No copyright infringement intended.
All men are not created equal.
Quirks, as we've come to know them, decide whether a good person can be great or the barista working at a coffee shop down the street. That's not to say baristas aren't good people or a good person can't be a great barista, but in a world where our job options include saving the world, the ability to make perfect latte art may or may not sound quite as impressive. It isn't something we're taught so much as it is something we eventually realize: there are those who are born great, and there are those who are born. Empirically speaking, though, aren't we all made of the same star stuff?
I. Start Line
I felt like crawling into a hole.
Morbidly, I thought about how unfortunate it would be to accidentally or on purpose get buried alive. Then, because I was a masochist, I started thinking about all of the worst ways I could possibly die. Between spiders and the irony of choking on a lifesaver, the first day of high school should've been at the bottom of my list, but since the school in question was Yūei Academy, I didn't have the luxury to be so naïve.
Ranked first in Japan and regarded as a highly distinguished institution by the rest of the world, Yūei was home to some of the most promising young Heroes in the making. Hundreds of applicants took part in the entrance exam every year, and of those hundreds, only a handful made it through to attend. I wasn't one of them, but the school admitted a select few students through recommendations. The number was significantly smaller than the average acceptance rate, and yet somehow, it now included me.
Freshmen identification cards arrived a few weeks after acceptance letters came in the mail. Engraved in pristine cursive at the top right corner sat the school motto, Plus Ultra, a Latin phrase translating to "further beyond." It served as a conspicuous reminder of the significance a piece of plastic could have, and truthfully, seeing my name beneath it felt a bit out of place in comparison.
To put things into perspective, eighty percent of the human population possessed Quirks. Japan's population totaled little less than two percent of that, but that two percent consisted of one hundred and twenty seven million people. Forty students enrolled into the Hero Course this year, five of whom recruited through the recommendation process.
I was one of the five.
Most people in my position would've probably jumped at the chance to attend such a prestigious academy, though objectively speaking, high school was high school no matter where I went. Loud classrooms. Pushy kids. Teachers who cared too much or not at all. I could admit that Yūei was in the top one percent for a reason, but thinking about hows and whys made me anxious, especially since my parents graduated from the same school.
So much to live up to…
Ignoring the whisper in my ears, I squared my shoulders and traipsed through the main gates, imposing and impressive and still a little impossible to believe. The receptionist sitting in the corner of the lobby perked up and hopped to her feet as I walked inside, but not before a question interrupted the yawn slipping out of her mouth.
"New student?" she asked.
Dark hair cascaded down her back like sharp quills, mirroring the length and color of my own curls. It wasn't until I noticed the red mask atop her head did I realize she wasn't a receptionist at all. Kayama Nemuri was one of the many teachers here at Yūei, but the general public knew her by a different title: the R-Rated Pro Hero, Midnight.
Her Quirk exuded a sleep-inducing aroma through her pores, which explained the skintight bodysuit veiling an expanse of her skin. As I handed her my identification card, my eyes warily flickered to her exposed fingers, but considering I had enough of a conscience to have such concerns in the first place, I figured they didn't pose much of a threat.
"You're one of the kids who got in through recommendations," Kayama-sensei said, her cerulean eyes sparkling after skimming over my name.
"Uh, I'm not some old lady, you know."
I stayed silent as Kayama-sensei typed my information into the system, thoroughly incapable of small talk without feeling an overwhelming urge to combust. As much as I practiced such conversations or conversations in general, I couldn't understand the point of talking for no discernible reason apart from the sake of talking. Luckily, though, she didn't look particularly interested in receiving a reply.
"Looks like you're in Class 1-A," Kayama-sensei said, sliding my ID across the counter. "Welcome to Yūei, Higuchi Reiko."
My mouth curled at the corners, shaping into a minuscule smile. "Thank you, Kayama-sensei."
"So you do know who I am," she mused, her own lips tilting into a satisfied smirk. "Don't go around calling me 'ma'am' anymore, got it?"
With a listless nod, I bid her a slightly more enthusiastic farewell. The halls stretched for miles on miles, empty save for a few mingling upperclassmen, but I didn't care much about being late on my first day. I had more important things to worry about, starting with the nettling voice still lingering in my head.
In for a penny, she said. In for a pound.
I had nothing against waking up early. I could, if needed, but between that and sleeping in a few extra minutes each morning, the prospect of leaving the warmth of my blankets never sounded like the better option. Most days, I kept my eyes closed until I absolutely had to get out of bed.
