So for those not in the know, there's a spinoff to My Hero Academia called MHA: Illegals, revolving around a trio of characters acting as unofficial heroes to clean up the streets and satisfy their own interests. The main character of that story is the MC here. Since the timeline between the two series is still ambiguous, I'm saying that Illegals (and therefore, this prologue) takes place about three years prior to the main series, which fits my purposes nicely.

Fair warning, this story's going to be a lot of the original series through the eyes of another character, especially in the beginning. Things will deviate down the line as Kouichi starts doing his own thing - how much, I'm not sure yet. In the meantime, I'm working on ways to make things more interesting; you're probably going to see more of the minor characters here, especially the teachers.

I'm actually really excited to write this; My Hero Academia is my favorite manga, and one of my favorite anime. I'm hoping I can do a story like this justice, and create something truly enjoyable.

I own nothing that doesn't belong to me. Horikoshi does a better job with it than I ever could.

Prologue

The Cleaner's Final Night

If you were to say, "everyone is special", then that simply means that "being special is normal".

oOoOo

It wasn't supposed to go like this. There weren't supposed to be any serious problems during a routine patrol. Even if there were, him and Master could handle it (and maybe Pop, if she was around).

No matter how many times Kouichi forced those words through his head, what lay in front of him didn't change. It was the middle of the night, the moon hanging high above in the starless sky. They'd been jumped from the shadows of a nearby alleyway by some low-level thugs. It shouldn't have been anything Master couldn't handle with help.

Then another one that the two of them hadn't seen pulled out the Trigger and jammed it into their neck. Suddenly, they were vibrating through the alleyway at ludicrous speed, sweeping away the unconscious forms of their compatriots and rushing toward Kouichi and Knuckle-Duster with a manic glint in their eyes.

Kouichi remembered being thrown aside like a stray soda can and hitting the ground hard. He couldn't move as pain and nausea erupted through him and he fought back the urge to be sick. He forced his head to turn, and saw Master surrounded on changing sides by the mad blur. It struck at Knuckle-Duster from one angle, then changed to another and another, so quickly that the blows may as well have been coming all at once.

As Master weathered the assault, Kouichi tried to sit up, and the world spun as his head pounded. He pressed as much of himself against the ground as he could and felt his Quirk come alive, ready to send him where he needed to be. Kouichi chose a direction – he was pretty sure he could hear Master and the thug fighting over there – and began to slide that way. Perhaps he could trip up the thug and give Master an opening.

He felt something wet against his forehead and realized that he was bleeding. He ignored it; Master was in danger.

Knuckle-Duster continued to take his opponent's punches without retaliating. The old man was certainly tough, but despite his disciplined physique (and his damn near sociopathic love of fighting), even he couldn't survive anything. It was almost alien to Kouichi, the thought of Master's impending doom. At times he seemed less a human and more a god of combat or force of nature, the way he defeated foes that seemed impossible for any civilian to take down while remaining in one piece.

And he was even Quirkless. When he'd revealed that part of himself to Kouichi, he'd seemed touchy about it, almost angry when Kouichi tried to probe. Maybe he'd thought that his protégé would think less of him somehow, but the opposite was the actual truth. Kouichi had already known a few Quirkless people before meeting Knuckle-Duster. He hadn't been close with any of them, but he'd seen how others tended to treat them like they were freaks for lacking something that, for most people, hardly made a difference in life.

He'd actually thought it ironic. In this era of superpowers, of "special" people, suddenly those who had once been considered normal were the outcasts. Kouichi had heard some people call it karma for how people with Quirks had once been treated, but frankly that was stupid. Even if they weren't all equal, people were still people.

And even without a Quirk, Master had the brazen desire to make a difference in the way that everyone else said that he couldn't. Far from shameful, Kouichi thought that Knuckle-Duster was among the most noble people he'd ever met.

In his own way, anyway.

And now he stood, helpless but for Kouichi's oncoming aid, the possibility of death lingering closer than Kouichi dared to think about. Through the storm of barehanded blows, Master caught Kouichi's eye… then smiled, and launched an errant punch to his right.

