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but you gotta get up at least once more

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Izuku cries himself out on the dojo floor, and when he’s done, all he has left is numbness and a deep-set exhaustion sinking into his bones.

 

Tamanaha-sensei picks him up off the floor and drives him home. He’s too tired to protest. He mumbles out Yagi’s address when she asks for it, and as the car rumbles to life, he draws his knees up to his chest and buries his face in his arms. He wishes he could rock back and forth to bleed off the tired, anxious energy flooding his limbs, but the seatbelt restricts his movement. All he can do is squeeze his eyes shut and recite his favorite passages under his breath, as if the repetition could drown out everything that has happened today. As if he could block out his thoughts about what… about…

 

Izuku grits his teeth and switches to reciting the opening passage of Ozaki Mashiro’s On the Premise of Peace. The convoluted syntax and expansive lexical field consumes all his attention, so much so that when he feels a touch on his shoulder he reflexively lashes out with his fist. Bang. Izuku blinks and looks at the dent he’s just made in Tamanaha-sensei’s car door. His stomach drops, and so must his face because Tamanaha-sensei tells him it’s okay, just worry about going home.

 

He nods numbly. They make it up to the door before everything starts going to pieces again.

 

When Yagi opens the door, his eyes fall on Izuku and he straightens from his perpetual hunch. Tamanaha-sensei shoos them both in over Yagi’s questions, and Mom looks up from where she must have been sitting with Yagi at the kotatsu, and she takes one look at Izuku and demands to know what’s going on.

 

Tamanaha-sensei explains, in clipped tones, that Kacchan showed up at the dojo and demanded a fight, and Tamanaha-sensei had kicked him out. And then she turns and looks at Izuku and asks if he wants to explain what happened, or if he wants her to say it, or if he wants to leave.

 

Izuku can’t go, though, not when they’re going to have questions about -- about… “I’m fine,” he says, as calmly as he can, “Kacchan just… I asked Tamanaha-sensei why she kicked him out of the dojo, and she said…”

 

And just like that, all the words seize in his throat and his thoughts grind to a halt as the unspoken revelation he never wanted roars to life in his mind. Izuku grabs his head as if the pressure could make him stop thinking about it, he has to tell Mom but he doesn’t want to do that he doesn’t want to think about it and he doesn’t want to remember the awful look on Kacchan’s face before he fled out the door or Tamanaha-sensei’s cold fury and he doesn’t want to remember asking what did he ever do to you and most of all he doesn’t want to remember Tamanaha-sensei’s answer of he hurt you, just that, he hurt you and Kacchan did -- it did hurt and Izuku never asked for her to see it, he never asked to know it, he never wanted to put a name to the -- the -- don’t name it don’t say that it’s not ab-- it’s not stop saying that stop thinking STOP THINKING ABOUT IT STOP STOP STOP STOP --

 

What happened, someone demands, What did you do and someone else says I’m sorry, I should have known better and their voices are the harsh strafing of wind on his ears and they build and build until they fill the air like the great clamoring roar of a bronze bell’s gong and it rings and screams him into blood sharp slivers of bones, presses him to the ground, and there are hands grasping and there are voices crying and there are nerves on fire underneath his heaving lungs

 

and Izuku

               just

                        wants it

 

                  all       to

 

 

 

stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is heavy, dark, and cold.

 

It presses gently down on vision, on his mind; soft it crushes his spirit down, until he lives in only one sliver of himself, and the rest has been taken for the darkness to sleep in instead.

 

But as time stretches out interminably long and doubles back and circles round his head, the darkness slowly lifts. Like a fog it rises and rolls away to the thunderclouds, but it leaves something cold and overwhelmingly empty and lingering behind.

 

He is, Izuku reflects, lying on the floor.

 

The wooden boards beneath his skin have warmed. The familiar weight of many blankets has been draped over him. The room is dark. Izuku opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling, and on the wall the clock slowly ticks towards five o’clock.

 

Two hours later, by the time his mother enters his room, Izuku has managed to pull on his school uniform and gather half his supplies, but there he has halted. The fog has rolled back in again. His mother picks up his notebooks for him and coaxes him down for breakfast. She tries to talk to him. The sound of it bounces around in the hollow space of his throat where words should be, traps itself there, folds in and falls. Izuku eats breakfast, blank, mechanical. The train departure time draws near. Izuku stumbles out the door, his body clumsy and barely functioning, and his mother stands at the door and watches as he goes.

 

He gets to the train station. He climbs onto the train. He almost shuts down again when all the crowd of people pour onto the train and all the colors and the lights and the noise press the darkness back in on the edge of his senses; he is almost too frozen to make it out the train door; but he does get out. He does walk to school. He walks into the classroom and walks past his classmates and walks past Mitoki and almost falls into his seat, his bag spilling limply to the floor, and the vast emptiness that yawns in him takes so much space he cannot even say hello.

 

The day passes in a haze. Izuku starts when someone tugs his sleeve, but it’s just Mitoki saying something about I did your bit of the classroom cleanup, are you okay, um, okay you're not responding, let's just uh let's get you to the train. Izuku blinks and looks at the clock. School is over. He is left with the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to remember anything that has happened today.

 

He makes it home, somehow. He sinks into his bed and passes out for who knows how long, only waking up to text Mitoki a brief thanks for today. The phone buzzes almost immediately, the screen reading no problem dude, and did something happen? you were super out of it. Izuku’s heart thumps. He can't do it. He rolls over and goes back to sleep.

 

None of his homework is done for the next day.

 

The teacher gives him a short lecture but seems to notice something is wrong, and he finishes speaking with a mild frown before moving on with the class. Izuku closes his eyes and breathes. The paralysis that has taken ahold of him recedes as the hours pass by. But then during break, some of the students are testing out a small robot of theirs and their chatter buzzes harshly in Izuku’s ears. He squeezes his eyes shut, puts his hands over his ears to drive off the noise.

 

Someone touches his shoulder, and Izuku reflexively lashes out. A crunch, a yell and a shout -- he flinches and tries to roll out of the way of the attack he can feel coming but something is in the WAY -- he's trapped. He has to move,  he has to escape -- something cracks  too close, his heart leaps into his throat he has to run away he has to MOVE-- IZUKU someone calls IZUKU IZUKU IZUKU that's not right that's not the right name --

 

Izuku’s vision clears. He's on the floor. The wreckage of his desk is clutched in his hands, everyone has turned to look at him, and in front of him is Mitoki, clutching his bleeding nose and repeating Izuku’s name over and over again.

 

“Sorry,” Izuku croaks. He forces his fingers to unclench; the metal leg of his desk, warped and bearing the grooves of his fingers, clatters to the ground. “I thought -- I thought you were--”

 

“It's okay,” Mitoki says, blood dripping down his chin, “just -- let's, uh--”

 

He reaches out for Izuku’s shoulder. A wild, terrified instinct rears its head, and before he realizes what's happened, he’s smacked away Mitoki’s hand and scrambled away. Oh no. Oh no no no no he didn't mean to do that and Mitoki is going to hate him, Mitoki already hates him, Mitoki is going to think he doesn't want to be friends anymore -- his stomach falls, his heart jackrabbits and hammers desperately on the inside of his ribs so hard Izuku thinks they might break -- and Izuku squeezes his eyes shut and folds his arms around his head and forces himself to breathe.

 

The teacher enters. The teacher lets out an exclamation of surprise. The teacher sends Mitoki to the nurse and him to the office. The office sends him home.

 

To be more accurate, since Izuku’s mom can't take time off work, a staff member walks him to the train station and waits with him until the train home arrives. And since it isn't a rush hour, the train is fairly quiet, just the rumbling of the engine and the landscape passing by the windows. It’s almost enough to calm him down again.

 

He makes it to Yagi’s house, feeling slightly better, until he makes it to his room and he has nothing but his own thoughts to keep him occupied. His classmates must hate him. Mitoki must hate him. His teacher must be so angry, and the school is going to have him expelled. He’ll never be able to graduate; he'll never have a job, he'll end up homeless on the streets and unable to support his mom who has worked so hard to keep them both alive and well, he'll never be able to help anyone -- he’ll always fail. He’s been unlucky since the day he was born. He shouldn't have fooled himself into thinking he could ever keep any friends. Just look at what happened with him and Ka--

 

Izuku doesn't go to school for the rest of the week.

 

Instead, he sleeps. He sleeps early and wakes up late, and when he wakes up he goes back to sleep. When he's hungry he creeps into the kitchen and eats maybe a bowl of rice as fast as he can so he can climb back into bed and sleep. And when he can't fall asleep, he buries himself in his blankets and hates himself for every thought he has and he hates himself for every moment he's been alive.

 

And most of all he hates himself for how the -- the conversation with Tamanaha-sensei has sunk its claws so deep in him. No matter how much he tries to keep it off his mind, it keeps resurfacing -- and he can't do it, he can't think about it or he'll fall apart, but it keeps coming back and he doesn't want it -- he hits his head on the wall, bites ugly red marks in his hands, digs his nails into his skin so hard he might bleed, anything to stop thinking about it for even a moment more. But it won't leave. It won’t let him escape. It keeps wrapping itself around his feet and dragging him down into the earth until he can feel the mud and the cold and the dirt clogging up his lungs.

 

Izuku is suffocating under the weight of it. He can’t bear it. He doesn’t want to be awake; doesn’t want to be forced to face the reality that has chained him by the heels. And in the coldest, quietest part of his heart, silent and lost in the shadows, he thinks -- he doesn't even want to be alive.

 

His mother only allows this to go on for four days before she decides it must come to an end.

 

“Izuku,” she calls softly, cracking open the door to his room. The light from the hall is a knife slash through the gloom. “Are you awake?”

 

Izuku peels open his eyes and pulls the blanket away from his face. But the miserable cafard roosted in him weighs him down too much to do more.

 

His mom crouches down by his bed. “Izuku… I understand that you… you've had some difficult revelations, recently.” Izuku cringes. “And -- that's fine. I want you to, to take your time to… take as much time as you need. I want you to have the room to do things the way you need to. But…”

 

Here it comes.

 

“You've been in here for days,” she says, voice raw. “I can't -- I won't allow you to waste away in here. I won't accept it. So.” She meets his eyes, her gaze burning with something implacably of love. “You have to leave this room for three hours each day.”

 

Izuku stares.

 

“And,” she continues, straightening her back, eyes flashing with steel,  “if you aren't ready to go back to school next week, then get your schoolwork from your friends and complete it at home.”

 

“I can't,” Izuku says, aghast, voice hoarse from disuse. This is too much. An impossible task. He opens his mouth to speak again and coughs on the dryness of his throat, and it takes too much effort to push the next words out to his tongue. “You can't -- ask me to do that.”

 

“I can,” she says, unyielding. “Because you can do it. And you don't have to do it on your own. Yagi-san and I will be here every step of the way.”

 

He reels. He can't -- let them do that. He can't be more of a burden on them than he already is just by existing, he can't -- “Wait,” he tries, “please” -- but his mom has already turned away, picking clothes off his floor and pulling open the blinds on his window, filling the room with light.

 

“It’s one o’clock,” she says. “There's food on the table. There’s yet time to spend your three hours outside.” And then she turns to him with a brilliant smile, betrayed only by the nervous line of her shoulders. “It’s time to get up, Izuku!” And she sweeps out the door down the hall humming a strangely familiar tune, and the sun is already starting to burn away the mustiness of his room, and Izuku is left sitting on his bed, wordless, staring after a world moving forward without him and waiting to drag him along.

 

Izuku breathes. He clambers out of bed, legs tired and unsteady with disuse. He pulls on a pair of shorts, puts on a t-shirt, and grabs a jacket. After that, his energy deserts him, and he spends an indeterminate amount of time staring at the jacket in his hands and thinking about how much he should get up -- and how much he cannot do that. But finally, Izuku gets up off the floor and slowly makes his way out to the living room.

 

He feels drained already, he doesn't think he can take a single step more. Yagi looks up from his work as Izuku drops to the floor across the kotatsu from him and curls in on himself.

 

“Izuku-kun,” Yagi says, looking mildly surprised. He smiles tentatively. “It’s good to see you.”

 

Izuku cringes. “Sorry.”

 

Yagi’s eyebrows raise quizzically. “What for?”

 

Izuku gestures vaguely with one hand, looking at the floor instead of meeting Yagi’s eyes. For being inconvenient. For wasting space. For being alive. “I've been… I shut myself in my room all week, I…”

 

His words stop there, caught on the lump in his throat. But Yagi seems unbothered, simply nodding and returning to his work. “It’s perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. Do not trouble yourself over it.”

 

Izuku stares.

 

And then he begins to laugh, rocking back as he hugs his knees to his chest. This is -- incredible. Hilarious, but not really. Yagi-san looks alarmed, and then just a little bit quizzical as Izuku keeps laughing. “Th-that’s w-what All Might said,” Izuku gasps, and the complex look that flashes over Yagi’s eyes is almost enough to startle him out of laughter. That's right, Yagi knows All Might very well, doesn't he? “Did he -- did he tell you about--? How we met?”

 

“...Yes,” Yagi says slowly, unsurely. He sounds so uncertain Izuku takes pity on him.

 

“I fought this--” Izuku waves his hands around, trying to convey the slime mud sewage terror suffocation can’t breathe can’t breathe rank dark fear of the slime monster, but he can’t, he can’t find the words to describe it or the tongue to speak it. Yagi is patiently silent, however, waiting as Izuku looks down and fiddles with the hem of his hoodie. “--he, I, I threw up. On his shoes.” He smiles, feeling a bit wild and hysterical. “The shoes were bright. Yellow.” Another long silence lapses as Izuku rocks gently where he’s sitting, all this nervous energy building in him and nowhere to go. “Then All Might said. ‘Perfectly understandable. Do not trouble yourself over it.’”

 

The entire memory is burned into his mind with the perfect clarity of wonder and awe and complete and utter humiliation. He could probably recite the entire encounter word-for-word. He almost looks back up at Yagi to see what he's thinking, but he doesn’t think he’s comfortable enough to look at anyone’s eyes right now.

 

“Do you guys spend a lot of time together?” he asks. “You must be -- pretty close -- if, um, I mean. If you have… picked up words… and phrases… um… from each other.”

 

He starts picking at the floor instead of his hoodie. The carpet fibers feel pleasant on his palms.

 

“We have known each other for a very long time,” Yagi says carefully. “I was… I suppose you may say I was an important part of All Might’s conception. As a hero.”

 

Izuku looks up at that, awed. “Wow,” he says, and some of that wonder must seep into his voice, because Yagi looks a little embarrassed. “You were part of All Might’s backstory? That’s so cool.”

 

“Er… yes, well,” Yagi clears his throat. “I--”

 

“Not that you aren’t cool,” Izuku says, the words tumbling out of his mouth when they have no right to do that, what is he doing. “You always wear clothes that are too large for you and you’re bad at cooking but you’re nice and really considerate, and you did a lot for us. Me and my mom, I mean. I’m really glad. I mean, it’s important to me. Thank you.” Oh god that was so awkward and uncalled for why does he let himself say anything at all.

 

“It’s the least I could do,” Yagi says. Now he just looks tired. Did Izuku say something wrong? Why is he so consistently terrible. “For many reasons -- the least of which you know.”

 

“It can’t be that complicated,” Izuku mumbles. “You helped us when we needed help, and you gave us a new home. That’s not the least of anything.”

 

“Then,” Yagi says after a pause, “allow me to say that it is a decision that troubles me very little, and one I would make again. I am happy to provide a home so long as you need one.”

 

Izuku lays his head on the kotatsu. “You’re a really nice person, Yagi-san,” he murmurs, tracing the pattern of the wooden grain.

 

“As are you,” Yagi replies, and when Izuku doesn’t respond, he picks up his pen and starts writing again.

 

It’s peaceful. Quiet.

 

Enough to make Izuku feel brave enough to ask…

 

“Yagi-san,” he says, not lifting his head up from the kotatsu, “have you ever felt like your world has fallen apart?”

 

Yagi’s pen stops scratching on his paper. Izuku shouldn’t have said anything, he’s stepped over the line -- he needs to apologize but how -- “Yes,” Yagi says quietly, and Izuku’s thoughts grind to a halt.

 

Well, of course he has. He's a hero, isn't he? Loss and death is part of the job. Izuku half laughs, half chokes back a sob. “What am I supposed do?” he says, and his voice sounds so despairing that for a second Izuku barely recognizes it as his own.

 

There's a pause. Then:

 

“You grieve,” says Yagi. “And then you keep moving.”

 

Izuku lets out another laugh, unable to help the disbelieving edge that has crept into his tone. Move on -- how the hell is he supposed to move on? Kacchan is, he was -- a constant, a given, as immutable a fact of life as the day, and -- Kacchan’s face flashes through his mind, along with the echo of his voice: I’m going to be a hero, and heroes always win. His throat constricts. The floor falls out from under him. He clutches the cloth of the kotatsu to ground himself.

 

“-zuku-kun. I am sorry. I didn’t explain myself,” Yagi is saying. He sounds worried, maybe. Izuku closes his eyes and focuses on the feeling of cold wood under his cheek. When he raises his head again, Yagi just looks sad.

 

“I did not mean to say that recovery is so easy, or to imply it is a simple matter of willpower,” Yagi says. “What I meant is… in the end, you don't need to be strong enough to overcome your troubles; you only need to  refuse to be paralyzed by them. Take some time to rest, and then get up and try again.”

 

“I…” I can't , Izuku wants to say; the words are on the tip of his tongue.

 

What is it, though, that he can't do? He can't brush his teeth? He can't change clothes? He can't go outside his room for three hours a day? All of a sudden, it seems pathetically absurd, and part of him is crying there's no way I can do it and part of him is insisting you can get changed in the morning if it's the only thing you do that day.

 

And yet when he tries to imagine the entire process of getting up in the morning -- get out of bed, walk to the drawers, pick some clothes, change, walk to the bathroom, pick up his toothbrush, pick up the toothpaste, all these steps multiplying before his eyes until they stretch to the horizon -- it feels impossible, to him, impossibly draining when he is already so tired of being alive.

 

“I don't know if I…” Izuku’s throat closes up.  

 

Pathetic. He's pathetic. Izuku wants the ground to open up beneath him and bury him alive.

 

Yagi looks sad, like he knows there is nothing he can say to make anything better, but there is still a flint-cold hardness in his gaze when he says, “Your only other option is to stay like this forever.”

 

The words strike him: not like a weapon strikes flesh, but how a boot strikes rock and sends the body tumbling to the ground. And the body turns over and brushes the dirt off the rock and holds it in its hands, and the truth it finds there is no savior or turning point but something far simpler and uglier than Izuku ever wanted it to be.

 

“It isn't fair,” Izuku mumbles. He doesn't know what he means, what isn't fair -- that all this hurts and continues to hurt and maybe won't ever stop hurting as long as he's still alive, or that the only way to escape it is an ending he can't bring himself to do.

 

“I know,” says Yagi quietly, an apology without really being an apology, and here is his message, soft and understanding and yet implacably steel: you need to get up, or you'll never move forward again. And more painful than being here, Izuku thinks -- more painful would be to stay.

 

The truth is less simple and more complicated than that. But in the end, this is what it boils down to, so--

 

“How do I,” Izuku starts, and he stops and clears his throat so maybe Yagi won't notice his voice wobbling, “How do I start… moving again?”

 

“I have learned,” says Yagi, “that when it seems everything is going wrong, doing something is always better than doing nothing. I cannot save everyone in the world, but I can take out the trash.”

 

Izuku laughs, but Yagi doesn't, and that's when Izuku realizes that he was completely serious.

 

“Just that?” Izuku asks disbelievingly. “Just taking out the trash?”

 

“If I feel up for it, I sometimes do the dishes too,” Yagi tells him, and this time when he laughs Yagi cracks a smile as well.

 

--

 

The next day, Izuku goes out on a walk.

 

He only gets a few blocks away before the noise of the city overwhelms him and sends him crouching back to his room, shaking through what feels like another panic attack or maybe his body shutting down.

 

But he went outside. That's the important part. Izuku stays inside for the rest of the day, but the next, he goes out again and this time he sticks to the quieter roads and manages to complete his walk.

 

It isn't much to anyone watching, maybe, but it's a start.

 

--

 

And a few days later, Izuku goes on his walk, buys a bouquet of flowers on impulse, and marches himself to Mitoki’s apartment.

 

When he rings the doorbell, though, it's not Mitoki who opens the door.

 

“Well, well, well,” drawls the woman leaning against the door frame. She bears almost no resemblance to Mitoki, except for the sly smile and lazy drawl. “A suitor! Never thought we’d get ‘em so soon.”

 

Izuku’s cheeks burn. A suitor? “It's not like that!” he protests. “I’m just--”

 

“What? Why else would you have flowers?” she says, with such a familiar faux-innocence that Izuku has to swallow down the reflexive Mitoki no.

 

“It's an apology,” Izuku says instead. And then he adds in a mumble, “For accidentally breaking his nose.”