The man sprawled on the ground in front of Class 1-A seemed to share the sentiment. A yellow sleeping bag scuffed from overuse and zipped to his chin swallowed the rest of his body, revealing only a mop of black hair and hooded eyes reminiscent of a dead or dying goldfish.
On the other side of him stood three students paralyzed at the sight of his odd predicament, unwittingly blocking the single entrance and exit into the classroom. I could've taken a few extra steps to walk around them, but that required more energy than I had to spare on a Monday morning.
"Excuse me," I said.
No response, not even a glance. My other classmates peered at the commotion from their seats inside the classroom, and though I would've usually found the ogling annoying, I felt more bothered by the fact that the people I addressed directly didn't show nearly as much interest in what I had to say.
"That's my cue, I guess," the man sighed, rising from his cocoon and stretching to his full height. "I'm your homeroom teacher, Aizawa Shōta."
A euphony of gasps and whispers permeated the room, prompting our instructor to let out another breath of irritation. He didn't bother waiting for us to quiet down this time and quickly pulled out a blue and white tracksuit from the worn quilt pooling at his feet.
"You'll find one of these uniforms under every desk," Aizawa-sensei said, lifting it above his head for everyone to see. "It's last minute, I know, but change into them and then come out to the field."
Picking up the sleeping bag off the floor, Aizawa-sensei spun on his heel and started in the opposite direction from where I came. His footsteps slowed down as he passed by almost like he just noticed me standing there, but any and all emotions escaped his expression when I looked at him.
"Don't be late next time," Aizawa-sensei said.
As I took note of his hunched shoulders and fading footsteps, I couldn't help but wonder about his capabilities as a Pro Hero. Despite the image he presented, Aizawa-sensei was our teacher for a reason, and for him to meet Yūei's standards meant he could handle the job to an impressive extent. No use in speculating when I didn't have the evidence nor intent to prove otherwise.
I took a step back when a pair of big, brown eyes popped out in front of me, cringing not so much out of surprise than at their sudden proximity. It took a couple of seconds to recognize the brunette staring at me as one of the three students obstructing the doorway just a moment ago.
"My name is Uraraka Ochako," she said, a sweet, toothy smile spreading across her cheeks. "Are you in this class?"
Just as I opened my mouth to respond, the other two from earlier approached us, contrasting amiable and anxious expressions on display. Pushing up the silver spectacles perfectly perched on his nose, the taller of the two curtly inclined his head.
"I am Iida Tenya," he said. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance."
I returned the gesture and looked at the last of the trio, shorter than the first boy and barely taller than the girl. He cleared his throat and hastily averted his green eyes upon noticing my gaze, and the pale pink blush across his cheeks almost looked like the exact complementary color to the unruly moss curls atop his head.
"Midoriya Izuku," he said, his words coming out as a scarce whisper. "It's, um, nice to meet you."
Three different people with three vastly different personalities. I could've greeted them as cheerfully as Uraraka or maybe dropped into a ninety-degree bow that Iida would've proudly reciprocated, but the way Midoriya avoided eye contact implied that such a forward introduction might only fluster him more. Keeping that in mind, I settled for a short nod.
"My name is Higuchi Reiko," I said. "It's nice to meet you, too."
I smiled, tight-lipped and a little awkward. It came a beat too late to feel entirely honest, but the smiles I received in return nearly made me exhale in relief. First impressions can feel final in a roundabout sort of way. I found some semblance of comfort in the fact that I didn't feel totally mortified after mine.
"We should find our seats," Iida said, adjusting his glasses again. "Aizawa-sensei expects us soon."
Uraraka bobbed her head and skipped to the back of the class. Iida hurriedly slipped into the desk in front of hers. The two remaining spots sat on opposite sides of the room, and I was mildly taken aback when Midoriya darted towards a scowling blond boy near the front. Briefly, I wondered if they knew each other, but the thought dissipated without much protest.
As I plodded to my seat, I counted twenty desks in the room. Aside from two or three recommended students, every single person in our class passed the infamous Yūei entrance exam, and the reality of it made me all the more curious to find out what kind of Quirks my peers possessed.
"Oh," Uraraka said, eyes turning into crescents as soon as I placed my bag on the desk next to hers. "We're seat partners, Higuchi-chan!"
