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Collateral Damage

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Who Are Our Heroes? The Unstable Foundation Beneath Ground Zero
By Shibata Mizuki
https://tinyurl.com/y2t68tyt

ground zero is a manlet @bakkugoo wow yall really think a guy hasn’t changed since middle school?? i mean the video is awful obviously but who wasn’t shitty at 13

silvia // met deku 5/7 @dekurights wow i knew ground zero was an asshole but that video is… wow. if i see any of yall still stanning him after this its on sight

a hole is a hole son @sincinnati that article…. ooof.

furry love wins @wendigogo so ground zero was a middle school bully why is this a surprise to literally anyone. he also got kidnapped in highschool and has been rescuing people for nearly a decade but who gives a shit about that i guess

my neighbor toronto @weedcrimes Can we maybe talk about how it’s kind of cruel to call a guy who’s clearly introverted, bad with media, and has gone through multiple traumatic events and come out the other side still wanting to save people ‘unstable’?

Rising Heroes! @RHCoaliton We are aware of the recent video that has surfaced of one of our staff members and are looking into it.

 

Shibata Mizuki has very few regrets in life. Writing and posting a three thousand word takedown of Ground Zero, his shitty attitude and worse property damage record, then concluding with a video of him at age thirteen telling some poor classmate to kill himself, is not among those regrets. At this current moment, however, she is perhaps regretting the fact that her name and face specifically are attached to the article in question.

Bakugou Katsuki is shorter than she expected, is her first thought. Her second thought is, ‘Oh god, my life is in the hands of the guy whose public image I trashed not two months ago.’

The air smells like dirt, and faintly like burnt sugar. The dark around them is oppressive and heavy, and she takes a deep breath in an attempt to calm her beating heart. Her lungs feel very tight, and it takes several moments for her to realize that Ground Zero is speaking to her, over the rushing in her ears.

“Are you injured?” His voice is rough and flat, the tone brusque. Trembling, Mizuki takes stock of herself. Shakiness aside, she doesn’t feel anything more than bruised. When the building had started to fall she’d instinctively dropped to the floor, and while it felt like the world around her shook itself apart, she’d been wedged under a desk, relatively safe from anything collapsing on top of her. When she’d finally extricated herself from under the desk and stumbled out of the conference room she’d been holed up in, poring over notes for her interviews at tomorrow's convention, she’d run smack dab into perhaps the last hero on the planet she’d ever want a rescue from.

Irony is a bitch. And she still hasn’t answered Ground Zero’s question. He’s starting to look pissed off. Like she’s directly inconvenienced him by being too out of it to answer direct questions after a fucking building collapsed around her.

“I’m fine,” Mizuki says, “Just a little bruised uh—I think.”

He looks her up and down, a frown marring his features. He’s not dressed in full hero gear, she notices. The prominent orange X is still splashed across his chest, but he’s missing the mask and the huge grenade hands. She wonders what he’s doing here, so late at night. She wasn’t aware that any heroes were meant to be on location until the actual convention started.

He nods sharply, before turning away, glancing down the hall. He’s got a flashlight, she notices, pointed at the ground. He jerks his head sharply to the left/right and starts walking, swinging the flashlight back and forth in front of him as he goes.

Mizuki has to jog to catch up. “Wait, what even happened? Where are we going? What’s going on?” It’s not hard to keep up with him because he’s her height. It’s an uncomfortable realization. Ground Zero had always seemed so large in photos, muscled and angry, but up close he’s lean and short. Weird, she thinks.

“I don’t fucking know. Building dropped suddenly. Pretty sure we’re underground, considering all the fucking dirt coming in the windows. Some sort of sinkhole quirk probably, we’re lucky the whole building didn’t collapse on top of us.” He glances back at her, and then the hallway behind her, before looking forward again and continuing, “We’re heading for the stairwell or the elevator shaft, maybe. Working assumption is they weren’t powerful enough to drop the whole building down, so if we can get up, we can get out.”

Oh. That makes sense. Still she can’t help but press further. “But do you know who did it? Or why? Why are you here so late, anyway? I didn’t think there was anyone else in the building, plus Heroes weren’t supposed to get here until tomorrow anyway, right?”

