hands over his face, which did not disguise the fact that he was turning very red. "Yeah… I mean, yeah, he said it, didn't he?"
"You know, you could've told me a million years ago how you felt, Kacchan. We could have avoided all this."
"And Kirishima brought him to the ball, did you expect me not to notice—"
Shouto felt it all slotting into place, all the plot threads of his life coming together. "What now?" he asked.
"Can we help you take this off?" Izuku asked, looking over the cage.
"Oh, right." Shouto shook his head. "I can do it."
And he did. This time, when he pulled himself free, he didn't feel uncertain about it. The cage stood empty in the garden; it didn't need him to fill it anymore. And he no longer needed its protection.
It still startled him a little, when Izuku took his left hand and raised it to his lips to brush a kiss to his gloved knuckles.
"Thank you," the prince said, and Shouto felt all the wind get knocked out of him.
"For what?" he asked. He owed them all his thanks, not the other way around.
But Izuku said, "For making your wish."
Shouto swallowed the lump that had suddenly made itself known in his throat. "I'm glad I finally did."
Izuku looked at the third member of their trio. "Kacchan?"
Katsuki shook his head. "We're gonna have to get the other glove if you want me to hold his hand, that shit is cold as hell."
"It's in the house," Shouto told him apologetically.
Sure, not everything was perfect. He wasn't looking forward to having to explain things to his father, and he was still cursed on top of it. But his curse was a part of who he was, and they loved him anyway. It was enough just to—
"I think I can figure out how to break the curse now, though," Katsuki said.
Okay, screw that bittersweet bullshit.
"How?" Shouto demanded.
"Won't be easy," Katsuki admitted. "We'd probably need to visit the north fae… the journey alone is already a bitch and a half and that's not counting everything we'll need to do afterwards."
"We'll need time to prepare…" Izuku said.
"You'd come with us?" Shouto asked, surprised.
"Of course I would!" Izuku said. "It's been too long since we went on an adventure, hasn't it, Kacchan?"
"It's been too long since I could blow stuff up without getting nagged at," Katsuki grumbled, which passed as agreement.
"I want to do it," Shouto said. "When can we leave?"
"Slow your roll, hotshot," Katsuki told him. "We gotta get you back to the castle and everything first, get you settled in. And…"
"It's nothing, don't worry about it."
Katsuki rubbed the back of his neck. "My old lady helped me out with some of the magic I used for your gloves… she thinks Shouto's mom might be with the northern fae people."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Izuku asked, confused.
There was still so much he didn't know—so much Shouto and Katsuki would be able to tell him now.
For the time being, Shouto left it at, "It's complicated."
"Would you be ready for it?" Katsuki asked him.
Shouto looked him in the eyes and nodded. "I feel ready for anything."
Izuku beamed. "Then it looks like you're coming with us."
When they looked back at Shouto, he knew he could tackle any adventure, as long as he had them. He'd never felt more ready. After so many years, he wanted something for himself; wanted them enough to make his own happy ending.
Now his own story could finally begin.