 

The woman gives him an incredulous look, and then she starts laughing uproariously. “That was you? Man, you sure pack a mean wallop for someone who looks so sweet.”

 

Izuku is sure his entire face has turned red by now. “Is Mitoki-kun here?”

 

“Sure, he’s in the building somewhere,” she says, waving him in and grinning widely. Turning towards the living room, she calls, “Hey hon, where’s Toki-chan run off to?”

 

“Rooftop,” calls a woman lounging on the couch, turning slightly to look over, and Izuku gets a glimpse of familiar red hair and dark eyes.

 

“Rooftop,” the woman at the door tells him. “Just go down the hall, take a right, and go up the stairs. Toki-chan should be somewhere there.”

 

“Right,” says Izuku, feeling a bit flat-footed. “Um. Thanks, Hirata-san.”

 

“Oh, no problem.” She smiles. A moment later her smile takes on a cooler and more menacing quality as she tilts her head and looks down at him, surveying him like a hunter from the shadows. “Don’t ever hurt Toki-chan like that again, you hear?”

 

“Um.” Izuku clutches the flowers in his hands a little tighter, looks down and away. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”

 

The cold aura surrounding her disappears. “Oh, well, if that’s the case, it’s perfectly fine,” she says with a smile, slouching casually against the doorframe. “Go on then, who knows where Toki-chan will run off to if you don’t hurry.”

 

Izuku thanks Mitoki’s… mother? And hurries away from the apartment, feeling uncomfortable and guilty. The first time he meets Mitoki’s family and it’s after he broke his nose. He doesn’t think he can ever face them again.

 

The stairs take him up a few floors before he finally reaches the rooftop, hesitantly pushing open a door that says rooftop access -- do not open , and he is immediately blinded by sunlight. Izuku squints and shades his eyes, venturing tentatively further out. The rooftop takes shape around him. It’s nothing like he expected.

 

Instead of the flat, dirty, and dilapidated expanse that is typical of the ill-maintained houses in the poorer districts, the roof is covered with plants. Large beds of dirt, hosted in cobbled crates and roughshod tubs and grimy bathtubs, overflow with greenery. There are even a few trees. Circling above the garden with a whine is a small drone, tracing scribbles through the air before descending gently to the ground, landing lightly at Mitoki’s feet. “Yo, old man,” Mitoki says, bending down to pick up the drone, “wasn’t expectin’ ya back so soon.”

 

“Um,” says Izuku. “Hi, Mitoki-kun.”

 

Mitoki whips his head around. “Wh-- Izuku?”

 

Izuku thrusts the flowers into Mitoki’s arms. Mitoki fumbles with them and stares, then looks up and stares at Izuku, and Izuku takes that opportunity to bow down deeply and say, “I’m so sorry for punching you and breaking your nose.”

 

“You -- here? What? You got me flowers?

 

Izuku hesitantly straightens up and glances sidelong at Mitoki’s poleaxed expression. “It’s… it’s what people do when they visit someone in the hospital, right…? I mean, you’re not in the hospital, but I think I broke your nose, and… I mean, we’re, um, we’re friends, too, so I thought…” He bites the inside of his cheek, running his hand through his hair. “Is that… weird?”

 

“You got me flowers,” Mitoki repeats, and then he throws his head back and laughs, bright and bold and happy, sun glinting on his copper-red hair. “This is… Haha! Thanks so much. I’ll treasure these with my life.

 

“Uh.” Izuku twists his fingers together. “I don’t… maybe don’t put that much value on them, they’re going to die in a few weeks anyways?”

 

The comment makes Mitoki laugh again, though Izuku can’t for the life of him fathom why, but the loose and free manner Mitoki carries himself with makes the anxious knot in his chest loose and unfurl.

 

“Man, just -- Izuku-chan,” Mitoki says finally, wiping at his eyes. “You’re incredible, you know that?”

 

What does that even me? How is Izuku supposed to respond? “...Thanks?”

 

“You’re so cute,” Mitoki declares, reaching over and squishing his cheek. Izuku feels his cheeks heat up. “It’s unbelievable, what the heck? Apology accepted, immediately and with extreme prejudice, I’m so glad to see you again.”

 

Seeing Mitoki beam at him, wholly and unguardedly happy despite the tape on his nose and the bruising around his eyes, makes something settle uncomfortably in his chest, unworthy and guilty and tasting like lead.

 

“I haven’t been a very good friend to you, have I,” he says quietly.

 

Mitoki’s eyebrows raise briefly, but he quickly smiles. “Hey, don’t worry about that stuff, you’ve got a lot on your plate, right?”

 

“But I haven’t,” Izuku protests. The realization slowly dawns on him, and he digs his fingernails into his hands. “I mean -- even besides the fact that I punched you -- I just, I disappeared from school for I don’t even know how long. And I’ve been ignoring your texts, and I never spend time with you for the sake of spending time with you, it’s always because I need some help, or you want to make me feel better, and -- and you’ve done so much to help me and what am I -- what have I even been doing for you --”

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mitoki says, holding up a hand to stave off the barrage of words just pouring out of Izuku’s mouth, “take, uh -- take a second to breathe, dude.”

 

Izuku snaps his jaw shut obediently and makes himself breathe.

 

“I guess it’s true,” Mitoki says eventually. “I don’t… get a lot out of our friendship, I guess. But I’m not friends with you ‘cause I want to get something out of it. I help you ‘cause I like you and you’re a good person. That’s all.”

 

Izuku looks at Mitoki, and Mitoki looks back earnestly, but there is a sort of thinness to it that Izuku recognizes at once.

 

“That would make sense,” Izuku says, “if I ever just hung out with you, just to have some fun. But the only time I’ve done that is when I was feeling bad, and. And that’s still you trying to help me.”

 

Mitoki frowns, fingers tapping restlessly on the stems of the flowers he’s holding. He doesn’t say anything. Izuku feels a sort of -- vindication, but a bitterness, too, both that he was right and that Mitoki didn’t tell him that he was.

 

“I’m sorry,” Izuku says. “I didn’t notice I was doing that. It must have -- it must have been tiring, or draining, and I really haven’t been a good friend if I never noticed after all the things you did for me. So. Thank you. I didn’t deserve it, and you deserve better.”

 

Mitoki quirks his lips, looking off at the city like he can't find what he's looking for, and then he sighs and tugs Izuku down to sit on the ground with him. “It's…” okay, he doesn't say, because it's not okay, and if he had said it was, Izuku would have fought him about it. “You're right. I do get tired, and sometimes upset, and I guess sometimes I've been a little hurt too, but never actually said so. But this isn't… It's not a matter of deserving.”

 

“No,” Izuku agrees, “it's just a matter of being a good friend.”

 

He meets Mitoki’s gaze straight on, and Mitoki looks away.

 

“I’ll try and do better,” Izuku promises, grabbing Mitoki’s hand. Mitoki looks down at their hands, then back up at him. “Tell me next time I’m being stupid, okay?”

 

“...Okay,” says Mitoki, smiling slightly. Then, in a more teasing tone, “You’re bein’ pretty dumb right now.”

 

Izuku sputters, but before he can voice any objections, Mitoki leans over and wraps him in a warm hug, and he freezes, caught between the instinct to push him away and the desire to lean into his embrace. “You’re a real good guy, you know that?” Mitoki says.

 

Izuku’s mind goes blank. Mitoki doesn’t wait for a response though, just pulls away and flashes a bright grin. “Hey, if you wanna get started on making up some friendship credits, d’you wanna watch me fly this drone into that building over there?”

 

This is familiar territory. Izuku’s mind kicks itself back into the gear for the sole purpose of telling Mitoki exactly how he feels. “Why would you even do that?” he asks despairingly. “I mean -- do you mean you're going to fly it into the building, or into the building, because I wouldn't put either one past you -- stop laughing--”

 

Izuku ends up staying the whole afternoon. They spend the first couple hours playing around with the drone. Mitoki insists on teaching him how to use it on the grounds that it “might come in useful someday, you never know when you’ll want to use a drone, Izuku-chan.” Then he drags Izuku back down the stairs to play a few co-op video games. Mitoki places the flowers in a lampshade as a makeshift vase, introduces Izuku to his parents (“This is Mom 1 and Mom 2.” “Toki-chan, those are terrible names.” “Alpha Mom and the Terminator.”), and then drags Izuku up to his mess of a room. (The sock on the wall, Izuku notices, really has been framed and captioned.) They spend the next three hours hammering away at a co-op game, laughing and messing around, before it’s nearly dinnertime and Izuku needs to go.

 

Mitoki waves him off from the door and tells him to come back soon. Izuku walks back home, feeling tired but happier and lighter than he has in days.

 

He doesn’t think he’s ready to go back to school, yet. It feels like too much. But maybe he can do some other things instead.

 

--

 

 

He starts by making his rounds through the city again. Most of the people he regularly visits express relief at seeing him again. Even Masaki in the real-estate business says something.

 

“Last time you forgot to stop by, it was because you were kidnapped,” he says, looking amused and puffing on his cigarette. “And before that -- well, it coincided quite well with the incident in Hosu, didn’t it?” Izuku squirms under his gaze. Masaki laughs. “Don’t go disappearing again, now,” he tells Izuku, “or you may have the entire city up in arms.”

 

“I don’t even know that many people!”

 

“No,” Masaki agrees, “but you know a lot.” He taps the stack of paperwork on his desk thoughtfully, watching Izuku with an unreadable gaze. Then, “Well, Deku-kun, if for some reason a fifteen-year-old brat like you ever needs some real estate advice, you know where to find me.”

 

It’s a pretty clear dismissal, so Izuku says his goodbye and leaves.

 

When he visits Uemura-san’s cafe, he’s smothered almost immediately with a hug. “Izu-kun, dear,  it’s great to see you,” Uemura-san says, releasing him and stepping back. “Sit down, sit down and have some cake, we have a new recipe that you need to try out. -- How have you been, hon?”

 

“Ah,” says Izuku wisely, and stops. Uemura-san glances over, and whatever she sees makes a small furrow appear between her brows.

 

“It’s not… It’s not anything disastrous,” Izuku hurries to explain. “I just don’t think I can talk about it.” Even thinking about it makes him want to bring his hands up to his face and bite his nails, so he shoves his hands into his pockets and looks away.

 

“Of course,” says Uemura-san gently. Then, “Go on and sit down, dear, you wait just a minute.”

 

The cake sample she gives him is slightly larger than the usual portion, but she doesn’t say anything, and Izuku is too shy to mention it, so he eats the whole thing and savors it and thanks Uemura-san for her kindness.

 

Then he asks if he can come to her neighborhood meeting this Saturday, and she beams brightly and assures him that he absolutely can.

 

As he waits for Saturday to arrive, Izuku busies himself with other things. He picks his daily exercise routine back up. He manages to compose an email to send to his teachers at school, explaining that his absence is due to personal difficulties, but that he’d like to try and keep up with the coursework. Would it be possible to send him the curriculum and assignments? His teachers are happy to help, and soon Izuku is taking up a good three or four hours each day skimming through the lessons and doing his homework. Mitoki agrees to deliver any assignments that Izuku can’t send or receive via e-mail, and whenever he stops by, they usually end up hanging out for a few hours. It’s… nice.

 

When he’s not busy keeping up with school, Izuku goes out on his rounds through the city; and when he realizes that’s not enough to occupy his entire day, he starts volunteering at all the places he has connections to: Uemura’s cafe, for one, but other shops and businesses taking inventory or cleaning the premises, and at a few charities, organizing their stock or delivering packages.

 

It’s a lot to do, but it’s good. It keeps him so busy he has hardly a moment to even think about anything relating to -- to the Tamanaha Conversation, and when he collapses in bed each night he falls asleep almost as soon as he hits the pillow. It keeps his mind off things. And -- Izuku knows he won’t be able to keep it up for long, he can already feeling himself burning out -- but he doesn’t want to rest, to give himself a moment of reprieve when the memory of Kacchan storming out of the dojo will just rear its ugly head again.

 

And if that means running himself into the ground, then fine. That's what he'll do.

 

Saturday rolls around. Izuku runs off to volunteer at the soup kitchen in the morning, skips lunch and patrols in the afternoon, and then arrives at the address Uemura-san gave him at 4 o’clock. He raps the door lightly, feeling a bit jittery with nerves -- but the spry old woman who opens the door welcomes him warmly and gives him a cup of tea. He relaxes as time goes on, and when Uemura-san finally arrives and introduces him, he feels ready to present his project.

 

It turns out that the ladies in Uemura’s neighborhood are all artists or artisans of some sort, and they think that it’s a wonderful idea he has, a villain alarm system. They’ll support it as best as they can, they say. At Uemura-san’s suggestion, they all agree to produce three pieces each for an art auction, six weeks from now.

 

Izuku talks to a man living downtown who knows someone who’s friends with the event organizer at the local art gallery, and the man convinces his friend to talk to the gallery about hosting the silent auction there. The gallery actually offers to host it for free. Izuku sets the date and stops by Kobayashi’s shop to tell her the good news. She shows off the updated prototype to him, and then suggests he think about crowdfunding some money for testing and refinement as well. Izuku says he’ll do when he can.

 

Then he texts an acquaintance at school, Sanjuro Tokuda, who helped him catch up on homework that one time he was kidnapped. Can I commission you for a few posters? Izuku sends.

 

Sure. What for? he texts back.

 

When Izuku explains what he wants the posters for, Sanjuro lowers his commission price by 50%. It’s a good cause, he says. And you’re a friend, so I’ll just ask for 2,000 yen each.

 

It’s an amazing deal. It leaves Izuku’s wallet empty, but he hardly cares, because he’s finally making way on this project.

 

Inevitably, the universe throws him under the bus.

 

Izuku’s patrols always frequent the poorer parts of the city; the heroes tend to congregate more in the economically well-off areas, leaving the run-down sections and slums to fend for themselves more often than not. And so, of course, he ends up straying close to his old neighborhood -- near where Kacchan lives.

 

He’s passing by a park when he catches a glimpse of bright blond hair. His heart leaps into his throat, and he immediately ducks around the corner and picks up the pace, hoping that Kacchan hasn’t seen him. No such luck.

 

“Oi, Deku,” Kacchan calls, rounding the corner after him. His shoes tap-tap on the pavement. “Wait up.”

 

Izuku’s feet come to a halt by themselves. He wants to keep walking, but he’s scared to, too -- but he can’t bring himself to turn around and greet Kacchan like nothing’s wrong, either. He just stands there, frozen in place. His legs are shaking. Izuku looks down at his trembling hands and puts them in his pocket, clenching them into fists in hopes that maybe they won’t shake so much then.

 

“S-sorry,” he manages to say, fixing his gaze on a crack in the pavement. “I, I have something to do.”

 

Kacchan grabs his shoulder and turns him around. Izuku flinches. Doesn’t look up at his face. “What’s fuckin’ wrong with you?” Kacchan says flatly.

 

Izuku twitches violently at that, almost unable to believe what he just heard. “What’s wrong with me?” he says incredulously. What’s wrong with him? Everything, probably, and shouldn’t Kacchan know the best of all? He’s the one who -- … He’s the one who started this whole thing, insisting on going to Tamanaha-sensei’s dojo, and instigating the Tamanaha Conversation, and bringing up all those truths Izuku was trying to ignore--

 

-- and he wasn’t there for it.

 

He wasn’t there for the Tamanaha Conversation. He wasn’t there for the fallout. He has no idea what happened after he stormed out of the dojo. Kacchan is the reason his life is in tatters, and he doesn’t even know.

 

Izuku doesn’t realize he’s started laughing until Kacchan barks, “Hey! What’s so funny?” and starts shaking him roughly.

 

“Don’t touch me,” Izuku says sharply, hitting Kacchan’s hands away, and then he starts shaking all over because he fucked up he fucked up and Kacchan is gonna be so mad. Kacchan stares at him as he backs away and puts his face in his hands and chokes down convulsion after convulsion of hysterical, manic laughter.

 

“Deku,” Kacchan says curtly, an unspoken demand to explain himself.

 

Izuku gulps down mouthfuls of air between giggles. “Can I help you?”

 

“What happened? ” he says, and Izuku has to try very hard not to break down embarrassingly again.

 

“What makes you think something happened?” he says instead, looking up at Kacchan, lips curling into a smile that really doesn’t make any sense at all.

 

Kacchan stares down at him, unimpressed. “The last time you got weird like this, it was ‘cause some jackass made you cry.”

 

And oh, the sheer irony of that statement almost leaves Izuku in tears.

 

“Y-you have no idea,” Izuku wheezes, wiping at his eyes. “You s-seriously have no idea.” Of all the jokes the universe could play on him, it’s this. He wants to scream.

 

Kacchan isn’t slow to put it together, though. Izuku can see the pieces slotting into place, all the gears turning as Kacchan regards him with a narrowed gaze. “This isn’t about the other day, is it?” Kacchan drawls. His tone warns very clearly that there is a right answer to this.

 

For once, Izuku is too far gone to care. “Oh, of course not,” Izuku says, and the wild edge to his tone makes Kacchan scowl.

 

“You didn’t seriously listen to what that old hag was saying, did you?” he demands. “She’s got no idea what she’s fucking talking about. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t get it.”

 

The correct response here is: you’re right, I’m sorry, I should have gotten it, I’m a fuck up who can’t do anything right and I’m sorry I keep messing this up for us.  

 

“Maybe you could explain it to me,” says Izuku instead, “because I don’t get it either.”

 

Kacchan stills.

 

“Hah? What the fuck do you mean by that?” he says calmly, too calmly. “We've known each other for fucking years.”

 

Izuku feels warm and tranquil all of a sudden, like some strange sereneness has settled over the entire scene and nothing about it can touch him. His hands and feet tingle with the pins and needles. He can barely even feel the shaking anymore. There’s no turning back now.

 

“Kacchan,” he says, and takes a deep breath. “When… When you found out I was Quirkless, you decided I couldn’t be friends with you anymore.”

 

Kacchan’s eyebrow ticks. “Yeah? So what?”

 

“When you picked on other students and I told you to stop,” Izuku continues doggedly, “you… would pick on me instead. With all your friends.” His most visceral childhood memory flashes in his mind: the first time he stands up to Kacchan and his coterie, fists up and legs trembling, and Kacchan leaves him lying on the ground and dizzy with pain in the middle of the park. No one stops to help.

 

“So what?” says Kacchan, sounding haughtily and supremely disinterested. A flash of anger, or hurt, or -- something in between, or both -- flashes through Izuku so viscerally that for a moment he thinks he can't see. “You fought back, didn’t you?” Kacchan says, and he's so -- so callous, of course, of course he doesn’t care because Kacchan isn't understanding or soft or kind, not to him. Especially not to him.

 

“My entire life,” Izuku agrees, and he didn’t mean for it to sound bitter, but it does. Bitter and raw and sick. “I fought back. I shouldn’t have had to but I did, and I spent half my life having to learn to defend myself from you when I didn't even have a fucking Quirk.”

 

It's like the floodgates have been opened, then, because even though Kacchan is staring at him with the beginnings of anger and his lip is curling up into a snarl, Izuku can't stop. The words keep pouring out like hot and burning bile, forcing themselves out from the deep pit of hurt that has been hiding behind his guts all along. “I don’t get it! I don’t get you!” he says, his voice climbing in volume. “We were friends, and then we weren’t, and at your house you would be just fine to me and we could still spend time together without it having to be a fight, but as soon as we were back at school you’d turn right around and attack me! I don’t get it, and I don't get you, and I don’t get why sometimes you can be so good and sometimes all you do is -- is--”

 

He cuts himself off. He still can’t say it. Kacchan’s red eyes are blazing with fury, and his jaw works as he spits out, “Shoulda fucking known it’d bother you, you always were stupid about these things. You never fucking get it. It’s in the fucking past! Get over it! Or maybe you’re too weak to do even that, if you let stupid shit like that bother you--”

 

“I still have scars!” Izuku shouts.

 

He pulls short as soon as he says it -- something he never meant to say aloud and something he never meant to be true, but he won’t ever be able to take it back, not now that Kacchan is staring at him like someone just knocked the world out from under his feet. “I still have all these -- these fucking--” He gestures sharply at his own body with shaking hands, words stolen from him by fury and hurt and fear. “--from when I didn’t know enough to defend myself! You gave those to me! I never did anything to you, and you--!”

 

He cuts himself off. His body feels oddly warm, his heart is beating fast, and the pins and needles have overtaken his arms. Kacchan doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look like he can.

 

“You hurt me,” Izuku says finally, fists clenched at his side and voice shaking. “I didn’t want to think about it. I didn't want to acknowledge it. I didn’t want anyone to know. But Tamanaha-sensei said it out loud and now I can’t pretend everything’s okay, because -- it’s not okay. I’m not okay. It hurt. It hurts.