She’s cut off by him making a gruff sound in the back of his throat as he stops abruptly in front of her. “Goddamn, you ask a lot of fucking questions. I don’t know any fucking more than you do. And I could ask you the same thing, except I won’t because I’m not a nosy bitch.” He looks her up and down with dismissal clear in his eyes. She’d assumed he hadn’t recognized her, assumed if he had he would have—

She cuts herself off there. Would’ve what? Abandoned her alone in a building who knows how many hundreds of feet underground? Presumably with some sort of villain on the loose?

As much as she doesn’t like Ground Zero, she has to admit that he’s unlikely to leave a civilian in harm’s way. Probably. She hadn’t really thought about it much, to be honest.

Whatever he reads in her face in that moment causes him to snort. “I know you think I’m some sort of maniacal asshole who eats children but I am, in fact, here to do my fucking job.”

Well, that’s not quite true. She doesn’t think he’s maniacal, she just thinks he’s an egocentric narcissist who cares more about winning than he does about people.

Wait, hold up. “Uhm, wait, you know who I am?”

The glare is even stronger this time. His eyes are alarmingly red in the low light, narrowed at her menacingly. Villainous, her traitorous mind supplies. “Of course I know who you are. You think I wouldn’t know the face of the bitch who decided that digging up twelve-year-old videos of me being a jackass middle schooler was a productive use of her time? I’m not a fucking idiot.”

Oh. Well, then. The nosy bitch comment makes more sense now at least. He turns abruptly and starts walking again, before pausing and glancing back at her. He’s looking down the hallways, gaze sweeping back and forth with an analytical look in his eye. “You should walk in front. If something comes up behind us I’d rather it grab me, and I’ll see if something comes up ahead.”

Alarm spikes through her. “You, uh, think something is gonna try to attack us?”

His frown deepens. “Not sure. I think I see something, but it’s…weird.” He gestures for her to walk ahead of him. “Better safe than fucked up.”

Well that’s one way to phrase it, she thinks. She walks in front of him, glancing down side hallways as they walk. The convention center feels so much bigger in the dark, with the oppressive smell of earth clouding around them. She knows the stairs can’t be far off, but she was unfamiliar with the building to start with and the lack of glowing exit signs is putting her off. It’s so dark, she realizes, even with Ground Zero’s flashlight shining ahead of them. It seems like the shadows are moving, clumping in amorphous globs and dripping around them.

It takes her a second to realize that’s exactly what’s happening, in a very non-metaphorical way. At the same moment a sharp series of pops sound behind her and Ground Zero darts in front of her, palms out in front of him, fire blooming from his hands out into the hallway. It happens so quickly she can barely process the noise, the light, the way Ground Zero herds her so her back is to the wall, his body between her and the encroaching shadows. It’s over in less than thirty seconds, and it leaves her ears ringing, sudden adrenaline rushing in her blood.

“Fuck.” He looks back at her, glancing her up and down. “You alright?”

It takes her a second, but she’s able to nod shakily, pressing her hand back against the wall and taking a steadying breath.

As she glances around, the hallways suddenly seem less oppressive, the paths less muddled. His hand is on her shoulder for a second as he pushes her back in front of him. “Keep walking, I don’t know when that’ll happen again.”

She’s not sure how long it takes them to find the stairs but it feels like a while, around thirty minutes. Ground Zero doesn’t speak the entire time. She supposes she wouldn’t want to talk to her either, considering, but part of her expects him to scream at her, to yell, to unleash that infamous temper he’s so well-known for directly at her full force. Instead, she gets gruff silence and curt instructions, and as they approach the stairwell his hand settles on her shoulder, pulling her back firmly. He presses her against the wall, her back to a pillar, effectively putting her in a corner. She can see out into the hallway but nothing would be able to sneak up behind her.

“Wait here.” And then he’s moving forward, that popping sound back, the scent of burnt sugar intensifying in the air. It’s strange, she thinks, how that scent seems to follow them. A product of his quirk, maybe? Mizuki tended to be obsessive about heroes and their quirks, but she’d always hated Ground Zero so she’d never looked into the specifics of his, too busy compiling property damage statistics and videos of him giving reporters flippant answers, dodging accountability.

