Midoriya Izuku is fully capable of thinking things through.
He often doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean he can’t.
If anything, he thinks too much. Izuku can’t count the number of times it has kept him up at night, his attention refusing to be broken from a thorough analysis of new hero footage or an in-depth discussion on the fallacies of the modern quirk classification system on one of his favorite quirk theory chat rooms. His mind doesn’t know how to shut itself off. It’s gotten him into trouble more than a few times, especially when his brain gets a hold of his mouth and starts moving of its own accord. He wishes he could just...slow down sometimes. On the other hand, the faster he can think through a problem, the better hero he will be.
His dad, from what he can recall, was much the same way. Always thinking. Midoriya Hisashi left for a job overseas when Izuku was five, not too long after Izuku’s diagnosis. In spite of both of his parents’ reassurances, a tiny part of Izuku always thought he was the reason why. That Izuku’s quirklessness was too much of an embarrassment for his dad to take.
The phone calls had gone a long way to quiet that wounded corner of Izuku’s mind, though it has never been completely silenced. Every week, without fail, Izuku’s dad would call and listen to Izuku ramble about anything and everything: quirks, heroes, school. Izuku knows he isn’t the easiest person to listen to. He talks far too much and he leaps from thread to thread too quickly for others to follow. But his dad never seemed to mind, always listened intently and offered insightful comments even when the subject didn’t interest him.
“I’m working on another analysis of All Might’s quirk,” Izuku informs his dad during their weekly call. His tenth birthday is just around the corner, and Izuku’s been holding out for one present in particular. If he can stop getting distracted long enough to ask. “But it’s been hard! He has some kind of enhancer, obviously but it’s so versatile it’s almost like it’s multiple quirks in one. Of course that’s ridiculous.”
His dad laughs. “Of course. Which notebook is this for? Number eight?” When Izuku confirms, his dad hums thoughtfully. “Why don’t you try writing about All Might’s weaknesses? I don’t think you’ve ever done that before.”
“All Might doesn’t have any weaknesses, Dad,” Izuku reminds him incredulously. “He’s number one.”
“Ah yes, my mistake,” his dad sighs, though not without humor. “How could I forget.”
“Dad,” Izuku murmurs. “Are you ever coming home?”
The line is silent. For an achingly long moment, Izuku fears the answer will be ‘no.’
“There is still one more thing I have to do here,” his dad says at last. “And then, as long as it’s alright with your mother, I would love to see you.”
“I promise, Izuku. I’ll be home soon.”
That was the last time Izuku talked with his dad.
He doesn’t know why. He wants to believe it wasn’t on purpose, that if his dad were able he would have called every single day. But it’s an old hurt now, boxed up alongside so many of Izuku’s other childhood memories. Izuku doesn’t think about Midoriya Hisashi most days. He and his mom are doing just fine on their own.
He does wonder, in his off-moments, what his dad would think about One for All. Not that he could ever tell him. Izuku’s dad was even more of a quirk connoisseur than Izuku himself. He would find the idea of a quirk that can be passed on fascinating, Izuku is sure.
With these wistful thoughts in mind, Izuku takes a different route home than normal, his muscles achy from a long day of training. He feels exhausted but...good, for once. About himself, and his future. The U.A. entrance exam is less than a week away and though the anxiety is still thick in his throat something stronger burns through his blood.
His dreams may have been crushed into so much dust, but with All Might’s help they are finally taking shape again. A picture of Izuku’s future is forming and he can almost see it.
Izuku makes a sharp turn at the bathhouse on the corner and into an alley. The lights from the main road fade at his back, the sound of the thinning crowds humming past him. A good spot to catch his breath. As he’s shaking out his limbs, preparing to jog the rest of the way home, the sound of rustling from the backstreets catches his attention. A voice drifts to his ears, softer than a hiss.
“What’s your quirk, sweetheart? Pretty girl like you must have a strong one.”
Ice claws at Izuku’s throat. Carefully, quietly, he leans around the edge of the alley.
A young girl stands with her back to the alley, her shoulders hunched. A dark stain mars the otherwise clean white lapel of her uniform. She shies away from the man looming over her, his large form boxing her against the corner of the building. Izuku can see her hands tremble, knuckles white around the straps of her backpack.
“C’mon, you can tell me.” The man grins like a snake, the creases at the edges of his smile highlighting the line of dark scales on his cheekbones. He leans in. “Unless, you don’t have one at all?”
Izuku recognizes that face.
He doesn’t expect most people paid any attention to the late night broadcast that mentioned Kawaguchi Kenta and his involvement with human trafficking. Izuku likes to keep track of quirkless-related news, as few and far between as it is. He developed the habit when he was eight, after a quirkless girl a couple of neighborhoods over disappeared on her way home from school. His mother had been in a paranoid spiral for weeks after, insisting he call her whenever he left or arrived anywhere. Kacchan had...opinions on that, when he noticed. They never did find the girl.
Izuku doesn’t think. He acts. It’s the work of seconds for him to flip his notebook to the last page and leave a message there, then stuff it and his backpack in the nearby alley for someone to find. A bit of a gamble, but on the off-chance his message does get found his mom will be able to explain it to the police.
Then Izuku jogs forward, his chest puffed up with a manic confidence he does not quite feel.
“Hey,” he barks, pushing past the tremor in his legs and the sweat on his palms, “if you’re going to pick on quirkless kids, why don’t you try me?”
He knows he is right by the way the girl flinches, the way Kawaguchi’s lip curls back in a sneer. Leaving no chance to second-guess himself, Izuku wedges his body between Kawaguchi and the girl, both of his hands balled into fists. He doesn’t think he can take the man, not as he is. But he can at least protect someone else.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, kid,” Kawaguchi tries. “I’m just having a little chat with my niece.” He starts to reach past Izuku for the girl’s shoulder.
Izuku throws the hardest punch he can at Kawaguchi’s face.
...And immediately hurts his wrist on the man’s jaw. Ow. How does All Might make that look so easy?
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his hand, Izuku looks over his shoulder at the girl. “Get out of here!” he yells, just as Kawaguchi lunges for him.
