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Of Beowulf and Smol Cats

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2:51 AM

Hitoshi had fully expected the rec room to be empty, as it had been for the past month at these late hours. Either his dorm mates kept to weirdly healthy sleep schedules for college kids, or they preferred their cramped rooms to the basement. Which, he supposed he could understand. Cockroaches thrived down here. But as long as he flipped on the light, they'd scuttle off to the shadowy corners and leave him alone.

And there was a couch. A giant, worn, gloriously squashy monstrosity of a couch. Hitoshi had decided it was his couch, from insomnia-o-clock to dawn.

However, when he cracked open the door to the rec room tonight, it was already brightly lit. A voice was muttering, low and fast, and keys clacked on a keyboard. And when Hitoshi stepped inside and scoped out the couch, there was already someone on it.

Some kid was hunched over by the arm rest, typing madly into his laptop. He was a college student, had to be, though he looked too young for it. He was kinda baby-faced and almost too small for his All Might pajamas. (Hitoshi approved of the comic-book-inspired insomnia-o-clock fashion choice, though not this particular choice in character. Eraserhead was superior. More complex. More realistic. But whatever.)  The guy had a mess of dark hair to rival Hitoshi's own purple bird's nest.

He was giving Hitoshi the strangest sense of deja vu.

Eh. Probably glimpsed him on campus at one point.

Hitoshi hesitated. Stay down here and risk having to interact when he didn't particularly want to, or go back to his dorm room and risk waking his roommate up? He and his roommate had a decent arrangement wherein they disliked each other but pretty much left each other alone. His roommate crept out early for class while Hitoshi slept in, and Hitoshi took care not to wake him when he was having insomnia issues at too-late-and-too-early-o-clock in the morning....

But if Hitoshi snuck back into bed and read reddit threads under the covers, his phone light wouldn't disturb his roommate...

The typing stopped. The stranger peered over his laptop, smiling nervously, and geez, he looked way too innocent for this world. "Oh! Um, hi!"

"Hi," said Hitoshi, his tone neutral.

The stranger brightened. All of a sudden, words were flooding out of the guy like water from a burst dam. "I don't think I know you," he said, almost too quickly to catch. "My name's Izuku. I'm in Room 208, but I'm not around much because I'm running around going to classes all day, and also the library, so maybe it's not so surprising that I haven't seen you. Especially if you're not on my floor--are you on my floor? I don't think so, though, I think I've met most of the people on my floor, somehow?" It was a statement, but he said it like a question. "Anyway, what's your name?"

"...Hitoshi. I'm on third."

Something about Izuku's voice was familiar, too. Something about the way he talked, jumpy and swift, the way his words all came out of him at once. But Hitoshi, try as he might, couldn't place that voice for the life of him.

"Nice to meet you! I'm Izuku--oh, I already told you that, didn't I?"

"Yeah."

Izuku scratched the back of his neck. "Ha. Um. Sorry, I kind of talk all at once? So I lose track of what I already said sometimes. Anyway! Do you come down here a lot?" Hitoshi merely nodded, and Izuku bit his lip and looked him up and down, as if searching for something. Izuku's brow creased; evidently, he didn't find what he was looking for. "You don't have a laptop or any textbooks, so... I guess not for homework reasons?"

"Nah. Insomnia."

Izuku made a sympathetic noise. "Insomnia's terrible. Is it the kind where your brain just won't turn off? Or is it the kind where you wake up at weird ungodly hours because your subconscious decided to chase you with an eldritch monster, or throw you off a roof, or put you in your old neighborhood and then have everyone there try to hunt you down? Which, that's weird, isn't it? Why do our brains come up with those sorts of things at all?" He steamrollered on before Hitoshi could get a word in edgewise. "I mean, I read that dreams are a random mishmash created while the brain's processing and storing all the stuff it encountered over the course of the day. But I don't understand how you get a kraken trying to eat you out of, I don't know, normal life experiences. Unless you're eating squid or reading about squids, or something..."

Izuku trailed off and looked at him expectantly.

Hitoshi blinked.

Oh right, Izuku had asked a question, before somehow getting into a tangent about krakens. What was it, again? he wondered, and mentally rewound through Izuku's little monologue until he found it.