It’s terrifying how quickly the world can go from dark and silent to bright and loud, the shadows pulling away, squirming and shredding to pieces in a way that’s reminiscent of tearing cloth. The explosions aren’t nearly as large as she’s seen in some videos, but she knows how big they can get. That he could level entire buildings, bring the world down around her ears.

The silence is abrupt afterwards too, only the sounds of her own shaky breath, the building creaking around them, dust settling. She’s still recovering when his hand closes around her arm, pulling her out of her corner and starting her moving towards the stairwell. ‘Roof Access!’ says the panel on the outside of the access door cheerfully. She considers the fact that this convention building is thirty stories tall.

Well, it’ll be cardio, at the very least.

As they enter the stairwell, she takes a moment to look up. The darkness worms above them, obscuring any light that might be filtering down from the stories above them. She glances over at Ground Zero to find him looking at her, frown still firmly in place on his face. It’s uncomfortable, she thinks, how she can’t tell what he’s thinking.

He surprises her when he asks, “You got heart problems, asthma? Anything like that? I probably wouldn’t wanna carry you the whole way, but I will if I gotta.”

She immediately feels defensive. She may not be the pinnacle of fitness, but she can climb some stairs. She’s self conscious of the roundness of her stomach, the shape of her body. “O-oh no. I should be fine. I—uh—jog sometimes.” It’s an embarrassing thing to say in front of Ground Zero and his prominent six pack.

“All right, then,” he says. “Go.”

 

--

BREAKING NEWS! TOKYO CONVENTION CENTER UNDER VILLAIN ATTACK! PRO HEROES FREEZERBURN AND DEKU ON THE SCENE!

 

hot girl summer @shoutototo FreezerBurn just went into the tokyo convention center. Like twenty stories of it are underground. I don’t think there were many people in the building bc its like 3am but I think they still need to evacuate security personnel

lisa // day 0 @freezeyourbrain @shoutototo omg i hope everyone is okay :o super scary that this happened so fast

hot girl summer@shoutototo @freezeyourbrain From what ive seen the drop is pretty clean? from the police chatter im getting off my radio the villains were trying to steal something i think. hard to tell though. theres some other quirk preventing law enforcement from getting in and out of the area

SHOUTO ALERT @freezerburnalerts FREEZERBURN AND DEKU SPOTTED FOR RESCUE MISSION AT TOKYO CONVENTION CENTER, NO INJURIES OR FATALITIES CURRENTLY REPORTED

sensual marshmallow vore @burnmedaddy @freezerburnalerts hope we can get some good fight footage this time, last time the cameras barely caught anything

--

It takes seven flights of stairs before Mizuki has to tap out. Her breath rattles in her lungs as she leans over, hands on her knees and panting like a dog. Ground Zero, the asshole, seems barely winded. She expects him to make some cutting comment, about her weight, her stamina, something, but instead he just stands there and waits. It’s a good five minutes before she’s able to stand up straight again, and when she can, she starts to sit down. Her feet hurt, probably more than they should. Her limbs are starting to ache.

“Don’t sit,” Ground Zero grunts.

Mizuki is about to open her mouth to object, to make some cutting comment about needing a fucking minute maybe, when he continues, “You’ll lock up and it’ll be worse when you stand. Leaning against the wall is better.” He pats down his pockets for a moment, and then pulls out something and tosses it at her. She barely manages to catch it. When she looks down in the dim light it’s an energy bar. He actually sounds apologetic when he continues, “I don’t have any water on me because I’m not in full uniform.”

Well. Okay. She leans against the wall and eats the energy bar. Ground Zero doesn’t seem any more interested in talking to her than he did before, but Mizuki’s never been able to resist poking bears.

“Why aren’t you like, uhm—” she cuts herself off.

He raises an eyebrow at her. It’s thin, and there’s a barely visible slash through it. “Like what.”

He doesn’t make it sound like a question.

