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the devil called a cease-fire

Chapter Text

It is February 21st and Yagi Toshinori stands alone watching the sunrise over Dagobah Beach.

A young couple walks past him, chattering happily about the changes the park has undergone in the past several months. Neither gives the tall, thin man a second glance.

It’s been five years, but Toshinori still gets caught off guard sometimes by the anonymity his smaller form affords him. He takes as deep a breath as his damaged respiratory system will allow, the cold morning air stinging his one remaining lung. A quick glance at his phone confirms what he already knows.

Young Midoriya is late.

Toshinori adjusts the lay of his scarf around his neck. He tells himself there is no reason to be concerned. Teenage boys oversleep all the time, and Young Midoriya has more reason to than most. But it is just under a week before U.A.’s entrance exams, and Midoriya Izuku is the most driven young man Toshinori has ever seen. Would a young man like that, someone who repeatedly pushes himself past his limits, take a day off without saying anything? Toshinori doesn’t think so. If anything, he finds it far more likely he’d find his pupil passed out in a pile of garbage, having worked himself well into the night.

But young Midoriya is nowhere to be seen.

Toshinori watches the sun peek out over the piles of garbage his pupil has yet to clear and feels a ball of dread settle in his nonexistent stomach.


-


Toshinori waits until well into the afternoon before finally heading home. When young Midoriya is a no-show again the following morning, he slowly makes his way to the Midoriyas’ apartment.

He hasn’t introduced himself to Midoriya Inko before now. It’s only in the beat between when he presses the buzzer and Midoriya-san opens the door that Toshinori realizes that may have been a mistake.

Midoriya-san looks like her son—or rather, young Midoriya looks like his mother, Toshinori can’t help but note when the small, green-haired woman pulls open the door. But the more he looks, the more the resemblance seems almost superficial. Young Midoriya has inherited his mother’s coloring, clearly, but those wild curls and the shape of his face must come from elsewhere in the family. Midoriya-san’s eyes are stained red, the skin of her face puffy from crying.

The ball of dread in Toshinori’s gut swells in size.

“Midoriya-san,” he begins, careful to keep the thick rush of emotion out of his voice, “I am sorry to call on you like this, but I am acquainted with your son—”

“Ah,” she gasps softly, one hand wiping fruitlessly at her eyes, “you must be the person he’s been visiting after school.”

Toshinori promptly chokes on his own spit. His hand shoots up involuntarily to cover the blood now no doubt staining his lips. “Th-that’s correct. How did—”

“He didn’t tell me anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.” She cradles her cheek with one hand. Her eyes—young Midoriya’s eyes—watch him with concern. “My Izuku is a quiet boy. But a few months ago—it was like his spirits lifted.” She turns towards the apartment interior, pushing the door open a little wider. “Won’t you come in..?”

“Yagi.”

“Yagi-san,” she repeats, and steps back inside. Toshinori can do little else but wipe the blood off on the back of his hand and trail after her.

The Midoriyas’ apartment is small but lived-in, carrying inside of it that familial charm that Toshinori’s own apartment lacks. It is pleasantly cluttered, though not unkempt. Toshinori thinks he sees the notebook he signed for young Midoriya, lying open on the sofa. Several family photos fill the cabinet pressed against the back wall, though at a distance Toshinori only spies young Midoriya and his mother among the frames.

Once Toshinori slips out of his shoes, he wanders over for a closer look. He is momentarily drawn to a picture situated in the middle. Judging by Izuku’s age and the slimmed-down, less-worn figure of Inko, it is the oldest picture on the shelf. In it, a tall laughing man with curls as pronounced as young Midoriya’s stands with a tiny Izuku propped up on his shoulders. The child’s wildly flailing arm blocks most of the man’s face from the camera.

Young Midoriya was an adorable toddler.

“Can I offer you some tea, Yagi-san?” His pupil’s mother calls out to him from the kitchen.

“Hmm?” Toshinori pulls his eyes away from the photo. “You needn’t bother yourself, Midoriya-san.”

“It’s no trouble,” she assures him, already propping a kettle up on the stove. “It’ll help with my nerves, anyway.”

She gestures for him to take a seat at the table and stands waiting for the kettle to boil. Her hands grasp tightly at the hem of her apron. “You’re here about Izuku, aren’t you, Yagi-san?”

“Yes,” he confirms, painfully aware of her fragile mood. “I’ve been helping young Midoriya prepare for the U.A. entrance exam.”

Her hands twist the fabric of the apron tighter, then fall still. “...Are you a hero then?”

“I...I’ve worked with pro heroes for many years now. Your boy is...he’s one of the most courageous, hard-working young men I’ve ever seen.” His large palms settle over his thighs, gripping hard at each pant leg. “Which is why I found it odd he missed our usual training time.”

Midoriya-san chokes on a sob, both of her hands flying up to cover her face. “Izuku is just so...good. I know he would make an amazing hero. But I always wished he’d...kept his dreams more attainable.” She turns to Toshinori with a smile, tear tracks streaming down her face. Yet another thing young Midoriya inherited from his mother. “Does that make me a poor mother?”

“I told him that, too, originally,” Toshinori admits, and that mistake still burns a hole in his chest that hurts almost as much as the one his nemesis gave him, “but he proved me wrong. I believe young Midoriya will keep proving both of us wrong.”

The kettle whistles. Midoriya-san turns her back to him and sedately prepares each of them a cup of tea. A somber quiet settles between the two of them as she sets Toshinori’s cup in front of him and takes her own seat at the table. It strikes Toshinori then, that as cluttered as the apartment is, something about it still feels oddly empty.

“Two nights ago,” Midoriya-san finally says. Her hands wrap tightly around her tea cup. “Izuku never came home. I contacted the police, but they…”

Her hands start to tremble, tea nearly sloshing over the sides and onto her small fingers. Toshinori watches her forcibly reign in her composure, tea cup set back down on the table with a soft ‘clink.’ “They found his backpack stuffed behind a garbage can on the other end of Musutafu. I don’t understand...And the officers said...they said…”

“Midoriya-san…”

She sobs again, one hand coming up to cover her mouth, the trembling back in full force. “They said he might have r-run away. But my Izuku wouldn’t do that! He wouldn’t…”

And Toshinori froze, tea cup halfway to his lips.

Everything he knew about young Midoriya pointed to a young man who never gave up, who knew what he wanted and kept working towards it no matter what. He hadn’t even let Toshinori stop him, all those months ago on that roof. Why would the police..?

“He’s been so happy lately,” Midoriya-san goes on, heedless of Toshinori’s inner turmoil in the face of her own. “He’s been doing so much better. But because he’s quirkless, and the things with school…”

“...Young Midoriya has troubles at school?” Toshinori hadn’t got that impression at all. By all accounts young Midoriya was an exceptionally bright young man.

“He’s never said anything,” she admits. “But when he would come home sometimes. The way he would carry himself. His things, missing or burnt. But a few months ago, it was like he got his spark back.” She lifts her damp face. “That’s because of you, isn’t it?”

“He’s been doing very well,” Toshinori tells her, his voice rasping more than he would like. “You’ve raised an amazing son, Midoriya-san.”

She smiles soggily at that, the expression not-quite reaching her eyes. “He’s amazing all on his own.” Her sniffles softly subside. She gestures and the charred notebook Toshinori noticed before floats across the room and into her waiting hand. “Izuku’s been writing these for years. I—”

Midoriya-san’s smile becomes something a little brighter, a little less wounded. Something about it reminds Toshinori, inexplicably, of Nana. “He’s always been obsessed with heroes and their quirks. Hisashi—that’s Izuku’s father—he used to encourage it, when Izuku was little. They made a game out of watching heroes on the news, trying to guess how their quirks worked. I’m not sure Izuku even remembers that, actually. But even after Hisashi left, he kept taking notes.”

She flips absentmindedly through the notebook. Her fingertips briefly rest on the same page as Toshinori’s autograph, big and bold. “He usually keeps his notes on heroes in here, but—.” The book falls open to the last page. Midoriya-san pushes it across the table for Toshinori to see. “I don’t think he would have written this if he didn’t mean it, do you?”

No, Toshinori thinks, he wouldn’t have.

Scrawled across the page, in Izuku’s familiarly messy handwriting, are the words: I’m okay, Mom.

And below it, in a smaller script, a number: QA0937.

Toshinori touches his index finger to the paper and feels the indent of the pen from young Midoriya’s harsh, hurried scrawl. “What does it mean?”

“It’s a reference number, I think. To one of Izuku’s other notebooks. Quirk Analysis 9, page 37.” Midoriya-san lifts a hand and another notebook flies gently across the room, this one unmarred by burns. “I sent Hisashi some pictures of it. He’s on his way back, now. But...”

She holds the notebook out to Toshinori with both hands, a determined set to her mouth. Her eyes are still red, but something in them blazes. Like mother, like son indeed. “Please,” she says, “if you’re a hero. Help me bring my son home.”

Well. There is only one thing Toshinori can say to a request like that.

“Not to worry, Midoriya-san,” he murmurs as he accepts the notebook, “for I am here.”


-


Toshinori takes a seat at the conference table across from Tsukauchi Naomasa. “It is good to see you, old friend.”

“It’s good to see you as well, Toshinori.” The detective chuckles to himself. “Well, I’ve seen you on the news, of course, but it isn’t quite the same.”

Toshinori sighs. “I know.”

He had lucked out, catching Tsukauchi-kun just as he returned to the precinct after lunch. Toshinori hates approaching his good friend like this, but as a pro hero with only so much time in one day, he doesn’t have a lot of options. The longer young Midoriya remains missing, the less likely his recovery will be.

The ball of dread in Toshinori’s gut hasn’t gotten any smaller.

“And you begin teaching in just a couple of months,” Tsukauchi adds. “I wish you the best of luck in finding a successor.”

“I may have already found one. Midoriya Izuku—a middle school student. I’ve been preparing him to receive my power these last few months. He’s a very determined young man.”

“Oh? I look forward to meeting him, then.”

Toshinori rarely gets to see his dear friend for purely social reasons, and he regrets that today’s visit is no exception. “That’s why I’m reaching out, old friend. My young pupil...he’s gone missing.”

Tsukauchi’s gaze sharpens, instantly professional. Toshinori has always respected that about him. “Because of his connection to you?”

Toshinori coughs. He had considered that, before his conversation with Midoriya-san. He and young Midoriya had been careful, but...perhaps not careful enough. “I don’t believe so. If that was the case, I likely would have received a ransom note by now.” He produces the quirk analysis notebook from his coat and places it on the table between them. “He vanished on his way home, two nights ago. The Musutafu police apparently don’t find it worth investigating. His mother and I disagree.”

“Why would they…”

“Young Midoriya is quirkless. He was labelled a runaway.”

“Ah,” Tsukauchi sighs, understanding instantly slumping his shoulders. “I should have guessed.”

“But young Midoriya left a message for his mother, and in a hurry, too.” Toshinori nods at the notebook on the table, prompting Tsukauchi to finally reach over and pick it up. “There’s something in there he wanted us to see.”

Tsukauchi sinks back into one of the shabby office chairs across from Toshinori and starts to skim through young Midoriya’s notes. The more he reads, the more his eyes widen. “You said a middle school student wrote this?”

Toshinori nods, his own eyes pinned to the fluttering of the notebook’s pages. The first time he flipped through one of young Midoriya’s notebooks, his impression had been that of a particularly keen fanboy. He realizes now that perhaps he’d been too dismissive. There was raw talent there in the pages of young Midoriya’s notebooks, though not anything Toshinori knew how to cultivate.

But something about the way the young man wrote about quirks...It had Toshinori the slightest bit on edge. Ah, well. Probably nothing to be concerned about. This was young Midoriya, after all.

Tsukauchi hums, gently drawing Toshinori back out of his thoughts. “It’s rough, but with a bit of work your student could be a fine analyst.” He holds the notebook up. “And he brought your attention to this one specifically?”

“Yes. Page 37.”

Tsukauchi calmly flips to the correct page and begins to read. About halfway down the page, something dark crosses the detective’s face. Something that causes his brow to furrow, his jaw to tighten.

Toshinori leans forward in his seat at the table, hands holding tight to his knees. “It means something to you.”

It hadn’t, to Toshinori. The quirk described on page 37 was unremarkable: a variation on a regeneration quirk where the user could shed their skin. Young Midoriya had gone on to describe the user’s secondary mutations and list possible uses and drawbacks. He had even speculated that the user could regenerate from deep tissue damage, which Toshinori had found more than a little grotesque.

Tsukauchi’s mouth presses into a thin, grim line. “There’s an active case right now. A human trafficking ring that targets quirkless people.”

Toshinori blinks and sits back. He has heard of quirk trafficking—of course he has, even in Japan it can be a serious problem—but quirkless trafficking? “...Why?”

His friend shrugs. “Any number of reasons. Even if we ignore the value quirkless people have as control cases in medical studies, they make unfortunately easy targets. Missing persons cases involving quirkless individuals are statistically more likely to go unreported and discrimination against them is at an all-time high.” Tsukauchi eyes Toshinori, a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Shouldn’t you know this? You were quirkless.”

