Absolutely nothing, Tenya comes to realize, is so cut and dry as heroics. Against the backdrop of fire and wreckage, villains and victims are as easy to pick apart as black and white. It’s easy to know where to step, which way to run, who to subdue and who to rescue.
The rest of his life is very rarely as simple.
It’s one thing to know that Bakugo and Midoriya have an ugly history -- to come into the understanding that Midoriya, perhaps the most transparent person Tenya knows, has a skeleton rattling noisily in the closet -- but it’s something else entirely to act upon knowing that.
It’s not a simple matter, trying to shape Midoriya into a victim. Not the Midoriya who led the way during the Provisional License exam, who faced the Hero Killer in a dark alley, who risked life and limb and potentially his hero career to break into the scene at Kamino Ward and save a boy who has never been kind to him.
Midoriya smiles like a bright summer sky and shrinks like a shadow, a walking contradiction of hard-earned scar tissue and soft-spoken scruples, and Tenya doesn’t know how to believe in the uncomfortable reason why .
Surely no one so strong could have been bullied or abused -- but by that logic, why would someone with such an impressive Quirk cringe and doubt and duck his head at every turn?
On the other side of the coin, it would be easy to point the blame at Bakugo. Bakugo makes it easy to make him the enemy; with his attitude and his ego and the way he treats the whole world like a stepping stone, it would be no hardship to color him in fault and leave it at that.
Or it would have been that way before.
But some days, recently, Bakugo laughs with Kirishima and Kaminari, bright-eyed in a way Tenya wouldn’t have guessed he was capable of.
Some days he picks Uraraka out of the group and demands a spar, since she’s ‘the only one of you fucks that actually gives me a run for my damn money’ and that backhanded respect makes Uraraka beam.
Some days, during lunch or a passing period, he sees Monoma coming their way before the rest of them do and cuts coldly into his path, standing like a wall between that unkind smirk and his own classmates with a glare that could peel the paint off the walls -- and for the life of him, Tenya can’t tell if it’s an act of belligerence or buried kindness.
Some days he is very close to something Tenya would be tempted to call a comrade. He is not quite a friend, but he is not the enemy he paints himself to be, either. The surly boy Tenya met the first day of class has retreated into a softer shell. When he looks at Midoriya, something has replaced the rage that used to crouch darkly in his face, something Tenya isn’t sure he can name.
And it’s hard to reconcile him with the person he was months ago. It’s hard to reconcile him with the idea of a person who could have conditioned so much fear into gentle, reckless Midoriya.
It’s hard, but very few things worth doing are easy, and so Tenya steels himself for a conversation no one wants to have and waits for Midoriya after class.
“Midoriya!” he says, turning heads up and down the room. Midoriya doesn’t wince, having seen him coming, and only smiles a greeting. Tenya sweeps his own hands up for emphasis and exclaims, “We still have plenty of time before curfew and there are no lessons tomorrow! Would you accompany me to the store?”
Midoriya blinks. “Um -- sure, Iida. What do you need at the store?”
Tenya hasn’t thought that far ahead, but he’s saved coming up with a suitable answer by Kirishima’s enthusiastic, “We’re goin’ to the store? Heck yes, sign me up! I definitely need snacks for our day off tomorrow.”
“Oooh, me too,” Ashido says gleefully, swinging her bag over her shoulder. “Days when you can stay in and be lazy are the best!”
Tenya waves his arms and says “hang on!” but trying to stall the sudden upsweep of enthusiasm from his classmates is like trying to stop a train moving at full speed. He also can’t think of a way to say “I only want to go with Midoriya” in a way that won’t raise any suspicion, and the shorter boy doesn’t look bothered by the prospect of additional company. There was probably a much more subtle way for Tenya to have approached this.
He drops his hands, frustrated. Midoriya opens his ever-present notebook to a fresh page and tears it out along the perforated edge carefully.
“Actually, I have something I want to talk to Iida about,” he says with an apologetic smile. He offers Ashido the blank page. “But if you all make a list of what you want, I can pick it up for you.”
Tenya blinks at him, surprised. The rest of their classmates clamor forward, calling Midoriya a real stand-up guy, see, this is why we love you and the resulting commotion makes Aizawa sigh from the front of the room and Midoriya laugh.
The page is cluttered by the time they get it back, almost everyone having added something to the list in pencil and various colored pens and a glitter marker that could really only be Aoyama’s, but Midoriya doesn’t seem to mind. He folds it carefully and slides it into his notebook for safekeeping and says, “We’ll be back soon.”
They’re leaving the school grounds, passing through the large gate, when Tenya says, “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Midoriya rubs the back of his head sheepishly. His hands are so usually wrapped in crisp white bandages, it’s almost odd to see naked fingers peeking through his green curls instead.
“N-nothing, really. But I thought you might have had a reason for asking me, out of everyone else, so I -- I’m sorry, was I wrong?”