“I just thought you would like, hate me or something.” It sounds weak when she puts it like that. Every video she’s seen of Bakugou Katsuki, every interview, every fight, has indicated that he’s nothing but a hotheaded asshole out for his own and nothing else. Maybe he didn’t actively want to hurt civilians, but his active avoidance of rescue missions and the tendency for his fights to level buildings, seemingly without him giving a shit, remind her of the kind of careless arrogance she’s learned to hate.

But Ground Zero right now. He’s been—well, he hasn’t really been nice, exactly, but he’s been aware of her limits, aware of where he needs to be to protect her, careful of leaving her in the line of fire, or where he can’t get to her.

It contradicts everything she thought she knew.

He’s looking at her. She’s beginning to suspect the frown on his face less reflects his mood, and is more just a permanent fixture.
a part of her thinks, hysterically.

“I don’t hate you,” he says frankly. “I don’t particularly fucking like you either, but if you hadn’t gotten hold of that video someone else would have and it would have been the same media circus, anyway.”

Her breathing is coming easier now, the food making her feel less like death. “You—you didn’t even respond to the article though.”

There’s a long pause while he looks at her. She’s starting to hate his gaze, how penetrating it feels. “You didn’t say anything I don’t already know. And I’m not apologizing to the public for something they have absolutely no business knowing about. You’re the one who went digging into my shit, but you didn’t even bother to figure out who I was talking to in the fucking video, to find out what they thought of all this.”

She takes a deep breath, “You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I fucking do, ’cause I talk to him every fucking day.”

Oh. That’s—

She’s cut off from having to respond by a distant rumbling and the sound of an explosion from a few floors up. Ground Zero swears and pulls her out of the stairwell and back into the main hallway. The building is shaking around them, the noise of it creaking and shuddering unspooling panic into her chest. It takes minutes that feel like years for the sounds to stop, for the building to stop shaking. The ceiling does not actually come down around their ears, and after a moment of silence, Ground Zero pulls away. He has his hand up to his ears, fiddling with what looks like some kind of communication device.

“Yeah, Deku, I copy, what the fuck is going on?”

Oh, good, other heroes are here.

Mizuki has to push down the rush of glee she feels at the idea of Deku being here, at the idea that he might end up helping to rescue her.

Deku was her idol, her favorite hero, always smiling, always saving people. Sure, his property damage statistics were almost as bad as Ground Zero’s, but he was always doing his best, helping people, showing kindness wherever he could.

What a hero should be.

She’d been devastated when not a week after publishing her Ground Zero article, she’d gotten a chance to interview him at the scene of a villain attack and he’d glanced her up and down before saying, “No comment,” and walking away. To talk to another reporter.

It’d hurt, but maybe he’d just been having a bad day or something.

Ground Zero is giving what sounds like a status update to Deku.

“I was doing a perimeter scan to double check security for tomorrow when the building dropped. I’ve got one civilian with me, but I haven’t seen anyone else. Aside from the sinkhole guy, there’s at least one other villain, someone with a quirk that can manipulate or create shadows probably. It’s hard to tell whether or not the shadows are being directly controlled or have minds of their own. Light seems to tear them apart and they don’t come back after that. We’re ascending stairwell C, seven floors. I might be able to blast up, but I don’t want to risk the building collapsing any more than it already has.”

There’s a long pause while Ground Zero waits, head tilted slightly.

“Copy. I’ll look for him. Once we meet up, we’ll head up top. Ground Zero out.”

He tugs her back into the stairwell and up the stairs. She’s starting to feel exhaustion deep in her bones. It’s late, she’s bruised, she’s tired, but Ground Zero seems to have a kind of renewed urgency as he tugs her along.

“Uh,” she starts, trying not to sound too gaspy, “who are we meeting?” Maybe it’s Deku, that would be cool.

“Freezerburn,” he replies, crushing her hopes and dreams with one word.

There’s nothing wrong with Freezerburn, really. He does a good job. He tends to be better about managing property damage, he’s polite in interviews, does his share of good deeds.

He just always seems so stiff to Mizuki, like a pretty doll, propped up and reciting what he thinks other people want to hear. It’s just a bit unnerving, is all.