Toshinori’s gaze drifts off to the side. That is true, but if Toshinori is honest with himself he hasn’t considered himself quirkless for well over half his life span. Not since Shimura Nana gave him her gift. He thinks, then, of Midoriya Inko, waiting alone in that oddly empty apartment. “You think young Midoriya was picked up by these traffickers.”

“I think that’s exactly what your student was trying to tell us.” The detective taps at the open notebook in his hand. “We ran notices on this man for nearly three weeks last month. He’s a petty thug, but we’ve long suspected his ties to the ring.”

“So you have an idea of where to find him?”

Tsukauchi grimaces. “Not quite. The ring hasn’t moved on Musutafu before, that we know of.” He runs a hand over his short hair. “Damn. We haven’t been able to predict their movements at all.”

Toshinori folds his hand tightly in a fist, his blunt nails digging roughly into his palm. “There has to be something we can do.”

“Two nights ago, you said.” Tsukauchi taps thoughtfully at his chin, eyes narrowed down at Quirk Analysis No. 9. “We won’t have long. Our intel suggests the ring moves the victims quickly—within the week.”

Not long at all. “Please Tsukauchi-kun,” Toshinori says, head bowed, his long bangs brushing against the table’s surface. “Let me assist with this case. I need to bring young Midoriya home to his mother.”

Tsukauchi sighs again. “The case is actually a collaboration between the precinct and an underground agency. But I’ll get in touch with the pro running lead and we’ll see what we can do.”


-


“Absolutely not,” says Aizawa Shouta.

Toshinori clenches his teeth. He and Eraserhead have never quite seen eye-to-eye, a fact Toshinori has long since attributed to their differing approaches to heroism. Ever since Toshinori joined the staff at U.A., however, the glares Aizawa has been shooting him during meetings make him wonder if there might not be something more to it.

“Cases like this require subtlety.” Aizawa punctuates the last word with one of those signature glares, a momentary flash of his quirk lighting up his eyes as he looks Toshinori’s skeletal form up and down. The level of derision in those eyes makes Toshinori feel even smaller. “Why should I let you muscle in on this operation and ruin months worth of work?”

“He brought us a lead,” Tsukauchi points out, “our first in weeks. And his student may very well be the latest victim.”

“All the more reason not to let him on the case,” Aizawa retorts. “Personal feelings get in the way of investigation all the time. It’s not logical.”

“I just want to bring a young boy home to his mother.”

“All the more reason,” Aizawa repeats.

“Look at the lead at least, Aizawa-san,” Tsukauchi suggests, holding young Midoriya’s notebook out to the underground pro. Aizawa takes it, if somewhat begrudgingly. “Page 37.”

“This is…” Aizawa reads through the entry even faster than Tsukauchi-kun had. His brow lifts. “This is incredibly detailed. Who wrote this?”

“Midoriya Izuku. My pupil.”

“Your pupil writes analysis on a level most underground pros wish they could,” Aizawa says flatly. “He even points out several locations our suspect would be likely to hide, based on known behaviors and secondary mutations. This is…”

“Excuse me, sirs,” one of the other officers interrupts, the one with the cat quirk. He pokes his head in through the doorway of the conference room, feline ears twitching. “There is a young lady, here with her mother. She claims to have information on that trafficking case.”

The two pros and the detective exchange glances, eyebrows raised. Tsukauchi nods, prompting a roll of the eyes from Aizawa.

“Well,” Eraserhead grumbles, “why don’t you send her in?”

Chapter Text

The girl is younger than Toshinori’s pupil by at least a couple of years, with long dark hair that drapes in front of her face. Her face is thin, eyes almost too wide. The face of someone who has seen far too much in her short life. She sits in the chair they gave her with her spine rigidly pressed against the seat back. Her mother sits quietly beside her, gripping her small hand tightly.

Tsukauchi sets his recorder down between them on the conference table. “Whenever you’re ready.”

The girl stares at the recorder, then glances up at her mother.

“Mayu, sweetheart,” the mother murmurs. “It’s okay. Tell the nice detective what you told me.”

“Go at your own pace,” Tsukauchi offers.

“You’ve been very brave coming here,” Aizawa adds, his voice low. “We can wait to hear what you have to say.”

Toshinori agrees with the words themselves, but the ball of dread that has been building in his gut for the past two days has no such patience. The longer this takes, the more likely it is that young Midoriya is moved somewhere far away where Toshinori can’t reach. There is a distinct possibility, Toshinori admits to himself if only in his own mind, that he has gotten attached. Perhaps Aizawa had something of a point before. Toshinori keeps to the back of the conference room, lingering on the edge of the proceedings. He may be a hero, but Tsukauchi has far more experience working with witnesses.

Or at least, more aptitude.

His eyes snap to young Mayu as she finally begins to speak haltingly, her eyes fixed to a point on the table. “It was two nights ago. I’m not sure what happened. I walk the same way home every day, but someone bumped into me and for a minute I got all turned around.” She pauses for a breath, her eyes fluttering shut. “I didn’t know where I was. And then this guy was there, asking me if I was lost.”

Aizawa leans forward in his chair, his hands folded underneath his chin. “Can you describe him for us?”

“He was big, with little scales all over his…” Mayu moves a hand in front of her face in a circular motion. “They were peeling. It was gross.”

Tsukauchi pulls a photograph out from the file folder sitting open on the table in front of him and holds it up. “Was this him?”

Mayu swallows visibly. “Yes, sir. He started asking me all sorts of questions, how old I was, where I was going. What my quirk was. I...” She stares down at her lap. “I didn’t answer. That just made him smile.”

“I was so scared,” Mayu admits, her voice small. Her little limbs are trembling. “But then that boy walked up and said if they were gonna pick on quirkless kids they might as well pick on him.”

“This boy,” Toshinori quietly interrupts, the first time he has spoken up since young Mayu and her mother entered the room, “did he have dark green hair like…” He holds his hands up around his head, unsure of exactly how to pantomime his student’s unruly locks.

Young Mayu nods. “I couldn’t see the color, but it was shaped kind of like a bush. And he had freckles.” She taps an index finger at each of her cheeks. “Here.”

Toshinori breathes a soft sigh of relief. That was definitely young Midoriya.

“He shoved me behind him,” Mayu continues. “He tried to punch the scaly guy, I think, but he hurt his hand.” Toshinori winces at that. Perhaps, at some point in the past ten months, he should have worked in showing young Midoriya how to throw a punch. “He told me to run. So I ran and ran until I couldn’t breathe anymore.”

“Mayu-chan,” Tsukauchi says softly,” is there anything else you can think of? Anything at all that could help us find the people that tried to take you.”

“I think they might’ve been following me for a couple nights,” young Mayu confides, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. “I...I thought it was just...Inaba-kun does that sometimes, to scare me, so…”

Mayu’s mother gives her daughter’s hand a little squeeze that doesn’t go unnoticed by any of the men in the room. It seems young Mayu and young Midoriya may have more than one thing in common.

Tsukauchi reaches for the recorder and clicks it off. “Thank you, the both of you.” He nods at Mayu’s mother. “We’ll call you if we have any further questions.”

They all rise from their seats, one by one. Mayu’s mother gently leads her towards the conference room door, murmuring a constant stream of encouragements into her daughter’s hair.

As the pair passes by Toshinori, Mayu pauses in her steps, causing her mother to glance down at her in confusion. The young girl seems to gather herself for a moment, still biting at her lip, before she finally speaks. “Wh-when you find that boy, could you tell him thank you for me?” Mayu’s eyes glimmer with unshed tears. “He’s my hero.”

“He’ll be overjoyed to hear that, young Mayu,” Toshinori tells her, his own eyes starting to prickle with heat. “Thank you, for all your help.”

After Officer Sansa escorts Mayu and her mother back out of the station, the two pro heroes and the detective reconvene at Tsukauchi’s desk to discuss the case.

A large, detailed street map of Musutafu covers the board above Tsukauchi’s desk. A bright green pushpin marks the alleyway where young Midoriya’s backpack was picked up, courtesy of Musutafu Police. Tsukauchi tosses his suit jacket over the back of his office chair and rolls his shirtsleeves up to his elbows. Aizawa stands beside him with his hands in the pockets of his suit. Toshinori watches from a chair set up behind them, his hands folded together in his lap.

He knows where his strengths are. Investigation is not one of them. It’s one of the many reasons Mirai worked so well as his sidekick.

But Toshinori would rather not think about Sir Nighteye.

Tsukauchi retrieves the case folder from his desk and tacks the photo he showed to young Mayu to the upper-left hand corner of the board. A broadset young man with tiny black scales over his jaw and cheekbones glares balefully back out at them. “Our suspect is Kawaguchi Kenta,” Tsukauchi announces, tapping at the photo with the back of hand. “Quirk: Shed Skin. He’s in his late twenties, with a record that includes petty theft, breaking and entering, and at least one case of assault.”

“I find it unlikely Kawaguchi is working alone,” Aizawa says. “Let me get a look at that file.”

Tsukauchi wordlessly passes the folder over and steps back to observe the whole of the board, arms folded. “Musutafu is a large place,” he comments. “With a pretty sizable industrial area.”

“Yes. Plenty of holes to hide in,” Aizawa mumbles into the folds of his capture weapon, his eyes fixed on the file in his hands. Halfway down the page, he makes a noise low in his throat and snaps the folder shut.

“You’ve got something,” Tsukauchi guesses.

Aizawa sets the folder down and picks up a marker from Tsukauchi’s desk. He rolls it between his fingers and narrows his eyes at the map. “According to Midoriya’s notes, Kawaguchi is more likely to hide out in warm, humid places, thanks to his quirk.”

Toshinori blinks. “And?”

“Mayu-chan took the same route from school to home everyday.” Aizawa uncaps the marker and turns to Tsukauchi. “May I?”

Tsukauchi gestures at the map. “By all means.”

With a nod, Aizawa draws a thick red line on the map, connecting Mayu’s school with her family’s housing development. “There happen to be two bathhouses along this route. One of them…” He sticks a dull yellow pushpin on the map. “...Is right next door to an abandoned factory complex.”

“The perfect place for a villain to lie low,” Tsukauchi remarks.

“Not all villains stick to empty buildings, but there is some truth to the cliche,” Aizawa agrees. “Kawaguchi moves around a lot. We haven’t been able to pin his activity to any one district. He finds a place like this, someplace quiet and abandoned where he can stay comfortable. He spends a few days narrowing down targets.”

“Then once he has a target, he corners them and carries them away.” Tsukauchi nods at Toshinori. “Only this time, your student got in his way.”

“Young Midoriya has a good heart,” Toshinori sighs. “Also a reckless one.”

“You should train that out of him,” Aizawa grumbles. “It’ll get him killed one day, if it hasn’t already.”

Toshinori turns to look at Aizawa sharply. While the man might have a point, he needn’t put it so bluntly. The idea that he could already be too late to help young Midoriya tears into Toshinori’s chest with icy-cold fingers. He rises, shaking, to his full looming height. His mouth drops open to say...well, he doesn’t rightly know what.

Tsukauchi, thankfully, intervenes before either pro can start a full-blown argument. Once again, Toshinori is glad he can count the man as a friend. “I’ll get a team together, confirm that Kawaguchi is still in the area. Then we move.” The detective catches Toshinori’s eyes. “We’ll get Midoriya back, Toshinori.”

Yes, Toshinori thinks, the memories of Inko’s tear-stained face and Mayu’s soft plea at the front of his mind. They will.


-


On the evening of February 23rd, three days after Midoriya Izuku’s disappearance, All Might and the police prepare to make a move on Kawaguchi Kenta’s location.

Eraserhead, unfortunately, has U.A. business to take care of, preparing for the entrance exams. All Might would be there as well, but he had purposefully stepped back from acting as a proctor out of respect for young Midoriya. One pro hero—especially the number one hero—should be more than enough to handle whatever is waiting inside that warehouse.

It won’t, Tsukauchi’s team is sure, be the abductees. The intel suggests they will be in a different, more secluded location. But Kawaguchi will know where they are being held.

He has to.

“We’ve established a perimeter,” Tsukauchi informs All Might, ready and waiting in his muscle form. “Ready to move on your mark.”

“Hold for now,” All Might says. He slips the police radio receiver into his ear and carefully adjusts the microphone taped at his throat. “This should be quick.”

He dashes around the side of the building. Probably not as stealthy as Eraserhead would have preferred, but this late very few people are lingering on the streets. There is no light or movement through the complex’s tiny windows that All Might can see. He easily hoists himself up onto the half-height stone wall that surrounds the place and vaults himself through the nearest window. That the window is not quite large enough to smoothly permit him is nothing to a man that regularly bursts through solid brick walls like they’re made of wet tissue paper.

He lands on the warehouse floor in a practiced squat, glass and brick dust showering down around him. He rises to his feet, preparing to announce himself with his usual panache. “Never fear, for I am he—”

All Might freezes, his pupils shrinking to tiny blue pinpricks.

