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Uraraka didn’t know what she signed up for, when she entered UA.

She knew, objectively, that there would be exhaustion and pain. She knew that heroes don’t live safe lives - that there are risks and dangers and that, if she’s not careful, the world will swallow them whole.

But that was all objective and now she’s here, in the middle of another villain attack and breathing ash instead of air. Her shaking hand is pressed tight against her stomach, blood between her fingers, and her head is pounding in time with the heartbeats hammering in her ears. In the distance, someone is screaming, high and harsh - a girl, maybe a stranger but maybe Momo or Asui or Tsuyu and maybe Uraraka wants to scream, too.

She can’t scream. Not because she wants to be strong, or even because it’ll give away her location, but because she doesn’t have the breath to scream. That last blow cleaved the air from her lungs and she’s struggling to get it back - for a terrible moment her chest is empty and she’s clamouring for breath and every heave of her aching ribs sends pain screaming through her wound.

The logical thing to do is run away, because there is no way that she is going to win. There’s a pro hero lying bloody and crumpled and deaddeaddead at her feet; Uraraka watched the villain kill him. She saw how helpless the guy was, in the wake of this villain’s might.

Now he’s dead. He was a pro and powerful and smiling and kind, and now he’s dead. There is blood on the asphalt, dark against her white boots, and Uraraka wants to cry.

But there’s a kid and his father kneeling behind her, and the boy is sobbing broken and scared. And Uraraka is the only thing standing between them and the villain, blood between her teeth, feeling sick sick sick.

The villain in front of her is stronger, faster, better - she can barely think, can barely see, is only just getting enough air to breathe. And that’s not even the worst thing.

The worst thing is that, right now, he’s just looking at her. He’s not saying anything. He doesn’t have to.

Uraraka’s seen that sort of look before. There’re loads of people who would stare at her family just like that. Because they were poor. Because their language was rough and their clothes were old and patched. Because they weren’t good enough.

Uraraka hates that look. It’s disdain and disgust and why do you even try, and now she wants to scream again, in a different way. Wants to bash his face in because shutupshutupshutup she can do this. She will do this.

Except the villain deflects her clumsy lunge, and all her instincts and training can’t save her against his devastating speed. Her momentum drags her forward, so she can’t dodge; his palm grazes her exposed shoulder, and his quirk splits her skin open, blood spraying wide.

Uraraka’s costume is torn, and she is cold right down to her bones. Her stomach is churning, and she’s good at fighting back nausea but she thinks that this time she really might puke.

He could’ve finished the fight right there, his palm against her head, a powerful application of his quirk, and bam. No more Uraraka.

The only reason she’s not dead is because he went easy on her.

She doesn’t even want to imagine her parents’ faces. It makes her want to cry.

Her eyes are burning, but that doesn’t mean anything. She’s shaking, and her legs are barely holding her up. She tilts her head back to look at him, gasping. Her blood is hot against her fingers, and she bites her lip.

She’s scared. She’s scared and tired and everything hurts, and she wants to be sick.

But Uraraka Ochako is not a quitter, so she raises her chin and grits her teeth, swallows and tastes blood and bile. She blows out a breath and raises the rubble around her, a hailstorm of broken brick around her head.

She fists her hand, and lets it fly.

 

-x-

 

“I thought I was gonna die,” Asui says later, sinking into a chair.

“Me too,” Uraraka agrees. Her voice is steady even as her breath trembles.

“Yeah.” Deku nods, looking exhausted. His face is white.

White like bone, Uraraka thinks, mind flashing back to the people she saw on the street. Civilians lying all around, eyes blank and staring and dead. The defeated hero, body a mangled mess, spilled organs and shattered, bloodied bone.

She’d watched that hero die. The villain Uraraka had fought had gripped him by the neck and supercharged his blood, contorted his body into something twisted and terrible. She’d run for him, something screaming in her heart and lungs and nononono-

-but she wasn’t fast enough. And it didn’t matter anyway; the man had been dead before he’d hit the ground.

The villain had turned on Uraraka next. She’s only alive because of that villain’s twisted sense of justice.

A girl, he’d murmured. Later Uraraka learnt that he didn’t kill women or children; it’s probably lucky, then, that she’s both.

Uraraha stares down at the mug in her hands. She focuses on the curl of her bandaged fingers around warm ceramic, the smell of coffee in the air. She’s taken a hot shower and changed into clean clothes, but something in her stomach still feels dirty and cold and sick.

Not good enough. It’s only luck that the villain chose not to kill her. It’s only luck that Deku and Iida showed up in time to drive him back. And she couldn't save that hero, wasn't fast enough, didn't know how-

-she bites her lip. Her stomach is very cold, but her eyes burn.

“-ra. Uraraka.”

Someone touches her shoulder and she flinches, looks up. Deku is looking at her, green eyes very wide.

“Are you okay?”

Uraraka waves her hands in front of her face. She doesn’t want him to worry - he’s pale and his arm is bandaged from the shoulder down. Even with help from Recovery Girl, he’s unsteady on his feet, and so clearly exhausted that it makes Uraraka ache.

She pastes on a smile. “Of course,” she says, beaming bright and wide. She squeezes her burning eyes shut - no chance of tears leaking out. The bigger you smile, the harder it is to cry.

“Sensei is calling you,” Deku says, voice gentle, like he can see through the lie. Uraraka nods, and pushes herself to unsteady feet. Everything aches, and she stumbles, but Deku shoots out an arm to catch her.

He grips her shoulder tight, holding her steady. She can feel the raw strength in his fingers - leans into the touch just a little, because Deku is breathing and living and warm. He is so very alive.