They make it up two more flights of stairs before there’s another loud boom, and a crashing noise that sounds like it’s directly outside of the stairwell. Ground Zero is listening to his earpiece again, pausing for a moment before swearing colorfully.

“Freezerburn, what the fuck is going on right now? Do you need backup?”

A long moment and then— “Fuck.”

Back out of the stairwell they go. This one opens into a wide room that looks like it’s some sort of office floor. It looks like it’s been hit by a tornado, spikes of frost crawling down from the ceiling, intermingled with flaming office chairs and burning cubicles. There’s a hole in the ceiling, about halfway across the room, and through the shuttering of the flames, she can just make out the shape of a body collapsed underneath it.

“Goddamnit.” Ground Zero is darting across the floor, swearing with what for the first time sounds like actual panic in his voice. It puts her on edge in a way she realizes she really hadn’t been before. Sure she’s been exhausted, and sore, and frustrated, but suddenly she feels a real sliver of uncertainty the moment she hears him give a sign of actual concern.

The collapsed person is Freezerburn, she realizes, as she catches sight of his distinctive hair pattern. Ground Zero is already crouched down, murmuring something that’s hard to make out as she approaches.

She has to stifle a gasp when she finally gets close enough to see Freezerburn clearly. He’s out cold, the right side of his face slicked with blood from what looks like a cut high up in the white part of his hair. She knows head wounds tend to bleed regardless of how bad they actually are, but the sight of so much blood shocks her all the same. She’s used to dealing with the aftermath of fights, where heroes may be a bit dirty, a few scrapes here or there, but heroes who are seriously injured don’t do interviews, obviously. It would be bad publicity to see pro-heroes bleeding all over the place anyway. That kind of footage gets carefully cut before it ever makes the news.

She catches the tail end of Ground Zero’s urgent voice as she approaches them, standing awkwardly to the side as she hears, “C’mon, sweetheart, wake the fuck up for me.”

Well. She’ll just. Pretend she didn’t hear that, then. She may be a journalist but she’s not paparazzi.

She’s startled from her focused self-denial when Freezerburn lets out a rough-sounding groan and opens his eyes. It’s all very dramatic, actually, but she can feel the relief coming off of Ground Zero in waves. His tone of voice immediately shifts to something rougher, more professional, maybe. Well. Professional for Ground Zero.

“God, asshole, you fucking scared me. Jesus Christ. What’s your name and what day is it?”

Todoroki Shouto blinks up at Ground Zero for a moment before saying very seriously, “Katsuki.”

Ground Zero lets out a frustrated grunt and says, “No, Icyhot, that’s my fucking name, what’s yours?”

“Katsuki, I’m gonna throw up,” states Freezerburn, fairly matter of factly, and then leans over and does just that. Gross.

Ground Zero doesn’t seem all that perturbed by it however, preventing Freezerburn from falling into his own sick without a thought while muttering to himself, “Never mind, I’m just gonna check yes on the fucking concussion, then.”

There’s an ominous rumble from above and Ground Zero starts talking into his earpiece again, as he pulls Freezerburn up and over to a nearby piece of rubble for support. Despite the fact that Freezerburn is a six-foot-four adult man who can’t weigh any less than two hundred pounds, Ground Zero seems to be able to lift and maneuver him with no visible effort.

She’s barely focusing on what Ground Zero is saying. All she’s processing is the rush in her ears, the blood on Freezerburn’s face, the scent of dirt and vomit and ash choking in her lungs. She suddenly feels ashamed, of how dismissive she is of some heroes. Of any hero really, when they live through moments like this constantly, nearly every day. Ground Zero had seemed shaken for a moment but had immediately snapped out of it, had pushed through any residual panic and was now shining a penlight he had pulled from somewhere into Freezerburn’s dilated pupils. All the while, he speaks curtly on the comms, his eyes darting to her, their surroundings, and back to Freezerburn, vigilant above all else.

She’s abruptly brought back to herself as Ground Zero finally lets out a frustrated noise and then says, “Fucking fine, I’ll meet you by the elevator shaft. Deku, you better have that fucking shadow villain out of sight before I get up there or I’ll knock his fucking teeth in.”