The scene inside the warehouse is like something out of Toshinori’s nightmares, the ones that still leave him sweaty and screaming and make his insides ache with phantom pain. The ball of dread in his gut rises up his throat and explodes.

There are bodies everywhere. A man with a shark mutation lies broken near in half, fins torn apart. A woman lies off to the side, eyes wide open and limbs twisted. The quirkless abductees are blessedly absent. Standing at the center of the room, holding Kawaguchi suspended in the air, is a figure All Might hasn’t seen in five years. One he had hoped to never see again. A strange black mask covers the man’s features, but All Might would recognize that stifling aura of power anywhere.

“Ah,” All for One says, his deep voice tinny through the respirator but no less intimidating. He releases his grip on Kawaguchi, the terrified man dropping to the floor in a slump. “You’re late.”

And just like that, the dread in All Might’s throat dissolves into pure, incandescent rage.

He doesn’t think. He blasts across the room, arm pulled back for a smash. The flame of One for All leaps inside of him.

His nemesis easily catches the blow. The blast of air pressure from the impact blows outward, shattering every window in the building and cracking several cement supports. The infrastructure of the building creaks and groans overhead.

“All Might!” Tsukauchi’s voice exclaims. “What is happening?”

Remembering himself, Toshinori jumps backwards, one hand pressed to the radio receiver in his ear. “Tsukauchi,” he rasps out, “pull back and evacuate the immediate area. He’s...that man is here.”

Whatever his friend’s reply, it is lost in the rush of air as All Might darts forward once more, the cement cracking under the force of his leap. But All for One is one step ahead of him, countering the blow with one of his own. The hit connects with All Might’s ribs, right on the edge of his injury. Blood spurts from between All Might’s lips.

“As charming as this is,” All for One says, the snide tone of his voice boiling All Might’s blood like nothing else can, “I did not come here to fight you.”

“As if I would believe that!” All Might roars and aims another punch at the villain’s head.

The top of the mask shatters under All Might’s fist, revealing the scarred smear of what used to be All for One’s face beneath it. Even his eyes are gone, only the barest outline of sockets visible in the poor light of the complex.

The villain wraps the fingers of one hand around All Might’s wrist in a bruising grip. “Make no mistake, I hate you,” All for One hisses through the respirator. “You took nearly everything from me. But you are not going to be the reason I lose what little is left.”

All for One pivots sharply, arm muscles bulging under the crisp lines of his dark suit. He pulls, and with a flick of the villain’s wrist All Might goes flying through the wall of the complex and into the building next to it.

All Might picks himself out of the rubble and wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. A light fragrance lingers in the night air; the bathhouse must have been running a medicinal bath today. All for One walks sedately through the newly-opened hole in the complex and out into the alleyway, bits of glass and concrete crunching beneath his dress shoes. “I seem to remember you hitting harder than that before,” All Might says through bloodied teeth. “Have you lost your touch?”

“Do not bait me, hero,” the villain warns coldly. “You will find I am not in a forgiving mood.” He flicks his fingers in a show of sheer power, cracks running up the side of the cement wall beside him.

“You never are.” All Might steadies his feet beneath himself and barrels forward. Already, after only a couple of minutes, All Might is starting to feel the strain on his body. He needs to finish this as quickly as possible and keep the fight from spreading into inhabited areas. All for One has always been more akin to a natural disaster than a man.

“It seems to me,” All for One comments idly, deftly weaving around All Might’s attempted grab, “that you and I want the same thing.”

All Might surges backward, burning power straining the muscles of his right arm. “What I want,” he bellows, “is you behind bars!”

The smash connects. All for One rockets backwards, crashing back into the complex. The roof of the building finally gives up under the pressure, flying clean off and raining debris down on both their heads. All for One uses some quirk to catch himself before he goes through another wall, hovering in the exposed night air.

“How shortsighted.” The villain floats back down to All Might’s level and lands with a soft ‘tack.’ He brushes a piece of mortar off of his lapel like it's a speck of lint. “The more you waste time here with me, those captives move further and further away.”

All Might falters in his march forward. “What?”

All for One doesn’t have eyes to roll, but the sentiment is there in his voice. “Now he listens. Were you always this stubborn? I don’t remember any of the previous holders being quite this thick.”

All Might ignores that. “How do you know about that?”

“Why do you think I’m here?” The villain spreads his arms gesturing at the skeleton of the building around them, now little more than a crater. “This group of nothings crossed me, and I intend to make them pay dearly for it.”

Some part of All Might, deep down, has always suspected that his nemesis was still alive somewhere out there. But he had hoped beyond hope to have a little more time. Time to save people, time to find a successor, time to retire and perhaps even to enjoy it. Just more time.

It seems he is forever running out of it.

“These people are human traffickers,” All Might growls, “petty thugs, compared to the likes of you. What could they have possibly done to cross you?”

“You flatter me,” the villain says in an amused tone that makes All Might’s skin crawl. “I doubt they even know what they’ve done. But believe me when I say it is not a mistake they will make twice.”

Toshinori could almost laugh, at the irony. He has only known young Midoriya for ten months and already his young pupil has found himself smack in the middle of a villain squabble involving the greatest enemy he will ever face.

“It seems our young friend with the molting quirk has gone and expired on us,” All for One points out. Sure enough, there is Kawaguchi’s broken body, pinned beneath the rubble of their clash. All Might swears. “Luckily for you, I managed to interrogate him before you so rudely interrupted.”

“And you’re willing to share,” All Might spits.

“Of course.” The villain’s grin is just visible over the top of his mask’s respirator. “Naturally, I expect a certain degree of reciprocation.”

All Might shouldn’t have expected any less. Deals and manipulations. That’s how it always is with the Symbol of Evil.

His disgust is either clear on his face or he made some sort of noise, because All for One raises a placating hand. “All I ask is a truce of sorts,” he explains. “You don’t try to arrest me, I tolerate you. At least until the ring is taken care of and its victims are safe back in their beds.” The ridge of his brow rises. “Isn’t that what you want?”

All Might can’t trust this. Everything about this deal is suspicious, gift-wrapped with snakes tucked in the creases of the paper where All Might won’t see. His hand tightens into a fist. He should end this now. Throw a punch at that man’s smug damaged face and go find another way to locate young Midoriya.

But there is no time.

“All Might,” Tsukauchi’s voice says in his ear. He had forgotten, until that moment, that his old friend could hear everything. “He hasn’t lied.”

Toshinori startles. “He hasn’t?”

“Not once.”

That might not mean much. The devil doesn’t need to spin lies to ensnare your soul. Sometimes the truth works just as well.

“I hate to say this...but we might just have to hear him out.”

“Listen to your friend,” All for One calls out. That is some damn sharp hearing but, All Might supposes, his enemy doesn’t exactly have eyes anymore. There had to be some compensation somewhere.

All Might fixes his nemesis with the most hateful glare he can muster and regrets that it is probably lost on the man. “I will never trust you.”

“The feeling is entirely mutual.” The villain inclines his head. “But as long as we’re both working towards the same goal…”

Shit. “I don’t like this,” All Might mutters.

“Neither do I,” Tsukauchi says through the receiver, “but I don’t think we have a lot of choice here.”

All Might glances back over at his nemesis. His master’s murderer, standing thirty feet away, free and relatively whole. A monster, in every sense of the word. The man with the information they need. Toshinori briefly lets his eyes flutter shut. Young Midoriya. This is all for young Midoriya.

“Very well,” All Might says at last. “Let’s talk.”

Chapter Text

Aizawa Shouta has been a pro hero for nearly fifteen years. He has worked countless missions and worked with heroes of all walks of life and areas of expertise. He has attended more briefings than he cares to recall and been forced to run lead on more than a few of them. But this. This is quickly turning into a spectacle. Shouta would know. He’s spent half of his life as Yamada Hizashi’s best friend.

Shouta knew agreeing to let All Might in on this case was going to be a mistake. And that was before two buildings in upper Musutafu were turned into so much rubble.

He stares at the file folder in his hands, like maybe if he is lucky a cure for the migraine building behind his eyes will pop out from somewhere in the pages. No such luck. He snaps the folder shut and sighs.

“Before we get started,” Shouta says, “would you mind telling me who exactly that is?” He nods at the back corner of the cramped bolthole they decided to use as a meeting space.

The man at the end of the table is hard to miss. He cuts a memorable picture, sitting with his head propped up on one fist. A black mask, almost skull-like in the way it conforms to his face, hides his features from view. Nothing about the man’s posture is threatening, exactly—if anything the line of his shoulders is too relaxed. Shouta has never been a betting man, but if he were he would wager a good amount of yen that beneath the mask that man is wearing a shit-eating grin.

Shouta doesn’t consider himself a person that is easily ruffled, either, but something about the man is...unsettling.

He turns his attention back to Tsukauchi and All Might, standing in front of him. The pair exchange glances. “He’s…” All Might hesitates. “A consultant.”

And you’re a bad liar, Shouta doesn’t say. Wordlessly, he turns to Tsukauchi.

“He’s the one who brought us the ring’s location,” the detective admits, looking like he’s halfway to an ulcer. “Being involved with the raid was one of his conditions.”

Shouta lifts his eyes up to the ceiling and slowly counts down from ten. “And neither of you thought to run that by me.”

Tsukauchi is a good man, and a damn fine detective. But sometimes Shouta thinks he spends a little too much time with the number one hero.

“Right,” Shouta sighs. He looks back over at the masked stranger, who judging by his posture is thoroughly enjoying the show. “You better not be any trouble.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Eraserhead,” the man rumbles.

“That was a lie,” Tsukauchi points out calmly.

“Oh yes, the detective with the lie detector quirk. Is it entirely passive or did you turn it on just for me?” The masked man hums thoughtfully. “Are you detecting a change in inflection? Heart rate? How does it react to half-truths, or if a truth and a lie are in the same sentence? How does this read: ‘I have no ulterior motives and there would be nothing you could do about them if I did. Your suspicions of me are ridiculous and a waste of time.’”

Tsukauchi blinks rapidly, something like horror passing over his plain face.

Shouta flashes his quirk at the two of them, like he would with his students. He’s not entirely sure it did anything, in the stranger’s case. The man hasn’t flaunted a quirk at all, as far as Shouta can tell.

“Now that is somewhat disconcerting.” The masked man inclines his head. “What a wonderful quirk. Temporary suppression of the quirk factor, yes? Does it require concentration or...ah, line of sight, of course. When you blink, the effect ends.” He hums again. “I would love to have a quirk like that.”

For whatever reason, that innocuous comment has All Might stiffening, both of his hands curling into fists. “Do NOT—!”

“Relax, hero,” the stranger says breezily, leaning back in his chair. “Here I am, assisting you of my own free will, and you treat me like a common criminal.” He places a hand on his chest. “That hurts, All Might.”

Up until this very moment, Shouta can safely say he has never seen the number one hero angry. Annoyed, yes. Grinning insufferably, naturally. But never the deep, cold anger that radiates out from All Might now. If looks could kill, the glare in those electric blue eyes would have smashed the masked stranger’s face in and left him to bleed out in a dirty alleyway somewhere.

Shouta senses a history. A very dark, bloody history.

Perhaps they used to date? No, probably not.

Silently, he adjusts his first impression of the masked stranger. Anyone who can put a look like that on the Symbol of Peace’s face should under no circumstances be underestimated. “Is this going to be a problem?” He asks flatly.

The masked man waves off Shouta’s concern. “I can behave myself if he can.”

As one, the inhabitants of the room turn to All Might. The hero looks away from them and stares pointedly at the floor. “I can behave,” he grumbles.

And Shouta thought he spent enough time surrounded by children at his day job. “See that you do,” he warns, “or I will not hesitate to throw you off of this case.”

All Might pouts—and that’s not something Shouta ever thought he would see, the number one hero, pouting—and takes his seat at the conference table. Tsukauchi gives the hero a single comforting pat on the shoulder before trudging up to the front of the room where a digital projector sits ready and waiting. Masked stranger looks entirely too smug.

Eventually, the meeting’s other attendees begin to arrive, mostly officers and technicians. For a case involving human trafficking, the investigation has been relatively hero-light. Up until All Might blundered his way in, Shouta had been the only hero willing to take on the case. Purportedly it had been offered to the Endeavor agency at one point, but the number two hero had turned it down, claiming it was ‘a waste of resources.’

While Shouta agrees that Endeavor would have been a poor fit for the case, in his own humble opinion, nothing involving finding missing children can be remotely considered a waste.

Tsukauchi grabs the remote off the top of the projector and turns on the display, currently showing a detailed map of the city. “Let’s get started,” he announces. The officers immediately give him their full attention. At least someone in this room still has their professionalism. “Our target this evening is a human trafficking ring that has been active in Tokyo for the past three months. We suspect they have at least three captives at the moment, based on missing persons reports—”

“Five,” the masked stranger speaks up, “according to Kawaguchi.”