“Thanks,” she says, flashing him another smile. It comes just a little easier, this time. It feels less like trying to drag out and give him something that she doesn’t have.

Aizawa-sensei is standing in the corridor. Uraraka stands uncertainly in front of him.

She knows she screwed up. She was slow and clumsy and weak and she knows, she knows. And now Aizawa-sensei is disappointed and she grits her teeth, waiting for the anger, the chiding-

“There are some people who insisted on seeing you,” Aizawa-sensei says instead. Uraraka blinks at him, eyes gritty and hot beneath the too-bright fluorescent light.

A kid darts out from somewhere behind Aizawa, crashing into Uraraka hard enough that she stumbles backwards. For a moment, pain flares bright and white-hot in her side, and she thinks that her shaking, unsteady legs will give out, but then her vision clears and she’s looking down at a little boy.

The boy that she tried to save, she realises. His face is buried in her loose white t-shirt, fingers digging tight into the fabric at her back.

“Thank you,” he says. His voice sounds wobbly and thick, like he’s crying.

Footsteps click on the floor, and Uraraka looks up to see the boy’s father. There are bags beneath the man’s eyes. He’s pale and drawn and he looks exhausted, but his smile at her is painfully sincere.

He bows to her. “Thank you so much,” he says, and something short-circuits in Uraraka’s brain.

“W- what?” Her voice is hoarse, she realises. She tries to clear her throat and realises that there’s a lump stuck in it. It’s suddenly real hard to breathe. “I didn’t do anything.”

“That’s not true.” And that’s Aizawa-sensei, meeting her eyes with that steady gaze. Someone’s gotta explain this to Uraraka, ‘cause she’s not gettin’ it. “If you hadn’t protected them, they’d have been killed next.”

“You saved our lives,” the man says. His eyes, when they meet hers, are wet. They’re glistening pretty bright beneath the hallway light, and his expression is crumpled at the edges. “You saved my son.”

“That ain’t true,” Uraraka says, and hell, she’s losin’ it, losing her grip on her calm and her posh language. Losing her grip on her tears. Her mouth is wobbling and she’s pretty sure her expression’s folding in and in and in. “I didn’t do a thing fer ya. T’was only luck he didn’t- didn’t kill me.” She grits her teeth, lifting her chin and tipping her head back to glare up at the ceiling. She blinks hard against the light. "The way he killed Blackbird."

Blackbird. Jeez, it's not like she killed him, so why does she want to puke at the thought of him?

(Because she couldn't save him. Because she was slow. Because she watched him die.)

“I thought we were gonna die,” the boy says, not lifting his face from her shirt. “He said he was gonna kill us next. But you came and then I saw you fight and I thought that maybe we might get to live.” He grips her tighter and it loosens something in Uraraka’s chest, even as her wound burns with pain. “And then you guys won.”

“You helped us even though you could have gotten killed,” the man says.

“That’s what heroes do.” Uraraka says immediately. “I ain’t anythin-”

“You did what a hero does.” The man is smiling at her, so grateful that Uraraka can’t breathe. “You’re a hero.”

"I'm not," she says, lifting her chin and balling up her fists. "I couldn't save Blackbird, I-"

"He was a pro hero." Aizawa's voice is steady, like he's just stating facts. "He knew the risks. And from what I heard, you couldn't have saved him anyway."

It hits like a punch in the gut, but suddenly Uraraka doesn’t feel so cold.

"I shoulda- I could've- if I'd been like Deku-" Deku, who is fast and powerful, who could've bowled into that villain and snatched Blackbird away.

Aizawa sighs, suddenly sounding very old. "Maybe. But maybe not." He reaches out to drop one hand on her head, heavy on her hair. "All sorts of things happen on the field. You'll always think that you could have done better, even when you've done the best you could."

"I didn't think fast enough an' he got slaughtered cuz'a me."

"No one could say that," the man says, suddenly. "He might have died no matter what. But me and my son- there's no way we would have lived without you there."

"He doesn't kill kids," Uraraka says. The boy would've lived.

The man looks startled, and then he says, "But I'd have died, and he'd have watched me die."

He would have, wouldn't he? Uraraka looks down at the kid, who's short and skinny and painfully small. He could have watched his dad die.

“I really thought I was gonna die,” the boy offers. This time he does look up from her shirt. His eyes are wet and brown and very, very alive.

Uraraka laughs, a small choked little thing. “Me too,” she replies honestly.

“Were you scared?”

“Yeah.” Uraraka’s eyes are burning and her vision’s gone blurry. “I was really scared.”

“You looked really cool while fighting, though. You didn’t look scared at all, even though I couldn’t move.” The boy offers her a small smile, and Uraraka smiles back, but it pushes the tears out of her eyes. They spill hot and wet down her cheeks. “When I grow up,” the boy says solemnly, “I want to be a hero like you.”

And suddenly there are more tears running down her cheeks, even though she’s smiling, because her chest is so tight and painful and warm that she thinks it’s gonna burst. He called her a hero, he said he wants to be like her and dad, mum, look, I’m a hero and she can’t breathe.

The boy and the man are laughing, she thinks, not in a mean way. She just laughs and cries even harder, both at once, because they’re alive to laugh and yeah, she’ll admit it. She was really, really, really scared. And somehow, somehow they’re all still alive.

She kept them all alive.

“You did well,” Aizawa-sensei tells her, clapping a hand on her shoulder, and that… that means everything.

Uraraka didn’t know what she signed up for when she entered UA, and this isn’t perfect or even great, but somehow it’s still better than anything she ever dreamed.