Izuku dips out of the way, taking advantage of the cramped space and his comparatively small size. The larger Kawaguchi tumbles forward and slams face-first into the wall of the building. The skin of the criminal’s cheek catches on the exposed brick and splits open, blood spilling down his chin.
“You little shit,” Kawaguchi hisses. He slugs Izuku hard in the face, his knuckles cracking against Izuku’s cheekbone. Izuku drops to the dirty alley floor. A heavy boot presses down on his back, holding him in place.
Through his rapidly swelling eye, Izuku sees the girl’s retreating back as she bolts away down the alley and knows he made the right choice.
“You wanna come with me so badly, kid, fine,” Kawaguchi spits in Izuku’s face. His fists tighten around the lapel of Izuku’s track jacket. “Have it your way.”
Kawaguchi brings Izuku to a warehouse on the waterfront. The building is rickety and salt-stained and the wind blowing in off the waves causes the tin roof to rattle like it’s in the throes of death. Several splatters of drying black paint—ink, possibly, judging by the consistency and opacity—decorate the sides of the building near its foundation, the markings too evenly spaced to be anything but deliberate. Standing guard in front of the door is a woman with a squid mutation, her face barely illuminated by the nearby streetlights and the waning moon above them.
“Kenta, you idiot,” she hisses, one of her long blue hair tentacles slapping the man upside the head. “What happened to the girl? I distinctly remember tagging a girl for you, not this…” She waves her hand at all of Izuku, her expression sour. Izuku can’t help but feel a little offended. “...Brat.”
“She got away,” Kawaguchi grumbles. He massages the back of his head, eyes narrowed at the woman. “Be glad I brought back something, awright?”
The front door of the warehouse creaks open and a man slips out into the night air, his dark coat stained with ash and soot and a cigarette held in his mouth. His figure isn’t imposing by any means, but both Kawaguchi and the squid woman cower back at his approach. Ah. This must be the ringleader. “Stop hassling Kenta for doing his job and get your sister up here,” the man snaps, nodding his head at the ink stains. “It’s been three days, those need touching up.”
The woman with the tentacles gives a jaunty salute. “Yessir, Watanabe-san.” She cheekily hip-checks Kawaguchi before sauntering into the warehouse, ignoring the criminal’s answering growl.
Hmm. An ink-based camouflage of some kind? A perception filter would explain why the ring has evaded the pros for as long as it has.
Watanabe flicks his cigarette ashes on the ground and looks Izuku up and down, clearly sizing him up. “How old are you, kid?”
Izuku tries to draw himself up to his full meager height, uncannily aware of Kawaguchi’s tight grip on his forearms. “Fifteen. Diagnosed as quirkless at five, b-bullied relentlessly for it at school ever since. Only a single mother at home.” He meets the leader’s hollow expression with his own, hyper-aware of the nervous sweat beginning to bead along his brow. “Just the kind of person you look for, right?”
Watanabe guffaws, the sound loud and harsh against the cool night air. He takes another drag of his cigarette. “You’re a smart little shit, aincha? Got some clients who’ll love that.” He purses his lips. “Look kinda familiar, though.”
Izuku can’t imagine why. He’s always been told his face is rather plain.
With a sigh, the leader pulls back. “Probably nothing,” he dismisses. He waves a hand between them. “You’ll do. Throw him in with the others. But Kenta…” Watanabe pauses to point at Izuku’s eye. His face gives a throbbing ache at the reminder. “You roughed him up. You know we gotta keep them pretty for the clients.”
“Wh—look what he did to my face!” Kawaguchi protests, gesturing wildly at the blood still running freely down his cheek. “It’s gonna scar and then I’ll shed and you know I hate that.”
With a roll of his eyes, Watanabe tosses his cigarette to the ground and grinds it under the heel of his shoe. “Suck it up,” he orders. “And don’t do it again.”
Kawaguchi gives Izuku’s arm a hard shove, his irritation pressing more bruises into Izuku’s skin. “Move it, kid,” he growls, then mumbles under his breath, almost too soft for Izuku to hear, “never fuckin’ yells at Hoshito for this shit. Unbelievable.”
The criminal marches Izuku through the front door of the warehouse, leading him into the spacious workfloor and past rows and rows of rusting equipment. Izuku has just enough time to register the presence of an emergency exit on the back wall before he is pushed to the left and down some stairs into a small concrete cellar. At the very back of the cellar, sandwiched between two cabinets, is a single large, stainless steel door.
Dragging Izuku behind him, Kawaguchi stalks over to the door and throws it open.
The room is an old walk-in freezer with the cooling unit disabled and the vacuum seal peeled away. Inside the space is small and cramped, just wide enough that if Izuku laid across the floor and stretched, he could almost touch both walls. A storage unit is built into the wall to the left of the door, with shelves climbing all the way to the ceiling. A single fluorescent light fixture illuminates the space.
“Enjoy your stay,” Kawaguchi sneers and shoves Izuku in. He slams the freezer door shut behind him. The latch snaps shut with a grim ‘thunk.’
Izuku looks up.
Four pairs of eyes blink back at him.
Most of the four look to be fairly close to Izuku in age, or at least a couple of years older. The oldest is a woman in her twenties; the youngest a little girl who can’t be more than eight. Seeing her there amongst the others, her face dirty and her eyes round and scared makes something like resolve tighten in Izuku’s chest.
“I wish it were under better circumstances, but...” He smiles up at them weakly. “I’m Midoriya Izuku. It’s good to meet you all!”
When you’re locked in an old freezer with four other people, there is little else to do than swap stories and experiences.
Izuku marvels, briefly, over the fact that he has never actually met another quirkless person in the flesh before. He’s talked to others online, but it isn’t quite the same. The world is made up of at least twenty percent quirkless people, but that number gets smaller every year and is typically skewed to older generations. Musutafu, in particular, has never had a very high quirkless population. Izuku himself was the only quirkless student at Aldera Middle School. That there are others like him, close to his own age and so nearby...It makes Izuku feel a little less alone.
He has his mom, of course, and back before the calls stopped, his dad. And now he has All Might, too, which is amazing in its own way, but.
It’s not quite the same as having someone who understands.
They talk endlessly, filling the space of the freezer with words because it feels safer than sleeping. Izuku learns. About little Aiko’s many foster homes, or Mami’s attempts to open a cafe.