Reluctantly, perhaps a bit petulantly, I returned her enthusiasm with another strained smile, but I had nothing against Uraraka personally. I was just half-awake, and it was a Monday, and the indubitable fact that I was not a morning person subtracted from my already lacking social skills.
"I'm looking forward to it, Uraraka," I said, trivial concerns swirling in my mind. Should I have used chan? san? An honorific at all? Was it alright that I didn't?
"You can call me by my first name," Uraraka said, shy and a little sheepish. "I mean, if you want! No pressure! I don't even have to call you Reiko! Or Reiko-chan? Whatever you want! Ah, I'm rambling, aren't I?"
Her words and actions implied that she wanted us to become closer than just classmates, and I didn't think it was vain on my part to assume that meant she wanted to be my friend. The thought of that and having to spend the next few months together coupled with her bubbly smile made my next decision one that not even Monday Me could refuse. I could do friends. It would be easier to be friends.
"Don't worry about it, Ochako," I said, hoping an actual, affable grin managed to replace my sad attempts at an authentic smile. "If you want, you can call me Rei."
Class 1-A gathered on the baseball field about fifteen minutes later, each of us dressed in our new gym clothes. It felt like silk against my skin, but I wouldn't be surprised if Yūei invested in materials of even higher grade, especially since these uniforms would have to adapt to our Quirks during training.
"What do you think we're doing today, Rei?" Ochako asked.
"It doesn't look like anything too exciting," I said, eyeing the clipboard in our homeroom teacher's hands. "Maybe a test of some sort to give Aizawa-sensei a closer look at our Quirks."
"Wonderful observation, Higuchi."
Ochako slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles as Aizawa-sensei raised a brow in my direction. I stilled in silent horror, internally berating myself for not lowering my voice and trying not to care about the dozens of stares stabbing into my back on top of that.
"You'll be taking eight physical apprehension tests structured similarly to those you've taken in the past," Aizawa-sensei said, his tone and posture noncommittal in every sense of the word. "The only real difference is that unlike other schools, you're allowed to use your Quirks whenever and however you want."
My embarrassment faded as quickly as it came, substituted by furrowed brows and a suspicious inkling that his words sounded too good to be true.
"Whoever ranks last will be expelled."
Because of course it was.
"Expelled?" our class chorused incredulously.
"Did you think this would be all fun and games?" Aizawa-sensei asked, the frown on his face deepening in disapproval. "This is the Hero Course. If you're not going to take it seriously, then you don't belong here."
Do you belong here, Reiko?
The ever-present voice inside my head always chose the worst times to appear, and now was no exception. I tried to ignore it, tried not to shut my eyes because whispers sounded louder in the dark, but as usual I still heard it, cutting and clear.
"Are you nervous, Rei?"
Grateful for the distraction, I turned to Ochako and immediately noted her poorly concealed trepidation. Her fingers covered her cheeks, but she peered at me through the slits, and the nervous energy she emitted herself felt almost palpable. No and I might come off defensive or overconfident. Yes and she might feel better about being anxious or freak out about me freaking out.
Not worth the risk and close to the truth. I'd be fine as long as I didn't get last place, and aside from the three I met just a few minutes ago, I didn't feel too attached to anyone enough to worry about whether or not they got expelled.
"Oh," Ochako mumbled.
My mouth twitched into a frown at her wilting expression, but I forced the corners upward. "It'll be fun to use our Quirks, don't you think?"
"Oh," she gasped, beaming again. "If you put it that way, I guess so!"
The tests kicked off with a fifty meter dash. Aizawa-sensei split us into pairs, and while waiting for my turn, I hung back at the end of the line to observe my classmates' performances. Most of them succeeded in about six seconds save for a few outliers with advantages and disadvantages. Iida and his engines, for example, cleared the track in almost three seconds flat, though I could tell he had trouble switching gears in short distances.
Ochako, on the other hand, didn't have the strength or stamina to make use of her Quirk in an exercise that relied largely on physical effort. That said, she still beat a couple of people who had apparently never run a mile in their lives, like the sparkly blond kid that sort of just tripped on his shoelaces and stayed on the ground.
And then there was Bakugou Katsuki, the blond Midoriya sat behind in class. His explosion Quirk was powerful as it was, but he also had sharp instincts that allowed him to maximize his use of that power a number of different ways. If not for his equally explosive temper, I would've easily believed he was one of the other students who got in through recommendations.