“Five captives,” Tsukauchi corrects. Shouta suspects that won’t be the last time someone gets interrupted during this travesty of a briefing. “According to the intel from Kawaguchi Kenta, confirmed by our investigative team, the captives are being held…” He presses a button on the remote in his hands and the digital display zooms in on a point on the map. “...here. By the waterfront.”

“The building is an old fish processing plant with water access, which possibly confirms our suspicions the victims are being moved by boat. We’ve contacted our friends with the coast guard,” Tsukauchi pauses to nod at a captain seated near the middle of the table, “to discreetly set up a perimeter.”

Tsukauchi presses another button and the display changes to that of a cutaway floor plan. “The captives are likely being held in the cellar...only one door in or out. Guards are posted here,” he points to the water access, “with a rotating patrol here.” He gestures to the street-facing entrance. “We expect less than a dozen traffickers inside.”

“The leader of the ring is this man.” The display changes once again, this time to a photo of a plain-faced man with wispy dark hair and empty eyes. The collar of his coat is stained with soot. “Watanabe Kousuke. The registry has him listed as quirkless.” A sharp hiss sounds out from the far end of the table. Shouta doesn’t disagree with the sentiment. What a small-minded person this Watanabe must be, to capitalize on the misfortunes of his peers. Tsukauchi clicks another button on the remote and Watanabe’s photo is joined by an image of two women, both with distinctly squid-like mutations. “These two are Watanabe’s partners, the Shimizu sisters. We’ve confirmed the presence of all three of them onsite.”

Shouta briefly glances back out over the table. No glazed eyes...good. He turns back to the display but a flutter of movement from All Might’s side of the table draws his attention. Sure enough, his future coworker is glaring down the table at the masked man, who is sitting with his hands folded in his lap in the most laughable imitation of innocence Shouta has ever seen.

Children. He is surrounded. By children.

He wishes he’d thought to bring his sleeping bag. Or that Hizashi hadn’t taken it from him on his way out the door.

“We’ll take two teams,” Tsukauchi continues. From the expression on his face, he is a man desperately praying for patience without particular care for who answers. “One through the back, led by Eraserhead. At the front, All Might will draw their attention. The priority here is the safe retrieval of the victims.” Tsukauchi exhales, his dark eyes sharp. “Does our ‘consultant’ have anything to add?”

Heads turn in near unison to the end of the table. The masked man takes his cue and rises smoothly to his feet. He is tall and broad—not quite as defined as All Might’s muscle form, but his figure still exudes a quiet power. He is the type that demands respect with his presence alone, regardless of whether or not he deserves it.

“I believe you’ve about covered it, detective,” the stranger says smoothly. “Though with the ratio of thugs to captives, I would expect at least one of the traffickers to have a powerful quirk that excels at zone control.”

“Alright. Then if there are no questions…” Tsukauchi eyes each face at the table. “We move out in two hours. Let’s bring these kids home, everyone.”

A chorus of voices answers the detective in a rousing cry.

“We only have one shot at this,” Shouta warns the table. “With what happened in Musutafu the ring is likely on edge. Anxious. They’ll try to move the captives tonight. If we let them, that’s it. We’re done.”

“That will not happen,” the stranger says, a hauntingly cold edge to his voice. Great, this one has some personal stake in it, too. Just what Shouta needed.

A few more words are exchanged, last-minute confirmations of details, and the officers begin to trickle back out of the rundown apartment. Two hours isn’t a lot of time to prepare for a sting, but Tsukauchi’s team is a dedicated group. They’ll pull it together. Shouta remains seated and watches them go, idly flipping through the contents of the file in front of him.

He lingers on the list of potential abductees, each name accompanied by a small portrait. Kids, all of them, ranging from elementary school age to just starting college. He tries to memorize their faces, each with the same vacant expression. Even Midoriya, who seems to be the least photogenic kid Shouta has ever seen, manages that hollow fish-eyed stare.

All Might sighs gustily, breaking the silence of the emptied room. “Waiting is the hardest part.”

“Nothing left to do but make sure we’re ready,” Tsukauchi agrees with a solid nod. He takes a seat at the table next to All Might.

“Speaking of.” Shouta closes the folder and glances back down the table. “What are we going to have this one do? You didn’t mention him in the brief.” It occurs to him, then, that no one has at any point mentioned this man’s name. He can’t quite muster up the energy to wonder why.

“I will go with Eraserhead, of course,” the masked stranger decides.

All Might slams his palms down on the table so hard the light fixtures rattle. “Absolutely not!” he bellows.

“Oh? Are you worried about me?” The masked man leans forward conspiratorially. “I assure you, I can play nice.”

“Yes, with your food before you eat it,” All Might snaps. “You’re with me or not at all.”

“You’re letting him get to you,” Shouta hears Tsukauchi murmur. “Calm down.”

“Very well.” The man in the mask rolls his shoulders. Through the mask, Shouta can just make out the shape of the man’s raised brow. “Is it always like this on the other end of the table?”

“Not a regular with hero work then, I take it,” Shouta huffs.

“Ah, not in the way you mean.” The man lets out a dry chuckle. “Quirks have always been my passion. I think hero work suits me though, don’t you? Perhaps I should make a career change.”

All Might makes a noise like someone is trying to strangle him with that stupid cape of his.

“I won’t have you in the field if you’re a liability,” Shouta says firmly.

“There is no need to worry. I have practically centuries of experience. And of course, I will have the number one hero watching over me.” That deep voice turns sly. “If I were you, I’d be more concerned about him. He might lose his temper and bring down another building on someone’s head.”

“I’m not the one who regularly ruins people’s lives,” All Might shoots back, the muscles in his neck as taut as a wire.

Tsukauchi has apparently given up all attempts to mediate between the pair and instead sits with his head in his hands, his eyes squeezed shut in exasperation. Shouta can’t rightly blame him.

“Alright, that’s enough from both of you.” Shouta would activate his quirk again, if he wasn’t mildly concerned over the effect it would have on All Might. Would the man instantly deflate like a sad balloon? Best avoid finding out. “You want to bring this Midoriya of yours home, All Might? Take the baggage and stow it.”

All Might turns to stare at Shouta in horror, his face paling drastically. One would think Shouta had just divulged the man’s real name, birthday, and the truth about his time limit.

As if in answer to Shouta’s silent question, the masked stranger jerks forward slightly in his seat. “...Midoriya?”

Ah. Was All Might trying to keep his student a secret? Illogical. If that was the case, he should have said as much earlier.

“Could it be you have found a successor, All Might?” The stranger’s words are light, but there is an odd tension to his shoulders that wasn’t present before.

All Might doesn’t seem to notice. “That is none of your business.”

“Well. I hope this young man is made of sturdier stuff than your predecessor was.”

“How dare you—!” In an instant, All Might is lunging across the table with one arm raised.

Shouta has had quite enough of this. With a twist, he snaps out his capture weapon and snags All Might around the bicep. He has no illusions it will actually hold the older hero, but with any luck it will serve as a physical reminder of where exactly they are. “What did I just say.”

The number one hero forcibly relaxes, dropping back into his chair. “You’re right, I am sorry.”

“It won’t happen again,” the stranger offers, surprisingly somber.

Shouta releases the capture weapon with a flick of his wrist, smoothly winding it back around his neck. “It better not.” He trudges back out of the apartment, huffing to himself. If he didn’t know any better, he would say All Might had brought a goddamn top-tier villain into a police-sanctioned hero operation.

But of course, that can’t be. There is no way the number one hero would be that stupid.

He’ll continue to keep both eyes on the situation. Just in case.


-


It is February 24th, two days before U.A.’s entrance exam. Four days since Midoriya Izuku went missing.

The traffickers’ hideout is unassuming, easily overlooked amongst the dozens of buildings just like it sitting along the pier. It’s a sad, weathered thing with wooden slats and a salt-stained tin roof. Two men, both shabbily dressed as security guards, prowl the perimeter. Someone has smeared some sort of black paint around the building’s foundation, though to call it graffiti would be an inaccurate assessment of the vandal’s artistic skills. From the looks of it, the whole building is either two strong storms away from collapsing or will remain stubbornly standing until the heat-death of the universe.

The sun hasn’t quite set yet and already the streets have taken on a dark and claustrophobic air. Down the block, a single street lamp flickers on, the half-dead bulb struggling to light. A breeze drifts in off the nearby ocean waves and the chill of it sinks through All Might’s suit and settles deep in his creaking bones.

Or maybe that’s just the suffocating aura of the man standing to All Might’s left.

All Might does wonder what exactly the ring did to offend his nemesis, that he is willing to set his grudges aside like this. All Might worked hard to earn the villain’s wrath. Months and years spent dismantling All for One’s operation piece by piece, until the villain was practically on the run by the end. What could a small group of human traffickers—though the lowest of the low, in terms of criminals—have possibly done to earn the ire of the Symbol of Evil?

It wasn’t like All for One actually cared for anyone or anything. Only his power, and how he could expand it.

“Didn’t Shimura ever teach you it’s rude to stare?” All for One doesn’t turn, simply finishes adjusting the cuff of his sleeve with one hand. Toshinori hates how composed he looks, how unaffected. The villain’s tone is almost conversational. “Another way she failed you, I suppose.”

All Might sucks a deep breath in through his nostrils. He is not going to compromise this mission or his integrity more than he already has. He is not. No matter how much he wants to tear off the villain’s jaw, pulverise it, and feed it back to him intravenously.

Maybe Tsukauchi’s quirk was wrong for once. Maybe All for One doesn’t have any vendetta against the ring at all and is purely here to pick at Toshinori’s psyche until he finally snaps under the weight of his own guilt and neuroses. Because this entire situation is very rapidly devolving into Toshinori’s own personal hell.

Behind them, Tsukauchi directs the police in forming a perimeter down the block. More of a backup measure, than anything, but it will be good to have emergency services on hand. As much as the idea of actually needing them turns Toshinori’s guts.

“The use of police seems...unnecessary,” his nemesis comments. “Won’t they just get in the way?”

All Might grinds his teeth together. At the rate he is going, his back molars will be little more than stubs by the end of the day. “We need to set some ground rules.”

“Will that make you feel better about this little arrangement? Let you feel like you’re in control?” All for One sighs. “Very well, tell me how to avoid offending your hopelessly fragile heroic sensibilities.”

“No stealing quirks,” All Might says immediately. “No killing, no aimless destruction.”

“Well. You are no fun at all.”

All Might folds his arms in front of his chest.

“Fine, fine,” the villain concedes, palms raised in a pacifying gesture. “I can play by your rules.” He inclines his head. “Not that you could stop me, if I decided otherwise.”

“I could certainly make you regret it, All for One.”

“All Might,” Aizawa’s voice sounds over the receiver. Something about the other pro’s tone makes Toshinori feel like a scolded child, but he quickly shakes it off. “I’m in position.”

“Copy that, Eraser,” All Might replies. He bounces idly on his toes in an effort to get his energy back up and glances back at his erstwhile partner.

All for One bows his head, one arm extended in invitation. “After you.”

Toshinori reminds himself that this is an important role to play. The more the traffickers keep their eyes on him, the more time Aizawa has to infiltrate and secure the captives. As much as Toshinori wants to rush in and find young Midoriya, his time is better served out here.

He tells himself that, but he isn’t altogether too sure he believes it right this moment.

All Might steps up to the warehouse entrance, gravel crunching beneath the boots of his uniform. “I am here!” he booms at the top of his remaining lung and barely gives the guards enough time to do a double-take before he dashes forward in a burst of wind.

Most mid-to-low tier villains are little match for the number one hero, even in the wake of his injury. The members of the ring are no exception. It obviously wasn’t their strength that kept them well-hidden for so long. All Might quickly disables the first guard with an open-handed jab to the neck and is about to turn and bolt for the second when he hears an awful, bloodcurdling scream.

He turns. Behind him, All for One has the second guard pinned to the ground with his heel nonchalantly grinding into the man’s kneecap. The poor man’s leg is bent entirely the wrong way, the femur likely snapped clean in half.

“Wh—you didn’t have to maim the man!”

“I don’t recall that being one of your stipulations.” The villain removes his foot anyway. On the ground, the guard continues to sob. “Besides, it got their attention.”

Sure enough, more criminals emerge from the warehouse. Three of the four are massive, each with an obvious aquatic-based mutation. The fourth is scrawny and plain-looking and completely unprepared. Upon seeing the identities of their opposition, this last member immediately breaks from the pack and takes off at a run down the street.

All Might is willing to let the young man go—one less criminal to worry about, and he’s heading straight for the police perimeter anyway—but All for One has no such compunctions. Red-black tendrils extend from the villain’s outstretched fingers and wind themselves unerringly around the runaway’s ankles, dragging him kicking and screaming back into the conflict.

Is All Might living in a nightmare? He tears his eyes away from the sight and decides to throw himself bodily at the nearest thug, the one that looks uncannily like a marlin.

“An interesting quirk!” All Might hears All for One crow from over where the villain is toying with his prey. “The ability to create air pockets, isn’t it? Which I would imagine you use exclusively for underwater transport.” The villain absentmindedly ducks around his opponent’s ineffectual blows, cheerfully ignoring the man’s building frustration in favor of continuing the one-sided conversation. “How disappointing. You haven’t considered the offensive applications. Tell me, are you familiar with the concept of an air embolism?”