 

“Deku--”

 

“I’m going,” he says, cutting Kacchan off before he can say anything else and Izuku loses any semblance of holding himself together. “I can’t -- I don’t--” He spares a glance for Kacchan, but looks away too quickly to understand the emotions flitting across his face. “Don’t follow me.”

 

He walks away.

 

To be specific, he walks down the street on his light and shaking legs, head down, dizzy with fear. As soon as he turns the corner, he breaks out into a run, and once he starts it takes hold of him and doesn't allow him to stop.  He stumbles through crowds of pedestrians, heedless of direction of traffic and who he’s bumping into, but it's too much pressing in on him at once and he has to get out -- he's running blind, and he keeps running, keeps taking random twists and turns until his trembling knees give out on him and he collapses in an alley, and then he has a panic attack so bad he throws up twice.

 

After that, there’s nothing left in his stomach for anything more than dry retching, so violent it makes his eyes water. And that’s when the crying happens, finally: it wells up violently and bursts out of him, dragging out of his throat in long horrible keening wails that leave him breathless and exhausted when he’s finally out of tears. He puts his head in his hands and makes himself breathe. One two three four five. One two three four five. It doesn't help.

 

He doesn’t know how long he stays there, trying to calm himself down, but by the time he makes it back to Yagi-san’s house, the sun is already setting. When he walks in through the door, his mom turns around with a greeting and a reprimand both waiting on her lips. But something must show on his face, because she takes one look at him and foregoes both in favor of giving him a warm hug -- so safe and comfortable, Izuku feels like he doesn’t belong.

 

--

 

When Hatsume texts him the next day, requesting (read: expecting) him to come over and help carry out some weapons testing, Izuku almost doesn’t respond. He wants to stay inside. He wants to sleep and forget that yesterday happened, forget that he is alive, and forget the cold heavy weight of knowledge that sits heavy on his chest. But he doesn’t. Doing something is always better than doing nothing, he repeats to himself, and then tells it to himself again, over and over like a mantra until it is nearly empty and devoid of meaning. Only then does Izuku grit his teeth and heave himself out the house. But the burden stays with him, carrying the awful emptiness of yesterday all the way to Hatsume’s door.

 

“Took you long enough, minion!” Hatsume declares, throwing the door open before he can even knock. Her bubbly demeanor, already overwhelmingly enthusiastic on Izuku’s good days, jars on his ears. “Me ‘n Mitoki just about started without you!”

 

He should say something at this point, right? He looks around for an appropriate response. “Okay,” he settles on finally. Ah, he forgot to make an expression. But he doesn’t think he has the energy or ability to play at emotions right now, not when everything in him feels so horrible and still and small.

 

Hatsume pauses in her gesticulating, cocks her head to the side, and stares at Izuku with unreadable gold-coin eyes. Then, “Are you alright?” she says, looking serious, intent, almost the way she looks when she’s hours into a project and the world has slipped away. Izuku has never been on the receiving end of her utterly focused attention like this, before, and suddenly he feels disjoint from the entire scene, as if he’s an alien that’s briefly inhabited a body that is not and never will be his own.

 

He almost says “I’m fine” on reflex, a phrase he’s said for years and years after various scrapes and scuffles on the street until it has become little more than white noise. But it catches, somewhere on the way up. Maybe because it’s not true. Maybe because at this point, Hatsume is his friend, and he wants to tell her the truth. Maybe because she asked him, really looked at him, and wanted to know if he was okay. “I’m not,” he starts. His voice wavers, his throat tightens. He shouldn’t have said anything, but he’s already started and he’s going to see this through. “I’m really… really not doing too good right now.”

 

Hatsume frowns very hard, the same way she frowns when her latest circuit looks perfect and yet refuses to cooperate. His skin itches with that expression directed at him, and he looks away, wiping angrily at his eyes until they finally stop leaking.

 

“Do you want a hug?” she says.

 

Izuku is struck mute by surprise for a moment. “But you don’t like physical contact?” he asks, chancing a look back at her.  

 

She wrinkles her nose. “Yeah. But I like you , and I want to test these glue guns. Your help is absolutely indispensable!” Is that… is that Hatsume-speak for I want you to feel better? He thinks he feels something warm in his chest, but he’s not entirely sure. “So do you?” Hatsume says, sounding a little bit uncomfortable now, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

Izuku feels the corner of his lips tug up on its own. “It’s okay, Hatsume-san,” he says. He doesn’t want to push boundaries. “Thanks, though. I really appreciate it.” Just the fact that Hatsume would be willing to initiate physical contact outside of necessity is… incredibly touching, already. That’s enough for him.

 

Hatsume uncrosses her arms, looking more relaxed already. “Great!” she declares. “I guess you don’t have to do anything you don’t feel like doing, but we’re testing the glue guns by shooting things in the backyard and shooting things will definitely make you feel better. Come on!”

 

Hatsume is right. Shooting things does make him feel better. He settles into a rhythm quickly: Hatsume tosses up an object, he shoots it and glues it to the fence, and feels a bit of vindictive and destructive satisfaction at successfully hitting the object. It’s mindless, easy work, and Izuku’s focus smooths the world away until it’s just him, the next target, and the cold-smooth grip of the glue gun in his hands. Point. Shoot. Reload. The rhythm is almost lullaby-like, hypnotizing all of Izuku’s thoughts away.

 

But then Izuku is jolted out of it when someone brushes past him, and for a second he thinks it’s someone here to attack him again and he needs to defend -- but as he half spins around to punch the oncoming attacker, his thoughts register wait that’s Mitoki, and I don’t want to break Hatsume’s gun, and he’s so caught between all three conflicting bits of information that he fumbles and almost breaks the gun anyways.

 

Mitoki asks if he’s alright. Izuku takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and counts, and very carefully sets the gun down and walks into Hatsume’s house to hide in the bathroom. Even as he goes, he can feel his dark mood settle back in and take up a more secure roost up in his bones.

 

When he finally emerges, he steps into the backyard only to find that Mitoki and Hatsume have replaced the glue in the guns with paint, and are in the process of making an incomprehensible mural of sorts on the fence. “Why do I even leave you two alone,” he says despairingly, to which Hatsume responds by tossing him a paint-filled gun and cheerily telling him that this is for science.

 

Well, Izuku can’t argue with that. He spends some time getting a feel for the changes, and then very carefully shoots a slightly lopsided smiley face onto the fence. Even if he feels miserable right now, he can make something that at least seems happy. Right?

 

Mitoki, of course, loves it. “Your shooting is real impressive, Izuku-chan!” he says, clapping Izuku on the shoulder. Izuku stares at the hand in a sort of bewilderment and numb apathy. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve had experience with this before.”

 

Izuku raises a single eyebrow at Mitoki’s side of the fence, which sports a multicolored splotch in the shape of a cat. “You’re one to talk.”

 

Mitoki winks and strikes a pose. “First-person shooter games, baby.”

 

That startles a laugh out of Izuku. Who knew that video games could be so effective at teaching such useful life skills? (He knew. He has read multiple articles on this, just like he has every other incredibly unnecessary and useless topic on Earth.)

 

Mitoki considers him for a moment, and whatever he sees there makes a fox-like smile spread across his face. “Hey, Izuku-chan,” he says, “are you feeling better now?”

 

Izuku is sort of afraid of answering this question. “Um. I guess?”

 

“And shooting stuff is really therapeutic, right?” Mitoki presses.

 

Izuku does not like the direction this is taking. “I’m afraid of the consequences of saying yes and am withholding my response.”

 

“Aw, c’mon, it’s nothing bad,” says Mitoki, which only cements Izuku’s suspicion that Mitoki is planning something. “You’ve heard of paintball, right? Picture this: a no-holds-barred paintball match, everything goes.”

 

“This is a terrible idea,” Izuku says immediately.

 

“All out weapons-testing, Izuku-chan,” Mitoki says entreatingly. Izuku can actually see the moment that Hatsume keys into the conversation. Her head twists around, her eyes gleam, her goggles also gleam with an enthusiastic and terrifying brightness, and there is going to be no stopping this now, is there.

 

“This is not just a terrible idea, it is a spectacularly bad idea of horrifying proportions,” Izuku tells them anyways, in a vague sort of attempt to at least mitigate some of the damage that is probably going to come out of this.

 

“All out weapons-testing,” Hatsume says, as if that makes up for everything. “I like this idea! A paintball match, you say?” She dips her head, shoulders shaking, and then she throws her head back in a loud and exuberant laugh. “All at once… all of my babies, being put to use at once… Yes. Let’s get started on this! Anything in the garage that’s in testing or has been completed can be used. Every person for themselves!”

 

“Hang on a second,” Izuku says, alarmed. “We shouldn’t do this! First of all, we haven’t even established a boundary--”

 

It’s too late. Hatsume has dashed off. “Better be quick, Izuku-chan,” Mitoki says, “otherwise me’n Hatsume are gonna get all the good stuff first.” A wink and a pair of finger guns later, Mitoki too is dashing off after Hatsume.

 

“Oh no, you are not allowed to have that much destructive potential in your hands at once,” Izuku says, and he runs after them -- only to make sure they don’t get too carried away with this game, of course. Someone has to be the responsible one here and it’s a terrible state of affairs when it’s Izuku who has to take up this role.

 

He can’t even keep it up in the end because he gets just as invested in the game as they do.

 

Two hours later, and Izuku is embroiled in one of the most intense impromptu matches he's ever been a part of -- and that's counting his fights with Kacchan. Hatsume-san is terrifying, passionate, and determined to hit her target at any and all costs, and it's only with some fancy footwork and precarious acrobatics that Izuku keeps dodging her scarily brilliant plans. Mitoki, on the other hand, is scary just because Izuku never knows what he's going to do; he’s not in it to win or lose, just to raise a little bit of chaos just for the hell of it, laughing the entire way.

 

Izuku has kidnapped an entire box of supply and ammunitions just to make sure the two of them can never get their hands on it… and also to make a few modifications to his paint gun, himself. All that time spent with them hasn’t been for nothing, after all, and he definitely needs every advantage he can get. Right now, he’s in possession of the impromptu flag Mitoki made with a metal rail, a couple of clothespins, and some of Hatsume’s clothes she had lying around in her workshop. Hatsume stole it from Mitoki, and then Izuku stole it from Hatsume, and now it has become the unofficial goal of the game to steal the flag by any means possible. It’s the most fun Izuku has had in days.

 

He's in the middle of fiddling with a gun when he hears someone bike into the alley and come to a halt. Izuku turns around with a Sorry for the bother, I'll get out of the way on his tongue, but it immediately dies as soon as he sees Shinsou on the bicycle. Instead, what comes out is, “Ahahahaaaaaauuuhhh hi, Shinsou-kun! I didn’t see you there! … I can explain.”

 

Shinsou stares at him flatly. His gold coin eyes move first to the paint gun in his hands, then Izuku’s incredibly paint-stained clothes, then the bin of miscellaneous items that Izuku is elbow-deep in. Oh god, there is nothing not incriminating about this scene. Shinsou lifts up a single, dubious hand to point, and says in the most incredibly dead voice Izuku has ever heard, “Is that a skirt.”

 

Izuku's cheeks heat up, and he tries unsuccessfully to kick the flag behind the bin. Not for the first time, he internally curses its large and unwieldy form. “It’s not mine,” he says, and then short circuits a little bit because out of all the things he could have said, why that.

 

“...Right,” Shinsou says slowly. “Not yours.”

 

“It’s for a weapons testing,” Izuku tries to explain, but now that he thinks of it, he’s pretty sure that statement only makes the entire situation look even more bemusing than it already is. He tries to think of something better to say, and is forced to give up. “This all is very reasonable when you’re actually there from beginning to end,” he says. He can’t look at Shinsou. This is the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to him.

 

“I'm sure it is,” Shinsou says dryly. “I somehow don’t know if I want to ask.” Izuku is kind of glad, because he really has no way of explaining Mitoki or Hatsume, which makes explaining this whole fiasco an even more futile task. Evidently, though, Shinsou’s curiosity is too much for him, because he eyes Izuku’s artillery of equipment and asks in a dubious tone, “Is this some sort of. Death match?”

 

Izuku opens his mouth to say no, but then he snaps his jaw shut and frowns, because while this isn’t specifically a death match, it is arguably cutthroat and merciless enough to count as one.

 

His lack of explanation must be clear because Shinsou just huffs in laughter and starts turning his bike around in the alleyway. “I'll just be going, then. Good luck with… whatever it is--”

 

Izuku's senses prickle. “Shinsou-kun!” he shouts. “Watch out!”

 

-- but it's too late, and he can only watch in horror as Shinsou's beautiful, clean school uniform is splattered with red paint.

 

Hatsume appears around the corner triumphantly, holding her gun. “Ha ha, take that, you fiend, I have come to reclaim the flag!”

 

“Er,” says Izuku. “You got the wrong person.”

 

Hatsume tilts her head, birdlike, then turns to look at Shinsou. Shinsou himself is still, unmoving, on his bike, red paint dripping onto the ground. “Oh, that would explain that,” she says. Then she levels her gun at Shinsou. “Good enough. Hand over the flag, or your friend gets it!”

 

That seems to break Shinsou out of his stupor, because he bares his teeth. “Whose friend,” he snaps, and... and that's fair, Izuku has only ever talked to Shinsou twice and neither time was really the epitome of friendship -- but it still stings. “You leave me out of this,” Shinsou says acerbically, and makes to wheel his bike past Hatsume.

 

Hatsume shoots the front bike tire, covering it in blue paint. Shinsou jerks to a halt. Hatsume looks very smug. “Nice try! I’m not falling for that.”

 

Shinsou turns towards Hatsume furiously, but Izuku finally forces himself to move, and in a flash raises his modified paint gun and nails Hatsume twice in the face. She yells and throws herself around the corner to protect herself from his fire, and probably to wipe off her goggles too. “Go!” Izuku shouts, running up to Shinsou. “Go go go!”

 

“What–” Shinsou twists around and starts peddling. “What about–”

 

Izuku doesn't wait to hear the rest. He grabs the basket at the back of Shinsou's bike and pushes, running out of the alley. Hatsume leaps at him. Izuku ducks. Everyone is yelling but the world is clear and quiet and in a single smooth movement, Izuku jumps onto the basket and raises his gun and shoots Hatsume a rainbow of colors, red and purple and blue.

 

Hatsume reels away. Shinsou shouts something rude and pedals furiously, and Izuku is quickly carried around the corner.

 

“Okay, that’s that,” he says, shaking off the gun and grimacing as a bit of paint drips onto his hand. The downside of his modifications: they are not yet leak-proof. He grips the basket and waits for Shinsou to stop and let him down, but he doesn't, he keeps going for a couple streets more before he finally turns into the space between two buildings, panting.

 

Izuku jumps off the bike, feeling slightly guilty at how out of breath Shinsou is. “Thanks,” he says to Shinsou, who’s leaning against the wall on one arm. His back is turned to Izuku. “Sorry for catching myself a ride on your bike. You didn't have to take me this far. So, um, thanks again.”

 

Shinsou’s breath is starting to even out. He wipes at his uniform, face turned away to shadow. As Izuku watches, Shinsou looks down at the paint on his hand and is still.

 

“Midoriya,” says Shinsou.

 

Izuku starts, then stands up straight. “Yes!”

 

Shinsou turns his head halfway towards Izuku. His eyes glint gold in the shadows of the buildings around them. “How,” he says, “do I use that gun?”

 

Izuku blinks. “Well, it's... you load your ammunition here, like this,” he pops out the case and pops it back in to demonstrate, “and then you just...point and shoot.” He glances at Shinsou and bites his lip. Should he--? Well, he did get Shinsou involved in this whole mess, so… “Here, do you want to--”

 

He hands the gun to Shinsou. Shinsou turns the gun over in his hands a few times, and then he aims it at the wall and shoots. Green paint blooms on the wall. Shinsou contemplates it for a moment, nods, and then turns back to Izuku. “I'm joining,” he says.

 

“I’m sorry I got you into this mess but if you turn that gun on me right now I will be swift and without mercy,” Izuku says immediately.

 

Shinsou snorts. “No, I meant,” he begins, and stops. “I meant I'm joining because I'm not going to passively accept the fact that Hatsume Mei ruined my school uniform.”

 

“It’s not ruined, the paint is water soluble,” Izuku feels the need to tell him. “It’ll wash out real easy.” He considers his next words, then releases them in one breath. “Please don’t hold a grudge against her. She’s just trying to cheer me up.”

 

“…She’s cheering you up by… shooting you with paint guns.”

 

“I know, she’s really something, isn’t she?” Izuku laughs sheepishly, scratching the back of his neck. Wait, there was paint on his hands, wasn’t there? Oops.

 

“I was more wondering why it is that she thought this would help you cheer up in the first place,” says Shinsou.

 

“It’s fun,” Izuku explains.

 

Shinsou squints at him, so Izuku elaborates, “There’s a sort of catharsis in vindictively and wholeheartedly ruining something’s functionality. With paint. It’s a little messy, but I think it’s generally just some really good, wholesome fun. Shooting people. With paint.” Uh.

 

“Right,” says Shinsou. “Well, I’m joining in with you, so I guess I don’t have any room to ask that question anyways.” He pauses and looks at Izuku with some sort of intent. “You don’t mind, right? I have my bike, I'm sure that'll be a good asset for you, if nothing else. And I've been getting stronger under the physical education program at Yuuei, so I’m better at close-combat fighting if it comes down to that, and--”

 

“Why would your bike be an asset to me?” Izuku says, confused. It’s Shinsou’s bike, not his, so unless they were teaming up, it wouldn’t be…. Oh. Ooohhh. That actually makes a lot of sense. “Wait. You want to -- team up? With me?”

 

“Well – yes,” says Shinsou. Now he just looks uncomfortable. “Is that not...”

 

“It's fine!” Izuku says quickly. “I just -- didn’t expect it, is all. But if you’re sure…” Shinsou nods. “Okay. Um… well, right now, our objective is to go back and retrieve that bin of ammunition I left behind in that alleyway, and then we are going to make a plan to recapture the flag.”

 

“Flag?”

 

“The skirt.”

 

“…Right. Somehow I’m not surprised. What's the plan?”

 

Izuku tugs at his bottom lip thoughtfully. “Well...”

 

He gives Shinsou a quick run-down of the area and their opponents, makes Shinsou practice aiming with the paint gun, and then they launch an audacious attack on Hatsume’s garage itself.

 

Hatsume is taken completely by surprise, and while Shinsou vindictively unloads shot after shot of paint at her, Izuku scoops up a decent gun and as much ammunition as he can, and then dives out the window, yelling for Shinsou to come along. They're halfway down the block when Mitoki ambushes them. That holds them in place long enough for Hatsume to come bearing down and rain down her vengeance on them all.

 

The game goes on until the sun starts dipping down in the sky, painting the clouds purple and gold. Izuku ends up crouching behind a dumpster with Shinsou, grimy but elated. Izuku's face is flushed with excitement and happiness. He looks over at Shinsou with a wide grin on his face, and Shinsou looks back with a smirk, and the elation Izuku feels is reflected in the sly and challenging gleam of his eyes. And – as Izuku looks back at the dusky shadows of the alley, the sky above aflame with the setting sun and Shinsou by his side, he thinks – this is the happiest he has been in weeks.

 

“Shinsou-kun,” Izuku says. Shinsou looks back at him, eyes bright. “Let's be friends.”

 

Shinsou's eyebrows go up, but then he smiles, real and genuine, and it softens the sharp and shadowed look of his tired, determined face. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Let's.”

 

They stay like that a moment longer, crouching in the alleyway and just smiling at each other, before Izuku remembers to pull out his phone and ask for Shinsou's cell phone number.

 

By that time, it’s late, and Shinsou needs to go home. They manage one last attack on Hatsume’s house to retrieve Shinsou’s bike, which was an unfortunate casualty in a fight with Mitoki earlier that day, and then Shinsou departs. He waves at Izuku lazily, and there’s even a hint of a smile on his face as he turns away and bikes down the road.

 

Or maybe it was a smirk. Shinsou’s face lends itself very naturally to smirks, really, Izuku has noticed that a lot working with him today. It’s a very aesthetically pleasing smirk and Izuku can’t say that it doesn’t look nice, but the point is that Shinsou seems made a lot more for smirks rather than smiles. Maybe because he doesn’t have a lot of cause to smile…?

 

And that’s really sad, because Shinsou is just so bright when he’s happy, and Izuku would… well, he’d really like to see that more.

 

Izuku texts Mitoki and Hatsume that he’s leaving -- thanks for today. yesterday wasn’t so good, but this really cheered me up -- and gets back always happy to attack my friends =) and We resume the match tomorrow!!!! from the both of them respectively. It’s so quintessentially them that Izuku can’t help but laugh.

 

He’s about to put his phone away when another impulse strikes him. He hesitates for a moment, but the euphoria of all the paintball fighting today carries him right over his anxiety and sends his fingers tapping along the phone’s keyboard. Hi Shinsou-kun! This is Deku. Thanks for today, I had a lot of fun. Let’s hang out again soon!