“It’s been a struggle finding somewhere that will even rent to me.” At twenty-three years old, Mami is the oldest of the group. She has also been held by the ring the longest, and it shows in the dark bags beneath her kind brown eyes. The young woman purses her lips. “I don’t know what having a quirk has to do with selling pastries, but…”
“That’s a load of crap,” Natsuo says. Unlike the rest of them, he is effectively quirkless rather than medically. Cold-resistant, but without the accompanying ability to create ice. “You should be able to do whatever you want.”
“I’m going to be a detective,” Kokoro declares boldly. She is the same age as Izuku, in her last year of middle school. She has choppy dark hair with uneven bangs and bright pink eyes and reminds Izuku, inexplicably, of Kacchan. “Then I’ll lock all the traffickers up and punch them in the face.”
“M-maybe not that second part,” Izuku suggests. He folds his hands together nervously. “But that sounds like a cool dream, Kokoro-chan.” A difficult one; hiring rates in law enforcement aren’t great for quirkless people, but the same can be said for a lot of professions. “I’ve always wanted to be a hero, to save people,” Izuku adds. “Up until recently, everyone always told me I couldn’t.”
“Everyone tells me that, too.” She punches Izuku playfully in the shoulder and he barely resists the urge to jerk away from her with a startled yelp. Her punches hurt. “Tell you what, you become a hero and I become a detective and we kick all their asses! I wanna work with you, Izu-kun.”
“You should go for it,” Natsuo says. “There’s enough overpowered scumbags in the business. They could use someone a little more genuine.” The older teen taps at his chin thoughtfully. “Like Eraserhead. He effectively fights quirkless, anyway, but he’s underground.”
“You know Eraserhead?” Izuku can’t help the smile that worms its way onto his face, or the bright sensation that floods his chest. He has never met someone else who has heard of Eraserhead. Footage of the underground hero is nigh impossible to find. Izuku would know; he’s spent many long night hours scouring the internet looking for it. “He’s amazing! His agility and skill with hand-to-hand puts him leagues ahead of several ranked pros and his hard-and-fast strikes make him hard to counter. And that’s all through hard work, no quirk involved!” Izuku admires all heroes, and All Might especially, but Eraser is easily in his own personal top ten. Top five, even. “I’ve been thinking, though, if maybe he has some sort of secondary telekinesis that helps him direct his capture weapon? That might explain the hair, I’m not sure what else would cause the floating effect…”
He lets his voice trail off. The others stare at him like he just spontaneously developed a quirk and then used it on them.
“Oh, oh no, I’m so sorry,” Izuku babbles. His hands flail frantically in front of himself. “That’s a real bad habit of mine I know it’s super distracting I’ll try to keep it down…”
“Hey, no,” Natsuo protests. “That was pretty good, actually. How’d you do that?”
“I’ve been studying heroes and their quirks since I could talk, pretty much,” Izuku admits shyly. “Which made it extra disappointing when. Well. You know.”
They do know. He can tell by the look on their faces. He’s seen that same expression in the mirror often enough.
Behind them, the freezer latch clicks. Five heads swivel in unison towards the sound. The door slowly creaks open.
The figure that enters is lean and slightly slouched, his hands buried in the pockets of his sweatpants. His sun-streaked hair is nearly as blonde as Kacchan’s, but slicked back and shaved at the sides. Something about his tanned skin glimmers almost imperceptibly under the fluorescent lighting, too unnaturally to be anything other an effect of his quirk.
“Heard we got some new meat!” the man crows, his voice like an oil slick. He saunters into the small room, leaving the door wide open behind him. “Figured I’d come and say hello.”
The man struts down the line like a rooster. The door stays tantalizingly open but none of them dare move. “Name’s Hoshito, kiddos.” He comes to a halt in front of Izuku and pulls one hand out of his pocket, his fingers flexing. “I’m here to make sure you brats don’t go getting any bright ideas.”
He flicks his fingers. The golden specks of dust dance off his skin and coalesce into a golden blade of light, almost too bright to look at and radiating heat. He repeats the motion and another blade forms, then another and another, until a half-dozen gleaming gold blades hovers in a row in front of them.
“Who will it be today?” Hoshito coos. His yellow eyes dart feverishly between each of them.
Izuku tries to shove himself in front of Mami and Aiko, but Natsuo is a hair faster, his arm thrown out protectively in front of all of them. The older teen stands tall, gold light highlighting the spiky tufts of his pale hair. His broad shoulders tremble ever so slightly.
“Ohoho! A volunteer!” Hoshito licks his lips. “Well, far be it from me to turn down such a polite request!”
He snaps his fingers. The blades of light all leap to attention, forming a tight circle around Natsuo. The tip of one grazes Natsuo’s neck, sizzling at the point where light meets flesh. Natsuo grits his teeth against the pain.
“Now, I’m not allowed to hurt you where the boss can see,” the blonde man drawls, a sickly smile sliding onto his face, “but that still leaves me plenty of options.”
One of the blades dips down beneath the collar of Natsuo’s t-shirt and slices the fabric neatly down the middle, exposing the pale skin of his chest. Tenderly, the tip of the blade traces the shape of Natsuo’s pectoral, leaving a long, red welt behind. Natsuo refuses to make a sound, his lips pressed tightly together. An uncomfortable sheen of sweat breaks out over his face.
Hoshito’s smile widens. A second blade slides under the line of Natsuo’s ribs and begins to carve.
Izuku lunges forward with a wordless yell. A glowing gold barrier fizzles into existence in front of him and he flinches back from it, barely avoiding singeing the tip of his nose.
“Nah ah ah,” Hoshito chides, waggling his finger in Izuku’s direction. Izuku doesn’t think he’s ever hated anyone before, but he feels painfully close to it. “It’s not your turn, kiddo. But just for that...” His terrible grin widens. “I’m gonna drag this out nice. And. Long.”
They are all forced to watch in horror as Hoshito cuts Natsuo again and again, leaving numerous burns and marks all over Natsuo’s torso. Aiko presses tight to Mami’s side, both hands clamped over her ears. Before long Natsuo’s voice gives out into quiet sobs, too hoarse to continue screaming.