It seems like he’s done checking whatever he was looking for with the penlight because he sticks it back in some pocket and gets out his bigger flashlight again. He looks back at her, then asks Freezerburn, “Hey, Icyhot, do you think you can walk or are you gonna make me haul your fat ass around?”

Freezerburn lets out another low groan and appears to attempt to stumble to his feet before crashing back down, his heavy boots sliding harshly along the rough floor. Ground Zero doesn’t look surprised, just states dryly, “Yeah, that’s gonna be a no, then.”

He turns to address her, holding out the flashlight at the same time. “We shouldn’t have any more trouble with the shadows, this guy managed to take the controller out before he knocked his pretty head in. They’ll have someone pick us up once we get to the elevator. We’re gonna have to wait around a bit for them to get shit sorted up top, but it’s better than walking up ten flights of stairs carrying the world’s heaviest bastard.”

She takes the flashlight in her shaking hands and watches as Ground Zero hefts Freezerburn into a fireman’s carry while mumbling, “Icyhot, you better not fucking puke on me.”

Freezerburn lets out a noise that might be agreement or might just be from being lifted. Mizuki is not really familiar enough with pained grunts to judge.

She shines the flashlight ahead of them as they pick their way between smouldering fires and dripping ice, back to the stairwell. From there, they follow the wall to a pair of elevator doors, which Ground Zero pries open after placing Freezerburn in a heavy slump against the wall. After that, he drops to the ground, legs crossed loosely, and gestures for her to do the same. Delicately, she tries to find a spot that’s not charred, damp, or some gross combination of the two. Eventually, she gives up and just plops down across from Ground Zero, only leaving a couple feet in between them.

There’s a long moment of heavy silence.

Mizuki tries to let it lie there. She really does, but her mouth just opens and blurts, “I thought you said we shouldn’t sit.”

It’s a stupid thing to say and she is immediately mortified by herself. He lets out a rough laugh and says, “What? You planning on going for another jog once we get above ground? Maybe chase after some more media attention?”

Freezerburn lets out a huffed breath that could be a laugh, if you stretched it. Ground Zero makes a face that could maybe be a smile if she squints. It’s all very subtle, but it flashes Mizuki back to middle school, memories of girls crowded at lockers, glancing at her and giggling conspiratorially, cruel for the sake of it. It’s not a good feeling, and she bristles at the reminder that she does not like this man, what he stands for, or what he’s done.

A part of her realizes that maybe the comment makes her so uncomfortable because he’s right. She’d hoped that posting the article would be her big break, get her noticed by major news outlets, up her journalism credentials, get her name out there into the world. In a way, it did. Shortly after, she’d been offered a permanent position at one of the top three agencies in the city, had been given access to resources she’d never had, platforms far broader than she’d ever been able to reach in the past.

But there’d been a downside, too. Pro-heroes, especially those in the higher ranks, treated her warily. They all seemed to know her face, what she’d written, what she’d done. There always seemed to be the underlying suspicion that maybe she’d write about them next.

The fact of the matter was, getting hold of the video was pure luck. She’d been scrolling through Twitter feeds, idly looking for information on Ground Zero. She’d already been writing the piece, though the focus had been more on his attitude, his seeming cruelty, and especially his abhorrence of rescue work. Someone had claimed that they’d gone to middle school with Bakugou, claimed he was a ‘real piece of work.’ She’d DM’ed them out of curiosity and eventually, after some cajoling and conversation, she’d managed to convince them to dig through their old files. Apparently, they’d had to pull it off a long-dead cellphone, and after sending her the file, they’d stopped responding to her messages.

The video itself was. Bad. It was filmed through a cracked-open door. A mostly empty classroom, a few figures clustered around a small hunched one, the bright blond of Bakugou’s hair separating him from the rest. His voice is arrogant and loud, as the figure stands motionless in the face of insults and threats.

The last comment is the most damning, Bakugou wandering closer to the door, his voice clear, his face visible enough for a moment to confirm that it could be him and no one else.

‘Maybe in your next life you’ll be born with a quirk, so why don’t you go take a swan dive off the roof, huh?’