 

As soon as he presses send, he rereads the message and is consumed by the merciless and undying fires of regret. He buries his face in his hands, and if his phone weren’t the most expensive thing he owned he’d throw it across the street. Why is he allowed to manage his own life? Who thought that was a good idea? Izuku fantasizes about sinking down into the earth and burying himself there for a few years until all traces of him and his texts have been erased and forgotten, but his thoughts are interrupted when his phone buzzes. It’s a text from Shinsou and Izuku is way too scared to open it so he procrastinates by walking back home and putting his paint-spattered clothes in the sink to soak.

 

It’s not until after dinner that he finally looks at Shinsou’s message. Thanks. I had fun too. The message is punctuated. Izuku loses all his will to live, but his apparently bottomless appetite for self-punishment compels him to continue reading. That sounds nice, says the second text. Izuku eyes it suspiciously. He doesn’t trust how straightforward it is. It’s punctuated too. Did he annoy Shinsou? Did Shinsou actually not enjoy the day? But then why would Shinsou even give him his number? Out of social obligation? Is Izuku just being a bother? Izuku throws his phone on the bed and rolls onto the floor, covering his face. Everything is the worst and Izuku wants to die.

 

Except the next morning, Shinsou sends a selfie of him holding a cat, along with the caption Isao says hello, so maybe this will actually be okay after all.

 

(Izuku saves the picture itself because it's very cute.)

 

--

 

He finally manages to scrub all the paint from his clothes in the sink -- water soluble, thank god -- and then, compulsively, he cleans his room and washes all his other clothes as well.

 

As he’s rearranging his drawers, Izuku finds the disguise that he borrowed from the girl in the shop. Little flashes of that day come to him before he can stop them -- a hot hand on his shoulder, a glimpse of Kacchan’s angry red eyes -- and he squeezes his eyes shut and clench his teeth. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three…

 

When he finally forces his eyes open, he looks down to find that his hands are clenched around the garments, white at the joints. He peels his fingers apart. The clothes drop to the floor.

 

He should return them and get his other clothes back. Especially his red shoes. He’s really missed them. It’s been -- what, weeks now, and -- oh god, he’s been so rude. These aren’t even his own clothes. He should have returned them ages ago. Izuku scrubs at his face and just sort of… fails to do anything for a few hours, for no particular reason except doing things is unfairly hard.

 

The next day, he makes his way to the clothing shop. Now hiring! says a bright new sign pasted in the window. He cautiously slips in through the door. Moriai-obaasan’s granddaughter is there at the counter, bent over a pair of knitting needles busily working away in her hands. She flicks a cursory glance up as the bell rings, and when her eyes fall on him, she brightens and straightens up. “Deku! It’s good to see you! I half thought you’d forgotten about our deal.”

 

“Our deal?” Izuku repeats, blinking. He casts his mind back. Oh, right, the vague promise to talk to her friend about… something. “Right, our deal. Sorry I took so long to come back, things just… happened, and…” He rubs at the back of his neck and glances away. “Sorry.”

 

“It’s cool,” says Moriai, smiling. “You came at a great time, actually! Let’s get those clothes put away and then we’ll be on our way.” Izuku hands his borrowed clothes over, and she shoves them under the counter somewhere. “Come on,” she says with a bright grin, and she rolls her wheelchair over to a dingy white door behind the counter that says EMPLOYEES ONLY in faded red letters. Izuku follows her into what seems to be an inventory room, filled with mountains of cloth and unorganized clothes; she doesn’t stop there, though, and wheels herself out the back door into the alley behind the shop.

 

There’s a platform made of metal grating that she rolls her wheelchair onto. At her beckoning, Izuku steps onto it beside her. “Alright, help me out here,” she says, pointing at a rope dangling from the top of the building. “Normally I can do this by myself, but since you’re an extra passenger, you’ll need to help pull it with me.”

 

“Got it,” says Izuku. Moriai flashes him another bright smile. They put their hands on the rope and haul; far above, something starts turning, and the platform rises up off the ground.

 

The platform comes to a stop at the top of the building, next to some winch-like device housed in a large wooden box. Moriai flips some latch and the platform locks into place. Whistling merrily, she rolls off the platform. Izuku gives the device one last admiring glance -- he’d love to see its internal mechanisms and talk with whoever designed it -- and follows her around the tall trellis room dividers that have, for some reason, been set up on the roof. The trellises have been grown over with vines and flowers; a garden of sorts, then?

 

He steps around the trellises and is greeted with a plethora of plant beds sprawling across the sandy stone material of the roof. Vegetables, herbs, blooms of color, flowers of every shape and size waving gently under the sunlight. What really catches Izuku’s attention, though, are the watering cans that are moving through the air and watering the plants… on their own. And -- are those weeds weeding themselves? They’re being uprooted somehow, floating through the air and depositing themselves in a large compost bin at the edge of the roof.

 

“Konoye-chan, I told you that you need to garden by hand for this to count as exercise,” Moriai says admonishingly.

 

Izuku looks over. Moriai has wheeled herself between the plant beds, and she’s speaking to someone who must be lying beyond them. Izuku approaches hesitantly. What kind of person…?

 

It’s a girl napping in the sunlight. Her dark hair has been braided into thick dreadlocks; some of it drapes over her left eye, some of it is tied up in a ponytail. She yawns and stretches under the sunlight and glances up at Moriai lazily with her single visible eye. “I am exercising,” she says. “I’m exercising my Quirk.”

 

Moriai crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. “That’s what you’ve said for the past three days.”

 

“It’s been true all three days,” the girl says earnestly. Then her gaze drifts over to Izuku. She scrutinizes him for a second, and her eye alights with recognition. “Deku?”

 

Huh. “Have we met?” he asks, rubbing the back of his neck. “I'm sorry, I don't remember every person I…”

 

“Don't worry about it, I understand,” the girl says with a smile, waving him off. The watering cans set themselves down. “I'm Tanaka Konoye. Nice to meet you. What brings you to my humble abode?”

 

“Moriai-san invited me here,” Izuku says, instead of literally any other question he wants to say.

 

Tanaka raises an eyebrow and glances up at Moriai. “Special occasion?”

 

“Eh… of sorts,” Moriai says, in the sort of voice Izuku instantly recognizes as someone about to reveal something he won't like.

 

Apparently Tanaka recognizes it too, because her eyebrow only climbs higher on her forehead. “And that would be…?”

 

Moriai clasps her hands together in her lap very earnestly. “So, I know you have been thinking about becoming a vigilante lately, but you're not too keen on actually fighting crime or doing anything you can't put on your college application. Soooooooo I figured, who better to talk to about the issue than a vigilante themself?”

 

“What,” Izuku says. What?

 

Tanaka covers her face with one hand and heaves a deep sigh. “Thanks, Kazue,” she says, in the same way someone might thank their cat for gifting them a dead mouse. “You. Really didn’t need to do that for me.”

 

“It's perfect,” Moriai says earnestly. “Both of you have powerful Quirks and strong moral compasses, both of you were invited to apply to Yuuei, both of you refused--”

 

Izuku and Tanaka both whip their heads around to stare at her. “What?”

 

“--so the two of you have a lot in common!” Moriai finishes, clapping her hands together and beaming.

 

What? ” Tanaka repeats.

 

“How -- how did you find out?” Izuku demands.

 

“It’s true?”

 

“A journalist never reveals her sources,” Moriai informs the two of them smugly.

 

“That’s bad journalistic practice! Everything in the news is all about getting reliable sources so people know your information is trustworthy,” Izuku says indignantly. Wait, that’s not the issue here. “And more importantly -- I can count on one hand how many people know about that! Er, two.” All Might, the principal, Todoroki and Iida, Mitoki, his mom, Tamanaha-sensei… That’s a lot, actually. “Are you just -- connected to Yuuei somehow, or--”

 

“A journalist never reveals her sources,” Moriai repeats, winking. “Let’s focus on the important things here, i.e. you and Konoye-chan being vigilante best friends. I’ll leave you to it, then. Goodbye!”

 

And, faster than Izuku thought was possible, Moriai wheels around the trellises and disappears.

 

Izuku sits down on the wooden edge of the nearest dirt bed and puts his face in his hands.

 

Tanaka heaves a sigh, and a moment later Izuku hears clothes rustling. He looks up to see that Tanaka has finally gotten into a sitting position, resting her crossed arms on the edge of the dirt bed. “Ignore her,” she tells him. “She’s always like that. She won’t tell anyone else, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

 

“How did she know?” Izuku says despairingly. Moriai is apparently a mystery and a terror and he isn't sure how he feels about that. “Is she just, directly plugged into the goings-on of Yuuei, or something? Did All Might tell her about it?”

 

“All Might?” Tanaka’s eye sparks with interest. He shouldn’t have said that, he’s made a mistake. “What’s he got to do with it?”

 

“Nothing!” That's not true. “Everything.” Also not completely true, except for the part where it kind of is. “He keeps showing up in my life somehow. Even when he's not actually physically present. At this point his non-presence is just as powerful as his presence, and is almost an entire person in and of itself. I'm starting to feel like I'm being haunted by a particularly well-meaning and extremely famous ghost.”

 

“Sounds like an appropriately famous mentor for an appropriately famous vigilante,” Tanaka says with good humor, which is completely missing the point.

 

“It’s not vigilante activity,” Izuku says, instead of explaining to Tanaka the exact circumstances of All Might’s inexplicable presence in his life. “Technically.”

 

She props her head up on one chin and widens her eye in faux surprise. “What do you mean, the number one vigilante in all of Japan isn’t a vigilante?”

 

“The. The number one,” Izuku repeats, and feels his brain go quiet and take a moment to reboot.

 

“Relax,” Tanaka laughs. “Maybe not number one, but certainly one of the more popular ones. You have a social media tag and everything.”

 

Izuku frowns. That would explain why more people have been trying to talk to him after every incident he stops, actually. He hasn't paid much attention to it, because his post-incident procedure is always to leave as soon as possible with as little attention as he can. “But I'm only… I only stay around Musutafu, and typically vigilantes are only known among the locals.”

 

“True, but social media has an amazing ability to spread things around. At this point you're way more than a local legend,” Tanaka says, leaning back thoughtfully. “You're more like… a famous cryptid. Or a video game Easter egg encounter that can only be unlocked under a really specific set of circumstances, such as having your apartment be decimated by a stone golem on a Tuesday afternoon and then being set on fire by an exploding car that got launched into the air. Just as a completely theoretical example.”

 

“A...cryptid?”

 

“You’re infamously hard to catch, except for the people you take a liking to, who are also notoriously tight-lipped,” Tanaka explains. Her dimpling cheeks suggest that she is vastly entertained by everything about this. Izuku is kind of touched that everyone is being so reticent for his sake.

 

She lets out another yawn, then. “Sorry, I was in the middle of my afternoon nap when you showed up. Sorry about Kazue dragging you all the way here for me, too. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do.”

 

Izuku shakes his head. “She helped me out when I was in a tight spot; I’m just doing her favor.” Even if said favor is apparently about advising someone else about how best to stray from a proper, legal civilian path. “So… vigilantism.”

 

Tanaka heaves a deep sigh, head drooping. Then it droops some more. Then she just lists to the side, and Izuku, alarmed, reaches out to catch her -- but no, she’s just lying face down on the edge of the plant bed. “Shoulda just stayed in Yuuei… Get expelled once, and she holds it against you forever,” she mutters.

 

“You’re the one who got expelled from Yuuei?” Izuku says disbelievingly. What are the chances?

 

“Did you hear about that whole fiasco from someone…?” Tanaka glances up at him. “Mm, yeah. They couldn’t really let me stay in the school after I set their computer lab on fire.”

 

“You what?”

 

“Just kidding,” says Tanaka. “I actually broke into the gradebook and changed everyone’s grades to a failing grade.”

 

“You what,” says Izuku.

 

“I’m just messing with you,” says Tanaka with a smile, waving one hand vaguely in the air. This is really too much for Izuku to handle right now. “It’s not a very interesting story, so let’s just ignore it for now. I’m not particularly interested in being a hero -- too much work -- but I still want to help people. I’ve got a pretty handy Quirk. So that’s why I was thinking about vigilantism. -- It’d get Kazue to stop bothering me about getting out of the house and exercising more, too,” she adds under her breath. Izuku probably wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

“So, just a way to help others using your Quirk,” Izuku summarizes. Tanaka nods. “There’s plenty of jobs for that; you shouldn’t have a problem finding one. What is your Quirk, though?”

 

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” says Tanaka. “I call it Realm, though. I can make an area into my, hm… ‘playing field’ of sorts, and then I can shuffle things around.”

 

Izuku blinks. “Like making the watering cans move by themselves?”

 

“Yeah, but that’s more finicky work. It’s easier to just exchange the locations of two objects. Like… actually, it might be easier just to demonstrate.” She tilts her head at Izuku in an unspoken question, and he nods.

 

Tanaka turns her gaze to the garden, then. She sits up; her spine straightens; her eye suddenly burns with some sort of fire or molten steel. Izuku finds himself instinctively straightening up. Tanaka raises her hands and, with such powerful and utter certainty that Izuku is half convinced a mountain would jump if she told it to, commands, “Shuffle.”

 

And as she gestures with her hands, the potted plants and garden scenery all lift themselves up into the air. Izuku gapes as they swirl around, circling about chaotically before landing on the rooftop again, completely rearranged -- flower beds where the vegetable garden used to be, trees in the center where the watering cans once stood, bricks and gardening tools exchanged for flower pots. Tanaka directs a wind wheel spinner to stick itself in the middle of the garden bed directly in front of them.

 

“There,” she says. “I’m not the best at fine details yet, but that’s what all this practice is for.”

 

“What was that?” Izuku breathes.

 

Tanaka tilts her head back and hums as she considers. “I’m kind of -- forcing my will onto the objects around me, in a ‘realm.’ Depending on my force of will, I can make them do things… sometimes.” She yawns. “I can't subject people to my will, unless they have a stupidly weak will… I can force it on animals sometimes… but objects are so finicky about what they will and won’t do… It’s sort of like playing cards, except the cards are also sentient pieces on a three dimensional chessboard that's also trying to kill you.”

 

That’s an, uh, oddly specific description. “It sounds a bit like limited telekinesis.”

 

“I guess. But only in a limited area. And some things have a few other conditions. I guess I get some other cool perks, though, like being able to fix stuff.”

 

Izuku looks up sharply. “Fix stuff?”

 

Tanaka blinks at him. “...Yeah. I’m guessing you want to see?”

 

“Er, you don’t have to.”

 

She shrugs. “As long as you’re here, I might as well. Mind breaking a pot for me or something?”

 

“Are you -- are you sure?

 

“Just pick a flower pot and chuck it on the ground.”

 

Izuku hesitantly picks up the nearest one -- a decent sized clay pot filled with small violet flowers -- and drops it. It shatters on the rooftop, rich black dirt spilling out among the shards. He feels incredibly bad.

 

Tanaka leans forward, staring at the mess intently. And even as Izuku watches, the shards of clay shiver, and then they fly back together into the shape of a pot. Before his eyes, the cracks smooth away until all that’s left is a single, unblemished whole.

 

Moments later, a small pinch of dirt levitates itself back into the pot. Izuku glances at Tanaka. Her eye is narrowed, her lips pressed together in concentration. She can fix pots, but not move around dirt? Izuku turns a critical eye back to the pot and mentally reviews the information he’s been given so far.

 

“You can repair things as long as you consider them a whole object, can’t you?” he guesses. “There’s a limit to how many objects you can exert your will over, too, which depends on the nature of the objects as well. But in the case of dirt, since it’s a collection of incredibly small things, you don’t consider it to be a whole ‘object,’ and every speck of dirt is classified as another object you have to force your will on. That’s why you can only move a little bit at a time. Right?”

 

Tanaka glances back at him, eyebrow raising. “Right on the money. You deduced that fast.” Her gaze moves back to the dirt still spilled on the rooftop. “Fixing things is my most useful skill at the moment, really, but I’m not sure how to put it to good use doing anything. I can’t use this to fix computers or technology, since they’re made of so many component parts.”

 

That is a good point. And by that same logic, she wouldn’t be good at most handyman repair. There are businesses that restore vases, though; she could do something like that. But she probably wants to do something more tangibly impactful; she did consider becoming a vigilante, after all. What kinds of needs does being a vigilante address? Fighting crime, mitigating property damage…

 

Wait a minute. That could work. Izuku recalls the copious amounts of destruction left behind at any hero-villain fight -- the property damage that he himself has dealt before -- and the places on his patrols where the city still has not assigned any workers to clean up the streets and repair the infrastructure. And -- Imaeda Sumio’s home was caved in during an altercation last week, Izuku remembers; he remembers taking Imaeda and his children to a nearby hotel, and giving them the addresses of local homeless shelters while they looked for a new place to live. His home still hasn’t been cleared by the city. The rubble is still all there. Izuku was angry about it at the time, but…

 

“Tanaka-san,” Izuku says, steepling his fingers together. “How large of a scale can you do this on?”

 

--

 

As it turns out, so long as it’s only one “object,” the answer is: very large.

 

The first house Tanaka puts back together is shocking; the second, exciting; the third onward, exhilarating. By the time it’s time for Izuku’s curfew, they’ve put a neighborhood back together, run halfway across the city, and told everyone whose homes were affected. As he watches everyone hugging each other and excitedly exploring their newly-restored homes, he can’t help but share a wide, happy grin with Tanaka. She grins right back, cheeks dimpling, hair outlined gold under the setting sun.

 

“Today was fun,” Tanaka tells him before he leaves. “I don’t know my way around the city, but if you ever find somewhere in need of repair, just drop by, and we can head out again.” She smiles, genuine and warm.

 

“It’s a deal,” Izuku says. They fistbump over it, and then Izuku heads to take the train home, feeling the warmth of a shared secret settling next to his heart.

 

--

 

[7:12 AM] Sancha: Deku.

 

[8:02 AM] To Sancha: Good morning, Sancha-san.

[8:04 AM] Sancha: Don’t “good morning” me. Why am I getting reports that you’ve teamed up with a new vigilante?

[8:04 AM] To Sancha: Vigilante?

[8:05 AM]  Sancha: Your attempts to play innocent are not cute.

[8:06 AM] To Sancha: I’m not playing innocent! I mean, vigilante on what grounds?

 

[8:09 AM] Sancha: On the grounds that you just spent an entire evening illegally repairing people’s homes

[8:10 AM] Sancha: I can’t believe I just typed out that sentence. This is ridiculous.

 

[8:13 AM] To Sancha: I didn’t repair anything, Sancha-san. I don’t have a Quirk and my handyman skills are atrocious.

 

[8:17 AM] Sancha: Tsukauchi says you are giving him a headache.

[8:17 AM] Sancha: [link attached: The Musutafu Shimbun -- Deku goes on serial spree of building reconstructions with new… ]

 

[9:50 AM] To Sancha: It’s not a bad article, but they forgot to talk about Japan’s infrastructure problems and lack of organized response to villainy-induced property damage.

[9:52 AM] Sancha: I pity anyone who thinks you are quiet, meek, and easy to deal with.

 

Izuku can’t help but laugh when he reads Sancha’s text.

 

--

 

A few days later, he gets a message from Iida -- the first one since he asked Iida to mediate his apology to Todoroki. It’s been a long time; he should check in on them and see how they are. Izuku swipes the notification to read the full message.

 

[3:37 PM] Iida: Hello, Midoriya-kun! I hope this message finds you in good health today. I would like to pass on a message from Uraraka-chan-kun if you are amenable to hearing it!

 

Iida’s uniquely intense, enthusiastic tone is carried so well by the text, he can practically hear it out loud.  Izuku can’t help but smile as he taps out a reply.

 

[3:44 PM] To Iida: Hi, Iida-kun! I’m doing well, and I hope you’re having a good day as well. What can I do for Uraraka-san?

 

What does Uraraka want? She has only interacted with him once before -- an unforgettable experience; the abject terror he experienced when she ate that popsicle was indescribable -- and by all accounts, she shouldn’t need anything from him. He bites the inside of his cheek. Calm down. It’s probably nothing bad, maybe just a question or two about his definately not vigilante extracurricular activities. Even having a hero-in-training question him about it is nerve-wracking, though. He hopes this will be quick.

 

The phone buzzes.

 

[3:45 PM] Iida: Uraraka-chan-kun would like to speak with you regarding the recent troubles of our classmate, Bakugou-kun.

 

Izuku’s heart jumps. He types his next message so quickly he nearly drops his phone.

 

[3:45 PM] To Iida: Is he okay? Is something wrong?

 

[3:46 PM] Iida: Physically, he is quite well! However, his temperament has been suffering in class lately, and it appears something has upset him greatly. Uraraka-chan-kun was unable to glean the source of his troubles, but believes that it has something to do with you.

[3:47 PM] Iida: We are all extremely worried about Bakugou-kun and anything you can tell us is greatly appreciated!