"Couldn't fall asleep," said Hitoshi at last. "I was planning to sit down here and browse reddit shitposts and cat GIFs until I felt like going back to bed."

"Oh."

A pause.

"But you know that screens emit a kind of blue light that makes it more difficult for you to sleep, right?"

Hitoshi had, in fact, known that. "Says the guy with the laptop," he countered.

"Oh, no, that's different. I've decided that going to bed tonight is a lost cause." Izuku seemed peculiarly happy, for someone who knew they were going to get no sleep. "I have an English essay. On... on whether Beowulf would be popular in modern society..." He crinkled his nose. "When I say it out loud, it sounds so weird, but it's what our professor assigned. He's the kind of teacher who tries hard to engage the class, so he gives us these 'fun' prompts..."

Wait a second.

He knew where he'd heard Izuku's voice now. Echoing around a lecture hall as he rattled off a long-winded answer to one of the professor's questions. One of the few voices, out of hundreds, who seemed eager to speak up, like he was genuinely excited to learn about old English epics at ten in the morning.

"Aha. Anyway. I, uh. Misread the due date. Thought it was due next week, but it's due tomorrow. Or today, I guess... Hitoshi? You okay?"

Hitoshi's throat had gone dry. In his mind's eye, a hundred tiny Hitoshis screamed and started throwing things at each other. And set things on fire. And mashed the panic buttons, all of them, repeatedly. If he didn't turn in anything, he'd get a zero. If he got a zero, he'd flunk the course. If he flunked the course, he'd lose his scholarship, and then how was he supposed to pay for his undergrad, and--

Hitoshi willed himself to breathe.

"I'll, uh." He cleared his throat. "I'll be right back."

 


3:14 AM

 

"Oh. Oh wow. That's pretty bad. "

"Can't argue with that."

Izuku scooted to one side and wordlessly patted the cushion next to him. Hitoshi joined him on the frayed, squashy couch, which had once been his favorite couch but was now the couch of shame, and opened his laptop. He pulled up a fresh Word doc. He stared hard at the blank, white abyss and wondered how in hell's handbasket he was supposed to fill five pages minimum by 10am today. He despaired.

"Fuck it," Hitoshi muttered, and typed the first five lines.

 

Hitoshi Shinsou

Prof. Yamada

English Literature 125

2020-10-02

An Essay On Beowulf in Modern Society

 

Right. So he had to have an opinion about whether Beowulf would be, what was it? Popular?

Well. Beowulf was a muscle-bound royal guy who wrestled a demon into submission; survived an underwater fight with said demon's mother, which no human should've been able to survive, but, well, leave it to an epic to make things unrealistically epic; and accumulated, and gifted, a stupid amount of wealth to get people on his side. Yeah, he'd probably do fine.

He'd be football captain and prom king, and then an unbeatable pro athlete, probably.

One of those knuckleheads who got everything in life.

 


4:47 AM

 

Hitoshi leaned back and rubbed his eyes, He'd managed three pages. Somehow, he had to get it up to five. But it felt like the words were molasses, forcibly dredged up from the sluggish morass of his mind. Two more pages, he scoffed, that's no big deal, suck it up, but a not-so-small part of him whined back, But we've had no sleep and we're tired.

Gradually, as he let himself sink back against the couch, he noticed how quiet it was.

Izuku's typing had slowed dramatically. His muttering, which had been a persistent background noise for the past hour, had faded. Hitoshi yawned and turned, half expecting to see Izuku nodding off, but no, he was wide awake, reading over his essay and worrying his lip with his teeth. Izuku's brow creased, intent, like there was some puzzle he just couldn't crack.

"How many pages do you have left?" asked Hitoshi idly.

Izuku startled, then looked back at him, and then ducked his head sheepishly. "I, ah. Negative four."

"What."

Izuku laughed nervously and scratched the back of his neck. "I can get carried away. It was a problem in high school, too. I always have trouble figuring out how to say everything I want to say concisely. You probably don't have that problem, do you? You seem like you'd be really good at  finding a straightforward way to express yourself."

"...I need two more pages."