‘Horror’ is not a strong enough word to describe what Toshinori feels after hearing that.

The rapid-fire observations do remind him of young Midoriya and his muttering, to a degree. Thankfully, young Midoriya has never been that...macabre.

All Might grips his current opponent by his long, pointed snout and with a half-spin hurtles him across the lot like a javelin. The thug collides solidly with the man currently in All for One’s clutches, sending both individuals careening halfway down the street. The pair collapse in a pile of limbs, out cold.

All for One sighs, the tendrils of his hand retracting. “You are being childish.” He steps smoothly out of the way of an opportunistic trafficker with a hammerhead shark quirk and watches absently as the thug barrels right into a wall.

“You are the one toying with people.”

“Don’t these ones deserve it?” The villain suggests slyly. “Preying on children and the so-called ‘weak link’ of society the way they do? Don’t tell me you don’t want to see them hurt for that.”

“Do not pretend you care!” All Might roars, just before he punts a still struggling trafficker into a nearby wavebreaker. “You are just as soulless and self-serving as you have ever been!”

“And you are still a fool trying to paint over this world’s broken parts with candied optimism and sunshine naivety!”

A throat clears. Both hero and villain turn at the sound.

“You two look like yer in the middle of a spat or somethin,” the hammerhead and lone-remaining trafficker says sensibly. He jabs a thumb off to the side. “So if it’s all the same to you…”

All Might lurches forward and catches the last thug with a hard uppercut to the underside of his oddly-shaped jaw. The man goes flying upwards, only to be caught by a hovering All for One and relentlessly kicked back down to the ground. The criminal’s body impacts the cement with a meaty thud and shatters it, sending chunks of dirt and stone rocketing up like a meteor storm in miniature.

All for One floats back to the ground behind All Might and brings his hands together in a slow, methodical clap. “Well done,” the villain says, drily enough that Toshinori doesn’t need Tsukauchi to know not to take the compliment earnestly. “You almost had me believing you’re competent at this.”

All Might forces himself to laugh it off, painfully aware of how strained he sounds. “Maybe if I didn’t have to keep an eye on you the entire time.”

“Ah, yes, blaming your mistakes on others. Very heroic.” All for One hums. “Now that we have a moment, about this successor of yours.”

All Might stiffens. Damn Aizawa for mentioning young Midoriya and damn Toshinori for not taking the proper precautions to stop him. “That isn’t up for discussion.”

True to form, the villain ignores him. “I wonder, have you told him about me?” All for One muses. The setting sun sits at his back, silhouetting him in drips of blood orange light. “When you offered him that quirk, did you tell him about the skeletons that come with it? Or did you make it out as a blessing, a gift, instead of the curse it is? Did he cry, when you told him?” Sweat begins to bead along Toshinori’s brow. That deep voice continues, sickly sweet and deathly cold. “Did he drop to his knees and thank you for the power that will one day be the death of him at my hands? Did you tell that boy’s parents, that you were offering their son up as a lamb to the slaughter? How noble. How heroic. Yet another of this country’s godforsaken child soldiers, marching on towards pointless martyrdom—”

The image to follow is one Toshinori will cherish for a long, long time.

A bright purple tentacle appears out of nowhere and socks All for One right in his stupid monologuing face.

A lithe young woman with squid tentacles for hair swings down from atop a nearby lamppost. She quickly turns the momentum of her swing into a hard kick, her booted foot catching All Might’s nemesis right in the solar plexus.

All Might vaguely recalls the young woman’s face from the presentation during the briefing. Though the smears of paint over her forehead and cheekbones had been absent in the photo. One of two sisters named Shimizu, both with squid-like mutations. He wonders, absently, where the older sister might be.

He receives his answer seconds later, when an electric blue tentacle winds itself around his throat and attempts to crush his trachea.

All Might tries to pry the appendage loose, but its grip only tightens. He grunts and changes tack, instead using the tentacle as a rope to pull in the rest of the older Shimizu’s body. She fights him with a surprising amount of strength, using her remaining tentacles to buffet him anywhere she can reach. He drives his knee upward into her gut and she gasps, her hold on his neck loosening just enough for All Might to catch a breath.

“Did you need assistance?” All for One calls out. The younger Shimizu is a puddle of sobbing limbs on the ground beside him. Though she should count herself lucky she hasn’t been turned into ikameshi, all things considered. “Not that I am offering, just thought I would ask.”

Almost on impulse All Might turns his head; whether to snarl out a quip of his own or what he isn’t certain. Shimizu takes advantage of his split-second of inattention and spits a glob of something dark directly in his eye.

All Might reels back on reflex and it’s only his years of experience that keep him from loosening his grip on Shimizu’s arms. He manages to wipe some of the black substance off on the shoulder of his suit. It doesn’t burn, whatever it is. He is about to write the whole experience off and knock Shimizu unconscious when a strange foggy sensation creeps in on the edges of his awareness.

Ah. He made a mistake in thinking Shimizu’s squid-like mutation was the only aspect of her quirk.

With the fog comes a complete lack of direction. His limbs no longer move the way he thinks they should. Left is right, up is down, and before All Might can begin to gather his thoughts together he has been flipped face-down in the dirt with his hands pulled tight behind his back.

“Didn’t think we were big enough fish to get the attention of number one,” Shimizu coos into his ear, her knee digging hard into the low of his spine. A few wisps of fog still linger at the edges of his vision. He blinks.

Toshinori is laughably off-kilter today. He would like to blame that on his nemesis, but while the man truly is infuriating he is, ultimately, an excuse. Toshinori needs to stop listening to All for One and get himself together. He thinks of ten months ago, of a young boy running to save someone when no one else would dare to move. A young boy who ignored the harsh words both internal and external and ran forward anyway. That boy is counting on him. Young Midoriya and his mother and the other captives are counting on him.

“Those people you prey upon will never have to worry again,” All Might intones. “Why? Because I! Am! Here!” Straining his already-battered abdominal muscles, All Might pushes his upper body off the dirt and rams his skull back into Shimizu’s nose as hard as he can.

He hears a crunch as the cartilage in Shimizu’s nose crumbles. His old teacher did always say Toshinori had a hard head.

The force of his headbutt causes Shimizu to again loosen her grip, giving All Might time to get his feet back underneath him. With a practiced grab, All Might hooks Shimizu under the arm and tosses her up over his shoulder, tentacles streaming behind her like ribbons. She hits the ground hard. She doesn’t get up again.

Toshinori breathes a sigh of relief.

He staggers to his feet, uncannily aware of his remaining time. Shimizu lies off to the side, a colorful bruise blooming across her forehead. Numerous other bodies dot the courtyard, some completely unconscious, some moaning in pain.

All for One is nowhere to be seen.

“Shit,” Toshinori says.


-


As humorous as it is to see his enemy struggle in a hand-to-hand contest against a D-rank villain with a sub-par quirk, All for One has better things to do with his time.

He has never much cared for the bloated egos and infantile morals of heroes. The hero system is as broken as it was at the beginning and a shameless personality contest on top of that. But they are such fun to toy with. Would All for One have come as far as he has without that broken system continually pushing the underbelly of society in his direction? A thought exercise for another time, perhaps.

He flexes his left hand, crackles of energy leaping over his knuckles. It does feel good to be active again, if only in a limited capacity such as this. He can admit, if only to himself, that ‘playing nice’ can have its advantages. Slowly crushing that blonde buffoon’s spirits, for example. Gaining easy access to the ring as another.

It is times like these he laments his lack of true vision. He is sure the expressions on the hero’s face were delightful.

Of course, he could have taken down the ring on his own. Quite easily. That had originally been his intention. But then his old enemy had interrupted him in that complex.

Sometimes, when a plan goes off the rails, one has to take a running leap off the tracks with it.

He continues his sedate pace through the warehouse, his dress shoes tapping against the concrete. The few traffickers he notices pay him little mind, more focused on escaping the so-called wrath of the pro heroes. He allows them to pass him by. Plenty of time to track them all down and carve out his pound of flesh later, when he doesn’t have a cancerous tumor in blue and red tights breathing down his neck. For all his self-righteousness and grandstanding, the current holder of One for All can be infuriatingly tenacious.

From somewhere above him, he hears the whip-crack of Eraserhead’s capture weapon. Seconds later, a body goes soaring off the catwalk overhead, followed shortly by the pro hero himself. He lands near All for One in a deft crouch, capture weapon rippling after him.

“You realize the stairs are right there,” All for One points out.

“Where’s All Might,” Eraserhead grunts, because he has no manners.

At least the underground hero is semi-tolerable, as far as heroes go. And his quirk is utterly fascinating. If All for One still had eyes, he would consider taking it for himself. Alas. “He let himself get distracted,” All for One says honestly. “I am sure he will come blundering in shortly.” Hopefully after All for One has already done what he came for and is far, far away. He wouldn’t put it past the hero to have scraped together some ill-advised plot to detain him after the ring is cleared.

“Great.” Eraserhead nudges the prone trafficker beside him with his boot. The man groans. “Found the cellar. Kids weren’t in it, but there was a guard handcuffed to the railing of the stairway.”

“Someone beat us here?” If that is the case, All for One is going to murder whoever it was with his bare hands and present their mangled corpse to the good doctor for his experiments.

“I don’t think so. Guard wasn’t very forthcoming. Kept saying ‘it’s gone’ over and over again.” The pro-hero snorts. “Not a very good guard, in any case.”

Hmm. “A breakout, do you think?”

“Seems likely, but couldn’t have been that long ago, or these guys would be gone already.” Eraserhead carefully binds off the unconscious traffickers hands and retracts his capture weapon. “It’s a big place. You take a look down here, I’ll hit up top. No sign of the boss yet.”

Good. All for One has several choice words for the man, most of which should be shared out of the pros’ earshot. “If you like,” he offers amiably.

Eraserhead turns, about to run back up to the catwalk. Then the hero pauses, his breath leaving him in a gusty sigh. “I can’t keep calling you ‘masked stranger’ in my head,” he grumbles out, inclining his head back in All for One’s direction. “You got a name?”

All for One would have been reluctant to give it earlier in front of All Might and his pet detective, but he finds Eraserhead’s blunt and abrasive demeanor oddly refreshing. He can give the man this much. “Hisashi will be fine.”

“Hisashi,” Eraserhead repeats, and with a nod, leaps back up the stairs.

Hisashi lets his senses linger on the pro’s retreating form before he finally turns away and weaves back through the rows of industrial equipment lining the processing floor.

He hadn’t intended to reveal himself quite so soon. The consequences, particularly in the case of Tomura’s development, are sure to be...riveting. A young man after his own blackened, shrivelled heart, to be sure. Tomura would be restless, eager to lash out. It would be difficult convincing him to lay low for a time. Perhaps a conversation with Kurogiri was in order later.

Depending on how all of this played out, some of his plans might have to be put off indefinitely. Frustrating, but not a disaster. Not yet. He is getting rather tired, however, of One for All’s eighth user and his tendency to put his grubby mitts all over All for One’s things.

A voice calls out from one of the many rows of equipment and pulls him from his thoughts. “It’s...you…”

All for One pauses.

The infrared quirk he has been making use of since his injury is a godsend, but hardly a good substitute for actual sightedness. He misses being able to sit and read, or easily distinguish one face from another.

To compensate, he has become excellent at recognizing voices.

At the end of the aisle, the leader of the trafficking ring stands looming over a wounded child, licks of heat spitting from his mouth. The child, stubbornly, does not scream. They press themself against the wall, darting anxious looks in All for One’s direction.

“Wh-what,” Watanabe ekes out, shock tightening his muscles, “what are you doing here?”

The man sounds markedly older than he was when All for One saw him last, his voice roughened with age and cigarettes. It would have been...nine or so years? Not so long, and yet another life entirely.

“I came to see what you made of my little gift,” All for One murmurs. “And look what you’ve done with it.”

It had been one of his more magnanimous offerings, all told.

Hisashi has lived for a long, long time. Being so long-lived, he once made it a point to never let things get personal. He didn’t have the time for emotional attachments. As the Symbol of Evil, he should be firmly above them.

It is not a rule he has been particularly good at keeping.

How ironic that a deal he made back in a moment of personal weakness would backfire on him so personally as well. Somewhere in the depths of One for All, his brother is laughing at him. He can’t say he doesn’t deserve it.

All for One steps forward. His prey tries to smile, unaware of the web it is already caught in.

“Are you impressed? It’s really turned out far more lucrative than I was expecting I mean the bids on this lot alone!”

All for One crowds right into the little bottom feeder’s personal space, one hand coming to rest on the whelp’s shoulder. His touch is not gentle. “I am impressed.” A hint of pressure and the worm starts to writhe. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to disgust me. Congratulations.”

Only now does the slime start to realize the danger he is in. His eyes bulge. “What are you—”

“It appears you have forgotten what it’s like to be quirkless,” All for One sneers. His index finger brushes against the skin of the man’s neck. The vermin’s pulse skitters like a frightened mouse. “Allow me to remind you.”