 

Izuku’s heart pounds. His stomach drops. Distantly, he’s aware of pedestrians giving him strange looks as he freezes on the sidewalk, but the outside world is swept away under the roar of emotion that crashes over him.

 

Uraraka knows that he knows Kacchan. She knows he is Deku. A single misplaced word from Uraraka, and Izuku’s fragile construction of a false identity will come tumbling down.

 

Kacchan is -- he’s going to be so mad the next time he sees Izuku, isn’t he, Izuku never should have said anything in the first place, and -- and he can’t handle this, not on top of everything else. Izuku’s breaths come painful and gasping, knifing through his sternum; his heart beats jackrabbit fast against his ribcage, it’s going so fast it’s going to burst -- Izuku needs to get out of the street right now but he can barely even, barely even make himself move--

 

He staggers to a bench and curls up on himself, shaking his way through one of the worst panic attack he’s had in years. He tries distracting himself with a recitation of the latest political theory essay he’s committed to memory, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. The panic crowds out all his thoughts until he’s consumed entirely by fear -- fear of Uraraka asking, fear of Kacchan knowing, fear that if his heart doesn’t slow down right now it will burst and he’ll die.

 

When he finally collects himself enough to look at the phone again, he types a message and hits send before he can talk himself out of it.

 

[4:15 PM] To Iida: I’m sorry. I don't think I can help you.

 

[4:18 PM] Iida: hi deku-kun, this is uraraka. bakugou-kun definitely was upset by something involving you. please don't deny it and just tell us what happened. we are all worried.

 

Izuku silences notifications from Iida’s number, shoves his phone in his pocket, and holds his head in his hands. He can't do this. He absolutely cannot do this. His skin is crawling with anxious energy, and he jumps up and begins to pace in front of the bench. What should he do? Uraraka seems intent on answers, and he can't blame her, especially if she's as close friends with Kacchan as he thinks she is. But the events of the Tamanaha Conversation are something he can barely even say to himself at night, and he still can't name what Kacchan did to him for what it is. It's just too much, and if Izuku says it out loud he's scared he's gonna break.

 

And even if he did tell her, why should she believe him? It's a horrible thing to find out about a close friend, and. And actually for that matter, if Kacchan doesn't want to tell her, why should he? It's a private matter, and it doesn't have anything to do with her, and she doesn't have any right to his story when he can't even get through it himself.

 

With his mind made, Izuku sends back a message.

 

[5:07 PM] To Iida: If Kacchan doesn't want to tell you about it, I don't think I should either.

[5:08 PM] Iida: bakugou-kun never wants to tell anyone about anything. -- uraraka

[5:09 PM] To Iida: I don't want to tell you about it either, Uraraka-san. I'm sorry if this causes difficulty for you but this is a very personal thing.

[5:09 PM] To Iida: Please don't ask me again.

 

He locks his phone and shoves it in his pocket, presses his face into the palms of his hands as though the pressure could ground him in the present. He feels like a rope stretched thin, creaking and fraying with all the tension coiled up and trapped within him. There’s a nameless mess of emotion crouching in the pit of his stomach about to claw its way out, black and dripping the hate he never wanted to have. His skin crawls with a thousand red-hot needles, and everything ugly in him is about to burst. God, he wasn’t made for this. He can’t fucking take this. Izuku drops down to the ground in a crouch, arms wrapped around his head, and his throat strains with every single angry shout and awful invective that he wants to release but can’t.

 

Fuck. Shit. Fucking hell. Fucking Uraraka, who does she think she is, asking for answers he can’t give? What gave her the right to force open the door and rip off every fragile bandage Izuku finally found? Who told her she could -- ask him about Kacchan -- ask if Kacchan was okay -- who told her to be friends with Kacchan, who fucking told her to care, and for that matter who the fuck told Iida and Kirishima and Mina and every single other person in Kacchan’s life to ever give a fuck about him? Who told them to -- to give all this extra mile like he’s worth something when he’s hurt Izuku so bad -- why do they care -- why--

 

Why does Kacchan get so many people to care for him when Izuku is all alone?

 

He doesn’t realize he’s started crying until the first hot tears drop onto his arms. They burn as they well up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks, dripping to the pavement underneath him with a faint plop-plop almost lost under the sound of traffic and conversations in the street. They don’t come like a floodgate has opened; they don’t come easily at all. Instead, they squeeze out like the pressure inside him is boiling over and forcing them out, hot and angry and hurt, and far from a catharsis, every drop only seems to magnify the hurt more.

 

It’s the most useless cry he’s ever had in his life, and he’s had a fucking lot of them. Every moment only makes him more livid about how stupid this is, how stupid he is, how stupid his entire life has been up until this point and how much more useless can he fucking be? He wants to scream, and punch something, and maybe he wants to destroy something and not feel a single ounce of guilt for the consequences. Maybe -- maybe he even wants a fight with Kacchan right now, that old familiarity, that old fury, when he knew exactly what he was supposed to do and how much he could let himself go and who he was allowed to be. But he doesn’t have that, anymore. Maybe he never did.

 

So what is he supposed to fucking do?

 

--

 

He swallows his rage down and goes home, holding the burning anger beneath his tongue. He doesn’t say anything; he can’t. He’s too afraid of what he’ll say. His mom and Yagi both accept his silence, and when their conversation at the dinner table starts grating at him until he has to cover his ears and squeeze his eyes shut, they move into Yagi’s study and turn off the lights where he’s sitting. Izuku is grateful, but the guilt seeps in right after, curdling his anger into shame. He’s such an inconvenience to everyone around him. He’s worthless. He wants to fucking die. Izuku curls in on himself for who knows how long, and then he cleans the table and puts his food away without touching it and goes to his room to sleep.

 

It takes hours of lying on his bed, staring blankly at the outline of light cast by the streetlamp outside his window, before sleep finally comes.

 

Somehow, overnight, his anger morphs into grief -- depression -- a miserable emptiness that takes up so much space in his body, he barely feels alive. The cloud descends on him as soon as he wakes up the next day, wraps itself around his shoulders and trails his misery after him like a fog. Izuku seems to be hurting everyone around him, lately -- first the kidnapping, second the… the fallout of the Tamanaha Conversation, and now, his recent inability to hide his emotions away on the shelves is making everyone worry, drawing down their spirits like gravity. He’s just weighing them down. Izuku wishes he could just make himself deal with everything, wishes he just had a strong enough will to subjugate his wild and uncontrolled emotions, but he’s so tired. He is so tired, and still he goes on being alive. How long will he be like this, how long before he starts moving out of the dark forest and back into the sun?

 

Doing something is always better than doing nothing, Yagi’s voice whispers, and Izuku closes his eyes and breathes. This is all he can do. This is all he needs to do. When he opens them again, he pulls on a jacket and leaves the house, shuffling slowly to the train station and taking the route to Shinsou’s cat cafe.

 

He pays for two hours there and steps into the cat room before faltering. There are more people here than he was hoping; a man in a business suit, two women chatting and playing with the cats, three friends gathered together whose voices and laughter rise into the air. He casts around for a quieter space away from them, somewhere relatively alone. His eyes fall on a familiar bush of styled blue-purple hair. Shinsou himself is here, sitting on one of the window seats and  idly stroking a purring cat in his lap. Should Izuku go greet him? But it seems today is a day for impulses, for even as the question crosses his mind, his feet are already carrying him across the room.

 

“Hi, Shinsou-kun,” he says, waving when Shinsou turns his head slightly to the side and slides his golden gaze to meet his. “Are you -- um, I didn’t know you’d be here today! How are you?” He can feel his already stiff smile get more strained as soon as the words leave his mouth. That was so awkward. Talking was a mistake.

 

Shinsou studies him silently, his eyes half caught in shadow. The pale glint of his iris where the sunlight cuts across it almost seems violent in its glow.

 

“Fine,” Shinsou says curtly, when Izuku says nothing else. “What do you want?”

 

Izuku can feel his metaphorical HP bar instantly fall to zero. “J-just wanted to say hi, I guess?” he forces out. “I-I mean, um… sorry for bothering you, I’ll leave you alone.” He turns to go, face burning and his spirit falling even lower.

 

“Wait,” says Shinsou. “I didn’t mean…”

 

He sighs. Izuku hesitantly comes to a halt and chances a look back at him. He’s rubbing at his face, as if he could smear away the shadows of sleepless nights from under his eyes; the hostility that was wrapped around him like a shield has dissipated, leaving only a heavy weariness behind that weighs his shoulders down into a crooked and oddly thin shade of himself.

 

“Are you okay?” Izuku blurts out.

 

Shinsou blinks, then cracks a startled-looking smile. “What?”

 

“S-sorry, I didn’t mean to say that, um. It just. Slipped out. It’s just that, um, you really look…”

 

“Bad?” Shinsou offers, tilting his head to the side with a sardonic smile.

 

“Like you haven’t slept in four days,” Izuku says, but the words he really wants to say are you look like how I feel right now and I wish things weren’t that way for you.

 

Shinsou’s smile falls away and leaves a horribly blank mask behind. “Only three, so far,” Shinsou says, looking away. His hand curls in the cat’s fur, and it lets out a little mrr sound that feels disjointed and out of place.

 

“You haven’t gotten any rest at all?” Izuku asks, frowning.

 

Shinsou lifts up one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, but keeps his gaze trained away. “I got a couple hours yesterday afternoon.”

 

Izuku twists his lips in sympathy. He knows all too well what those nights can be like, hours upon hours staring up at the ceiling and feeling impossibly empty for the lack of dreams, how it follows you into the daylight and drags at your heels. “Do you want be alone right now?”

 

“It’s fine,” Shinsou says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry for taking that out on you. I’ve just -- been having an off week. I don’t mind if you stay.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

Shinsou shakes his head again, so Izuku just crouches next to the window seat and starts petting the tabby in his lap and asks him to introduce the cat.

 

For a while, that’s all they do: Izuku interacts with the cats in the nearby vicinity and feels the tightness in him slowly, ever slowly, start to unwind, and Shinsou offers a few comments here and there about the cat he’s spending time with. Izuku eventually just sits down on the seat with Shinsou and asks him if he’s seen the video of the latest villain attack downtown that the heroes stopped, wasn’t it incredible, the new ability that Kamui Woods used was so clever -- and they chat, and it’s easy, and that’s all.

 

Shinsou’s time in the cafe runs out before Izuku’s. He reluctantly picks Isao up off his lap and sets him down on the floor, and when he stands up, Isao jumps onto the window seat and claims Shinsou’s spot for his own. Shinsou smiles a bit, but he still looks -- too tired, too lonely, as if a great yawning emptiness has opened up around him and left him small and terribly alone in the center. Before he can even process the idea, Izuku has invited Shinsou to get coffee at Uemura’s cafe. Shinsou looks taken aback, asking don’t you have half an hour left? You should enjoy your time here, but Izuku insists that it’s no problem and if Shinsou’s feeling up for it he’d like to spend some more time with him.

 

The okay that slips from Shinsou’s lips feels oddly vulnerable, as though Izuku has done something important and deeply profound. Izuku bites his lips, then gathers himself and leaves with Shinsou out the door.

 

Shinsou is quiet as they walk down to the station and catch a train to the district Uemura’s in, so Izuku fills in the space between them with his observations about the most recent heroes he’s taken an interest in. And then, inevitably, his thoughts on public policy regarding hero activity trickles in, and then along come his thoughts on one of the books Eraserhead recommended to him, and Shinsou listens with increasing interest as Izuku outlines exactly how he thinks the hero industry ties into the massive socioeconomic inequality growing in Japan.

 

By the time they’ve reached Uemura’s cafe, Shinsou is actively asking questions and making comments that only fuel his impassioned diatribe on the economic disparity already present in Musutafu itself.

 

“--I mean, just look at the schools,” Izuku says emphatically, jabbing at the air. “In Orudera Junior High, we had underpaid, overworked, and apathetic teachers who didn’t have the energy to teach us well. Half our textbooks were a decade out of date, our equipment was old, the pavement was cracked -- the walls got water damage in the rainy season last year but we didn’t have the money to actually replace the walls so they just made us repaint during school clean-up time. And then, only three miles away is Soumei Private Academy, which had enough money to spend one million yen on renovating the school sports shed . It’s a world of difference, and people notice.

 

Shinsou raises an eyebrow. “Orudera is public, and Soumei is private. Isn’t the difference in quality to be expected?”

 

That stumps Izuku for a moment as he tries to articulate why he doesn’t care. “That’s not the problem,” he settles on finally. “The problem is that -- that poor people can’t afford to go to Soumei, or if they do send a family member, they’re often in debt or working an exorbitant amount just to pay that off. Meanwhile, mid- to upper-class families can send their students there, no problem. And because Soumei has funding and donations it can provide a better education, and its students can place into better high schools. But students go to Orudera because they can’t afford Soumei; and a poorer education there leads to placing in poorer high schools. The problem isn’t that Soumei is better quality than Orudera; the problem is that there’s almost no upward mobility for low-income families. They have fewer opportunities just because of the circumstances they were born into. How is that fair?”

 

“And that only perpetuates the… what was the phrase you used… ‘paralysis of economic classes’?” Shinsou asks.

 

Izuku nods. “Essentially, you have two groups: those with decent economic security, and those who don’t. If you’re economically secure, you get good schooling, and usually, good jobs. If you’re not, you aren’t allowed to access any resources that might get you economic security, because you can’t pay. You can’t pay, so you’re looking for means to pay; but you can’t find means to pay because you can’t pay in the first place. It’s a double bind. But of course, it’s always the lucky few who make it out that everyone focuses on -- as if just anyone can magically pull themselves out of the red zone. That mentality says, ‘it’s your fault you’re poor; if you worked hard enough, you’d get a better job.’ But it’s just not true, most of the time.”

 

“So people flock to the hero industry, because that’s one way you can climb out of poverty. That’s your theory, right?”

 

“Kind of! But not exactly. Actually, I think it’s economic inequality that provides most of a hero’s livelihood. Not like the heroes are purposefully preying on the poor! But it’s like this -- let’s assume that the proportion of people with powerful Quirks is independent of economic class. Why is it then that some 85 percent of heroes come from middle or upper class families? I mean -- Shinsou-kun, you go to Yuuei, how many students do you know who are poor?”

 

Shinsou blinks. “...One.”

 

“Isn’t that weird? I mean, you can’t just say that people of lower economic status just have less powerful Quirks, not when the majority of villains come from low-income families and demonstrate undeniably powerful Quirks. Like, last year there was a villain with a gigantification Quirk that let him stop trains and decimate roadways. Sounds a lot like Mount Lady, right? If he’d just had the right training or resources, he could easily have been a hero associate on the scene. The fact that Yuuei doesn’t have more students from low-income families really makes it seem like economic status has something to do with your access to the hero industry. Don’t you think?”

 

“The entry tests at Yuuei were designed to be impartial and judge students based on their ability, not their background.”

 

“Wouldn’t you have better ability if you could afford a private instructor? Fighting lessons? Healthy food? What about the fact that you don’t have to worry about making ends meet? It’s not just ability -- it’s also the training and resources that build up that ability.” Izuku pauses. “I got away from my original point. A lot of villains come from poor families or neighborhoods. A lot of them turn to villainy to get themselves stuff they wouldn’t have on their own. This isn’t an absolute, it’s just a general guideline, but so many villains are villains simply because they need stuff they can’t get, and villain activity is what drives the need for heroes in the first place. I think if we had more equity in the country, villain activity would fall, because people who might’ve been villains now have a way to live a secure life. You know?”

 

Shinsou nods slowly. “That makes sense.” Then, “I think we’re holding up the line. Shall we order?”

 

Izuku looks up and realizes that they are, indeed, holding up the line. He got carried away again, didn’t he? Feeling a bit embarrassed, Izuku gives his order to the girl behind the counter as quickly and clearly as possible. And then because Shinsou is here on his invitation, he pays for Shinsou’s order too. Shinsou protests, but Izuku takes a page from Hatsume’s book and deftly runs his protests into the ground. He steers Shinsou to a two-person table near the window, takes the seat with the back to the wall, and launches right back into his thoughts on political theory before Shinsou can try and pay him back.

 

The discussion comes to a pause when one of the servers brings them their orders. Izuku gratefully drinks some coffee, and he raises an eyebrow at Shinsou. “Should you really be drinking coffee when you’re already having trouble sleeping?”

 

“Should you really be inviting me out for coffee when I’m already having trouble sleeping?” Shinsou shoots right back at him, idly stirring his cup with a straw. “It’s fine. At this point, it won’t make much of a difference, and coffee never helps me the way I need it to, anyways.”

 

“Okay, as long as you’re sure!”

 

“Mmhmm. Oh, there was something I forgot to say to you, Midoriya. I understand what you’re saying, but using my knowledge of people in Yuuei as anecdotal evidence isn’t that strong. I’m not very close with my classmates, and I don’t have many friends.”

 

The way his lips twist into something sardonic, a knife-sharp smile with a bitter edge, suggests that what Shinsou means is that he doesn’t have any friends there. And that’s…

 

 

“Shinsou-kun, are you -- um, are you sure you’re alright?” Izuku asks, putting down his cup.

 

“Just peachy,” Shinsou says. “I’m sure you could tell. Why do you ask?”

 

“You just seem kind of… lonely. And sad. I know earlier you said you didn’t want to talk about your off week, but -- maybe it’ll help? I’m basically a stranger, but I’d be happy to listen, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t know than someone you do.”

 

Shinsou’s eyes drop down to the tabletop. He says nothing for long moments, so silent and still that Izuku’s afraid he’s made him withdraw back into himself.

 

“Why?” Shinsou says finally.

 

Izuku blinks. “Why what?”

 

Shinsou draws the corner of his mouth up into what might be the beginnings of a snarl or a self-deprecating smile. “You said it yourself. We’re strangers. Why do you care?” A beat passes, and then, “Why are you so willing to talk to me?”

 

It isn’t said the same way as everything else; not harsh defensive steel, but something far more brittle and raw underneath. “Why wouldn’t I be willing to talk to you?” Izuku says, brows furrowing, and what’s with the strange emphasis on ‘talk’ -- and then, even as he says it, something clicks halfway into place. “Oh, is this about your Quirk?”

 

“‘Oh, is this about my’--” Shinsou stares at him, and then he lets out a little disbelieving heh, and then he just starts laughing, bent over the table with a hand clasped over his mouth and laughing so hard it looks like it hurts.

 

“No, no, I mean--” Izuku scrambles for the right thing to say, what does he say, what did he do. “I mean, I guess your Quirk is pretty scary and intimidating --  but a lot of people’s are! And, I mean -- I don’t think you’d use your Quirk without reason. I’m not worried about you using it! I trust you.”

 

“Trust, ” says Shinsou wildly, hunching over the table with a hand holding his head. “You don’t even know me.”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” Izuku asks, feeling as if he’s lost his footing somewhere along this conversation and now he’s scrambling not to be left behind.

 

Shinsou shakes his head with another laugh, but he doesn’t seem to be directing it at anything. “You’re impossible. How can you just -- just say that? How can you…” His voice, already wavering, breaks. Izuku’s stomach sinks. “How can you trust me, just like that?”

 

“Shinsou-kun…”

 

“Out of all the people in my life,” Shinsou says, wiping at his eyes, “why is it you’re the only one who’ll just talk to me?”

 

He’s crying, just a little bit, in the horrible hiccup-y way when someone is trying to stop themselves from crying but can’t keep their emotions locked down anymore. It’s horrible to see from the outside. Izuku wants to tell Shinsou to just let himself cry and let his feelings out, but they’re in public and Izuku knows the shame and mortification that can come sweeping in after a good cry. He bites his lip. What should he do?

 

“It’s nothing special, is it?” he asks nervously, trying not to look too closely at Shinsou. “I’m just -- treating you like any other person.”

 

“You say that like it’s such a small thing,” Shinsou says, and it almost sounds accusing, the way he shapes the words in his mouth -- something hot as embers. He wipes at his eyes again, but his eyes are welling up again, and -- “Fuck, ” Shinsou snarls, furious and upset, as if it’s his fault he’s crying.

 

Izuku feels lost. Something has happened far behind the scenes, and all he’s seeing is the fallout, an echo of a shape he can’t quite make out. “Shinsou-kun,” he starts, and then he stops, because he doesn’t know what there is to say.

 

Shinsou doesn’t respond, doesn’t look up, just continues to struggle against his own overwhelming emotion. His shoulders shake. He hides his eyes with his hands. A minute later, he finally says, “Sorry, Midoriya. I… My problems have nothing to with you, and here I am, just…”

 

“It’s fine,” Izuku says, when Shinsou doesn’t continue his sentence. “I don’t… really understand what’s going on, but I mean. From what I can tell, um. I’d be upset too, if I was in your position. You’re dealing with a lot.”

 

He remembers the murmurs that spread through the audience at the Sports Festival when everyone finally figured out what Shinsou’s Quirk was, how Present Mic had sensationalized it in his commentary. Oh, the Gen Ed section had cheered for Shinsou in the end, but -- is that really enough to make up for that, Izuku wonders, can that really erase what must be years of people shying away simply because of Shinsou’s Quirk?