“No! In this case, you weren’t! You’re very perceptive, but that comes as no surprise by now.” Tenya frowns deeply and points at him. “However, it could very well have been that I asked you simply because I wanted to! That’s not a strange thing for friends to do, is it?”
Midoriya appears wrong-footed for a moment, eyes round beneath that impossible mop of hair. Then the surprise fades into something sweet-tempered and he grins crookedly, a pleased pink warming his pale face. Looking at him, Tenya can’t help feeling a surge of pride, chest tightening at both the prospect of making someone so happy with a handful of simple words, and the fact that it was Midoriya, of all people, who absolutely deserves it.
“That being said,” Tenya adds emphatically, “I really didn’t mean for this to turn into a chore. I’m going to give the others a stern lecture when we return about appropriateness and doing things for themselves! What kind of heroes will our generation be if we just laze about and let others do for us?”
“I offered,” Midoriya reminds him, not unkindly. “Besides, it’s nice having friends to do favors for.”
It’s Tenya’s turn now to be wrong-footed, and he stares at his shorter companion -- as though by looking hard enough, the answers to all his uncomfortable questions would rise to the surface of Midoriya’s skin and save them all the awkwardness of having them spoken aloud.
Unfortunately, Tenya’s Quirk is not one that induces unwilling honesty, and he’s resigned to have to do this in the more quotidian way.
“You say it as though it’s not something you’re accustomed to,” he says with unerring caution, watching Midoriya sidelong with every word. He’s watching closely, and so he sees it when Midoriya tenses, every line and shadow of his body going taunt with a sudden sweep of nerves that should have no place between two friends on a casual walk after school. It’s hard, one of the hardest things Tenya’s ever had to do, but he goes on in forced measured tones. “Did you not have many friends before coming to Yuuei?”
He can almost hear Midoriya’s mind racing, overthinking the question. The easy camaraderie between them is gone, and Tenya desperately tries not to regret steering the conversation here.
“Um,” Midoriya says, at length. His hands are shaking. “Did someone tell you -- “
“Absolutely not!” Tenya waves his own hands so forcefully his whole body moves with them. “I do not condone gossip! That’s why I’m asking you, and you alone! And I won’t breathe a word of this to anyone else, even if you decide not to tell me anything!”
Midoriya relaxes, but only barely. By an inch, if it could be measured that way. The city is bright and neon in the swiftly falling twilight. The convenience store on the corner is well-lit, a pleasant beacon in the fading daytime. They’ve stopped walking, Tenya looking at Midoriya, Midoriya looking at his feet.
“I guess it’s,” he starts, and stops, and then visibly forces himself to push on. “I guess it’s pretty obvious, huh? I, uh -- my Quirk -- it came to me late. For a long time, I didn’t -- so other kids, they -- “
There are shadows, growing and stretching and multiplying in his eyes. His shoulders are impossibly small for the burdens he carries, and yet he never attempts to share them. As if he’s only worth the weight on his back.
Something fierce and hot bears its teeth in the pit of Tenya’s chest, and he clenches his fists. He guessed it, he realized whole days ago, and somehow he still wasn’t prepared for this.
“You were bullied?”
Midoriya flinches, as though it’s an ugly word. A personal failing. When he dips his head in a nod, he can’t quite pick it back up again. His fingers dig into the fabric of his school uniform as he waits for some painful blow, and Tenya --
It’s a cold, ugly feeling. It has no place in the heart of a hero-to-be. It makes intelligent people stupid, it makes them drunk, and the last time Tenya felt this way he tracked down Stain in Hosu and very nearly got himself and two of his classmates killed.
But he can’t swallow it down. He can’t shake it off.
Quirk or not, Midoriya embodies heroics almost to a fault. Quirk or not, Midoriya is good, and giving, and a valuable, irreplaceable friend. Quirk or not, Midoriya did not deserve what he lived through.
“It was bad, wasn’t it?” Tenya says softly, not trusting himself to speak any louder. “It must have been bad. Did nobody help you?”
“I was Quirkless,” Midoriya says again, tonelessly, as though this conversation has become an exercise in self-flagellation. “They didn’t know how to help me.”
Tenya is cold with anger to a point that makes him feel brittle, as though moving too much or too fast would cause his bones to snap. He holds himself very still, because he can’t know he won’t do something foolish if he doesn’t.
“We live in an age of heroes, but Quirks weren’t always so prevalent that everyone had one,” he bites out. “Surely your teachers, who lived during a time when superpowers weren’t commonplace, would have remembered classmates or friends who grew up without one. Why would they be prejudiced against a powerless child now?”
Midoriya looks at him at that point. His eyes are round and stunned. It’s his first time hearing this.
“They never took those malefactors to task for hurting you?” Tenya demands. “Not even once?”