"See?" Izuku smiled wanly. He looked pale. He had bags under his eyes. Not as bad as the ones Hitoshi saw in the mirror every day, but still, worryingly shadowed. "You're concise. And I'm having trouble finding ways to cut down. It's, I guess it's good to have a lot to say? But it's also good to not lose people, and I've been told if I ramble too much I can kind of lose people and obscure the points of my argument, except, it all seems like it supports my argument. So I guess I need to find the stuff that's less important, but I'm having trouble deciding."

Sounds like his problem, Hitoshi told himself. You've got your own. Get back to work. He opened his mouth to say something to that effect.

What came out was, "Want me to look it over?"

Izuku considered him. And for the first time, Hitoshi noticed a sharpness in his gaze, a hint of distrust and uncertainty that suggested he wasn't as naiive as his cinnamon roll persona would suggest. Like he was far more perceptive than he let on--like between all his ramblings, Izuku paid attention. Like perhaps people had cheated off him before, and he'd noticed, and now he was wary.

Hitoshi could sympathize. This was one of many reasons why he didn't do social. He had no tolerance for that dishonest mooching shit.

He held his hands up and promised, "I'm not gonna plagiarize. I just need a break. Figured I could use it to help you not become a mini-me." At Izuku's quizzical expression, Hitoshi pointed to his own eye bags and added, "You're too damn nice to be a zombified insomniac."

You can't take a break, hissed a solid fifty of the tiny Hitoshis in his insomnia-addled brain. This is a terrible idea.

But Izuku was already assenting. "Okay. How about a trade: you look at mine, and I look at yours?"

 


5:32 AM

 

"Alright," Hitoshi drawled, "you can cut out a couple paragraphs of evidence here---and here--you don't need to highlight the details of every fight. It's enough to mention them and cite the most poignant lines of evidence." Izuku leaned in and peered at the screen as Hitoshi scrolled through and pointed out the spots of interest. "And why do you have all these comparisons with All Might? Seriously, why? You don't need it. The assignment doesn't call for cross-work comparison. That alone will get you, like, 80% of the way down to the max limit."

"But it's so interesting," Izuku protested, "and it helps illustrate my points about... Well, I guess it makes it clearer that..." He trailed off as he skimmed over his own work, then slowly, gradually, slumped against the couch.

"Kill your darlings," said Hitoshi remorselessly. "Resurrect them in a reddit post if you want, but here, they have to die."

Izuku sighed and cut three pages' worth of All Might-centric analysis.

"Good job."

Izuku mumbled his thanks and made another couple of cuts, then set his laptop aside and picked up Hitoshi's with a determined gleam in his eye. "Okay, your turn. I read your essay, and--and Hitoshi, you need to change your thesis. It's oversimplified." Izuku paused. "Also, really pessimistic and bitter. I mean, some pessimism is okay, but not when it acts like more optimistic arguments don't exist."

Hitoshi blinked.

Then he bristled with indignation.

It was funny, he would think in retrospect, how some ridiculous school assignment about a thousand-year-old story seemed to matter so much at five in the morning.

"What do you mean, too pessimistic? It's a valid point. He's like a trust fund baby born with super strength. People treat him well because he's well off."

"I disagree," said Izuku, with admirable restraint considering his drastically more optimistic characterization of Beowulf, "but if you want to argue that, then I think you need to offer counterarguments to the prominent emphasis on Beowulf's generosity in the text, and how that plays into how people treat him. Also to how he faces so many perils and how hard he has to fight."

"Freakin' fate is on his side, and of course he gives out treasure. That's the easy ticket to getting allies."

Izuku picked up his battered copy of Beowulf, flipped to a tagged page, and jabbed it sternly. "It took more than luck to face down Grendel. And he wasn't so lucky when he faced the dragon. And he was generous even on his deathbed, when he didn't have anything more to gain. Professor Yamada talked a bit about this in class: the dominant interpretation of Beowulf is that he was a good person and a great king, and that's because so much evidence in the text supports it. You can't ignore that. You have to address it. Addressing it properly will bring your page count up. That's the rest of your essay, right there."

Hitoshi opened his mouth to argue.

But nothing came out. He was seething with frustration, but he didn't have a retort. Not a good one. Not an adequate counterargument.