 

Izuku thinks back to the lonely years of elementary school, when he had no friends and his only solace was hiding in the library, and it aches terribly. The resonance of memory suddenly seems too much and Izuku can’t stand it, can’t let this go on for a single moment longer, and he is going to make this better if it’s the last thing he does.

 

“Look, Shinsou-kun.” Shinsou glances up, but something he sees seems to catch his attention, because his gaze sharpens and he straightens up slightly in his seat. “Right now, if I wanted, I could attack you -- or anyone here -- with lethal force, and I’d do a lot of damage before anyone arrived to stop me. I have the training and the ability. In fact, anyone here could hurt their neighbor right now if they chose to, especially if they had a powerful Quirk. But no one’s worried about that. They’re putting their faith in each other’s decency as human beings. All I’m doing is extending that same basic courtesy to you.” He pauses. “If that’s unusual, it’s everyone else who’s at fault. You don’t deserve to be treated like that.”

 

A flash of inspiration strikes him with all the power of a lightning bolt, the memory of Kacchan at the park flashing through his mind. “You should fight them,” Izuku declares brazenly, crossing his arms and nodding as wisely as he can.

 

Shinsou lets out a startled burst of laughter. “Wh -- fight them?”

 

“Yeah! Give ‘em the ol’ one-two,” Izuku says, demonstrating with little jabs of his fists in the air. “Give ‘em something to really talk about. Then they’ll actually have a reason to be scared of you.”

 

“I can’t just start a fight, ” Shinsou says disbelievingly, but -- aha, yes, that’s definitely an incredulous little smile curling at the edge of his lips.

 

“Sure you can! Just walk up and start swinging, like so!” Izuku models a punch through the air. “Next time someone says something, just tell them that you don’t need your Quirk to defeat them and throw a punch. It’s very easy to start fights, Shinsou-kun, and sometimes they don’t even take you up on the offer. I know someone who finds fights very therapeutic, you should try it out sometime.”

 

Shinsou lets out a surprised burst of laughter again, but this time it’s light -- genuine -- bright. Izuku’s train of thought completely derails. Shinsou looks -- almost radiant like this, something softer and gentler like winter to fall. “Haha, okay,” Shinsou is saying, “I’ll have to keep that in mind!” -- but Izuku is barely listening, the world drowned out by the rush of his own thoughts and his heart thumping against his ribcage , and Shinsou looks really cute.

 

Wait, what? Wait, what? Izuku feels his cheeks heat up and makes an uncoordinated grab for his cup of coffee, rapidly raising it to his mouth so he can occupy himself by taking a sip. What was that? What?

 

Shinsou smiles at him from across the table, taking a sip of his own cup of coffee. “You’re really something, Midoriya,” he says, and what does that even mean, Izuku is going to combust in his seat and all that will be left is a little steaming pile of ash. “Thanks for all that. I guess -- heh, I guess I really needed to hear something like that right now.” He pauses. “What about you, then?”

 

“Huh?”

 

Shinsou shrugs. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I had the impression that your time in the cat cafe was as much of a distraction for you as it was for me. And… well, I’d listen to you if you wanted to talk. If you wanted.”

 

For a moment, all Izuku can really do is stare. Then he cracks a lopsided smile. “Haha, was I that obvious…?” How much has this whole… thing with Kacchan gotten to him, that it can be read so easily from him?

 

Maybe he should try and talk about it. He still hasn’t told anyone; not his mom or Yagi, because they both know, and none of his acquaintances or friends, either. He hasn’t wanted to burden them with his own troubles. But god, if yesterday hasn’t shown him that all his feelings are building up with nowhere to go. Shinsou is a relative stranger, distant enough that telling him shouldn’t have much consequence, but acquaintance enough that he cares. He should give this a try.

 

Izuku licks his lips as he tries to think of what to say, but… “I don’t know if I can,” he says, looking down at the table. It weighs heavy on him. Here Shinsou’s offering to listen and Izuku can’t even take him up on it.

 

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Shinsou says. “But you listened to my troubles, so. I’d like to extend the same basic courtesy to you. Right?” He offers a small, wry smile.

 

Izuku laughs a bit at the echo back to their earlier conversation. “Thanks,” he says, smiling a bit, but he finds he can’t look at Shinsou in the eye anymore. “Yeah. I should talk to someone. It’s just…”

 

Just that if he says it out loud, he’s acknowledging that it’s real. He has skirted around the issue in his own mind, defined it so clearly by the things he doesn’t say that it doesn’t even need a name anymore. But telling it to Shinsou, he would have to call it what it is.

 

But he has to face it sometime. He has to move forward.

 

“My best friend,” Izuku starts, and stops, and starts again. “He… he used to bully me. A lot.” He brings his hands together in front of him on the table, twisting the fingers together and squeezing them as if the pressure there could relieve the pressure building behind his eyes. “We still fight, actually. I can’t… We can hardly ever be in the same space without something happening. And he…”

 

He takes a deep breath to say it, but ends up letting it out instead, his momentum failing him at the last minute. He tries again, to no avail; the words refuse to come out. Izuku grits his teeth and forces out another truth instead. “He hurt me,” he says, and the words scrape as they’re dragged out of his chest. “He hurt me. A lot. And I recently realized that…” Izuku can name this. “He…”

 

He can’t.

 

“Fuck! ” Izuku half-shouts, grabbing at his head. “I can’t even say it! He’s an asshole! He’s been the fucking worst! And I -- I think I might even hate him for that! But I can’t even -- fucking--”

 

“Midoriya,” Shinsou says, half startled, half standing, and half reaching for him across the table, but the words bubble red and hot and furious and force themselves out in a vitriolic burst of language that leaves an acrid taste on Izuku’s tongue. They will be heard, even if Izuku doesn’t want them to be.

 

“I know what it is,” Izuku says, and he can feel the first tears spilling out of his eyes. “I know exactly what he did to me. But I can’t even say it out loud. What’s the fucking point? I can't do anything about it! I can’t talk about it! I just fucking know now, and it’s ruining my life!”

 

He bangs his hand too hard on the table, on accident. Shinsou glances nervously to the side. The other customers must be looking over, wondering what this is all about -- but fuck it, Izuku can’t bring himself to care. Let them look. Let them see how much of a ruin Izuku has come to be.

 

“I wish I didn’t know,” he says, half-rising out of his seat, shoulders hunched and fists clenched. “I wish Tamanaha-sensei never said anything. I wish I could take it all back. But I can’t. She said it, and now I know, and I’ll always have to live with it now.”

 

“...Midoriya, are you saying…”

 

“I’m saying, ” Izuku says, and it stops right there because he still can’t say it and he doesn’t think he ever wants to. “Give me a pen,” he says instead, dropping back into his seat and digging his fingers into his knees. Shinsou reaches into his bag and shuffles around and hands Izuku the requested pen. Izuku takes it and grabs a napkin, and scrawls the word he can’t say.

 

“I’m saying that this is what he did,” Izuku says bitterly, pushing the napkin across the table. He looks away so he doesn’t have to see the moment that Shinsou processes the giant, bold ABUSE scrawled out on the napkin and staring, unflinching and remorseless, back at him.

 

There's a small pause. Just as Izuku starts thinking that he shouldn't have said it, that Shinsou doesn't believe him -- “It was your best friend?” Shinsou says softly, setting the napkin back down like a feather made of lead.

 

“He was ,” Izuku says. “He is,” he says again. Because it’s true, because he’d follow Kacchan to the end of the earths if he ever asked, but he never did ask and this ugly truth is all Izuku has.

 

“I’m sorry,” says Shinsou. “You didn’t deserve that.”

 

And just like when Tamanaha-sensei said I’m sorry, I should have known you weren’t ready, it hits him hard -- a kindness he didn't expect, a cruelty he didn't want, and a truth that he never asked to hear. “I didn’t deserve that,” Izuku echoes. His voice breaks. And if he didn't deserve it, then the blame lies at Kacchan’s feet, and nothing Izuku says or does will ever make that better.

 

Shinsou doesn’t push him to talk. He only sips his coffee and looks out the window and waits for Izuku to speak, and Izuku feels infinitely grateful for that. Somehow, this -- just the fact of someone giving him room, and space, and choice -- feels bigger than almost any other gesture anyone has made to him in the past few weeks. Izuku presses his hands to his eyes to try and stem the flow of tears; he breathes; he counts. When he thinks his voice is stable, he speaks again.

 

“Yesterday, Kacchan’s friends texted me and asked me what was going on. They said that… that Kacchan wasn’t doing too well, either, and. And they wanted me to explain why.” Izuku tugs at his hair, looking down at the table. “I just… I can’t… How am I supposed to explain it to them, when I can’t even say it to myself? To you? And they’re Kacchan’s friends. They’re not going to believe something like this; they won’t want to, and I’m just a stranger, it’d be easy for them to blame me for it and maybe I’d deserve it, because if I hadn’t realized what was happening and let that change things then Kacchan would still be happy and everything would be fine.”

 

“It wouldn’t be fine,” Shinsou says. “You would still be suffering, and trying not to let it show. It’s not your fault your friend decided to do any of that.” He twists his lips wryly. “I know this is difficult for you, Midoriya, but I’m glad you realized. You’re getting away from that kind of hostile and damaging relationship. Recovery is always hard, but… it’s a good thing you’re on your way.”

 

Izuku lets out an incredulous laugh. A good thing -- as if anything about yesterday could be called good, as if anything that has happened since the Tamanaha Conversation was anything other than a complete disaster.

 

But. It’s true, that if he hadn’t realized, he… would still be going about, bottling up his hurts and acting like everything was okay.

 

“This is some kind of bullshit,” Izuku says with feeling, scrubbing at his face with his napkin.

 

Shinsou laughs. “Yeah. Life’s always like that, I think. But at least we have this lovely coffee to enjoy.”

 

And somehow, things are a little better after that.

 

Izuku goes home feeling sad and quiet -- but a little bit cleaner, a little lighter, like he’s finally let out a ghost that’s been haunting him all these years.

 

--

 

A couple days later, he receives a couple new texts from Shinsou.

 

[9:51 AM] Shinsou: Hey, Midoriya. If you have any spare time, do you mind helping me out with a project of mine?

[9:53 AM] Shinsou: I have some inspiration for an art piece, but I need someone to help model.

[9:54 AM] Shinsou: You can say no. It’s not a big deal.

 

Izuku frowns. He almost says no, due to his allergy to anything that involves him being in photographs, but modeling for an art piece is way different than someone trying to snap a picture of him to put on their social media account. Plus, Izuku actually knows Shinsou, and Shinsou asked him permission.

 

If nothing else, Izuku likes Shinsou, and, well, he wants to see him again.

 

[10:01 AM] To Shinsou: Sure, I’d be happy to! Do you want to meet at the Here & There Cafe at 3 today?

[10:02 AM] To Shinsou: I didn’t know you made art, Shinsou-kun. That’s pretty cool!

 

[12:05 PM] Shinsou: It’s not very interesting, mostly just photography and photo illustrations. I haven’t made anything in a while, actually.

[12:06 PM] Shinsou: That works. See you at 3.

[12:06 PM] Shinsou: Thanks.

 

When Izuku arrives at Uemura’s cafe, Shinsou is already there, still wearing his school uniform. He’s got a black camera out, though, intently checking its contents. “Hey, Shinsou-kun,” Izuku calls, waving. “Sorry, am I late?”

 

“Not at all,” Shinsou says, and then he very smugly presents Izuku with a coffee cup.

 

“What?” Izuku says.

 

“It’s payback for the last time we met.”

 

“Are you,” Izuku says in disbelief, “are you taking petty revenge on me for buying both our coffees last time?”

 

“Yes,” Shinsou tells him. “Shut up and take the coffee.”

 

Izuku can’t help but laugh as he accepts Shinsou’s gift.

 

As he drinks his coffee, Shinsou explains what his plan is for the day. He makes photomanipulations, he tells Izuku, but he doesn’t like to use stock photos provided by other people, and tries to take his own photos where he can. Once he has all the stock pictures he wants, he’ll use them to create an art piece -- and for this piece in particular, he needs someone to model for the poses he has in mind. If Izuku doesn’t want his face in the final picture, Shinsou says, it’ll be easy to obscure his facial features. It’s up to Izuku.

 

It feels kind of strange and uncomfortable to be presented with a list of choices. Izuku says he’s fine with having his face in the picture just because he’s so uncomfortable trying to say no.

 

Shinsou accepts him at face value though, nods seriously, and then invites Izuku to take the train with him to the former manufacturing district at the edge of the city, where the old factories are.

 

Izuku doesn’t come here often -- it’s not a residential area, and mostly, it’s left alone. The streets are quiet, and the vast properties on either side of them are bound by rusting metal fences and dotted with large, box-like buildings and the slumbering silhouettes of abandoned machinery. Izuku feels like a trespasser, here, but Shinsou navigates the place with ease; he points to different buildings and offers easy bits of history and trivia for each. Here was once a car factory. Here was the building where they inspected products for quality. Here is a good, quiet place to sleep for a while or look at the stars.

 

Izuku suspects that this place, for Shinsou, is an escape from the daily realities of his life. Looking at the desolate metal cityscape, he can’t help but think -- that Shinsou’s life must be very lonely, or very sad, if he feels more at peace here among the abandoned factories than at his own home.

 

And then they reach the railroads, and Izuku is too busy climbing around and holding poses to think too much more on it.

 

It quickly becomes apparent to Izuku that Shinsou either is blithely ignorant or has no fear of God or death, because he walks among all the ominous and derelict machinery easy as anything and will evidently do anything to get a good shot. Izuku watched nervously as Shinsou climbs on top of an abandoned train and hooks his leg around a strut on the top, leaning out and away until he's swinging precariously in the air, camera held diligently before his eyes. No hint of fear or uncertainty presents itself on Shinsou’s face. When he's done with the photo, he can't get himself back on top of the train car, so he kicks off from the train and lands roughly on the ground. He gets scuffed in the process but proudly proclaims that his camera has not suffered a single scratch.

 

Izuku has the faint, growing suspicion that Shinsou is a little bit detached from reality.

 

He learns a few more things about Shinsou while they're taking photos:

 

  1. Shinsou is a perfectionist. He fusses over tiny details, adjusting Izuku’s arms and feet and pose over and over again until he's finally satisfied with his pictures.
  2. Shinsou talks to himself. Kind of. It's sort of a white noise thing, a “let me change the mode real quick… hm… not there, not there either….” or a “come on, camera, you were working just fine yesterday. Oh wait, there we go.” It’s an extremely vague commentary, broken up by fragments of Shinsou’s thoughts, but it's rather cute to watch Shinsou intently clicking away at his camera while mumbling all the while to himself.
  3. Shinsou is much more social when he has something to do.

 

He's more absent, with his attention split between talking and taking photographs, but he talks more all the same. He and Izuku have a meandering conversation about various books they've read, Shinsou lets slip that he has a photography blog, and he asks about Izuku’s hobbies. It's nice, and easy, and somehow -- despite the photos, despite Shinsou’s finicky directions and neverending adjustments to his pose -- Izuku manages to relax.

 

And then Shinsou asks what Izuku’s Quirk is, and all of Izuku’s responses wither up and die on his tongue.

 

“--just wondering, since you never mentioned it, and you know mine already,” Shinsou is saying, frowning down at the display on his camera. When Izuku’s silence drags out, he looks up, a crease appearing between his brows.

 

This is it, the moment Izuku has to choose. Does he want Shinsou to know him as Deku, does he want to keep spinning that lie until Shinsou only knows some fabrication of himself -- or does he want Shinsou to meet Midoriya Izuku, the Quirkless wreck whose life is in tatters, who was bullied and alone for so long because of what he didn’t have?

 

The safe thing to do would be to say yes, I have a Quirk, to name it as strength enhancement and move on. But that’s not -- that’s not who Izuku is, really, and -- after Shinsou has already seen so much of everything he tries to hide… he doesn’t want to lie. He wants Shinsou to know him, not a false identity he’s been hiding behind all along.

 

But he’s terrified of baring himself to someone like that, too. He’s never…

 

“Sorry, was that an insensitive question?” Shinsou asks, looking back down and busying himself very deliberately with the contents of his camera. “I didn’t even think if you might be Quirkless, or if you’d prefer not to say. Sorry.”

 

“It’s -- it’s fine,” Izuku says. “I just… wasn’t ready for the question.” And then he falls silent because he’s not ready to answer it, either, because either way, he is going to have to make a sacrifice: his secret and safety, or his chance to form a friendship as just himself and nothing else.

 

He can’t make the choice. He struggles with himself, wavers between fear and want, and Shinsou has to save him from the dilemma, in the end. “You don’t have to answer,” Shinsou says. He adds with a sardonic smile, “If there’s anyone who understands not wanting to disclose your Quirk, it’s me.”

 

Izuku closes his eyes, guilty and relieved. “Thank you,” he says. And, “I’m sorry. Maybe -- maybe later. But…”

 

Shinsou nods. He doesn’t look upset. But his smile takes on a bitter twist as he says, “It’s unfair, isn’t it? People with blessed Quirks… they have no idea how lucky they are.”

 

Izuku thinks of Kacchan, how everyone around him always praised him for his talent and how kind the teachers were to him for it. Todoroki and his powerful Quirk, which drew admiration but not fear, which he would have discarded once upon a time like so much dirt and mud. “Yeah,” he agrees quietly. “They really don’t.”

 

And then he looks at Shinsou and thinks of the fight he had with Todoroki at the Sports Festival, how he’d taunted Todoroki with sharp barbs about his looks, his worth, his father -- Shinsou’s only weapon against Todoroki’s ice had been his cutting words, but it wasn’t enough. Todoroki had blown him out of the ring with such fury, for a moment Izuku had been worried that he would break a bone. But no, Todoroki had only frozen him up to his neck in a wall of ice and walked away without bothering to free Shinsou after the match was over.

 

The bad blood between them is very justified, Izuku thinks, but knowing both sides of their story, he can’t help but feel a little sad.

 

Half an hour later, when Shinsou is finally satisfied with the pictures they took, they walk back to the station and catch a train downtown. It’s a fairly empty train, and they grab some window seats in the back.

 

Shinsou slides his gaze sideways over at Izuku and says, “There is one other thing I’d like to speak to you about.”

 

That sounds… bad. “What is it?” Izuku says nervously.

 

Shinsou makes a face as he gathers his thoughts, and he sighs. “It’s a message from Uraraka, at Yuuei. She said you’d know who she was.”

 

Izuku’s stomach drops.

 

“You don’t have to listen to it,” Shinsou says. “I didn’t make any promises.” He lets out a little huff of laughter. “I didn’t even promise to pass on the message. So. There are zero consequences, whatever you want to do.”

 

Izuku takes a deep breath and deliberately relaxes his shoulders, lacing his fingers together on his lap so he doesn’t start picking at the hem of his hoodie. His heart is thumping.

 

“What did she want?” he says, with a serenity he does not feel.

 

Shinsou studies him carefully. “She wants to meet you in person to discuss her classmate. Bakugou.”

 

Izuku exhales slowly and fixes his gaze on a faded poster stuck to the train wall. On the Premise of Peace, he mouths to himself. It is a fact well-taken that we, Japan, have entered a golden age of heroism and peace. This is, however, not as true as one might hope… It’s not working. It’s not calming him down. Izuku squeezes his eyes shut and presses his hands against the side of his head, as if that might force all the bad thoughts out, but it’s a futile practice, he knows. Panic attacks, what a familiar old friend. Izuku draws his knees up to his chest and takes another deep, measured breath that doesn’t match the jackrabbit pace pounding against his ribs.

 

“Midoriya,” Shinsou says from the side. Izuku glances over, sees Shinsou’s hand hovering uncertainly over his shoulder. “What do you need?”

 

“Just a bit -- a bit of time,” Izuku manages to say, and then he goes through the entire cycle of a too-fast heartbeat, chest pains, a sudden overwhelming fear of dying, the usual obligatory tearing up, and a numbness that pushes the entire world just a little bit far away.

 

“Okay, I’m good now,” Izuku tells Shinsou, once the panic attack has mostly passed.

 

“...Right,” says Shinsou, not sounding like he believes Izuku at all. But he doesn’t fight Izuku about it, just accepts what he says and moves on. “What do you want to do?”

 

Izuku licks his dry lips. He doesn’t want to talk to Uraraka about any of it, but at the same time, he wants someone to know. There is a spiteful, bitter part of him that wants Kacchan to feel the consequences. And there is a softer, harder part of him that wants to move forward, and it says here is your chance, and it says you may not move on if you try, but maybe you can move past.

 

“What do you think I should do, Shinsou-kun?” he says, head bowed, looking at his hands.

 

There’s a beat of silence. “If you chose not to talk to her, I think you would be justified,” Shinsou says finally, in a tone of voice that suggests that he’s connected all the dots.