“No, no no please no,” the hypocritical waste of space begs. He smells of sweat and smoke and something sharper. “Don’t take it away.”

“You should have thought about that before you took him,” All for One hisses. He wraps his awareness around the quirk resting inside the man’s genes and yanks.

The quirk jumps like a hot coal, settling back into his collection like it never left. It was one of the very first quirks he ever claimed as his own, and he can admit to a certain attachment. He can’t use it at the moment, not with the respirator, but oh did he miss it.

“Much better.” He releases his grip and the little lamprey collapses to the floor, rendered catatonic by his quirk. Briefly, All for One considers how to put the disgusting thing out of his misery. Perhaps something painful and drawn out. He has a more subtle combination that would be perfect.

He begins to line up the necessary quirks in his mind when he hears the softest of gasps coming from the floor in front of him. It sounds achingly familiar.

He turns his senses, limited as they might be, to Watanabe’s prisoner. A boy. Young man, really. Short for his age but wiry, with his mother’s nose and round cheeks. Hisashi can’t see the boy’s eyes, though he desperately wants to. He can at least feel them watching him.

It seems killing Watanabe is firmly not on the table for today. A shame.

Instead, All for One slots a couple of his favorite enhancers into place and tosses the worm down the aisle. The body crashes through one rusted conveyor belt and slams into another, the machinery caving in around the point of impact. With any luck, the collision will have shattered more than a few of Watanabe’s bones. It will have to do.

A hospital will be much easier to break into than a prison, in any case.

Hisashi turns back to the boy. He hasn’t allowed himself to imagine this meeting once in the past five years. If he had, he thinks he would have at least given himself the ability to see. And staged it somewhere other than a warehouse inhabited by human traffickers, perhaps. In his memories, the boy is tiny and cherub-cheeked and covered in freckles much like his own. The image sits jarringly over the reality of the teenager in front of him. He really has missed so much.

He has no tear ducts. He cannot cry.

For once, he wants to.

Behind his mask, Hisashi allows himself a tiny smile. “Hello, Izuku.”

Chapter Text

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.”

“You promise?"

“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.

Natsuo screams.

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—

“Um, Izuku?”

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.

A-ha.

“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?”

“...Yes.”

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.

“I’m...sorry?”

“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.

He howls.

“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.”

“‘Zuku…”

“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.

Oh.

“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.

Chapter Text

Well, Midoriya Izuku thinks, his brain full of bees and his heart thrumming like a rabbit’s on three shots of espresso, that happened.

“My boy...that man,” All Might begins, his voice losing some of its boisterous energy. “Did he…”

“Just a moment, sorry All Might!” Izuku drops down on his haunches in front of the conveyor belt and peers beneath the machinery. He grins. “Sorry I made you wait!”

Aiko’s big eyes peak up at him. “I was scared you weren’t gonna come back.”

“Of course I was,” he soothes and gathers the little girl to his chest. Compared to old refrigerators and All Might, she weighs almost nothing. “I wouldn’t leave you behind.”

While he gently rubs Aiko’s back, Izuku lets himself drift away in thought. That man was...definitely his dad. The voice was a little different, unfiltered by phone lines and the haze of Izuku’s own memory, but still undoubtedly him. Izuku doesn’t understand. What was he doing in that warehouse? What was with that strange mask? Why did All Might seem to recognize him?

There are conclusions Izuku can draw...but none he wants to.

It makes sense, in hindsight, that he never manifested anything like Fire Breathing. His dad’s true quirk is something entirely different, something Izuku has always thought of as impossible. If Midoriya Hisashi could lie to his family about his quirk, who knows what else he could have lied about?

Then there’s the fact Izuku manifested a quirk at all. He’s heard of cases, of course. Stress-related quirk activation, or invisible quirks with incredibly specific triggers. Both are rare. But neither should apply to him. He has the extra toe-joint and the accompanying official diagnosis. It should be impossible.

He prods at the spark of Fire Breath in his chest to remind himself he isn’t dreaming.

“Hey Aiko, did you want to meet All Might?” She buries her face in Izuku’s neck and he smiles awkwardly up at the pro hero. “Sorry, I think she’s had a long week.”

“It’s alright,” All Might says. “Young Midoriya, did you—”

Before All Might can finish his question, the sound of rustling fabric draws his and Izuku’s attention. A figure launches itself out from behind the towering rows of crates and machinery, strips of gray cloth streaming behind him. A pro hero. He lands smoothly and shifts his distinctive yellow goggles down around his neck. The rest of his capture weapon follows suit, rewinding with a flick of the hero’s wrist.

Izuku swallows down what would probably be an embarrassing noise. Eraserhead is so cool.

“Ran into a bunch of kids on their way out the door,” Eraserhead tells All Might, and Izuku breathes a sigh of relief. He figured the others would be fine, but the confirmation settles some of the anxiety in his chest. “Pointed them at the police line. Still no sign of the leader.”

Izuku blinks. “Watanabe? Um. He’s…” Izuku gestures at the crumpled remains of the conveyor belt across the floor, where Watanabe is still lying prone in a dent the shape of his own body.

“And how, exactly, did he get there.”

“...He was thrown?”

Eraserhead’s eyes briefly flicker over to All Might, who stares confusedly back. The underground hero sighs deeply. “I’ll be right back.”

Once the man is out of earshot, Izuku turns back to All Might. “You’re running out of time, aren’t you?” he asks worriedly, looking at the wisps of steam rising from All Might’s form. “Won’t he see you?”

“Not to worry, my boy, Eraser is well aware of my situation.” All Might scratches idly at his jaw. “Though it would be for the best if we took this conversation somewhere a little more private.” He nods at Aiko, her arms still tightly clasped around Izuku’s neck.

“Oh, right.” Izuku adjusts his hold on the little girl. “Can we get Aiko back to the others? Then I’ll go with you.”

Eraserhead chooses that moment to return, Watanabe now tightly bound in capture tape and tossed unceremoniously over the pro’s shoulder. “You should let the EMTs look you over first.” The underground pro’s keen eyes slide over Izuku’s form, lingering on the singed ends of his hair. “I’m sure All Might would say the same.”

Izuku’s mentor stands bolt straight, his arms pressed tight to his sides. “Yes! Of course!” He sounds almost...chastised? That can’t be right. “My boy, I will meet you at our usual spot tomorrow morning.” All Might’s blue eyes glint sharply in the dimming light. “I believe we have much to discuss.”

“Alright,” Izuku agrees, and the number one hero launches himself up onto the catwalk and out of sight.

Eraserhead sighs again. Izuku gets the feeling he does so a lot. “Come on, let’s get you over to the police.”

Just up the block from the warehouse is a police barricade, complete with a medical response team and a criminal transport van. Several of the criminals Izuku noted before are already being loaded in, tightly bound by restraints. Lights from the vehicles illuminate the whole street, bathing the nearby buildings in blue and white. It’s a low-traffic area, but a handful of civilians still linger around the edges of the blockades, trying to get a glimpse of the action. Izuku spies Kokoro some distance away, deep in conversation with a dark-haired officer. Or at least, Kokoro is deep in conversation, her arms gesturing animatedly while the officer nods along.

“Alright. You two,” Eraserhead says. He jabs a thumb over at the medic set-up. “Ambulance, now. I’ll know if you don’t.” He waits for Izuku’s weak nod before turning towards the transport van, Watanabe still a motionless lump against his shoulder.

Izuku obediently carries Aiko over to the ambulance. In addition to the EMTs, two other figures wait in the back of the vehicle, each in the middle of treatment.

“Mami!” Aiko squeals and wriggles until Izuku sets her down on the pavement.

Aiko darts away from Izuku’s hands and straight into Mami’s, her thin arms encircling the woman’s waist. Mami sags in relief, almost boneless in the way her body collapses around Aiko’s smaller form. Aiko squirms in the young woman’s hold, clearly pleased by the affection but just as unused to it. Mami’s eyes are watery, her lips pressed to Aiko’s unkempt hair. “Izuku-kun, thank you.”

Heat rushes to Izuku’s cheeks. “It was no problem, really!”

Mami looks like she wants to argue that, but lets it go in favor of squeezing Aiko in a tighter hug. “You’re squishing me,” the little girl whines, then immediately contradicts herself by cuddling in closer to Mami’s side. Izuku can’t help a soft smile at the sight.

“I guess the important thing is we’re all in one piece,” Mami says. She isn’t that much older than the rest of them, really, but the weight of her experience is etched in lines on her face. Her gaze slides over to the emergency vehicle parked next to them and her mouth curls wryly at the edges. “Well, mostly, anyway.”

Natsuo sits on the open bed of the ambulance, patiently waiting while a bat-eared paramedic dabs burn cream over his wounds. He grins brightly. “Glad to see you’re alive!” The older teen flinches back from the paramedic’s gloved hands on his ribs. “Oof, that stings.”

“You’re lucky these didn’t get infected,” the paramedic says. “You’ll have to keep them clean while they heal.”

“Not my first time dealing with burns.” Natsuo’s easy-going smile sharpens, tension visible around his flinty eyes. “It’s fine.”

“There’ll be some scarring.”

“Aww, there goes my beach bod,” the older teen jokes. He rolls his shoulders and his half-smile fades. “Really, it’s fine. You should take care of this kid,” Natsuo offers, nodding in Izuku’s direction. “He got stabbed in the leg. A lot.”

The paramedic turns to look over Izuku, a frown on his face. “Pants off for me, please.”

Izuku full-body cringes. “Do I have to?” He darts a look over to Mami and Aiko and his voice climbs a couple of octaves. “There’s girls here.” Mami stares back at him, distinctly unimpressed.

Eventually, they compromise, and the paramedic cuts off the leg of Izuku’s track pants with a pair of scissors. Izuku’s burns, while a little deeper than Natsuo’s, are milder, roughly the equivalent of a nasty sunburn.

“We might still take you to the hospital, if only to treat the dehydration,” the paramedic remarks. He finishes bandaging Izuku’s thigh and gives his knee a gentle pat. “Try to keep off that leg for now.”

With that, the paramedic tidies up the extra gauze and other medical supplies and disappears to the front of the vehicle. Kokoro practically skips back up to the ambulance, apparently finished talking to the police.

“Hey! Hope you nerds didn’t miss me,” she greets, her haphazard ponytail swinging behind her.

Natsuo grins back at her. “Nope.”

“Rude.” She sticks her tongue out at him before turning to the rest of them. “The police want all our statements eventually but they’re willing to handle that part tomorrow. I think they’re calling up our families now.”

Izuku doesn’t miss the way Natsuo’s face sours at that, or the way Aiko shudders in Mami’s hold. He frowns. Maybe when his mom gets here, he can subtly push her in Mami and Aiko’s direction? Her specialty is family law. If nothing else, she’ll at least have suggestions.

“But anyway, Izu-kun,” Kokoro breathes, her grin wide and almost manic, “did you see there are pros here?”

“Yeah, Eraserhead.” Natsuo snorts. “I told you he was cool.”

“A-actually,” Izuku cuts in, “All Might was here as well...”

All Might was here?” Kokoro smacks a hand against her forehead. “Aww that sucks I can’t believe I missed that.”

Over Kokoro’s shoulder, Izuku catches a glimpse of Eraserhead, currently transporting one of the traffickers across the lot. The criminal’s arms and shoulders are held against his torso by Eraserhead’s capture weapon, exposed hands bound behind his back. A piece of capture tape covers his mouth. His blond hair is matted with sweat, his skin dull. The police-issue quirk suppression cuffs binding the man’s wrists, Izuku notes, appear to be inactive.

It’s Hoshito.

Without a thought, Izuku slides off the back of the ambulance.

Kokoro’s hand on his arm stops him. “And just where do you think you’re going?”

“This will just take a second.”

“Izu-kun!” Kokoro gives his shoulder a hard shove and Izuku stumbles like a baby deer learning to walk. He catches himself on the side of the ambulance and Kokoro gives him a pointed look.

“It doesn’t even hurt!” Izuku protests. And it doesn’t, really, just twinges a little when he puts too much weight on his leg. He’s fine. “I’ll be right back,” he promises and hobbles after Eraserhead.

At first, the pro hero pays Izuku no mind, which is understandable. He knows he isn’t much to look at. The second Hoshito spots him, however, the criminal begins to thrash violently against his bonds.

Izuku puts his hands up in a placating gesture before he belatedly remembers the touch-based nature of his new quirk and lets his hands drop uselessly to his sides. “Sorry!” He slaps a smile on his face and hopes it lands somewhere in the vicinity of reassuring. “Is there any way I can talk to him for a second?”

The pro grunts and gives the line of capture weapon in his hands a sharp tug. Hoshito bobs like a fishing lure. “You should be resting.”

“I will.” He points to Hoshito, who hasn’t stopped watching him with wary, yellow eyes. “I’ve got something of his I need to return first, that’s all.”

“Whatever it is, kid, you can leave it with me. It’s just gonna end up in lockup, anyway.”