He actually had to go back and rework his entire paper, now, didn't he?

"Ah hell," he sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Izuku's expression softened. "It was really good considering you had less than two hours to write it and it's so late. Or early. Late-early. Anyway, I read that sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning in all sorts of ways. A certain amount can almost be equated to drunkenness, and I think we're both kind of over that limit. So you should be kind to yourself. Also, you don't need to change your whole stance! You just need to... Shift it a bit. Make it a little more subtle."

"...How?"

Izuku hummed in thought. "Well, you argued that Beowulf was throwing his wealth around and people treated him well because they wanted to be rich too, and that rich people get away with a lot in our society. Which is kind of true, but there's so much emphasis on building friendships and relationships in the poem. I guess you could still argue that Beowulf was being purposefully clever when he cultivated those friendships, and that he calculated his generosity for his own interests, but he'd have to know that those bonds existed and had value. Sort of a... Machiavellian mindset? Kind for practicality's sake? Or else for the sake of his own self-image? I mean, that's not how I'd view it--I think Beowulf genuinely liked the relationships he had with his people, and I think that's part of what would actually draw people to him today, you know? And--"

"Alright, I get it," Hitoshi interrupted. "I read your essay, I know what you're arguing." And then, because his response had sounded harsh even to his own ears, he followed up with a quieter, "Thanks."

Izuku smiled and handed him his laptop.

Hitoshi got back to work.

 


6:05 AM

 

Izuku had closed his laptop several minutes ago, but he hadn't moved from the couch. He'd pulled out his phone and started fiddling with it.

Hitoshi watched him out of the corner of his eye. "You're done. You might as well go to bed."

"Nope," said Izuku resolutely. "You helped me. I'm not abandoning you now."

"How Beowulf-like of you," said Hitoshi dryly. "Settling debts."

"I just like to help people. Especially friends." Izuku paused, then added, "You do too, don't you?"

"Never been much for friendships."

Izuku scrutinized him, and again, there was something far too sharp and shrewd in his gaze, especially this late in the morning. Or this early. Whichever. "Interesting. I guess that explains why you kind of overlooked their significance in your essay, at first." He peered around Hitoshi's shoulder and skimmed his screen. "It looks like you're making good progress. Where are you at?"

"I need one more page, and then I've got to smooth out some of what I already have."

"Awesome. I'll keep you company. Also, do you want to walk to class together?"

"I... Sure? Let's just hope we don't have to run."

Izuku sank into the couch with a happy sigh.

Hitoshi considered him. "If you're just going to sit there, you should look up 'reddit illegally smol cats.'"

 


6:12 AM

 

"Oh my god this one's so cute, look! Look at the little fluffball!"

Hitoshi peered at Izuku's screen. A tiny gray fuzz of a kitten was peeking over the edge of the box, its paws clinging to the cardboard for dear life. It probably could've fit in the palm of Hitoshi's hand. Freakin' adorable. Just looking at this picture was instant diabetes.

"Cute," he agreed aloud. He almost suggested Izuku find one he'd seen a few days ago, a ginger floof stretching out on its side. That was a good one. The floof had such a look of bliss. And such smolness.

Hitoshi mentally shook himself. He could not get derailed by smol cats now. He would not.

 


 

6:42 AM

 

Hitoshi frowned. He needed another half a page. He knew where he could fill stuff in, where he could put in more support. But his brain was glugging unhappily at him, and his eyes ached from staring at the screen too long. Damn. He didn't think the fatigue would hit him this hard. He thought he was used to it.

"Have you ever had a cat?" asked Izuku suddenly.

Hitoshi rubbed his eyes. "Nah," he said, "my mom's apartment didn't allow pets."

"Oh, that's too bad. My mom just didn't want one because she was worried we wouldn't have time to look after it, and also she didn't want fur all over the kitchen. She also didn't want a dog, a hamster, or the injured crow I found on the side of the road..."

"...you rescued a crow?"

"I mean, I couldn't just leave the poor thing there, could I?"

"Tell me that story sometime," Hitoshi demanded. "When I'm done with this stupid essay."

 


7:03 AM

 

"HA! That's five!"

"Nice!"

"Unfortunately, it's crap. I have to revise. But at least I have the minimum number of pages."