 

“What…” Izuku bites his lip. “What did she say, exactly?”

 

“...She made it very clear that she would go to any lengths to try and help her friend. I would guess that she’s channeled all her worry into anger, and that into determination.”

 

Uraraka is just trying to do her friend right.

 

Izuku counts -- one two three four five, one two three four five -- and then he says, “Do you mind passing along my message to her?”

 

Shinsou inclines his head.

 

“Tell her,” says Izuku, “that she can find me at Seijitsu on Wednesday at four. I’ll wait for her for half an hour, but no longer.”

 

Shinsou studies him for a moment, golden eyes reflecting light strangely in the dimness of the train. “You don’t have to do this, Midoriya,” he says, and then he is quiet, waiting.  

 

Izuku closes his eyes. “I’m tired of being afraid.”

 

And Shinsou doesn’t question him any further. He just nods, settles back into his seat and closes his eyes to nap, and the easy acceptance of what Izuku wants is so -- so foreign, for a moment he doesn’t know what to do.

 

Izuku gets off the train before Shinsou does. He says goodbye, and Shinsou raises his hand in a lazy wave. Before he steps off the train, he hears Shinsou say, “Thanks for helping out,” but when he turns around to respond, the train doors are already closing.

 

So he texts Shinsou instead. I had fun today. Thanks!

 

Shinsou responds a moment later with a selfie. It’s a blurry picture, and he’s only halfway in the frame, backlit by the train window behind him so the shadows fall over his face. He is absolutely expressionless, but he’s holding up an enthusiastic peace sign tilted at the exact same angle as his head, and the juxtaposition is so weird that it makes Izuku laugh.

 

That’s the fourth thing Izuku learns about Shinsou, that day. It’s been hidden behind his smirks and his blank mask and his unusual talent for finding ominous and dramatic lighting to stand in, but it turns out Shinsou has just been a huge dork all along.

 

--

 

Wednesday afternoon finds Izuku sitting in downtown Musutafu, in the ambiguous few blocks between the business district and the red-light district. His palms are sweating, and there’s a weird sort of numbness threatening to break into pins and needles in his arms and legs. Izuku distracts himself by reading through the news articles he saved to his phone the other day, for reading at a later date.

 

It distracts him very well. He doesn’t notice Uraraka has arrived until she calls, “Deku-kun!” and startles him to his feet, knees bent and ready for a fight-or-flight.

 

Uraraka is standing there with her arms stiff by her side and her mouth set in a thin line. But what really catches Izuku’s attention is the entire entourage of students crowded behind her -- Kirishima, Mina, Asui, even Todoroki and Iida, and a boy with electric-bright blond hair and another with black hair.

 

Izuku almost takes off right then and there, rocking back on his heels, but -- he said he would be here if she came. He takes a deep breath and settles firmly back on the ground. “Good afternoon, Uraraka-san,” he says, as calmly as he can manage.

 

She nods at him firmly. “Sorry I’m late. All these people decided to tag along. You don’t mind speaking to them, do you? We’re all Bakugou-kun’s friends, here.”

 

Actually, Izuku does mind, but he doesn’t know how to say no. His eyes dart to the street. Before he can make any ill-advised decisions, though, someone cuts in. “That’s up to him,” says a familiar voice coolly, and Izuku turns to see Shinsou standing a little ways to the side.

 

His shoulders relax an infinitesimal bit. When he gives a small smile, Shinsou nods a greeting to him in return.  

 

Uraraka narrows her eyes at Shinsou. “We all deserve to know,” she says. “This has gone on long enough.”

 

“Then tell everyone afterwards.” Shinsou’s mouth curls up into something derisive. “This isn’t a freak show for you to gawk at.”

 

Uraraka straightens up, fire burning in her gaze, and she takes a step forward, and Shinsou lifts his chin defiantly -- and oh god, they’re going to fight if Izuku doesn’t say something, aren’t they. “It’s okay, Shinsou-kun,” he says. “Thank you, though. I appreciate it.” Shinsou gives him a level look, but he crosses his arms and dips his head in acknowledgment. Izuku glances back at Uraraka’s entourage, looks away before he can meet any of their eyes. “Let’s go inside.”

 

Seijitsu is full of traditional-style walls and windows, beautifully decorated with calligraphy. It’s full of the usual business people and groups dressed in traditional wear. Izuku tells the waiter at the front that he’s here for his reservation. The waiter leads them down the hall and slides open the door for them; the tatami-mat floor is largely empty, save for the small table and a few cushions.

 

Izuku accepts the two menus offered to him and takes a seat at the table, which prompts everyone to crowd into the room. Shinsou takes a seat by him; the other Yuuei students cluster around Uraraka, who takes a seat direct opposite from him with a challenging look in her eyes.

 

Kirishima breaks the silence first. “Dude,” he says, leaning forward, “where the hell did you bring us? I feel like someone’s gonna come in and start pouring a tea ceremony at any moment.

 

Izuku cracks a smile and shakes his head. “Seijitsu is just a place to go out with your friends and enjoy private conversation at the same time,” he says. “People meet here for business, or to have discreet meetings. Stuff like that.” And due to its location, he's sure it has been the clandestine meeting place of many a businessperson and criminal element. He pushes the menus to the middle of the table. “I thought this would be a good place to talk. Their tea is very good.”

 

“Aw, man,” whines the black-haired boy. His teeth are very straight. “I didn’t bring my money today.”

 

“Don’t worry about the cost,” Izuku says. “I’ll take care of it. Please, everyone pick out something you’d like.”

 

They spend the next few minutes looking over the menu. The Yuuei kids are friendly with each other, passing the menu back and forth and arguing over which flavors are the best. Uraraka, however, remains mostly silent, speaking in short, clipped sentences.

 

When they place their orders and the waiter leaves, Izuku places his hands on his lap, takes a deep breath, and squares his shoulder. “Uraraka-san.”

 

She sits up straighter, meeting his eyes unflinchingly. “Are we finally getting started?”

 

“I’m still deciding whether or not to tell you what happened,” Izuku says.

 

Her eyes narrow. Out of the corner of his eye, Izuku can see the Yuuei students directing their gazes towards her like a magnet. “And why is that?”

 

In the end, it boils down to this. “Why do you need to know?”

 

Uraraka draws herself up sharply. Asui grabs her hand, and she visibly takes a deep breath to calm herself down. Then, “Bakugou-kun’s been upset for weeks. His grades and performance are getting worse. He keeps making careless mistakes and getting himself unnecessarily cornered in hero training, and he barely even cares. And he won’t talk to any of us about it. He’s shutting us all out and he’s not getting any better. And you want to know why I want to know--”

 

“Ochako-chan,” says Asui.

 

Uraraka cuts herself off, clenching her jaw.

 

“It’s true, though,” Kirishima breaks in. “Bakugou’s been real out of it lately. It’s not good for him, man. We just want to know what happened so we can help out, y’know?”

 

Izuku leans back, and surveys the Yuuei kids. “Kacchan is that important to you?”

 

“Yes,” says Kirishima emphatically.

 

“He’s loud, and angry, and he swears a lot, but he’s fun to be around,” adds the yellow-haired boy.

 

“All of us really, really want to help him get better!” Ashido says, nodding firmly.

 

Iida pushes up his glasses. “Bakugou-kun is an important member of our class, and as such, we are all concerned for his well-being.”

 

The others are all nodding or murmuring their agreements. The only exception to this is Todoroki, who is leaning stoically against the wall and looks rather like he’s tasted something slightly unpleasant. Still, overall, the care they have for Kacchan is clear. They’re good friends, Izuku thinks enviously. Kacchan is lucky to have them.

 

How can he say anything to ruin that?

 

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” he says.

 

He ignores the “What?” and the various cries of outrage issuing from the group and doggedly continues on. “I’m… happy that you’re all there for Kacchan. If he’s smart, and he is, then he’ll start responding to you all soon. I hope you all continue to look after him.” He bows low, forehead almost touching the ground.

 

“Hey, wait a minute,” says the black-haired one with a frown. “You know what happened, yeah? Just tell us and we’ll be outta your hair. It won’t take a minute.”

 

Izuku has a brief, dizzying vision of him trying to spill his guts out and baring his insides to an entire group of strangers who are still too close to home to be safe. His mind slams shut so loud he’s still reeling with the echo when his mouth says, “No.”

 

“What? Why not?” demands Kirishima.

 

“It won’t help,” Izuku says, running his hand through his hair. “It doesn’t matter at this point. It already happened, and we’re all just -- just dealing with the fallout of it, and it sucks, but -- telling you would just make you upset -- and me upset -- and then Kacchan would be upset--”

 

“He’s already upset,” Uraraka says. “We’ve tried to help, but we can’t help him if we don’t know what the problem is.” She crosses her arms on the table and leans forward. “Stop avoiding the question and just tell us what you did.”

 

Laughter bursts from Izuku’s lips. “What I did? You think I started this?”

 

Uraraka frowns. “What does that mean?”

 

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Izuku says, well aware of how transparently false that statement is -- but he doesn’t care. He just doesn’t care. “If you want to know so badly, why don’t you go ask Kacchan? Don’t drag me into this.”

 

“We did ask,” Uraraka snaps. “He wouldn’t tell us anything. He only mentioned your name and took off, and we had to put all the pieces together. You’re friends with him, aren’t you? We want to help him. You should, too.”

 

Kirishima and Mina both shift uneasily and glance at each other. For a moment, the fire of anger roars to life right next to Izuku’s heart, burning black and resentful through his veins -- but Uraraka is just trying to look out for her friends. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Izuku takes a deep breath and carefully crushes the flame to mere embers, but the smoke still clogs his lungs.

 

“Has it occurred to you,” he says calmly, “that there is a reason Kacchan doesn’t want to tell you?”

 

“Of course it has,” Uraraka says. “But I’m not willing to wait for him to fall apart before taking action. Why are you so determined to hide what happened?”

 

Izuku wants to laugh, all this helpless frustration bubbling in him. What is there to say? How can he explain to her why she wouldn’t want to know without telling her what happened in the first place? He just looks at her, and looks at the rest of the Yuuei kids, all of them tense and intent, barring Shinsou, who is sitting quiet and watchful by his side. They really have no idea, he thinks, and something disdainful yet despairingly envious shifts under his skin. They really don’t know, and yet here they are, demanding answers they’ll regret. “This isn’t something you want to hear about your friend,” Izuku says, and something in his voice goes terribly dead and flat.

 

The atmosphere shifts. It hangs over them. For a moment, Izuku thinks none of them are going to say anything, but then -- “Who are you to decide that for us?” the yellow-haired one says, a little too loudly, almost accusingly. “Maybe we’re better at dealing with things than you are. And anyways, if you’re Bakugou’s friend, then you should want people to help him out!”

 

The tenuous thing inside him, already stretched taut, snaps.

 

“Of course I want someone to help,” Izuku snarls. “But telling you isn’t gonna! It’s not gonna solve a single thing! I don’t even know who you are, you’re just -- a stranger -- and here you are barging into my life, asking me to -- to tell you something I’m barely coming to terms with myself! How fucking rude can you be? Why are you so selfish about this?! Why can’t you just -- just be happy you don’t know! ‘Cause you don’t want to know! Even I didn't want to know, and I'm the one he fucking--”

 

He cuts himself off. The boy stares at him, eyes round with surprise.

 

“Just go home,” Izuku says finally. He’s tired. “Just go home. You all are probably more important to Kacchan than I ever was, anyways. If he’ll tell anyone, he’ll tell you.”

 

The room is quiet. And then, softly, from Uraraka, “And if he doesn’t?”

 

Then why do I have to take responsibility? Izuku thinks, but at that moment, the waiter comes back with all their drinks, and they all have to awkwardly pretend that everything is fine while the waiter hands everything out. When the waiter leaves, they all fall into a terrible silence.

 

It’s Asui who breaks it.

 

“Sorry, Deku,” she says. “I think we stepped somewhere we shouldn’t have. We just… didn’t know what to do.”

 

Izuku shifts his gaze to her. She meets his gaze, patient, soft. “It’s selfish of us to ask,” she says, and her grip on Uraraka’s hand tightens, “but do you know anything we can do?”

 

… They’re just trying to look out for their friend.

 

Izuku puts his face in his hands. He counts to ten, forwards and backwards, and then he does it again. What should he do?

 

“Can everyone leave, please,” he says through his hands. “Except Asui-san. And Shinsou-kun. If you don’t mind.”

 

And then, after a moment of hesitation, he adds, “Uraraka-san, you can stay too if you want.”

 

There’s a minute of shuffling and hushed whispers as people file out of the room. Izuku only puts his hands down when he hears the door slide shut behind them, and when he looks up, it’s just Uraraka and Asui sitting across from him, and Shinsou idly sipping his juice.

 

Izuku lets out a deep breath.

 

“I don’t have any advice,” he says. “I haven’t seen Kacchan since…” He bites his lips, before continuing. “All I can do is. Tell you what happened. But it’s not…” He presses his fingernails into his palms, looks down, and counts in his head. He can do this. “Are you sure you want me to tell you? There’s nothing else you can do?”

 

“Tell us,” says Uraraka.

 

Izuku closes his eyes. “It’s your choice.”

 

So he tells them.

 

He tells them the early days -- how he and Kacchan knew each other almost all their lives, how his Quirk didn't manifest visibly when he was younger and they all thought he was Quirkless, how Kacchan started making fun of him for it. (The misdirection about his Quirk -- or rather, the lack thereof -- leaves a bad taste in his mouth.) How he would occasionally try and stop Kacchan and his gang from picking on other students and how it would leave him with bruises and burns he couldn’t explain. The daily insults, the social isolation, the fights -- the time Izuku left the classroom and came back to find Kacchan’s friends throwing his bag out the window into the pond below. It felt shitty, he tells them. He tried to ignore it, and for years he had been pretending that everything was okay. But it wasn’t, because in the end, even though Kacchan meant so much to him -- he was always afraid.

 

“Kacchan hasn’t really -- giving me a bad burn or injury in a couple years,” he says, looking down at his hands. “So really -- I guess I could’ve… I should’ve just ignored it, right? He wasn’t really hurting me anymore. I was just scared. That was just me. But -- when I talked to Tamanaha-sensei, she pointed out that Kacchan had been…”

 

It was easier to tell them about the events themselves. But naming them still feels too raw, too vulnerable, too weak , and Izuku -- he can’t say it outright.

 

And then, for the first time since they’ve entered the room, Shinsou speaks up. “Don’t push yourself, Midoriya,” he says. “If you can’t say anything more, I’ll take over from here.”

 

“Would you?” Izuku says, looking up.

 

Shinsou nods. Izuku exhales, and nods, and slumps defeated in his seat.

 

“The long and short of it,” Shinsou says, turning to Uraraka and Asui, “is that… Bakugou” -- he says it like it’s a dirty word -- “has physically and emotionally abused Midoriya for most of his life.” Izuku flinches. “Only recently was Midoriya able to escape. If your friend is upset, it is because Midoriya has left his control, or because he has realized something about himself he did not want to.” Shinsou’s lip curls up slightly, but he smooths it out. “I suppose we should all be so lucky if it was the latter.”

 

A long and heavy silence hangs over the room.

 

Uraraka is the one who breaks it. “I know Bakugou-kun is -- difficult,” she begins, and stops. “...You’re not lying, are you? Bakugou-kun may be rough, but he’s not a bad person.” Her voice, quiet at first, gains in strength and confidence. “He’s my friend. He wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Am I -- lying,” Izuku says, and he feels that visceral, angry animal rage rising in him again. He told her what happened, he showed her his hurts, he bared the deepest part of himself, and she asks this? He hates her, he thinks. In that moment, he hates her. “Why would I lie?

 

“I don’t know,” says Uraraka. “Bad blood, perhaps? Revenge? Bakugou-kun is crude to everyone , and everyone in our class has gotten a few injuries from sparring with him before. Aren’t you just making a big deal out of it?”

 

“Am I,” Izuku snaps acerbically, but -- maybe he is. Is he--?

 

“Bakugou-kun is going to be a hero,” Uraraka says. “He wouldn’t abuse anyone. I don’t know what you were expecting, saying something so obviously untrue to me, but--”

 

“You’re out of line,” Shinsou cuts in coldly. “You’re the one who asked for answers.” He tilts his head just so, until the light washing through the window can no longer cover the shadow on his face. His eyes glint, almost malevolent, in the dark. “If you don’t like what you heard, that’s your own fault,” he says lowly, halfway a warning, and Uraraka presses her lips together, eyes narrowing as though she’s getting ready for a fight.

 

But then Asui squeezes Uraraka’s hand and says, “That was mean, Ochako. You should apologize,” and Uraraka lets out a slow breath and nods.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, and offers a formal bow from her sitting position. “Tsuyu-chan is right. -- As is Shinsou-kun. I’m allowing my personal attachment to cloud my judgment. I hope you understand.”

 

Izuku lets out a long breath and tries to tamp down his hurt. It takes a moment, but he’s had years of practice. “It’s…” Well, it’s not fine. “Um. Apology accepted…?”

 

Uraraka straightens up and nods firmly. Her mouth is tilted downward in heavy turmoil, and a great invisible weight has settled on her shoulders, but she still says, “I appreciate that you took the time to speak with me today. Thank you.”

 

He can’t stand it, the way she says it, as if what he just did was a -- a favor, or something. Nothing about this was good. “It’s your choice what to do with this information, now,” he says, looking away. “I’m… sorry. It would have been easier for everyone if I’d just… not said anything, and taken the blame. I think -- I think you would have been happier.”

 

“No,” says Shinsou, strongly. “No.”

 

Uraraka nods, though she doesn’t look very happy about agreeing with Shinsou. “It’s not easy. But I think it was necessary.” She stands up, offers a hand to Asui, and pulls her up. “We should be going, then. There’s a lot to think about.”

 

“Wait,” Izuku says. “Before you go.”

 

Uraraka and Asui both look at him. He bites his lip. “How much do your friends… I mean. Did you tell them? About me?”

 

Uraraka blinks, but then something about her features softens, and she shakes her head. “Don’t worry, Deku. Your secret is safe with us.”

 

His head bows and his shoulders slump with relief. “Thank you.”

 

“It’s no problem,” says Asui. She tilts her head. “We should be thanking you. I understand now why you didn’t want to tell us what happened between you and Bakugou-chan, and you had every right not to. But you decided to help us anyways.” And then she bows, dark green hair slipping to the side. “Thank you for being kind.”

 

Uraraka looks at her, and then she follows her lead and bows, deeper than Asui did. “Thank you,” she says. “I’m sorry as well.”

 

Too little, too late. But although Izuku is bitter, he doesn’t think he can hold a grudge. “I hope you find a way to help Kacchan soon,” he says, instead of anything else. “Good luck with everything.”

 

They leave, and then it’s just Shinsou and Izuku, alone.

 

Izuku isn't sure what to say, but Shinsou breaks the silence first. “How are you feeling?” he says, sliding his gaze over at Izuku over the rim of his cup.

 

“Tired,” Izuku says after a moment of thought. “Bare. I wish...there was some other way to do this.” He looks halfway at Shinsou, then looks back away. “Thanks for coming today. You didn't have to.”

 

Shinsou shrugs. “It wasn't a problem. I was planning on coming anyways.”

 

“You were?”

 

Shinsou takes a long sip of his drink, as if to avoid answering. Then, “I'm sure you're aware, but there's little love lost between the heroics department and I.” He smiles, a bit self-deprecating. “They can be very... closed off to anyone who isn't in their circle, walking the same path. I suppose I wanted to make sure they wouldn't... push things too far. It's a bit presumptuous of me, isn't it?”

 

“Maybe... but you were just looking out for me, a bit. Right?” Izuku glances at Shinsou, but he's turned his head away, looking out the window. “You didn't have to. I really appreciate it.” He licks his lips nervously before pressing on with what he wants to say. “I was -- really nervous when everyone showed up, but seeing you were there made me feel a bit better. So. Thanks for coming, Shinsou-kun.”

 

Shinsou laughs softly, turning halfway back towards him. “You don't have to thank me. This is just my own selfishness, isn't it?”

 

“I don't know,” says Izuku. “But it helped me, so I'm thankful for it. That's really all I need to know.”

 

Shinsou really looks at him then, gold eyes almost as bright as the sunlight spilling in through the window.

 

“You're really something else, Midoriya,” he says finally. “You're not even going to ask what happened when I passed on the message?”

 

Izuku blinks. “Should I?”

 

“...Maybe not. It's nothing interesting. Just my own problems with Class 1-A.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“It's fine. I shouldn't unload all my problems on you.” He tilts his head at Izuku's coffee, which is still on the table, untouched. “Are you going to drink that?”

 

Izuku looks at the cup. He doesn't know if he can really stomach anything after that entire conversation, but. He should stock up on his energy, right? “Yeah.” He picks it up and takes a couple sips, but that's all he can convince himself to at the moment.