“In grade school they did,” Midoriya says quickly. He’s staring. “They wouldn’t let -- but as I got older, they -- Iida, it’s okay. This was a long time ago.” He takes a step closer, hand drifting fractionally closer, as if he’d close the space between them and touch Tenya’s arm if he was sure of his welcome. He’s worried, Tenya realizes, about him. “Even without my Quirk, I’m strong enough now that I can’t be bullied so easily anymore. And I can stop it from happening to anyone around me, too. I’m not the person I used to be.”
“That’s not the point,” Tenya tells him flatly, agitated. “Someone should have been there for you. Bakugo should have been there for you. But instead he hurt you, too, didn’t he?”
Midoriya flinches, retracting his hand. “K- Kacchan? He -- he’s -- I actually instigated a lot of the fights, with Kacchan. I would -- meddle. When he was bullying someone else. And I have a, um. A pretty high pain tolerance? I don’t think he knew how much he was hurting me, because I always got back up. I think he must have thought -- I mean. It’s not -- it’s because I -- “
Something close to horror fills Tenya’s stomach like an icy pool, flooding all the tunnels of his body the longer Midoriya talks, and finally he reaches out slowly and grips Midoriya by the shoulders. Squeezing hard, but not hard enough to hurt, and bending forward so they’re closer to eye-level.
“You’re smarter than this,” he says, enunciating every word so there’s no hope of Midoriya misunderstanding. “You know it wasn’t your fault. Don’t make excuses for him. If it was me, you wouldn’t shift blame this way, would you?”
“I- I’m not -- I don’t -- it’s not anyone’s fault,” Midoriya stammers. “Kacchan was wrong, I know, but -- it just -- it was just, something that happened, a long time ago. And it’s over now, and -- Kacchan is getting better, and I’m getting better, and -- and it’s okay. Okay?”
Of course it’s not okay. Tenya doesn’t know how to communicate how much it’s not okay. He’s more disordered and overwrought now than he was before he asked, before he confirmed his unhappy suspicions.
But this is bigger than one conversation. It’s more than Tenya can make right all on his own, all in one fell swoop. This is years and years of negative reinforcement and conditioned self-blame and --
And Midoriya wants it to be over. Tenya has pushed far enough tonight.
He drops his hands and steps back. Adopts a smile he doesn’t even feel.
“Forgive me, Midoriya. I got ahead of myself, didn’t I?”
Midoriya takes the out and runs with it, pushing a hand through his hair nervously. He’s trembling, and Tenya feels terrible.
“No, it’s -- it’s okay. I just wasn’t, uh, prepared. No one’s ever asked me about that, before.”
“Someone should have,” Tenya says fiercely, the last thing he’ll allow himself to say. “Anyway -- we should get this shopping done before they send a search party for us.”
“I think they’d text first,” Midoriya ventures to tease, picking up the thread of this safer conversation and leading the way once more towards the convenience store. He works the notebook out of the side pocket of his bright yellow bookbag and opens it to the shopping list. His smile is soft when he looks down at the messy page of scribbles in twenty different scripts, and Tenya notices for the first time a very distinctive red pen in the bottom left corner.
those spicy chips we like, the red note says.
Some days, only recently, only after the events at Kamino Ward, Bakugo and Midoriya are selected as a two-man tag team during field exercises. It’s the work of their teachers, Tenya thinks, trying to do something about the unfortunate chemistry between two of Yuuei’s most promising rising stars.
And instead of the explosive disaster the rest of the class is braced for every time, Bakugo and Midoriya meet each other on even footing. Bakugo sometimes snaps, and Midoriya sometimes wavers, but the front they create when they stand together is unbreakable.
There’s more here than Tenya knows how to fix. It’s more complicated than picking out the villain and the victim, faulting one and saving the other. Yuuei hasn’t taught him how to do this, yet. If his big brother knows the way, he’s never mentioned it.
How to unteach years and years of the same cruel lesson. How to unlearn someone else’s hurt.
Tenya doesn’t know what to do, and he hasn’t done anything remotely helpful yet -- has only opened a door that rightly should have been left closed until he was prepared to deal with the demons behind it -- but Midoriya thanks him as they’re leaving.
“I could tell you really -- you really cared? Even though it all happened so long ago? And I guess, I just thought no one would think it mattered anymore. So -- thank you.”
“If you need someone to talk to, you can always come to me,” this same person said to him, not so long ago. “We’re friends, after all.”
Tenya swallows a burning lump in his throat and says, “Give me some of those bags, Midoriya. I can at least carry half.”
Midoriya blinks at the non sequitur and looks down. The plastic bags between them are bulging with snacks and sports drinks, most of them hefted effortlessly in his small, strong hands and Tenya with the remaining few.
“Oh? That's okay, I can -- “
“I know you can, but you don’t have to.” Tenya waits with his hand outstretched, will wait that way forever if he has to. “We’re both going the same way. It only makes sense that I carry half.”