It made her sick to her stomach the first time she watched it. It still does. And she’d watched it maybe hundreds of times at this point. It’s not the kind of thing you post if you’re not sure. And with the man himself so close she keeps having to remind herself of it, of the cruelty on his face, the laughter in his voice.

Unjustifiable. There’s no coming back from that. Not in her books.

The silence stretches. Freezerburn leans over and vomits again, coughing roughly before slumping over into Ground Zero’s side with a vague mumble of, “’s spinning…”

She can’t not ask.

“What made you say it?”

Ground Zero looks up from where he’d idly been rubbing at Freezerburn’s shoulders, confusion written across his features. “Say what?”

Her tongue feels heavy in her mouth, her throat tight. “I-in the video. That I found. That I put in my article. What you said a-at the end. Why? Why would you say that to someone?”

His face is very serious when he looks at her, his mouth a grim line, the notch in his forehead tight with something that is not anger, but maybe? Is something else. Perhaps.

He looks like he’s actually thinking about it. Rolling the question over in his mind, poking and prodding at it. “Does it matter?”

Huh? “Wha-what do you mean?”

He looks annoyed now. “Is there anything I could say that would fix it? Is there anything I could tell you that would make it better? Any justification I could come up with?”

Of course not. She says as much. “No. Absolutely not.”

He leans back, and he looks? Pleased? With her response. “Then it doesn’t really matter why, does it?”

That doesn’t satisfy her curiosity, doesn’t answer the question she really wants to ask, but can’t quite figure out how to phrase. She edges along it instead. “You’re dodging the question.”

Another one of those rough laughs. “Am I?”

She steels herself. “Yes.”

“Okay, I’ll play along, then. I said it because I could. Because no one would stop me. And because I wanted to.”

There’s not even an attempt at a sympathetic angle there. She can kind of respect it actually. "You—you said you still talk to him. The guy you said it to.”

He looks at her sideways, sardonic. “It was Deku.”

There’s a moment where her mind goes blank, silent. Deku? What?

“B-but? He has a quirk?” That’s the only thing she can think to say.

Ground Zero laughs. It’s harsh and brief, scraping out of his throat joylessly. “He was a late bloomer. And he had shit control. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. I would have been an asshole either way. You know we grew up together right?”

Yeah the media always likes to play that up. Childhood friends now working side by side as heroes. Very inspiring. Deku is charming and Ground Zero is an asshole and somehow the media thinks this makes them a darling duo. She always assumed Deku just went along with it because he was nice or something.

“So he? What? Forgave you?”

A contemplative sound. “Hmm. Maybe. I don’t know, I never really asked. ‘Lotta shit happened in high school.”

From what she’s seen of the news that’s an understatement.

“Well then. Do you regret it?”

“God, so many fucking questions.” He doesn’t actually sound that mad. “Hmm. Not really. Regrets are pointless. You can’t change shit you’ve already done. And guilt is useless. It doesn’t help the people you’ve fucked over.”

Freezerburn—Todoroki, lets out a rough cough and is apparently not too out of it to say, “Redemption that is predicated solely on forgiveness is not really redemption at all.”

Bakugou lets out another snort. “Look at mister concussed over here busting out the family therapy words.”

“You go to more therapy than I do, Katsuki.” His voice is starting to sound a lot clearer. Mizuki is guessing that sitting still and not getting knocked through solid concrete anymore than he already has been is helping with that.

“Well, don’t get all high and mighty about it.”

“No, that’s your job.”

“Yeah, and I’m fucking good at it, babe, so don’t question me.”

They banter so easily. Habitual, like a fidget, something you do because it’s familiar and easy and comforting. She hadn’t even realized they were friends. Or. More than that, maybe. But she’s not here to speculate about things she has no business speculating on, simply based on a few pet names.

Her own voice surprises her when she says, “I don’t get it.”

They look up from where they’d been absorbed in each other. Todoroki looks almost surprised to see her sitting there.

“Don’t get what?” says Bakugou.

“Why you’re. Telling me this. Answering me. You called me a nosy bitch, but instead of just telling me to fuck off you-—you’re. I don’t know. I don’t get why you’re letting me see—” she makes a vague gesture at the both of them, unable to articulate her point clearly. So much for journalism school—she’s still reduced to a stuttering mess in front of anyone who intimidates her even slightly.