"4.01 seconds," Aizawa-sensei said, marking his name off the list. "Next, Yaoyorozu and—"
"Bless you," I uttered automatically, not bothering to look at the sniffling brunette next to me.
A few feet in front of us, Yaoyorozu Momo stepped forward. I only knew her by name because it seemed like everyone knew her name, and when an electric scooter materialized out of her arm within minutes after glowing violet, I told myself not to forget it.
Next to her stood a boy with two toned hair, red and white divided evenly down the center of his head. I didn't catch his name, but that didn't matter at the moment. Noting the disinterest in his expression, I decided he either didn't care about failing or—
The boy thrust his hands out behind him, and in a fraction of the time it took his partner to build the scooter, the dirt beneath his feet froze and the frost expelling from his fingertips propelled him to the finish line.
Aside from Iida, no one else came close to the three second mark. It reminded me that two other students in my class enrolled through recommendations, and when Yaoyorozu ended up with a near identical time, falling behind by just a few centimeters, I couldn't help but think that the pieces aligned a little too perfectly.
"As expected," Aizawa-sensei said, further validating my suspicions.
Yaoyorozu smiled brightly, bowing at her waist. The boy inclined his head before turning to the damage he dealt on the track, his left foot stepping on the ice. As steam began rising from the ground, my curiosity spiked.
"Wait," I called out.
The boy paused and looked over at me, and his eyes, like his hair, came in two different colors: a silver and turquoise, the latter peeking out from the carmine fringe that swept over the left side of his face.
I buried the bashful discomfort that followed the rest of that thought and shifted my attention elsewhere. Now that I had an unobstructed view of him, I noticed the scar marking his otherwise glassy ivory skin, but I willed my own eyes not to linger, merely watching as he raised a brow and almost mirroring the action before I finally registered that I spent all that time gawking at him.
"Leave it," I said, finally.
The boy glanced our teacher and lifted his foot upon receiving a nod of approval. I watched the wisps of steam fade into nothingness while the rest of the ice remained untouched and unbothered. Most people considered elemental Quirks top tier for a reason, and this was a prime example of why.
"Hagakure Tōru and Higuchi Reiko," Aizawa-sensei announced, beckoning me and a girl with an invisibility Quirk to the start of the line. "Last ones for this test."
I turned to the boy with mismatched eyes. He stared at me sort of expectantly this time, and to my dismay, I felt my palms sweat under the weight of his gaze.
"Thank you," I said.
Mutely, he nodded and stepped aside, leaving a space open for me where he previously stood. As I knelt down on the cold surface, the tension in my muscles immediately disappeared. Fortunately or not, Aizawa-sensei cut off my brewing inner monologue before I could give it too much thought.
My hands slammed down onto the ground, and with a flick of my wrist, I stood atop a small slab of ice. Leftover frost reverted to its liquid state and then erupted below me like an angry geyser, its sheer pressure hurling me across the air.
I wrinkled my nose as the wind tickled the lines on my face, but the gesture felt comforting and familiar. As I landed on the other side of the finish line, the crystallized rock beneath my feet shattered into pieces, and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do it again.
"That was awesome, Rei!" Ochako cheered, pumping a fist in the air. "You looked like you were surfing! Or flying! Like wham! So cool!"
I accepted the fact that I couldn't beat Iida, but I still felt a bit sour about barely ranking second, especially considering the only reason I had that much water to use in the first place was because of the boy with the ice Quirk.
Despite the approval from Aizawa-sensei, I also respected the fact that the favor from earlier was a one time deal. Relying on someone else for every test wouldn't look very impressive, and so I made a mental note to keep my distance from him until the exam ended. I needed to set an example, too, and besides, it wasn't like I wanted to stay second best.
Not bad, she crooned. But not good enough.
Thirty-five minutes and four tests later, I was sure of two things. First, Midoriya was hiding something—something being his Quirk—and to my rising irritation, I couldn't think of a practical reason why. His scores remained short of average, but even with the threat of expulsion looming over his head, he avoided using his Quirk entirely, which brought us to my second observation.
He wouldn't be expelled.
Aizawa-sensei didn't seem like the type to joke about such a crucial topic (or at all, for that matter), but it wasn't unlikely that he changed his mind after deducing Midoriya withheld something of importance from him. Truth be told, if the way he kept glaring daggers at the poor kid indicated his resolve to find out what that something was, the opposite could be true and Midoriya just might not graduate until those secrets exposed themselves.