Eventually, Hoshito pauses the blades and snaps his fingers. The light constructs disintegrate in a shower of gold dust, leaving no trace they were ever there at all. Natsuo slumps to the ground, his chest heaving. Hoshito pulls back with a sickly satisfied grin. “Thanks for playing, kids. I will see you all again tomorrow night!” And with that, he struts back out of the freezer, whistling cheerily to himself. The freezer door slams shut behind him.
As soon as the man is gone, Izuku bolts to Natsuo’s side, Mami not far behind him. Izuku carefully levers Natsuo upright while Mami pulls off the remains of Natsuo’s t-shirt and begins tearing it into strips.
“Natsu-san,” Izuku chokes out, “I’m so sorry. ”
“Don’t be.” Natsuo winces as Mami starts wrapping a makeshift bandage around his torso. “I know his type, he’d have found any excuse. He’s a sick bast—” He cuts himself off with a yelp. “Hey! Not so tight, burns should be wrapped loosely. ” He gives Mami a tired glare. “Here, help me back to the wall and I’ll do it.”
With Izuku supporting one shoulder and Mami supporting the other, they awkwardly hobble Natsuo over to the corner and get him propped up against a wall. The older teen is surprisingly heavy, but not as much as the washing machines and old cars and refrigerators Izuku has spent months lugging around. He silently thanks All Might once again for his training.
Aiko breaks the silence, her voice small yet infinitely loud in the closed space. “There are people looking for us...right?”
Her eyes are wide and sad and so devoid of hope it breaks Izuku’s heart into sharp little pieces. “Of course there are,” he hastens to assure her, only to be cut off by Natsuo’s startled bark of a laugh.
“Why would they?” The older teen wheezes, his grin utterly mirthless. “Heroes don’t really care. It’s all about image and numbers for most of them. You know what the Endeavor Agency, ” he spits the words, “calls quirkless-centric cases? ‘Low priority.’ Eighty-three percent of cases involving quirkless people never even reach the heroes, they’re handled by the police. And most of those get mishandled or closed prematurely.”
“What! That doesn’t happen.” Kokoro frowns. “Does it?”
Natsuo huffs out a breath, his head falling back to knock against the stone wall. “A lot more often than you’d think,” he grumbles. “I doubt my dad bothered to report me missing. If he even noticed.”
Izuku hunches back in on himself, quietly tense. He...doesn’t think All Might would do the same. And he honestly can’t imagine a world in which his mother would ever stop looking for him. But he can’t deny the statistics. He’s read through them himself often enough.
People like him aren’t worth saving.
Mami glares at Natsuo. “You’re scaring them.”
“I’m not trying to scare them, I’m being...realistic.”
“Well, stop it,” Mami snaps. She tugs Aiko into her lap, hugging the scared little girl close. “We have to take care of each other.” Especially if no one else will, is the silent implication.
Natsuo rolls over on his side, his shoulders hunched near his ears. “It doesn’t matter how much you’re hurting,” he mutters. “You can cry over and over again, but no one’s going to hear you.”
Izuku always thought he would save people with a smile. Like All Might. And he still wants that, but as he thinks on it now that idea of himself as a hero seems almost...shallow. Childish. Because Izuku realizes, sitting in a dark cellar freezer with five other kids whose life experiences are very much like his own, that not everyone has faith in heroes. That some people are hurting, have given up, like Izuku almost did. And it occurs to Izuku that he knows exactly what he is going to be. He is going to be a hero to those people who think no one is coming. Because everyone is worth saving.
And he’s going to start with these four right here.
Getting started is the hardest part.
What would All Might do in this situation? Not a great question. All Might would never get himself captured by a human trafficking ring in the first place. And if he did he’d...smash his way out of the cellar and carry all of the abductees to safety. Izuku can’t do that, for obvious reasons.
But what should he do?
“What do I do, Daddy?” Izuku sobs, completely overwhelmed. Too many things are changing for him lately. Mommy won’t use her quirk around him anymore and Daddy isn’t around to give him hugs. Kacchan shoving him down in the playground and taking his favorite All Might doll earlier that day is merely the freshest in a long line of emotional scars.
“Do you know what the most valuable tool in the world is, Izuku?”
Izuku sniffles. “...No?”
“Information,” his dad says. “Find out what your opponent loves. What he hates. Find the one thing that will make his eyes widen with horror, will make him regret every decision he’s ever made.”
“And then, Izuku, when someone wrongs you,” his dad’s voice curls over the phone line, “you burn them.”
An odd piece of advice to give a six-year-old, in retrospect.
No, if Izuku is going to do this, he can’t do it by fully mimicking All Might or his dad. He has to do this his way. He just hopes his way is enough.
So he watches. He waits. He absorbs every single scrap of information he can get his hands on.
He learns that the traffickers bring them each a single cup of plain rice a day, in the evening before sunset. Hoshito shows up a few hours after that—probably because his quirk relies on stored up sunlight to function.
He learns that three of the traffickers turned to crime because their mutations prevented them from finding a job anywhere else. He figures out their names, memorizes their faces. He listens to them grumble about the guard rotation and how the back door post is the worst, because there’s no one to talk to. Slowly, carefully, Izuku gathers all of this knowledge and begins to shape it into something like a plan.
He takes to doing pushups when he can, or situps when the hunger pangs aren’t too overwhelming. It is a mindless enough activity that his brain can work as it likes, envisioning possible scenarios and dissecting them as finely as he is able.
Most of the traffickers Izuku is aware of—with Watanabe, Kawaguchi, and Hoshito as the only exceptions—have a visible mutation quirk. Notably, something aquatic. That in combination with their relative location to the ocean suggests they are going to be moved by water at some point. By boat is the obvious answer, but high-risk, considering the presence of the coast guard and heroes like Selkie. Could they have some way to transport people underwater? It would be easy enough with the right quirk. Some sort of water manipulation, or air bubbles—
He’d just said all of that out loud, hadn’t he.
“You’re a nervous exerciser, huh,” Natsuo comments. “Same.”
“Helps me think,” Izuku admits. He finishes the set of pushups he is on and sits back, crossing his legs beneath him. “So, um. Can I ask what all of you can do?”
Mami stares at him blankly, her hands paused halfway through braiding Aiko’s hair. “We’re quirkless,” she deadpans.