“Huh?” Izuku blinks. Realization settles over him like a fog and puts a chill up his spine. He flails, tongue tripping over itself in his hurry to correct the underground hero’s assumption. “Oh! No! I mean...I should explain. I have his quirk?”

“...You have his what now.”

“His quirk. I might have, you know. Taken it. Earlier.” He holds up his palm and lets a few gold specks of light swirl over his fingertips. “That’s my quirk. Not this, specifically! This is his quirk.” He wrings his wrist and the specks vanish. “Taking quirks, is my quirk.” That is still so weird to think, let alone say. Weird, but thrilling. “Oh, I should probably think of a name for it! I’m not very good at being clever, though, so maybe something simple and descriptive would be best. ‘Quirk Transfer’ is pretty boring...maybe ‘Give and Take?’ I’ll have to think about it.”

Eraserhead stares at him, probably as off put by the sudden verbal diarrhea as Izuku should be. Izuku doesn’t have the energy to be embarrassed about it right now. “So,” he presses, “can I give it back to him?”

“...Five minutes, kid,” Eraserhead says.

Izuku smiles gratefully and steps forward, arm extended. Hoshito jerks violently back, spitting muffled obscenities into the capture tape over his mouth, but Eraserhead’s hold keeps the criminal firmly in place. Izuku’s outstretched hand lands on Hoshito’s head, the heel of his palm just brushing the bridge of the criminal’s nose. Hoshito goes a little cross-eyed, but otherwise does not move again.

“I’m not doing this because you deserve it,” he tells the criminal, “you don’t.”

Returning a quirk is at once both easier and harder than borrowing one. Prying Hoshito’s quirk loose from his own takes effort, but it finally comes free after a couple of sharp tugs. Izuku gently pushes the quirk back towards Hoshito and it goes readily, gliding through the connection where the calloused skin of Izuku’s palm meets the criminal’s forehead.

It’s a wonderful quirk. But it isn’t Izuku’s.

The light on the quirk suppressing cuff flickers on.

Izuku pulls his hand away from Hoshito’s forehead and pointedly avoids looking at the stunned expression on the criminal’s face.

“You’re Midoriya, right?” Eraserhead shifts his stance, the look in his eyes carefully assessing. “You wrote the analysis on Kawaguchi.”

The noise that makes its way out of Izuku’s throat might generously be referred to as a squeak. “You...read that?”

“You’re applying to U.A., aren’t you. Sure you can handle it?” He nods at the bandages wrapped around Izuku’s leg. “They don’t offer make-up exams, you know.”

“Oh, no, I know.” Izuku sighs. He knows why they don’t: U.A. gets more than enough applicants to their hero course as-is. If someone can’t make the time, they don’t deserve a spot. Though Izuku does wish they made more of an allowance for extenuating circumstances. Regardless, he’s going to be working with about a ten-year handicap in the practical. A few more days of healing or preparation time won’t change that. “But I can’t let this chance pass me by.”

“Mm.” Eraserhead watches him for a moment, long enough that Izuku starts to fidget under the attention. Then the pressure eases and the hero looks away. “Your potential isn’t zero. Make sure you don’t waste it, problem child.”

“Thank...you?” The pro doesn’t reply, merely pushes Hoshito forward towards the police van.

Izuku takes the cue to leave for what it is and wanders back over to the ambulance. Three faces stare back at him expectantly. The fourth, Aiko, is tucked close against Mami’s side and dozing lightly. Izuku can’t blame her. She’s had a long couple of days.

Natsuo shuffles over, leaving just enough room for Izuku to climb up and take a seat. “You going to tell us what that was about?”

“It was his quirk,” Izuku explains. He cradles his hands to his chest, idly massaging the palm of one hand with the opposite thumb. “I had to give it back.”

“I would have kept it,” Mami offers. She passes Izuku a blanket, a lurid orange monstrosity made out of wool. A similar one is tucked around her and Aiko. “Would’ve served him right.”

Izuku can understand the logic to that, but… “It’s not really a matter of whether he deserves it. It’s the right thing to do.” He brightens. “Anyway, maybe he’ll learn from this, and be better. I’m not optimistic, but I can hope, right? I’ve gotta at least give him the chance.”

“Are you like, made of sunshine?” Natsuo asks incredulously. “Seriously, I’m going blind over here.”

“Too good for this world,” Kokoro moans with a hand pressed over her heart. The effect is slightly ruined by the wide grin dimpling her cheeks. “Too pure.”

Mami buries a giggle behind her hand. “Stop it, you two, you’re embarrassing him.”

True. Izuku’s primary concern at the moment though is the anxiety lacing itself between his ribs. His nervous smile drops a little. “You’re all...okay with this?”

Kokoro drops her teasing posture, her rose-colored eyes drifting off to the side. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous,” she admits. She kicks idly at the pavement, her boot scuffing against gravel. “I still wanna work with you, some day. And hey, maybe you won’t be the first quirkless hero, but you could still inspire them!”

Izuku was never going to be the first quirkless hero, anyway. But maybe now he can be a hero with his own quirk, instead of someone else’s. Would All Might be disappointed by that? Or is it cheating if Izuku still accepts All Might’s gift? He’s starting so far behind everyone else. He needs every advantage he can get. He and his hero have a lot to talk about in the morning.

“Why don’t we all exchange phone numbers?” Mami suggests softly. “I haven’t met another quirkless person since my grandfather. It’d be nice, having people who understand.”

“Yes yes yes!” Kokoro cheers. “We can start a group chat! Get ready for all the memes.”

“I’m game, but I think my phone has been drowning in saltwater for the last week.” Natsuo grimaces. “Would email work for now?”

Izuku smiles so wide his cheeks hurt. “That’d be great!” He fidgets in his seat, fighting the urge to pick at the bandage wrapped around his thigh. “You all really want to keep in touch?” The words ‘with me’ stay silent, but from the expressions on their faces they all heard anyway.

Kokoro frowns at him, her brows knitted. “Um, yeah? If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t have gotten out of there.”

Izuku ducks his head shyly, his hands pressed nervously together. He hasn’t had friends since Kacchan and already he’s messing this up. “That’s only because I got my quirk though. And the pros were on their way anyway—”

Natsuo barks out a laugh. Izuku shrinks back from the sudden burst of sound. “Are you kidding me?” Natsuo glances back at the younger teen, who is currently trying to smother himself with the shock blanket. “Wow okay you’re not.”

The older teen sighs. “Listen up. You got us out of that freezer. Not a quirk. You. You put together a plan. You threw yourself in front of that glowstick asshole, you ran after Aiko and kept her safe. And sure, the pros were coming, but none of us knew that.”

“You were really cool, Izu-kun,” Kokoro adds.

Natsuo leans forward, a few wisps of snowy hair falling over his forehead. “I’m not a big hero fan, I think I’ve been pretty upfront about that. But what you did in there? That was what a hero should be like. And you didn’t need a quirk for any of it.”

“You’re not...jealous?” The words sneak out of Izuku’s mouth before he can stop them. He doesn’t miss Kokoro’s minute flinch.

“Maybe I would’ve been, years ago.” The older teen huffs, his gray eyes fixing on some point in the distance no one else can see. In the car lights, his pale hair turns blue, then red and back again. “I figured out a long time ago that having a quirk is more trouble than it’s worth. At least for me.”

“Can I ask...what happened?”

“Sorry, you must be a level five friend to unlock my tragic backstory.”

Izuku ducks his head. “Oh, sorry—”

Natsuo grins. “It’s cool. We’re like, at least level two now so we’ll get there.”

The five of them sit in peaceful silence, simply enjoying the company. It’s...nice, Izuku decides. He could get used to having friends.

With the sun down, the exhaustion of the week finally settles on everyone’s shoulders. Mami dozes off first, followed by Kokoro. Before he knows it, Izuku is blinking himself awake to see more people congregating at the edge of the police line. He can see an older couple, the man with eyes the same pinkish hue as Kokoro’s. A young woman wearing glasses, her white hair streaked with red. And in front of them all, Izuku’s mother, tears streaming down her face.

“Looks like it’s time to go,” Natsuo remarks. He gingerly hops off the back of the ambulance. He takes a couple steps forward, then turns back to face Izuku, his shoulders slightly hunched. “Can I ask you one thing?” When Izuku nods, he heaves a sigh. “Don’t forget, okay? It might be easy, when you’re big and famous and saving people. But never lose track of where you came from, alright?” Both of his hands are clenched into fists, knuckles as white as his hair. “Never forget to be kind.”

It isn’t a hard promise to make. “I won’t,” Izuku says. He’ll keep it even if it means breaking every bone in his body.


-


It is the morning of February 25th, the day before the U.A. entrance exam. The morning after young Midoriya escaped the trafficking ring. Toshinori watches the sunrise over Dagobah Beach. It looks the same as it did four days ago, dapples of pink-orange light on the waves and sand. But the shadows seem...longer, somehow. Darker.

Toshinori shakes his head. Probably a figment of his imagination.

The sound of footsteps shuffling through sand catches Toshinori’s attention and he turns away from the water. A familiar head of green hair steps into his field of vision.

Toshinori smiles. “You’re running a little late.”

“Sorry, All Might,” the boy says meekly, a hand pressed to the back of his neck. “Um. My mom didn’t want me to come alone.” He inclines his head up at the boardwalk. Sure enough, Midoriya Inko stands waiting in the distance, bundled up to her neck in a thick pink coat. She spots the two of them looking her way and waves enthusiastically.

Toshinori raises a hand back in greeting. “That’s fine. I know she was worried for you.” The same can be said of Toshinori. He sighs, a little smile sneaking onto his face. “Glad to see you’re okay, kid.”

“Thanks, All Might.” The kid rocks back on his heels, as nervous as Toshinori has ever seen him. “It...it means a lot. That you came to save me.”

“Young Midoriya. Of course I did.”

His pupil smiles at that, though the expression doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Some of the other kids didn’t think anyone was coming. I hope they think differently now.”

“I’m sure they do.” Toshinori scratches at the back of his head. He needs to ask young Midoriya about his encounter with that man, but he doesn’t know where to begin. Perhaps start with a lighter subject? “So! Bet the entrance exam will seem like a breeze now, huh?” Ooh, no, that probably wasn’t as tactful as he should have been.

Young Midoriya eyes the piles of trash still marring the view of the beach, a defeated sigh escaping him. His shoulders sag. “I didn’t finish in time, though.”

Great. Nice going, Toshinori. He coughs into his fist. He could give young Midoriya One for All now. The boy has been working hard for it. And really, what’s a few less days of training? Though they have already been rushing the process as is. Can he afford to risk it?

He recalls All for One’s words in front of that warehouse and the taste in his mouth sours.

Before Toshinori can make up his mind on what to say, young Midoriya bounces up on his toes, his fists pumped at his sides. “Oh! I need to tell you—I got my quirk! I’m...not as quirkless as the doctor thought, I guess.” His voice trails off into a barely comprehensible murmur as he continues. “That’ll be a big help in the exam, though depending on the parameters maybe not? There’s still general studies or the support course as options even though I really want to be a hero but the exam is tomorrow that’s not a lot of time to figure out one quirk, let alone two...”

Toshinori’s blood turns to ice. “My boy, this is incredibly important. Did you get your quirk after you met that man?”

Young Midoriya frowns, a crinkle appearing between his brows. “No? It was definitely before.”

That bothers him. Several things about this bother him. All for One’s obvious familiarity with Toshinori’s pupil most of all. The memory of his nemesis’s hand on young Midoriya’s head forces a shudder through Toshinori’s limbs. “And after? Do you still have your quirk?”

“...Yes? I used it again at the police line.” The boy’s frown deepens. “What’s this about?”

“There’s something I need to tell you, something I should have a long time ago.” Toshinori sighs. The memory of his mentor, and her own telling of this tale, spurs him to continue. “About One for All.”

He explains. The words come out slow and unpracticed in some places, hurried and choked with too much emotion in others. Young Midoriya stands rapt with wide-eyed attention through it all. The true origin of One for All, the enigmatic monster that is All for One. Toshinori gets it all out, even though it feels like pulling out the rest of his organs through his nose. At the very least, he owes young Midoriya the truth. His nemesis—damn him straight back to hell where he belongs—was right about that, as much as Toshinori hates to admit it.

“That’s all of it,” Toshinori finishes tiredly. “If...I would understand, if after hearing all of that, you chose not to accept my quirk.”

For a long while, young Midoriya does not speak. He turns to stare out over the waves, his lips pressed into a tight line. He pulls his hands close to his chest, massaging the palm of one with the thumb of the other. From this angle, the green of his hair seems almost white, paled by the rising sunlight.

“All for One,” Young Midoriya’s voice trembles around the shape of the name. “That’s...my quirk is the same.”

Toshinori takes in a sharp breath. Four days worth of hints and off-hand comments and niggling little clues jar violently into place inside his brain.

Oh no. Oh god no.

The quirk analysis. The similarities in their features and expressions, however minute or superficial. All for One’s uncharacteristic concern for the ring’s victims and later for Toshinori’s successor, starting the very second he heard young Midoriya’s name.