She’s getting used to it now. The way Bakugou’s face moves in ways that seem to mimic anger or annoyance but are really just his face, but this time when he speaks there’s a spark of genuine ire in his eyes. “What? Are you gonna write another fucking article about it?”

Probably, her mind supplies, but she manages enough of a filter to not say that out loud. Instead, she says, “I’m not a gossip journalist.”

“Now who’s dodging the question, huh?”

Damn it. She goes with a rote, “Even if I wrote another article about you I would not exploit incidental knowledge of your personal private life for media attention.”

He looks satisfied with that. “Then it’s whatever. If people wanna ask me why I do shit that’s fine, I’ll answer them. I just fuckin’ hate interviews where it’s clear everyone has an agenda and all they want is some fuckin’ soundbite that makes me sound like a dick. Who gives a shit?”

“I never got the impression you cared about how you look to the public.”

“I don’t, really, but if it gets my PR manager off my back I'll keep my goddamn mouth shut.”

“I see.”

They lapse back into silence again. Freezerburn appears to be tilting slightly to the left and she only realizes it’s because he’s falling asleep because Bakugou jostles him roughly and says, “Hey, jackass, stay the fuck awake.”

He’s so much better at this than she thought he would be. He’s curt, yes, and swears maybe more than she would like, but not once since he found her has she felt like she’s been in real danger. From the sparse number of rescue operations on his record, she would never have expected this level of competence.

She finds herself asking, “Why don’t you do rescue operations, anyway? It would look much better for your public image.”

At this, he looks at her like she’s a complete idiot for a solid fifteen seconds. “My hands explode.”

And. Oh. She feels a brief moment of shame that it never occurred to her that it could be that simple.

“O-oh.” She can’t think of anything to say.

He rolls his eyes before continuing, “Everyone always gets on my ass about the rescue shit, like fucking really? You want me to carry children to safety with my exploding hands instead of incapacitating the villain, the thing I am a thousand times more equipped to do? It’s fucking stupid is what it is. Heroes have skillsets and we go where we’re fucking needed, not where it looks best to the public because we gotta meet our fucking baby kissing quota or some shit.” He leans forward a little. “It was fucking annoying in your article too. Honestly, most of your points were fair, but god fucking damn, no one can stop yapping about the rescue shit. I swear I lose fucking brain cells every time it gets brought up!”

Wait, back up. “You thought I was right?”

He pauses, and then rolls his eyes again. “Yeah, I do, in fact, have a modicum of self awareness. You’re not wrong about the property damage, I’m fucking working on it. But you’re a hypocrite because you decided to write an article about me specifically because you don’t like me, and not the fact that Hero Agencies as a whole offer very little incentive to pro-heros to not destroy shit constantly, and also frequently put us in positions where we have no choice. Deku is fucking worse than me but nobody cares because of his fucking goody two shoes act.”

This is—this is good information. She could use this. She resists the urge to reach for her phone and start recording.

“What would you suggest that agencies do instead? To make your job easier?”

He opens his mouth like he’s about to start ranting and then pauses and looks at her sideways. “I see your fucking game here. If you want an interview, email my publicist like everyone else.”

Damn it.

She tries a joke, “It was worth a try.”

He snorts at her again, and then shoves roughly at Freezerburn’s side where he’s beginning to tilt drastically again. Freezerburn startles awake with a pained noise and a gasped breath, before starting to dry heave. Ground Zero rubs his shoulders, not quite looking sympathetic, but at least mildly concerned. Eventually Freezerburn leans back again, and Ground Zero says, “Let’s just shut the fuck up for a while, I got a killer fucking headache.”

She takes the hint and stops asking questions.

--

Later, after they’re floated up to the top of the building by Uravity, after Ground Zero stalks off to a medical tent with Freezerburn still leaning heavily on his shoulders, after she is assessed and summarily dismissed by an EMT and she goes home and curls up in bed with her cat to have a very quiet emotional breakdown—after all of that, she emails Ground Zero’s publicist.

He says yes.