“Wh—I know that!” Izuku flaps his hands between them. “I mean like, I’ve been doing some physical training, so I’m pretty fit. Been trying to learn parkour, too, but I’m not so good at that yet.”
“Oh!” Kokoro grins. “I can do this.” And then she pushes herself off the ground and into a form-perfect handstand.
Izuku frowns in thought. “How long can you hold that?”
“A while! And I’m pretty flexible, too.” To demonstrate, she drops the handstand and folds herself into a complicated human pretzel that makes Izuku’s own joints twinge in sympathy.
Natsuo chokes. “Why would you subject my eyes to that.” He wipes a hand over his face. “I keep in pretty good shape, too. Can’t bench press like a car or anything, but I know how to throw a punch.”
Kokoro grins at him cheekily, having finally unwound herself back into a comfortable sitting position. “How’d they catch you then, tough guy?”
Natsuo’s pleasant expression sours. “They got lucky.”
“Squid lady got you too, huh,” Kokoro says. She gives him a commiserating pat on the shoulder. Or tries to, given their height difference. “I feel ya, buddy.”
Natsuo groans in disgust and playfully shoves her to the side, not bothering to hide his chuckle when she lets herself be pushed to the floor. “Ow, I need to remember not to laugh. Anyway,” Natsuo mutters, “why do you ask?”
Izuku tilts his head, considering. “I’m figuring out how to get us out of here.”
The whole room jumps. “Can you do that?” Natsuo asks.
“Yes. I think so,” Izuku amends, his brow furrowed in concentration. “It won’t be easy. We’ll have to push every advantage we have, which...isn’t a lot.”
“Anything we can do,” Kokoro says firmly. A chorus of voices echo their agreement.
Izuku nods, tuning them out in favor of the nigh-constant hum of his own thoughts. Their support will help; he doubts he’d be able to pull this off without them. The hardest part will be getting out of this room. For all intents and purposes, the freezer is a vault and they have to break out instead of in.
Although, Izuku supposes he should be glad they’re not being held in an actual vault. He can’t imagine how horrible that would be.
“The door to the freezer latches as soon as it’s closed,” Izuku mutters, his chin propped up in one hand, “and it can’t be opened at all from this side. The trick, then, has to be getting them to open it...”
Absently, Izuku’s eyes wander up to the gutted cooling unit sitting squarely in the center of the freezer’s ceiling. Long steel pipes run along either side of it, secured in place with heavy industrial bolts. The kind designed to hold against any stress and weight.
“I think,” Izuku announces, manic energy buzzing in every single one of his veins, “I know how to get us out of here. But first, Natsu-san, Kokoro-chan...” He smiles sheepishly. “Can one of you show me how to throw a punch?”
“Alright you brats,” the trafficker on dinner duty announces, a tray full of rice in his hands. He kicks the freezer door ajar and props it open with his knee. The lights are out inside, which is weird, but he pays it no mind. Probably just a bad bulb. “It’s dinnertime, so get on over here and get your—”
He blinks. The freezer is completely empty.
“Shit,” the thug hisses. He jams the light switch a few times, but the lights stubbornly do not flip on. He does not get paid enough for this. How could the brats have gotten out? He takes another step further inside. The walls are made of metal and concrete. There’s no windows, no other doors, and the only thing remotely resembling a vent is the old busted cooling unit…
The thug pauses. Looks up.
Just in time to see two pairs of booted feet swing down from the ceiling and collide directly with his face.
The thug stumbles back, reeling, the tray he was carrying clattering down to the floor. Dazed, he walks right into a beefy kid with white hair who had been hiding in the corner beside the door, just out of his line of sight. The kid is holding a fluorescent lightbulb in one hand.
“Lights out, guy,” Natsuo says, and proceeds to break the bulb over the thug’s head. He drops to the floor with a groan.
“Natsu-kun, that was sooo bad,” Kokoro whines. She swings off the ceiling pipe and tucks her slender body into a smooth, tight flip. She effortlessly sticks the landing.
Izuku has got to learn how to do that.
“Show-off,” Natsuo grumbles. Kokoro sticks her tongue out at him.
“Come on, everybody, we’ve gotta go,” Izuku reminds them, letting go of his own ceiling pipe and landing much less gracefully than Kokoro.
Mami steps out from the opposite side of the door, also equipped with a lightbulb. Aiko crawls out from underneath the storage shelves. “I wasn’t expecting that to work,” Mami admits, which would perhaps sting a little, if Izuku hadn’t been worried over the exact same thing.
The five of them file out of the freezer and into the cellar proper, latching the door closed just as the thug begins to stir behind them. Izuku’s muscles are positively vibrating with victorious energy. And also a little bit from the strain of holding himself on the ceiling. “We got this,” he tells the others, gesturing enthusiastically in front of them, “just up the stairs and through the back door, come on!”
They barely take a step forwards when a shimmering wall of light appears over the stair entrance, blocking off their escape from floor to ceiling.
A figure emerges from the stairwell. Hoshito, arriving over two hours ahead of his usual schedule.
Disappointment settles in Izuku’s stomach like a sick weight and the smile drops off of his face. They were so close.
“Here I was supposed to be getting you all ready to ship out,” the villain drawls, “and you’re already raring to go!” He steps up to the light barrier and it parts to let him through, sealing back shut behind him. “How nice of you.”
“Get back,” Izuku warns. He ignores the others’ quiet protests and positions himself between them and Hoshito, his arms spread as wide as they will go. “I won’t let you hurt them again.”
“Playing hero, are we? Word of advice, kid...” Hoshito takes a step forward. “That shit’ll get someone like you killed.”
Izuku ignores the criminal and throws a punch, just the way Natsuo and Kokoro taught him.
The hit connects. The cartilage of Hoshito’s nose crunches under the force of Izuku’s knuckles and the villain reels back, flailing blindly with his hands. A piece of the barrier breaks off and flies at Izuku. It catches him solidly around the middle, dragging him past the others and pinning him to the back wall like a bug.