"Want me to take a look at it again?"

"Nah. I'm good. I know what I need to fix."

"..."

"...What're you typing out so intensely?"

Izuku looked up from his phone. "Just texting Iida. He's my roommate. He's nice, though kind of strict about rules and self-discipline. It's useful to know someone like that, though, they can really help you stay on track if you're trying to stick to a regimen. Anyway, Iida's wondering where I am, because it's unusual for me to be out this early without him, and he also wants to know if I'm joining his run today. Don't worry," he added, apparently reading worry in Hitoshi's face (which he didn't actually feel, obviously), "I wasn't planning on running anyway. I want to do weights after class."

"Voluntarily?"

"Mhm. Lifting weights does a lot to help you build strength, and it promotes cardiovascular health. It can also be good if you want to burn off extra calories or lower cholesterol. You can join me, if you feel like it! Sometimes it helps to have a workout buddy." He rambled on, gaining enthusiasm and momentum before Hitoshi could say no, thanks, he didn't exercise if he could help it. (Which, logically, he knew probably had a terrible impact on his health, but whatever.) "I used to do weights with Ochaco back in high school. We'd cheer each other on, and you kind of need someone to spot you if you're doing the bench press. She had an unreal ability to handle heavy loads. It was like she was cancelling out gravity, or something."

"Huh. Cool."

"I'm no slouch either, though! I could lift the end of this couch and drag it around with you on it, easy. I mean, that probably wouldn't be good for the floor, but I definitely could."

"I'll take your word for it."

 


 

7:11 AM

 

"How'd you even get into weight lifting, anyway?"

"Huh?" Izuku stopped giggling at... Whatever he was giggling at. Probably more cats. "How'd I--oh. It was my first year of high school, and school was... Um, not a good place. For me. But, there was this teacher. Mr. Toshinori. I guess he could tell I was having a hard time? Anyway, he suggested that I try something physical outside of school, because apparently, it helped him when he was my age." Izuku scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. "And I, I had kind of wanted to be stronger? Yeah. I was already a huge All Might fan by then, and one of the things I like about him so much is that he has this massive capacity to help people. He's also a great character who wants to help people, of course! But he wouldn't be able to, at least not to the same extent, without his super strength.

"I mean. It's not like I planned to go patrolling in a onesie costume and run into burning buildings, and dramatic comic-book acts like that. But if I was stronger, I could help in smaller ways. Like lift heavy things around the house and carry more groceries for my mom, or carry people if they sprained an ankle or something, or--or help my friends move house. Ah. If I had friends to help."

Hitoshi felt a sudden and inexplicable desire to put a hand on his shoulder, or express sympathy, or... something. (There was, he thought, a difference between being done with people and being rejected by people, and this ridiculous cinnamon roll clearly fell into the latter category. Hitoshi was in the former. Ish.)

But Izuku brightened before he could decide on a course of action and said, "I eventually did, though! It just took a while to find them."

"Uh. That's... That's good. That you found them." Hitoshi cleared his throat. "I should probably try to finish this essay."

"You can d-d-do it," said Izuku, a monstrous yawn splitting the middle of his sentence.

 


8:25 AM

 

It was probably daylight outside by now. Hell, it'd probably been daylight an hour ago. Hitoshi tried to force his brain to process the words on the page, to comb them for logical and syntactical gaps and make them better, somehow, but the words didn't seem to want to cooperate. Their meaning kept slipping away from him. Like sand through a sieve. Or minnows through his bare fingers.

Hitoshi pinched the bridge of his nose. Drummed his eyeballs. Twisted the skin on his wrist. Barely felt any of it.

Yeah, no, he was done.

"Welp," he said dryly, "I'd better print this out. It would suck if we were up all night doing these essays and then forgot to bring the damn things to class, wouldn't it?"

No response.

Hitoshi turned to Izuku to prod him for an answer, only to stop himself and chuckle.

Izuku was slumped back against the couch, his head tilted back, his mouth gaping open, his phone resting precariously in his limp hands and his laptop long since set on the floor. His chest moved gently, rising and falling just enough to be noticeable. He looked peaceful. Hitoshi kind of wanted to go find a fuzzy blanket and drape it over him. Prop him up on one side with a giant pillow, too. Let him sleep in.