The man’s picture is in the Midoriyas’ living room. Toshinori is an idiot. That’s the only possible explanation for how he was able to avoid seeing something so obvious.

Toshinori’s brain snags violently on the idea of Inko—sweet, soft Midoriya Inko—with that monster. No. Absolutely not. Toshinori is going to shove that thought in a box, toss it in the back of a closet, and pointedly never, ever open it again.

“I’ve never felt anything like it before,” the boy continues. He still isn’t looking at Toshinori. “One of the traffickers...he was hurting us, and I couldn’t help but think. If I had his quirk, I’d be able to make him stop. And then I did have his quirk. And he stopped.”

“Do you still have it?” Toshinori makes himself ask, his mouth full of sand.

Young Midoriya shakes his head. “No, I gave it back.”

Gave it back. Like it was that simple. That man would never give back a quirk. Not once he claimed it as his own.

“I would understand,” young Midoriya chokes out. “If...Because of that, if you didn’t want…”

It is then that Toshinori laughs. Because he realizes it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, because Toshinori knows young Midoriya. The boy is good and kind and far too reckless in a way that reminds Toshinori of himself. He can’t lie worth a damn and gets hopelessly lost in his own head. He’s dealt with heartbreak and discrimination and he has kept going anyway, because he works hard and dreams fearlessly. It doesn’t matter who young Midoriya might or might not be related to. It doesn’t matter whether or not he takes One for All. He is Toshinori’s kid.

Toshinori blinks. Huh.

“All...Might?”

Toshinori catches his breath, his eyes sliding shut. The sun’s rays are warm against his face. “You know, I met the girl you saved, when this started. She came to the police because of you.” He opens his eyes to see the boy quietly watching him, the rising sun at his back. The shadows don’t seem quite so long. “Your journey might just be beginning, but to that girl, young Midoriya, you are already a hero.”

Young Midoriya’s breath hitches and Toshinori can’t help but smile. “My mind hasn’t changed,” Toshinori says. Well, no, it has, but not in the way his pupil is probably thinking. ‘A quirk is what you make of it.’ Once again, young Midoriya is proving Toshinori’s inability to live up to his own words. He sets a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Whatever you decide. With my quirk, your own quirk, or both. You have what it takes, my boy, and I will support you the whole way.”

When young Midoriya looks up at him, the boy’s eyes are shining.


-


After dinner, long after his mom has already turned in for the night, Izuku sits in his room and thinks.

He turns the phone over and over in his hands, considering. In an odd way, he feels like he is sitting on the edge of something. A turning point. His future opens up in front of him, yawning with possibility. The shape of it hasn’t settled yet. It is his to mold.

Izuku pulls open the contact on his phone and presses send. The last time he tried this number, the line rang out, the voicemail replaced with a ‘call cannot be completed’ message. Izuku has a feeling that, this time, his call will reach its intended destination.

It does.

Before the second ring can finish, the line connects with a click. A voice, deep and familiar, slips over the receiver. “Hello, Izuku.”

“Hi dad.” Izuku swallows around the newly-formed lump in his throat. There is no time to regret his decisions. “Or should I call you ‘All for One?’”

“Ah. So he told you after all.”

“You had to have known he was going to,” Izuku points out. Technically speaking, his dad didn’t have to leave him behind in that warehouse. Though it was probably for the best that he did. Izuku can’t imagine that would have ended well.

His dad just hums agreeably. “What did he tell you, exactly?”

“That you created One for All by pushing a stockpiling quirk onto your brother,” Izuku spits, hot tears welling in his eyes. “That you’re a villain.”

As much as Izuku wanted to reject the idea, he can’t deny...it fits. His dad always had a certain presence, a commanding way of speaking. Several of Izuku’s childhood memories make a lot more sense, in retrospect. But it hurts, knowing that Midoriya Hisashi—a man who soothed Izuku’s nightmares and kissed his bruises and on one notable occasion dressed up as his favorite hero for his fourth birthday party—has hurt people. Logically, Izuku should want nothing to do with him.

Emotionally...Izuku is a kid who misses his dad.

The man was an unmistakably positive presence in Izuku’s early life. Izuku has never once questioned the fact that he was loved. He just always suspected there was something else his dad loved more.

Is it better or worse that it turned out to be his hatred for Izuku’s favorite hero? He could have been dead, Izuku supposes. Or living somewhere with his other, better son.

His father’s voice draws Izuku back out of his thoughts. “Hmm. But nothing about the bone-breaking?”

“Um. The bone...breaking?”

“It’s nothing, really,” his dad says in a casual tone of voice, the kind that is also concealing a dagger. “Just that cramming the combined strength of several human beings into an ill-prepared vessel has consequences including, but not limited to, exploding limbs.”

“...Oh.” You would think All Might would have at least mentioned that.

His dad sighs. “Yes, son. ‘Oh.’ Please tell me you did not accept that nightmare of a quirk?”

A vicious part of Izuku badly wants to lie and say yes, but he resists the temptation. “Not yet,” he huffs, the words both an admission and a promise. “I want to get used to my own quirk first.” He and All Might had both agreed it was the best course of action, at least for now.

“Ah yes. That’s not something I expected, but it’s not an unpleasant development. Far from it.”

“I didn’t think it was possible,” Izuku admits softly. “I mean...I have the extra toe joint.”

“So did your uncle.” The bitterness in his dad’s voice sparks a realization: Izuku and the first holder of One for All are related. Before, during his conversation with All Might, it hadn’t really sunk in. “I trusted the doctor’s diagnosis, but I should have known better. This society puts far too much emphasis on strong quirks.” His voice softens dangerously. “It has long been to my advantage. And, unfortunately, to your detriment.”

Izuku’s hand tightens around the phone until he can hear the faint creak of plastic. “What am I supposed to do about all this? You were...gone. For five years. And you were barely around for years before that.” The shock of seeing his father again has finally worked its way out of Izuku’s system and something raw and unnamed has clawed up into its place. “What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything, son.”

Bullshit. You—” Izuku chokes on a sob, the burning in his throat too intense to ignore. “I’ve wanted to be a hero my whole life, you know that. Do you expect me to just throw that away? The entrance exam is tomorrow.” Izuku spares a quick glance at his alarm clock. Well, today, technically. “I—why now? Why did you wait until now?” Logically, Izuku recognizes that his quirk’s sudden activation was a coincidence. But the center of him; the part that is still six-years-old and missing his father after a devastating doctor’s visit; isn’t so rational.

Izuku knows his worth as a human being. He might have a quirk now, but he is the same useless Deku Kacchan always said he was. He talks too much and thinks too little. He’s weak. It’s only with All Might’s help Izuku has a hope of passing the entrance exam at all. Izuku never blamed his dad for leaving. It would have been easier if the man had never come back at all. “I’m...don’t you regret having me?”

There is a too-long silence between them, punctuated only by Izuku’s harsh puffs of breath and the hum of his computer fans. His dad sighs.

“There is no room in my life for regrets, Izuku. Even if there was. You and your mother would never be one of them.”

“Does she know?” Izuku demands, his voice wobbling over the words. He doesn’t know what he wants the answer to be. “Mom...does she know?”

“She knows...most of it,” his dad admits. “Nothing about my true quirk, of course, but plenty about the, ah—”

“The villainy,” Izuku finishes for him, voice flat.

“Yes, that.” Well, that’s something, Izuku supposes. Though it also opens up a cadre of other questions that Izuku isn’t remotely prepared to have answered. He and his mom probably need to have a long talk. “You needn’t sound so upset, Izuku. When you think about it, the difference between heroes and villains comes down to those that are approved by the government, and those who aren’t.”

“Villains hurt people, Dad.” You hurt people, Izuku couldn’t say.

His dad laughs, a sharp, mirthless punch of sound. “All Might would have murdered me that day, if he could have. He nearly did.”

Izuku squeezes his eyes tightly shut. He had pieced that together for himself, reading between the lines of All Might’s story, but had avoided putting words to the implications. It hurts to think of his mentor that way. “Dad.”

The man doesn’t let up. Izuku never experienced much of Midoriya Hisashi’s anger growing up, but it cuts like an icicle to the gut, cold and snide. “Negligence, destruction of property, even murder. All can be excused by the pretense of a little plastic rectangle.” He scoffs. “Doesn’t that sound the least bit hypocritical to you?”

“Society will hold people accountable for their actions,” Izuku protests. Even to his own ears the words sound flimsy.

“Oh, will it. You forget, this society allows people like me to exist. Allows rats like the criminals that took you to exist.”

“Then I’ll change it,” Izuku snaps back. He thinks of Natsuo’s pinched expression as he talked about heroes, before telling Izuku to go for his dream anyway. Of All Might’s encouraging smile, lit by sunlight. “Even if I have to work harder than anyone else.” If the system needed to change, so be it. He would tear the whole thing down and build it up again, if only for a world where people like Aiko and the others never had to worry that someone was coming to help them. “You can point out the flaws in the hero system as much as you like, but I don’t see you doing anything to make it better.”

“My apologies, son. The topic is something of a sore spot.” Izuku can hear the grin in the man’s voice. “Something we’ll both have to get used to, if you wind up attending that school.”

Izuku’s breath catches. “You mean…”

“Would I celebrate if you came to me tomorrow and said you would rather follow in my footsteps instead? Of course. But you won’t,” his dad says with certainty, neatly cutting off Izuku’s protests. “You are never going to be a villain, Izuku. I’ve known that since you could walk.”

“I could be,” Izuku mutters, mostly to be contrary.

“You could,” his dad allows. “But you won’t. And I won’t make the mistake of thinking I can change your ideals.” The man’s sigh speaks of a long-suffering fondness. “You are far too much like your uncle that way.”

“I thought you said you don’t have regrets.”

“I don’t. Society will crush your idealism far better than I ever could.”

Ouch. So Izuku will just have to prove his supervillain father wrong. He can work with that, probably. A realization settles over him and Izuku smacks his forehead into the top of his desk. “I can’t believe you’ve known All Might for years and never told me.”

“Don’t do that, Izuku, your brain is a precious resource,” his dad chides off-handedly. “My apologies for never bringing you back an autograph. Though I doubt he would have deigned to give me one.” He pauses. “Hmm. Perhaps I should have asked. That really would have shaken him.” The man chuckles. “Now. It’s getting late and I believe you have an exam in the morning.”

“You’re really not going to talk me out of this.”

“No, son. I really do have your best interests in mind.”

Izuku can’t help but scoff. “If you did, you wouldn’t have left.”

For a long moment, his dad is silent. “I’m sorry, Izuku,” he says finally, his voice soft as a hiss and firmer than steel, “I’ll do better this time.”

The call ends and Izuku’s phone clatters to the top of his desk. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes with a hiss, trying in vain to stifle the heat prickling behind them. He can’t tell if his tears are out of anger or relief or something else.

By the time he calms down enough to collapse onto his bed, he is emotionally wrung out. When sleep finally comes, he sinks into it gladly.


-


All for One could use some sleep.

As it turns out, shedding and regrowing one’s entire epidermis is both exhausting and completely disgusting. The low humidity in the lab—a necessity, considering the poor state of All for One’s respiratory system—does not help matters. What should be one smooth process becomes a flaking, bleeding mess. Once this is over with All for One is going to foist this quirk off onto a noumu as fast as physically possible.

Finally, the last piece of scar tissue sloughs away and falls to the floor of the lab with a sick, wet plop. All for One wipes a hand over his face, his palm sliding over the unfamiliar bump of his nose, the sharp jut of his cheek bones. His eyelids flutter cautiously open. Droplets of blood and viscera still cling thickly to his lashes and he has to shut his eyes tight against the sudden onslaught of light and color.

His breath stutters. He can see.

“Combining Shed Skin with Super Regeneration was an ingenious solution to the cicatrization problem.” The doctor’s moustache twitches as he observes something on the monitors. “You shouldn’t need the respirator near as often.”

All for One fumbles for one of the towels set out on the medical table and methodically dabs it over his face and neck. A few more loose pieces of flesh come away, stuck to the terry fibers. All for One winces. Distasteful. “I would prefer not at all.”

“Go back in time six years, then,” the doctor chuffs. He swivels his chair back around. “You’ll be sensitive for a few days yet, since your nerve receptors are all new.”

“No matter.” As long as he’s relatively mobile, he will deal with any setbacks as necessary. “I have somewhere I need to be.” His usual suit, shirt and slacks freshly pressed, lie draped over a nearby chair. Hisashi ignores them for now, instead reaching for the jacket. An aged piece of cardstock tumbles out from its folds and he cradles it in his hands, gently pressing the creases flat with his knuckles.

The doctor’s eyes narrow behind the green, green glass of his goggles. “It’s been years, Sensei. Surely they can wait a few more days?”

“No,” Hisashi says, delicately thumbing the edge of the photo. The colors have faded with time, but the smiles on his wife and son’s faces are as bright as his memories of them. He will never take the ability to see their faces for granted again. “They’ve been waiting long enough.”