Hoshito wipes at his mouth, blood coming away in a smear on the back of his hand. He stalks forward, the other kids cowering away from the sheer rage on the man’s face. “You little brat. ” He flicks his wrist. Golden particles leap over his knuckles and whirl together to form a vicious spike of light, the edges jagged and sharp. The point presses down on Izuku’s leg, burning a hole right through the thin, dirty material of his track pants. Hoshito grins. “I’m going to enjoy this.”
The spike’s tip breaks through Izuku’s skin and burns.
Izuku has always wished for a quirk, but more importantly he has always wished for his own quirk. Fire breathing like his father’s, or light telekinesis like his mother’s, or some combination of the two. Something that is wholly and uniquely his. For all that Izuku admires quirks—is completely captivated by them, really—he has never been prone to jealousy. He loves picking quirks apart. Figuring out how they work, coming up with all sorts of creative applications the owner might not have. But he has never looked at a quirk and thought, how much better would things be if that quirk belonged to him instead?
He has never once thought that.
Until right this moment.
Izuku stares at Hoshito across the room, the criminal grinning maniacally as he drives spike after spike of hard light into the tender flesh of Izuku’s thigh and thinks, such an incredibly useful quirk. And he uses it for this.
If Izuku had that quirk, there would be no question about whether or not he could be a hero.
If Izuku had that quirk, he could get Aiko and the others out of here.
If Izuku had that quirk. And Hoshito didn’t.
He is struck, then, by a memory.
“Daddy,” Izuku asks, “what does having a quirk feel like?”
His dad looks up from the paperwork sprawled across his desk. It all looks very complicated and science-y to Izuku. Running a quirk research and analysis company must be hard work. “Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer.”
Izuku wriggles up under his dad’s arm and climbs into his lap, small feet digging into his dad’s thigh. “Can you try?” Izuku whines.
His dad laughs. Izuku scooches in close and presses his head to his dad’s chest so that he can feel the rumble of it. It’s soothing. “Well, what does not having one feel like?”
“...It feels sad, Daddy.”
“Hmm.” His dad falls quiet. He cards a hand gently through his son’s curls. Izuku hums. “It feels...like a void, I suppose. Like this empty space inside. It’s hungry, and I need to feed it.”
“Like a fire? ‘Cuz your quirk is Fire Breathing?”
Izuku pats his chubby little hand against his dad’s cheek, just below the smattering of freckles that they share. “That sounds sad, too, Daddy.”
“Yes.” Midoriya Hisashi cuddles his son close, his chin buried in the little boy’s hair. “I suppose it does.”
A full ten years after Izuku’s diagnosis, after the deadline for his quirk had come and gone, Izuku feels some kind of empty space inside of himself unfurl and reach out. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, Izuku lifts his hand towards Hoshito and pulls.
Unexpectedly, miraculously, something gives way.
Hoshito’s constructs vanish in a burst of gold dust. As the seconds pass and the constructs don’t reappear, the twisted smile drips off of the criminal’s face. He rises to his feet, his legs shaking beneath him.
“What did you do,” Hoshito says, a tremor in his voice. And then, louder, “WHAT DID YOU DO!?”
Izuku feels Hoshito’s quirk snap neatly into place, that empty space inside of him becoming a little less empty. With a thought, a golden mote of light whirls into existence at Izuku’s fingertips. He stares at it, eyes wide. Hoshito’s hard light constructs, now Izuku’s to command.
Not quirkless. Not quirkless at all.
The sight of his quirk in Izuku’s hands spurs Hoshito into a rage and the man lunges for Izuku with his fists. Izuku has just enough presence of mind to roll out of the way. Aiko and the others scramble backwards.
Izuku rolls to his feet, ignoring the dull protesting ache of his leg. Gold light sparks in his hands. Hoshito stands across from him, pale and sweating, a desperate cloud in his eyes.
When a plan goes off the rails, throw away the plan and adapt.
“Give it back,” Hoshito wails. “Give it back give it back!”
Hoshito, like many untrained people with powerful quirks, puts more emphasis on his quirk than he does his body. Hoshito might be older than Izuku by a decade or two and a hell of a lot meaner, but he lacks the muscle density Izuku and Natsuo have spent time building. Or the sheer flexibility Kokoro’s been honing for years. Even factoring the exhaustion from captivity, against five people and without the advantage of having his quirk?
Izuku likes those odds.
“We can take him,” he tells the others excitedly. “The playing field is even now we can take him!”
Izuku watches as the realization dawns on each of their faces. The hope and determination that follows.
Natsuo moves first, barrelling right into Hoshito and slamming him back against the stairwell. Kokoro and Mami, still wielding a lightbulb, are not far behind. Between their enthusiasm and Hoshito’s state of shock, it is over embarrassingly quickly.
“Surface area of constructs is directly proportional to the amount of sunlight received during the day,” Izuku mumbles to himself. He and the others have been held in the cellar since they were brought here. Logically, Izuku’s constructs will have to be much smaller than what Hoshito has displayed before now.
It looks like the greatest surface area Izuku can manage at the moment is about a letter-sized sheet of paper. That isn’t a lot. But it will have to be enough.
With a thought, Izuku pulls on Hoshito’s quirk and spins a pair of glowing gold handcuffs into existence. He threads the chain through the stair railing and secures the criminal with his hands behind his back, a cuff snapped to each wrist. His constructs don’t seem to be putting off quite as much heat as Hoshito’s. Possibly due to Izuku’s lack of sunlight, but just as likely to be from Izuku’s lack of experience with the quirk. The cuffs are still hot enough to be uncomfortable, but Izuku can’t bring himself to care. The man deserves far worse.
“Now that that’s over with, Izu-kun,” Kokoro says sweetly, “did you just get a quirk?”
Oh. Oh no. Is Izuku about to lose the only sort-of friends he’s ever had? He blushes to the roots of his hair, his eyes wide. “I, uh. Maybe sort of...yes?”
“I mean this in the nicest way possible,” Natsuo says flatly, “but dude. What. The fuck. ”
“No, don’t apologize that was awesome but the fuck?? ”
Now that the adrenaline is bleeding from his brain, Izuku’s mind whirs. He has a quirk. A quirk that borrows quirks. He’s heard of quirks that copy quirks, or quirks like Erasure that block quirks temporarily. Both are exceedingly rare. Is his quirk like those? Is there a time limit before Hoshito’s quirk snaps back to its owner? Can he borrow more than one quirk at a time?