The blurred thug dodged the attack with ease and ran back to the left in front of Knuckle-Duster. As Kouichi slid into position directly in front of his master, the thug's foot caught on his body and a sharp pain ripped through his side as he flipped up into the air – along with the thug, a stick figure of a man whose eyes bulged outward like a cartoon as he flailed his limbs about. Knuckle-Duster surged forward and, having already reared a mighty arm back, struck the midair thug with a punch that reverberated with a loud crack.

As Kouichi fell back to the earth, the no-longer-a-blur thug sailed through the air and struck the stone wall of the alleyway, cracking the wall and collapsing to the ground. Kouichi had no doubts whatsoever that he wouldn't be moving for a long while.

Master panted and rubbed his bruised jaw, apparently satisfied for the moment. "Took you long enough to get over here," he said, staring down at Kouichi. "I thought I'd have to handle him alone. Might have been a real challenge."

Kouichi looked up at Master, triumphant once more. "That guy caught me off-guard," he complained. His head had started to pound again, and he felt woozy. "I think I have a concussion now."

Master barked a reedy-sounding laugh. "Concussion? I learned to walk those off ages ago. Shouldn't be any trouble for-" Suddenly, Knuckle-Duster stopped, his face contorted in pain. He coughed, and blood spurted from his mouth.

Then he coughed again – more blood.

Kouichi's heart skipped a beat. "Master?"

"Ergh… son of a-" Knuckle-Duster coughed out more red gunk, and blood began to trickle from his mouth. "He went… right through me," he rasped. He pulled up his shirt with shaking arms, revealing a battered, bruised torso… and growing patches of red underneath the skin.

"Master!" Kouichi gasped. What… what happened? Master should have been able to take those blows! Kouichi had seen him do it before! And that thug had been skin and bones – he shouldn't have been able to-

But he didn't need to hit hard. Kouichi's innards froze. It wasn't a matter of force; that thug had been vibrating at super speed, but Master was still too tough to be beaten to death.

So he'd vibrated his attacks through the outer layers of Master's body… and into the organs beneath.

"Can't believe… the dumb luck," Knuckle-Duster groaned. He collapsed to his knees, struggling against his failing body to remain upright. "I don't… not yet… still have to…" His voice faded into wheezing, and his face, already pained, tightened with an even greater agony.

He fell to the side, and laid still.

Something inside Kouichi broke. "Master!" He cried, pitching himself toward Master, abandoning the splitting pain in his head. He crawled forward like a man with demons biting at his heels, and threw himself over Master's body to look him in the face. The old man's eyes were glossy, and his jaw hung slack. Kouichi dug his hands into Knuckle-Duster's neck to check for a pulse, then pulled back a moment later to struggle with his gloves.

The world swayed, and he fell forward again onto Master's body. The image of his master's corpse filling with blood like a balloon invaded his thoughts, and he jerked around and vomited on the ground next to Knuckle-Duster's head.

Knuckle-Duster's eyes snapped open again, and he grimaced. "C'mon, kid. What're you doing, throwing up at a dying guy? How the hell're you supposed to beat up the bad guys like that?"

Kouichi reeled up, fighting through his blurring vision. "Master… Old Man Knuckle, you're still…"

Dying.

It couldn't be. It couldn't. But as Kouichi saw the blood trickling from Master's mouth and felt Master's bloody shirt squish under his fingertips, it became real.

Kouichi scrambled for his phone – it was in one of his pockets, he knew it – but his hands were clumsy and wouldn't move how he needed them to. His head pound, pound, pounded and his vision became hazier. He didn't have time for this. It didn't matter what happened to him; he'd already missed his chance to be a hero. The world would turn without him.

It needed Knuckle-Duster.

From somewhere far away, Kouichi heard himself sob and thrust his hands back toward where he thought his pockets were, but then a strong pair of hands clasped him by the shoulders and shook him once, hard. He looked up and saw Knuckle-Duster, still so clear despite Kouichi's blurring sight.

For the first time Kouichi had ever seen, his master looked sad.

"Hey…" Knuckle-Duster said, almost sounding gentle. He wheezed for several seconds, then looked into Kouichi's eyes again. "You're gonna be… fine. I taught you better'n to die in an alley with the garbage." He made a choking sound that might have been laughter. "Shit, this wasn't… how I was hoping to go. Had a lot more I needed to do first…" He grew quiet, as though considering something, then refocused on Kouichi. "There's a… a lot more bad guys out there, kid. Beat 'em up for… for Old Man Knuckle, you hear me?"