Unfortunately, he couldn't do that.

Hitoshi reached over and shook Izuku's shoulder, and wow, that took more effort than he expected. The heck did this guy eat, bricks? "Hey," he hissed. "Wake up."

Izuku woke and blearily rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Time 'zzit?"

"Printer-o-clock, for both of us. I've gotta go to the library to print out mine."

"Oh... Hm. I need to do that too, actually." Izuku slumped forward and reached for his laptop. "Gosh, I really don't want to move. This couch is so comfortable."

"It's the best," Hitoshi affirmed. "I've come down here, like... Practically every night since school started."

Izuku yawned. "I'm kind of tempted to just not change and go out in my pajamas."

"...Huh. I never actually put on pajamas."

 


9:25 AM

 

"Why isn't it connecting?!"

"Hell if I know," said Hitoshi, frowning. "You're on the right wireless, aren't you?"

Izuku checked. "Yes..."

"Directing to the printer here, and not the one five floors up?"

"..."

"..."

"Dang it."

 


9:53 AM

 

"Why," wheezed Hitoshi, "is -- this -- campus -- so -- freaking -- huge?"

"Twenty thousand students," Izuku yelled from up ahead. And then: "It's not that bad! You can do it!" His backpack, a bulky monstrosity that had All Might's colors plastered all over it, bounced in Hitoshi's vision up ahead. He could scarcely see Izuku's hair poking over the top.

He focused on it like a goalpost and forced his feet to keep moving.

 


9:59 AM

 

"Almost there almost-there almostthere--"

 


10:01 AM

 

They burst into the building and down the hallway and then around the wrong corner, and then the right corner, and then to Lecture Hall 003's double doors, and Izuku barreled through shoulder-first like a goddamn raid leader, with Hitoshi scrambling and gasping behind him. The two of them skidded to a stop by the lectern, where Professor Yamada was grinning and tapping a towering stack of papers into alignment. He grinned all the more broadly when Izuku slapped his essay on top with a garbled "sorry-professor-here's-my-assignment-thank-you-for-teaching-it's-not-late-yet-is-it?"

Hitoshi silently, composedly, added his own to the stack. Well, composedly except for all the sweat and wheezing for air, and all that, but he was calmer. Sort of.

Dr. Yamada beamed at them. "Thank you, young listeners!"

He called all his students that, on the grounds that they were stuck in his classroom three times a week listening to his lectures. Or, well, technically not stuck. Voluntarily present; thus, listeners as opposed to jailbirds or captives or whatever, as Dr. Yamada had once pointed out. He also had a thing for talking like an announcer, or a radio host. Did a helluva good job keeping people awake, Hitoshi had to admit.

Izuku ducked his head and apologized again, but Dr. Yamada waved him off. "Go, grab a seat. Class is just starting!"

Hitoshi tugged on Izuku's elbow, and this time he was the one leading, until they found a couple free seats near the back of the room. Hitoshi slouched into one, and Izuku slid into the next, and they unfolded the crappy tiny desk things attached to the arms. Hitoshi ducked down and searched his bag for his notebook and pens.

He did not find the notebook. He did find his chocolate-covered espresso beans, of which he promptly ate three.

Izuku tapped his shoulder and silently offered pencil and paper, which Hitoshi just as silently accepted. In return, he held out his espresso beans and murmured, "Edible coffee. Take one." He had a nagging suspicion Izuku wouldn't be able to handle a triple dose. He seemed like the kind of guy who had all the caffeine tolerance of an underfed squirrel.

"Thanks," Izuku whispered, and popped a bean in his mouth. And then he held out his fist, and when Hitoshi didn't immediately react, he whispered, "I'm offering you a fist bump. Also friendship because it seems like people who stay up all night to cheer each other through last-minute homework should be friends, but, um, the fist bump doesn't have any strings attached."

Hitoshi hesitated; then, he bumped Izuku's fist with his own, smiling despite himself. Izuku beamed back at him. Something warm kindled in Hitoshi's chest.

Huh. Maybe he'd give this friendship thing a shot.

For practicality's sake, obviously.