There is so much he doesn’t know.
Izuku has seen stories on the darker corners of the internet, like the quirk conspiracy sites he sometimes frequents. Rumors, mostly, about a quirk that could steal quirks. A ghost story shared in harsh whispers and caged in ‘what-if’s and ‘so-I-heard’s. Izuku has always dismissed those claims outside of the theoretical, but…
A tug on the sleeve of his jacket pulls him back to the situation at hand. “‘Zuku,” Aiko murmurs, “you’re muttering.”
“Oh, r-right.” There would be plenty of time to figure things out later. For now, he had an escape to coordinate. “We should get out of here.”
“Hold on.” Aiko pulls her hand away from Izuku and marches over to Hoshito’s prone form. She gives him the tiniest, most hateful glare Izuku has ever seen, pulls back her foot, and kicks the criminal hard in the shin.
“You’re an ass,” she says with far more vehemence than a seven-year-old should.
Mami pulls Aiko gently away by the shoulders and guides her towards the stairs. The rest of them fall in step after her and begin their march out of the cellar.
Kokoro cackles madly. “Aiko-chan,” she gasps, wiping tears away from her face, “you’re my new favorite person.”
“Don’t encourage her,” Mami scolds, but none of them take her seriously. She is smiling too wide.
The work floor above the cellar is quieter than Izuku expected, though hopefully that is a good thing. He can’t help the ball of dread that sinks in his stomach anyway. His plan has already gone wrong once this evening. It could very well happen again.
He probably jinxed it just by thinking that.
Quietly, he leads the group around the corner from the cellar, aiming for the emergency exit he saw when he was brought in. No traffickers pop out of hiding to retrieve them, no shouts or alarms reveal their presence. With any luck, the only guard will be the one posted at the back door for the evening, and he should be much easier to deal with than Hoshito.
Just as Izuku is beginning to breathe a little easier, a loud boom echoes through the building, causing the roof and all of the equipment inside to rattle with the force of it. A chunk of plaster drops from the catwalk above and shatters against the concrete floor not far from their feet.
“...The heck was that?” Natsuo exclaims at the exact same moment Aiko shrieks and takes off at a sprint through the work floor. Before any of them have a chance to grab her, she slips behind a concrete pillar and disappears.
“Aiko!” Mami screams.
Izuku gently shoves the young woman back before she can bolt as well. “I’ll go get her!” He promises. He points at the rear exit, just visible at the end of the hall. “You all make sure you get out of here.”
Kokoro nods, the sweat on her forehead making her bangs stick up every which way. “Be careful, Izu-kun!” He gives her a shaky thumbs-up and takes off back down the rows of industrial equipment.
He finds Aiko on the opposite end of the work floor, huddled up against an old hunk of machinery with her hands covering her ears. Small tears drip silently down her face.
Izuku drops to his knees beside her. “H-hey, it’s okay. I know, that noise was kind of scary.” He attempts a smile, though he knows it probably looks a little awkward on his face. “Let’s get out of here together, okay?”
Aiko smiles shakily back up at him and Izuku’s heart swells. She slips her small hand in his and he gives it a reassuring squeeze. He is about to lead her back to the others when movement at the end of the aisle catches his attention.
Quickly stalking towards them is the ringleader, Watanabe, looking far more frenzied than he had a few nights ago. The man stops his approach and takes a deep breath, exhaling it as a long, wild stream of red-hot flame.
This must be some kind of joke.
Izuku covers Aiko’s tiny body with his own and ducks into a roll, the gout of flame narrowly soaring over his head. He skids into the side of a conveyor belt, Aiko firmly in his arms and thankfully unsinged. He can’t say the same for his hair.
“Stay out of sight,” he whispers furiously to her. “Don’t come out until I say.”
“Please!” He waits until she obediently crawls under the conveyor belt before he turns his back to her. Ahead, Watanabe stalks down the aisle, tongues of flame spitting angrily from his mouth.
“I don’t need this shit,” the ring’s leader snaps. Clumps of ash drift down around his head. “First Kenta bites it and now I’ve got pro heroes crawling up my ass.” He angrily kicks in a crate, wood splintering around his booted foot. “So do me a favor, kid, and get back in the damn freezer.”
Izuku stands firm, ignoring the throbbing ache in his leg. That roll did not do him any favors. He probably shouldn’t try to run again anytime soon. “Let me think about it…” He doesn’t have a plan. What does he do? He used most of the energy for Hoshito’s quirk on those handcuffs. Maybe he can try to take Watanabe’s quirk as well? Either way, he can’t let Watanabe find Aiko. Izuku meets the ringleader’s eyes. “No.”
Izuku reaches out with his newfound quirk but frustratingly nothing connects. Unlike with Hoshito, he can’t find anything to pull on. Maybe he can only hold one quirk at a time? Or maybe he has the trigger wrong. It sure would be nice to have those years of experience with his quirk that everyone else seems to get. He bets they’d really come in handy right about now.
Watanabe takes advantage of Izuku’s inattention and lets out another burst of flame. Izuku weaves out of the way, only to stumble over the wall of machinery at his back.
“I worked to get here,” Watanabe snarls, a plume of smoke hissing past his teeth. He throws Izuku against the conveyor belt, the metal clanging painfully against the side of Izuku’s head. His ears ring. “I was nothing before but I made something of myself and a worthless little kid like you is not going to take it from me.”
“Yeah, hiding out in a warehouse, selling kids for quick cash,” Izuku slurs. “Y-you’re really something.”
Dazedly, Izuku tugs on Hoshito’s quirk again, a last ditch effort to defend himself. Two darts of light swirl into existence at Izuku’s fingertips. Watanabe jerks away from the first, its point barely grazing his neck as it sails past. The second dart flickers in mid-air, not quite solid. Izuku’s head throbs from the effort of sustaining it.
“...Kid.” Izuku can see the sliver of gold reflected in Watanabe’s eyes. The man’s grip on Izuku’s shoulder tightens painfully. The dart of light winks out of existence. “Where did you get that?”
Izuku squeezes his eyes shut, trying in vain to push himself back up off the dirty floor, when a sound catches his attention. The sound of shoes tapping on concrete.