Kouichi's mouth opened and he might have said something, and then the world swayed again, more violently, and then there was only darkness.

oOoOo

The real "special" people can do things like… fly through the sky! Or dominate villains with incredible strength! Or run from one place to another at super speeds!

And they have perfect smiles (eh, not really).

They're in a world completely above the rest of us. All that an ordinary loser like me can do is look up at them with respect and awe.

At least, that's what I always thought…

oOoOo

Through empty dreams, Kouichi felt himself drifting back into consciousness. A bolt of lingering pain sliced through his head and catapulted him the rest of the way into reality. He jerked upward, momentarily confused as the events from earlier that night returned in bits and pieces. He and Master had been patrolling, and they'd stumbled upon a Trigger junkie among a gang of other thugs. The junkie had sent him flying, and he'd struck his head – that explained the pain. It had faded during his rest, but it still made him wince.

The junkie had been beating up Master, but Master had gained the upper hand and taken him out. Then… Knuckle-Duster had collapsed? That didn't sound right; the old man wouldn't have gone down to a goon, even if they had Triggered beforehand.

Kouichi reached back with a clumsy hand to search for his phone (why did that seem familiar?), and he felt his other hand press down into something wet and cold. He pulled back and felt himself shift against whatever he'd been lying upon. It was rough and smelled familiar, like cigarette smoke, alcohol, and blood. The kind of smells that made his nose burn.

The smell of blood was strongest, an unusual metallic sweetness that Kouichi had become well-acquainted with over the past months. Ever since Master had entered his life.

And whatever Kouichi was resting against smelled oddly like the old man.

The pieces of Kouichi's memory fell together, and he remembered what had happened. He knew why it smelled so much like Knuckle-Duster, and why there was so much blood.

"Master!" Kouichi cried, pulling himself back onto his master's prone form. He tried to ignore the squishing sound that pressing against the old man's bloody shirt made, and fished around for Knuckle-Duster's face to rip the old guy's mask off. He pulled out his phone (finally) and held the bright screen to the man's face.

He looked peaceful, and that was confusing, because Master never looked so serene. He was always severe, with gritted teeth, a furrowed brow, and a frown that only vacated its place to a malicious grin when a fight was imminent or underway. That was the Knuckle-Duster that Kouichi knew.

His eyes never looked so empty, so devoid of the flame that consumed him and everyone around him in all of his waking moments. And Kouichi had never before seen him smiling.

"Hey, wake up, Master," Kouichi said. His voice sounded so small. "Master, we've got to get help. You've been hurt. Come on, get up, Master." Almost without realizing, he reached out and placed a hand on Master's face. He felt cold. Was that Kouichi's gloves, making him feel less warm? Kouichi brought a hand to his mouth and bit down on a finger; he might have bitten his own finger, but he didn't notice. He pressed his bare hand against Master's forehead.

Still cold – so, so cold.

"You're… you're going to get sick, Master," Kouichi mumbled. His voice thickened as he spoke, and his vision began to swim. "Master, you can't… you can't be…" His words gave out, replaced by a low cry.

He took in a ragged breath, and as his tears fell, he let out a much louder cry. He fell against his master's chest and screamed his agony into the lifeless shell, as though that was enough to bring it back to life.

He didn't know if anyone could hear him, and he didn't know how much of the night he spent screaming his newfound pain into the world, but nobody found him there in that dark and empty alleyway. Nobody knew he was there.

Nobody cared.

oOoOo

Master found me in that lonely back alley, and showed me that I could fly higher. Admittedly, my first takeoff was pretty lame…

But it's because of him that I got to visit that higher world, where the real heroes are. Even if it was just a glimpse at a time, it felt good. What's that saying, that I didn't know I was starving until I'd tasted it?

It was all because of Master. So… what now?

Several months isn't necessarily a bad run. I got to help some people, take down some bad guys (kinda…), and make a bit of a name for myself. Maybe that's enough for The Crawler.

Maybe I'm not really meant to soar through the sky, where people can look up at me and smile. Maybe my place is down below, crawling around in the places beneath everyone else. I've always been good at that.