 

“Do you need any help paying for everyone's drinks?” Shinsou asks him after a moment. “There were a lot of last-minute additions.”

 

Izuku shakes his head. “I've got this.”

 

They go out to the front desk. Shinsou watches as Izuku pulls coupon after crumpled coupon out of his pockets, cutting down 50%, then 75%, and by the end, Izuku only owes the shop about 400 yen.

 

“That,” Shinsou says as they walk out of Seijitsu, “was the most impressive thing I've seen in weeks.”

 

Izuku shrugs. “I just have a lot of coupons lying around.” A lot of the people try and repay his help with them, for some reason, and Izuku has always had plenty of reason to scour the surrounding area for good deals.

 

Shinsou shakes his head. “You never fail to surprise me, Midoriya.”

 

Izuku doesn't really know what to say to that.

 

“Oh, Shinsou-kun, by the way,” he remembers, right before they part ways at the bus stop, “how's your art piece going along? The one you asked me to, um, model for?”

 

Shinsou blinks slowly at him. “...Not bad. It's the most inspiration I've had in months.”

 

Izuku smiles. “I'm really glad to hear that! If it's not a private thing, I'd really love to see it when it's done.”

 

Shinsou hesitates for a long moment before he says, “Okay,” looking rather surprised by his own answer. “If it doesn't turn out too badly.”

 

Izuku laughs. “I'll hold you to that,” he says, and then he waves goodbye as he leaves. He wishes he hadn't met Shinsou because of an occasion like this, but... it was nice to see him again, all the same.

 

He’s halfway through the commercial district when his phone buzzes. It’s a message from Mitoki. yo dude, i got your homework for today, are you gonna drop by?

 

He forgot. Izuku adjusts his course and veers towards Mitoki's apartment, breaking into a jog when he glances at the sky and realizes it's getting late. It's still light out, since summer has been pushing back the time of sunset, but best be home by dinner.

 

When he knocks on the door, one of Mitoki’s moms answers -- the one with the same red hair as him. She takes one look at him, raises an eyebrow, and asks if he wants to sit down.

 

“Um, no, I'm just here to pick up my homework,” he mumbles.

 

“Why don't you go to Toki-chan’s room,” she says, and ushers him in through the door.

 

Mitoki is in the middle of a video game match when he walks into the room, hands tapping furiously at the keyboard as he yells triumphantly into his headset, “Take that, you bastards!” Izuku watches as a burst of gunfire eliminates two players on the screen. Mitoki whoops. Izuku decides to wait for Mitoki to finish, leaning against the door jamb and crossing his arms. He can't help but smile foolishly as he watches Mitoki play the game in his distinctly Mitoki manner.

 

Mitoki finishes the game and throws his hands in the air, crowing, “Victory!” He spins around in his swivel chair, then does a double take when he sees Izuku grinning at him from the doorway. “Izuku? How long have you been there?” he says, pulling his headset off.

 

“Not long,” Izuku says. “I just came here to pick up my homework. Thank you for helping with… all this, by the way.”

 

“No problem, dude.” Mitoki stretches like a cat and hops out of the chair. “You alright? You look a little completely terrible.”

 

Uh. Wow, Izuku had no idea his emotional state was that easy to see. It feels bad. Feels uncomfortable. “I'm… alright,” he says, but it sounds incredibly false, so he sighs and admits, “I had a difficult conversation before I came here. I feel sort of… worn and faded.”

 

“Dissociation,” says Mitoki sagely, and Izuku blinks, filing the term away to look up later. If he can actually remember it. “Did something happen?”

 

Izuku looks down and twists his hands. “...Yeah.” He hits a wall there. He still hasn't told Mitoki what happened with Kacchan, so Mitoki pretty much has no idea what's going on with Izuku or why he's been staying home from school. In fact, he's been leaving it almost entirely alone, and hasn't asked any questions other than “What do you need right now?” Izuku has vastly appreciated the space Mitoki’s given him, but maybe it's about time to actually explain what's happening.

 

“...I don't know where to start,” Izuku admits after a moment more of thought. He can't quite look at Mitoki in the eye.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mitoki asks.

 

Izuku blinks. “I…”

 

“I mean, you don’t have to,” his friend says, “‘cause whatever it was got you shook up real bad, but I’m burning up with curiosity over here, and ya know, I gotta know if there’s anybody I need to punch.”

 

The thought of Mitoki socking Kacchan in the face makes Izuku choke with laughter for a second, because Mitoki absolutely would if he could. But Mitoki has gotten into a fight with Kacchan for his sake already, actually, has already shown what lengths he’ll go to, and that’s the thought that makes Izuku sober and finally cement his decision.

 

“Okay,” he says. “Just… It’s going to take a while.”

 

“Take as much time as you need, dude.”

 

This time, when Izuku tells the story, he manages to get through it. His voice still shakes, his eyes still sting, but he does it. The pain has been scoured and examined so many times already, so thoroughly, that it has diminished from sharp grief into a dull ache. The accomplishment makes him feel proud, but at the same time, melancholy, and when he finishes, he subsides into silence.

 

Mitoki is silent for a moment longer too, frowning at Izuku. Then he says, “I’m going to go punch him.”

 

Izuku lets out a startled laugh. “Mitoki, no.

 

“Just a little bit!” Mitoki protests. “You didn’t even hear me out! At least let me brick his phone.”

 

Izuku can’t help but laugh again, but he bites his lip and tries to keep his face straight as he tells Mitoki, “Vigilante justice isn’t the way to go.”

 

“Oh, like you’re one to talk. Wait, was that a joke?”

 

“I just think that meting out extrajudicial punishment is bad and illegal, like any good citizen would,” Izuku says solemnly.

 

“It’s not extrajudicial punishment! It’s just me punching an asshole in the face,” Mitoki says indignantly. “I’m doing the whole world a favor, here!”

 

“Your punching him in the face is not sanctioned by the law,” Izuku tells him seriously.

 

“You have no right to say that after helping me break into Yuuei.”

 

“What? I'd never do that. That's illegal, you know.”

 

Mitoki cracks up then, and that pretty much marks the end of that conversation. They spend the next few hours playing some co-op video games, and by the time Izuku leaves that day, he feels a little bit lighter, like somehow a door has been unlocked.

 

--

 

His life continues on as normal, for the most part, until a few days later when he’s volunteering at the soup kitchen again.

 

It’s a fairly average afternoon by all accounts. Izuku has just finished a shift helping prepare food during the lunch rush, and the manager, Ito Harukichi, has forcefully kicked him out of the kitchen to take a ten-minute break. Izuku hangs up his apron and hair hat and disposes of his gloves before walking out the door, grabbing a broom to sweep the courtyard because he is going to be productive during his break and nothing Ito says can stop him. He belligerently sets to work at the far corner, moving along the wall, and then -- “Excuse me,” he says as he steps around someone sitting along the wall, looking up briefly, before doing a double take. The girl in front of him has frozen, too, her chopsticks halfway lifted to her lips. “Uraraka-san?”

 

Uraraka gathers herself quickly. She puts her bowl down on the tray in her lap and says with careful politeness, “Deku-kun. What are you doing here?”

 

They both look at the broom that Izuku is very obviously holding in his hands in an awkward, stilted sort of silence, because it’s pretty clear already what Izuku is doing here. It’s just that this is not the place either of them would have wanted or expected to see the other. Uraraka’s greeting is perfunctory, really, nothing more than a thinly veiled request for him to leave. And, well. Izuku understands.

 

“I volunteer here,” he says. “I’m technically on break right now, but I didn’t want to just stand around, so--” he gestures with the broom. “Mostly I work in the back, organizing the food or helping make the meals, so -- this is just a chance meeting, really. You don’t have to worry about seeing me here again as long as you avoid the back entrance or avoid going into the kitchens. I’ll stay out of your way.”

 

Uraraka blinks, and something close to guilt steals across her expression. “You don’t have to--”

 

“It’s fine,” Izuku says. “We try to make this place as comfortable for everyone as possible, you know? Avoiding the courtyard isn’t hard.” He pauses, and then says, not looking at her, “If you don’t want to come here anymore, there are other places to go to. I -- my family used to need to come to the soup kitchen, when I was younger, so. I know all the best places to go.”

 

There is an unbearably long pause where Izuku watches the people eating and talking in the courtyard and pretends he and Uraraka aren’t trapped in a horribly awkward and distressingly personal situation. But when it drags on even longer than that, Izuku looks back at Uraraka to gauge her mood. She’s looking at him with a troubled expression. Izuku opens his mouth to apologize and leave, but -- “Deku-kun,” Uraraka says suddenly and strongly, with such intensity to almost be vehement. “I’m sorry for what I said to you the other day.”

 

Izuku stares at her for a good three seconds. “You don’t have to say that just because we ran across each other here.”

 

“I mean it,” she says, and she pats the space on the wall next to her. “If you’re on break and not too busy, sit with me a while?”

 

Izuku, tentatively, sits.

 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you told me,” she says. “It’s been difficult to come to terms with, but that made me realize how much more difficult it must have been for you. So -- in hindsight, I really stepped over a lot of boundaries. And then I even accused you of lying after you finally agreed to tell me what went on with you and Bakugou-kun.” She looks at him, earnest and forceful. “I’m sorry about that. I really am.”

 

Izuku can’t hold her gaze; he breaks it and looks down at his feet. “It’s not like I blame you,” he says. “I didn’t want to believe it either.”

 

“It was me unfairly doubting you,” says Uraraka. “You’re a good person too. I don’t know why I overlooked that, only that I knew Bakugou-kun longer.”

 

She isn’t making an excuse or asking for forgiveness, just this, just offering an explanation and an apology. Izuku doesn’t really know what to do with them. Luckily for him, Uraraka keeps talking, which saves him from having to think of something to say. “What made you decide to start volunteering here?” Nevermind.

 

“I already used to come by and help out with… miscellaneous things,” Izuku says. Like getting them in touch with local restaurants who had extra food to give away, or connecting them to someone who could help them find a proper web designer for their online platform. Small things like that. “I guess -- I wanted to be able to help them in return for everything they’d done. I didn’t have time to volunteer before, but…” He shrugs. Now that he’s not exactly attending school in person, he has hours more to run around.

 

Uraraka nods. “It took me a while to find this place,” she says. “I only moved here at the start of the school year, to an apartment my parents rented for me -- I figured just cutting down on my expenses was fine, but then I wasn’t eating enough to keep up with the stress at Yuuei.” She smiles, a bit regretfully. “Everyone saw me pass out at the Sports Festival, fighting Bakugou-kun. After that, I decided I needed to take care of my needs better. But I didn’t want to worry my parents.”

 

Izuku knows that feeling very well. “The supermarket usually has bargain prices on Tuesdays, and if you ask, they usually give you a discount,” he says. “There are lots of coupons you can find if you go to the right magazine stands, too. I still pick them up for my mom while I’m around the city. If you time things right you can get like 80% off on your purchases at certain stores.” He pulls his wallet from his pocket and flips it open to show the collection of coupons bursting from the seams. “Want some to start off your collection?”

 

Uraraka laughs. “Thank you, but -- no, I can’t take advantage of you more than I already have. If you could point me to someplace nice that’s hiring, though, that would be nice.”

 

Izuku pauses. When he doesn’t respond, Uraraka looks at him, and then a sort of disbelief creeps into her gaze. “You actually know--?”

 

“I think I might know a few, actually. Do you have a pencil and paper on you?”

 

--

 

Before Izuku leaves that day, he manages to give her a list of student-friendly local businesses that are hiring, as well as the locations of a few more useful resources. When Izuku returns to his shift, things between him and Uraraka have lightened to something close to understanding, and almost a kinship of sorts.

 

Two days later, Izuku makes his rounds and is set upon by an enthusiastic Moriai as soon as he steps foot into the shop. She informs him that Uraraka has been hired on part time to help organize the books and the back room, and then she assails him with questions like where did Izuku meet her, when did Izuku get on such good terms with those Yuuei students, and has he given any more thought to taking on Tanaka as a partner-in-vigilantism? He only manages to extract himself from her thinly-veiled interrogation because Tanaka shows up and distracts her.

 

Izuku passes on a discreet congratulations to Uraraka through a text to Iida, and then Uraraka texts him directly from her phone, and that’s the beginning of their correspondence. This, in turn, prompts Todoroki and Iida to ask after Izuku’s well-being, both of them messaging him at once using Todoroki’s phone, which kicks up contact between the three of them again.

 

With how many people in Kacchan’s class that he knows now, Izuku is starting to feel like a cryptid, wayward student of Yuuei’s class 1-A. This feeling is only exacerbated when Todoroki and Iida start occasionally inviting him to train with them after school. Izuku accepts their invitations anyways, because it’s enjoyable hanging out with them and he’s sort of begun missing his occasional fights with Kacchan, but it doesn’t change the fact that an unexpected chunk of his life has started revolving around Yuuei. He’s even run into Eraserhead once or twice, when the hero stops in on their after-school training sessions, and gotten even more recommendations on books to read.

 

As for Shinshou, his messages to Izuku have come to a sudden and abrupt end. Izuku isn’t sure why, but after texting Shinshou a few times with no response, he’s stopped trying to make contact, feeling anxious and insecure but also strangely uneasy. He’s had no chance to talk to Shinsou at Yuuei yet.

 

Then it’s almost time for summer break. Izuku finally drops back into school, slotting himself back into place like his absence never happened in the first place. His classmates accept him back in easily after asking how he’s been, and teasing him a little bit on how much he’ll have to catch up with before the end-of-term finals. It’s fine, Izuku tells them, he’s been keeping up with the homework and there’s still a few days left.

 

His mom makes his favorite dish, katsudon, for dinner that night. When Izuku asks what for, she just beams at him and says she’s so happy that he’s finally feeling better again.

 

Izuku feels guilty for worrying her for so long, but then Yagi claps him on the back and says, “You’ve done well,” and Izuku can’t help but return the smile that Yagi gives him. It’s a good dinner, that night.

 

Things pick up from there. Izuku studies; he breezes through the end-of-term finals; and then he has a month ahead of him, an entire month to do whatever he wants. The first thing he does is visit Uemura’s neighborhood on Saturday to chat with everyone and ask how their art projects are going. They’re close to done -- and they’ve discussed with the art gallery owner already to see how to display their art. Izuku takes on the responsibility of promoting the auction on social media, once they’ve set it up, and he leaves the meeting feeling pleased and full of purpose.

 

He tells the good news to Kobayashi. She tells him that she’s been on standby and waiting for these funds for a while, so this better work out, you hear? It’s her way of telling him that she expects the best from him, so he smiles and promises that he’ll give it his all.

 

He invites Todoroki and Iida to keep training with him over break, but they apologetically decline, saying they have different plans for the summer and they’ll be away for the month. With that matter out of his hands, Izuku spends most of his time with Mitoki and Hatsume.

 

Mitoki, without school to hinder him, throws himself into the project. A mere two days later, when Izuku visits, Mitoki informs him that the server for the alarm system is finally done and the app is ready for use. “I’ve tested it quite a bit,” he says smugly. “That police officer you put in contact with me was great .”

 

Izuku hopes that Sancha escaped with his dignity and sanity intact. Just in case, he buys some sweets from Uemura’s cafe and stops by the station, waiting until Sancha’s back in. When Sancha arrives back from patrol looks stressed, and his fur is messy. Izuku asks if everything went alright with Mitoki.

 

“That kid,” Sancha says. “Hirata Mitoki. He is a menace.”

 

“I’m sorry,” says Izuku, trying not to laugh. Well, that answers that question. “He’s not the source of all your stress, is he?”

 

It’s a lighthearted joke, but Sancha just frowns at the papers in his hands and shakes his head. “Be careful, Izuku-kun,” he says, after a moment, and hurries away before Izuku can say anything else. Izuku can only watch his gray-suited form disappear into the recesses of the Police Force building and swallow down his unease.

 

The next day, Sanjuro texts him to let him know that he’s forwarded all the commissioned posters, along with a business card. Izuku prints off a bunch of stacks and applies his collection of coupons until it’s only half price, then runs around and distributes piles to Uemura (for her chain stores), Masaki (for his various offices and the homes he owns), and the police station. He also goes around with Sanjuro, hanging up posters and fliers in public areas and within any storefronts that allow them.

 

When he visits Mitoki later that day, Mitoki tells him, pleased, that they already have a few people who’ve downloaded the app.

 

“Me and Hatsume are makin’ a great website to showcase her inventions, get her some attention,” Mitoki adds. “I'm gonna promote the app on the front page and also on my blog.”

 

“I...didn't think Hatsume would let you do that.”

 

“Are you kidding me? She loves anything that gets her stuff more attention. She's eating it right up.” Then Mitoki perks up. “Hey, you brought your motorcycle today like I asked, right? You gotta take me on a spin on that thing.”

 

Izuku takes him for a spin on that thing. Mitoki loves it to death, and then tells Izuku that they need to give his motorcycle some upgrades (Izuku forcefully shoots down Mitoki’s suggestion for an attached flamethrower). He also persuades Izuku to stick a tracker on the motorcycle, “just in case you ever need it, y’know? Just press it to turn it on and I’ll be able to find it.”

 

Mitoki tries to play it down, but Izuku looks at him and remembers Mitoki’s urgent texts when Izuku was kidnapped, and accepts the tracker without another complaint.

 

As for the app, Izuku forgets to download it himself until his mother asks him if she's one of his emergency contacts. He admits that it hadn't occurred to him that he'd need it, since he's usually the one fighting villains off. His mother looks distraught.

 

Izuku downloads the app.

 

Mitoki has done a good job with it. It's a clean and simple interface, but still pleasing to the eye. Izuku goes to fill in some emergency contacts. He adds his mom, and then he adds Yagi-san, and then he adds Mitoki and Hatsume. He considers adding Todoroki and Iida for a moment, but he thinks they’re not quite to that level yet.

 

He continues scrolling through his contacts, spots a name, and hesitates. His thumb hovers over the name, and then he selects it.

 

It's alright, he reassures himself. It's not like he'll ever actually use this app, anyways. No one has to know.

 

All in all, he’s enjoying the summer. Things are going well. Progress with the app and the art auction are going smoothly. He and Mitoki have managed to persuade Hatsume to play video games with them, and she has become quite enamoured with one fantasy open-world video game (or more specifically, with downloading so many different mods that it becomes unrecognizable, and destroying it from the inside out), and it’s providing endless hours of entertainment for them all.

 

Izuku has plenty of time to go around the city during the day and visit all his friends and acquaintances, too. He and Tanaka have even gone and fixed a few more houses, and he’s even spent a few days just napping in her garden and talking about the latest T.V. shows. Moriai joins them sometimes with her knitting or sewing projects, and it’s… nice.

 

In the evenings, too, he spends time reading by the kotatsu as his mom and Yagi talk or do their own business. The T.V. plays white noise in the background, except when Izuku feels like watching a documentary or someone wants to watch the news. It’s… strangely domestic. Yagi’s house is starting to feel more like home -- warm, inviting, accepting.

 

His days are starting to feel less like a burden, and more like a promise: that there is something to look forward to today, that his friends are waiting for him, that he can be happy. And, he thinks, he is starting to be happy.

 

It’s an unsuspecting evening when it happens. It’s late; his mom went to bed an hour ago, and Yagi was just called away on urgent business, telling Izuku he didn’t know when he’d be back and also to go to sleep soon before disappearing out the door. That leaves Izuku alone at the kotatsu, poring over his notes on the latest essay he’s read as a news anchor drones on in the background.

 

The channel blares a ‘breaking news’ jingle. Izuku ignores it and adds a few sentences to his notebook, cross-referencing the tiny bit of macroeconomics he’s started teaching himself. But then the news anchor mentions Yuuei, and Izuku’s attention breaks. He looks up.

 

“--summer camp was just attacked by the so-called Villain Alliance, resulting in two people in critical condition and sixteen additional casualties. Although all the students have survived the attack, they have not gone without losses. Three students have been kidnapped: Tokoyami Fumikage, Monoma Neito, and Bakugou Katsuki.”

 

Izuku’s pencil snaps in his hand. His ears fill with white noise, and the world almost seems to tilt around him as he stares at the three pictures shown on screen: a bird-headed boy, a blond boy with an insincere smile, and last of all -- Kacchan’s unmistakeable self. No. No. Izuku has to -- he has to do something. There has to be something. But his body refuses to move, frozen, staring at the screen. His thoughts ricochet in his head with nowhere to go until it’s all white static, a loud ringing in his ears that almost overwhelms the world.

 

And in the midst of that, his heartbeat picks up, faster and faster -- and then it slows down, smooths into a strange calm that burns. He doesn’t know if it’s panic or anger. He doesn’t care. He needs to move.

 

Izuku finally pulls himself back to reality just in time to pin his attention back to the screen. “--lieve that the Villain Alliance had inside help," the anchor is saying. "In fact--

 

“--witness reports say that the Villain Alliance’s attack on the summer camp was led by a Yuuei student himself: first-year General Education student, Shinsou Hitoshi.”