“It’s...you,” Watanabe breathes, something like awe joining the rasp of his voice.
Izuku forces himself to lift his aching head and look. At the entrance of the aisle is a man dressed in a simple dark suit, his white shirt almost shining in the dim light of the warehouse. The man’s face is covered by a strange mask—probably a respirator of some kind, judging by the line of tubes protruding from the sides.
The man’s aura could crush bones.
Izuku watches in quiet, wide-eyed dread as the man walks sedately towards them, each one of his footsteps like the drop of a guillotine. He watches as Watanabe begs, as the man in the mask cordially but icily declines him. There is a long, suffocating moment where Izuku is absolutely convinced he is about to witness a murder. He might make a sound—he isn’t sure.
Then the masked man notices him lying on the ground, and the overwhelming pressure eases.
Izuku watches as the man in the mask tosses Watanabe aside like a used towel before turning back to face him.
Oh this is like every conspiracy post and cryptid sighting Izuku read online and dismissed as nothing more than a ghost story. Only this man is very real and very powerful and he has his full attention fixed on Izuku.
Izuku should, by all rights, be terrified out of his mind. At the moment he isn’t sure he feels anything at all.
“You took his quirk,” Izuku says numbly.
“Of course,” the masked man replies. Something about that deep voice sounds impossibly familiar. “I gave it to him, I can take it away.”
“Give...and take.” Izuku stares down at his own hands, his calloused fingers flexing of their own accord. “Is that your quirk?”
“What do you think?”
“What do you think,” his dad asks, halfway through Izuku’s speculation on a new team of rescue heroes that recently made their big debut.
“Daaad,” Izuku groans. “I asked you first.”
“You have a brain, Izuku,” his father points out, voice rumbling with amusement. “How do you expect to stay sharp if you don’t use it?”
Izuku’s small hands tighten around the phone pressed to his ear. He swallows. “But I’m not as good as you,” he admits quietly.
“I have had significantly more practice.” His dad sighs. “You’re a smart boy, Izuku. You could be even better than me at quirk analysis, some day.”
“...You think so?”
“Yes. But not if you don’t practice. Now tell me, what do you think the young woman with the green hair’s quirk is? Something mental, you said?”
Izuku pulls himself to his feet, his legs a little uneasy beneath him. He takes a deep breath. “Well, it could be suppression of the quirk factor but I find it more likely you...removed it somehow.” Hoshito’s quirk aches like a guilty bruise over Izuku’s heart. “Possibly a five-point activation, but the way you moved your hand just then suggests skin-to-skin contact. That throw made use of an enhancement quirk, but none of the criminals here had enhancers, so likely not only can you use the quirks you take, you can store them for a time as well. Theoretically, you could then train up a quirk, much like a natural user could.”
“Very good. You have been practicing.”
Izuku’s mouth keeps moving. He doesn’t know how to stop it. “It’s...it’s almost like a pull. Like a need. Like there’s this empty space inside of you. And if you don’t think about it, then it’s fine. But if you want to...if you need to...you could try to fill it.”
“Well now…” The deep voice takes an odd tone, something that swells with hope and pride. “That sounds less like conjecture and more like experience.”
Izuku swallows around the lump that has suddenly formed in his throat.
The man in the mask extends a hand. “Won’t you show me?”
Izuku takes the hand and reaches in.
Where Hoshito’s quirk was like a core of crystallized light at the center of him, this man is a black hole. Swirling around its edges, are dozens, hundreds, of stars, each one caught in the event horizon. They buzz like fireflies, trying desperately to free themselves but ultimately stuck fast. The ones towards the center are beginning to smear, pulled apart by gravity. The shape of it is as beautiful as it is completely terrifying.
Before Izuku can begin sifting through the miasma there is one point of light that floats up to the forefront. A gift, offered up gladly. Izuku wraps his newfound awareness around it and tugs it gently free. The little spark comes away easily in his grasp and settles low in Izuku’s belly. Its warmth surrounds him like a hug from a family member.
Izuku slots the spark into place in his mind. In answer, a tiny jet of flame licks out of his mouth.
“I’ll make you a deal,” the man in the mask—it’s him it’s him who else could it be—murmurs, “you bring that back to me after we leave here, and we can figure this whole thing out together.”
“You...you’ve been gone,” Izuku chokes out. His mouth tastes like ash. “For so long. I didn’t know where you went, I—What if I can’t find you again?”
“I fully believe that whatever you put your mind to you will accomplish.” A warm hand ruffles the hair on top of Izuku’s head. “I look forward to seeing what you become.”
Hot tears sting at Izuku’s eyes. “I—”
“Young Midoriya!” A familiar silhouette comes bounding down the aisle. The number one hero’s suit is a little torn and there is ink splattered on his face and collar, but otherwise he looks none the worse for wear.
“All Might!” Izuku exclaims. The warmth in his chest swells. He should have known, really, that his hero would come for him. He silently apologizes to the man for doubting him. Not that Izuku doubted All Might, specifically, but…
When you’re brushed aside enough times, you eventually come to expect it.
The hand pressed to Izuku’s head falls away. Izuku finds himself missing the casual affection of the touch. “It seems our time has run out,” the man in the mask remarks.
“Step back, All for One,” Izuku’s hero snarls. The expression on his face is one Izuku hasn’t seen before, frightening in its intensity.
“You want to do this here? Really? In front of the boy?” The man in the mask sighs like a disappointed parent. He turns to Izuku almost conversationally. “I have never understood your fascination with him.”
Izuku has never been more confused in his life.
“Enough!” Every muscle in All Might’s body is tense, steam beginning to rise from his joints. His time is running down. “I am taking you to Tartarus.”
The man laughs, a deep dark chuckle that reverberates through his body and echoes in the hollow spaces around them. All Might flinches. “I think not.” He inclines his head. Izuku can’t see his face, but he thinks he remembers the shape of the man’s smile. “I will see you again soon, Izuku.”
The air ripples in front of him. A gaping maw of dark mist tears open, a nondescript bar just visible through the wisps of smoke. A warp of some kind. “It’s been...interesting, All Might. Let’s not do this again sometime, hmm?”
Izuku’s dad steps through the gate and disappears, the portal winking shut behind him.