I mean, really, who'd want to look up at someone like me?

oOoOo

'A man lacking identification, roughly fifty years of age, was found deceased in an alleyway on the north side of Musutafu. Cause of death has been speculated to be a Quirk-related incident. If anyone has any information, please contact…'

Kouichi chucked the paper across his apartment in disgust. A man… that was all that they called him. They hadn't even bothered to find Master's name before writing about him. Part of Kouichi was honestly disappointed – he'd always been curious as to his master's identity, but the old man had always waved it off as unimportant.

Even so, it would have been nice to have something to remember him by.

They'd included a picture, and Kouichi didn't want to know how they got it. He hated the idea of them standing over Master's corpse with a camera, taking a picture of him like he was just a thing to be catalogued. He'd toyed with the idea of calling in and providing information, but it would have been too much of a hassle explaining everything.

Kouichi sighed and looked around his apartment. It was becoming filthy, since he hadn't bothered to clean any of it over the past week. Pop Step had stopped by a couple of days after he'd holed himself up inside, demanding to know where the two of them had been because some run-ins with fans had gotten a bit carried away and she wanted her security by her side.

To her credit, she'd seemed genuinely sorry when Kouichi told her what had happened. He couldn't remember what else had happened between them, but he recalled her shouting at him about how pathetic he was being and then leaping out through his window, so apparently it hadn't gone well.

He didn't really care what she thought of him. He wasn't in the mood to care about much right now.

But then again, he'd gotten several screaming calls from his boss demanding that he come in for work, and homework was bound to be piling up from the classes he'd so wisely decided to skip, so maybe it was time to rethink that whole apathy bender.

He sat off, shaking off his crusty bedsheets, and started to sort out the trash that he'd allowed to sublet his place (the nerve of it, thinking it didn't have to pay rent). After gathering it into a few piles, Kouichi reached under his bed to grab a garbage bag.

His fingers brushed something made of fabric, and he tried not to wince. He hadn't been able to look at his hoodie the same way ever since that night. Instead, he'd stuffed it under his bed and tried to act like it never existed – and he'd almost succeeded.

No, he couldn't let his life shut down because he was in mourning anymore. That wasn't what responsible adults did. Kouichi gripped the garment and pulled it out, holding it up to look at it. It was made of surprisingly good fabric, largely blue, with red and white on the arms and down the front, and yellow on the fringes of the hood.

Yep, that was All Might's design. He'd been so happy when his parents had bought it as a present for entering high school – and, he'd later realized, as sort of a consolation prize in lieu of being admitted to a real high school for heroics. To be fair, he had been moping something fierce.

Just for old time's sake, Kouichi slipped the hoodie on. It felt exactly like he remembered; he almost thought he was back on streets, darting between legs and down alleyways to find people in need. Knuckle-Duster may have thought that beating up villains felt good, but for Kouichi the true euphoria rested in the faces of everyone whose lives he made a little better. They were truly the best of times.

He fought back the tears that welled up. Those days had been wonderful, but they couldn't last. Kouichi had other things to focus on now: getting his studies back on track, making sure he still had a job (a crummy one, but it was something). As a child, he'd wanted to be a hero over anything else, but that wasn't his thing. By Master's side, it was a different story, but Kouichi wasn't sure he could handle the responsibilities alone.

He'd had his time to fly, but now he was back on the ground. He needed to stay there. It was what a responsible adult would do.

But standing there, reminiscing in that All Might hoodie, Kouichi didn't feel like he wanted his time to be done.

Oh, to Hell with being a responsible adult. It'd be there for him later.

Kouichi ran to his dresser, pulled on his protective gear, and hurled himself out the door. The city was his to patrol, and there was bound to be somebody in need of aid.

oOoOo

Not everyone can become a hero. Reality isn't that kind.

I've known that for a while, but when I met Master, he made me believe that maybe the world was wrong about that.

I still don't know what's right and what's wrong, and without Master, things are going to be difficult from now on.

But even if I can't soar through the air like a real hero can, and be met with the adoring faces of everyone down below, I can still stay close to the ground. While everyone else is busy looking up, I can help people who are down below like me. People who are too far away for the real heroes to see. Who everyone else looking up refuses to look down upon.

I know what it's like, and I've always been pretty good at staying low. Even if that's all I can do – as Gentle-Man, The Crawler, or just Haimawari Kouichi – then I guess I have to do it anyway.

For Master.

And so, we begin. Here's to a new adventure.

Tomorrow's Hero, signing out.