Everyone did extremely well on the ball throw. Bakugou ranged a whopping 750 meters, and after a bit of controversy, Aizawa-sensei allowed Yaoyorozu to create a cannon that blasted her softball nearly triple the distance. Ochako received the highest score with an infinite number. Suffice it to say I scraped by in comparison.
Midoriya went last, hunched and trembling, but his eyes narrowed in determination. He swung his fist, and then, in perhaps the most anticlimactic event I witnessed that day, the ball flopped limply to the ground.
It was unnerving and unusual how Midoriya looked as appalled as I felt. His mouth hung open and his eyes, wider than normal from shock, remained glued to the softball less than a foot away from him. I expected the whispers to start instantaneously, but the rest of our classmates stayed quiet, and considering the static in the air, I suppose I couldn't blame them.
"I erased your Quirk."
I looked up and found myself gaping at our homeroom teacher. The fabric around his neck hovered above his head as if Ochako had used her zero gravity on him, but she stood beside me equally shocked. It seemed the one other person whose Quirk we had yet to see today decided to put it to use.
"The entrance exam this year must've been pathetic if a kid like you made it through," Aizawa-sensei said, his eyes glowing red. I thought they looked dead when I first met him, but now they looked ready to kill. "You've been observing your classmates since we started the assessment, Higuchi. What can you tell me about Midoriya?"
I bit my tongue in surprise and winced from both the physical pain and the discomfort that began creeping under my skin. Aizawa-sensei seemed to know as much as I did about the situation, which meant that his inquiry served to accomplish something apart from gathering whatever intel I had. It occurred to me then, quick and hissing as if I ripped off a bandaid, that he didn't try to single me out so much as he wanted to alienate the boy in question.
My options dwindled by the second and I didn't have enough time to come up with new ones. Aizawa-sensei wouldn't hesitate to turn on me if I denied his request, and I couldn't risk that kind of damage to my reputation or credibility so early in the semester. Midoriya already quivered like a leaf and any trace of zealousness on his features disappeared along with his Quirk. If I answered truthfully, he might lose the motivation to try for the rest of the exam altogether.
"Midoriya hasn't made any attempts to use his Quirk," I said, slowly, carefully. Unlikely as it seemed at this point, I also had to consider that Aizawa-sensei's bluff about the expulsion still applied. "Considering the severity of the consequences for failing today, I don't think it's because he doesn't want to use it, but because—"
He didn't know how? No, that made him sound incompetent, and for him to make it into the Hero Course at all meant he had more to offer than that—
"Midoriya-san is inexperienced," Yaoyorozu said, abruptly concluding on my behalf. "His Quirk must have great repercussions if it's not something he can practice through trial and error alone."
I bristled at the interruption, but I predicted the next question, and if someone like Yaoyorozu answered it, someone who didn't know a thing about failure and what it could do to a person, Midoriya would end up a martyr. I felt an odd sense of responsibility to make sure that didn't happen. He deserved a fair shot at proving everyone wrong the same as anyone.
"Of the tests remaining, the sit ups and seated toe touch don't require heavy use of our Quirks. Midoriya might be able to get away with showing off during the long distance run, but if I'm," I paused, taking a breath that sounded too much like a sigh in my ears. "If Yaoyorozu-san is right and he's not accustomed to using his Quirk, he might overexert himself before even completing a lap. Now is the best time for him to try, and if I were you, I would give him the chance to do that."
Midoriya let out a strangled breath. I brushed it off as an appalled albeit appropriate response to my spiel, but then I looked at him, his limbs swathed by strips of cloth and body suspended three feet above the ground. Beside me, Ochako shivered, and based on the silence surrounding us, it seemed like the rest of our classmates had a similar reaction. I didn't blame them for that either.
"You can't be a Hero and deadweight," Aizawa-sensei said, deactivating his Quirk and unblinking when Midoriya crashed into the dirt. "Incapacitated to the point where you end up turning into another victim to save? Do you expect your comrades to carry you just so you can live out a silly fantasy?"
Midoriya shook his head, furiously, frantically. "No, that's—"
"Two more tries," Aizawa-sensei interrupted, and the finality in his tone left the rest of us staring and silent. "Make them count for something."
Despite ending up with a self-inflicted broken finger, Midoriya passed with flying colors. His rank didn't budge from twentieth out of twenty students, but he proved himself more capable than any of us anticipated, and Aizawa-sensei apparently appreciated that enough to keep him around.
That, of course, didn't mean I was any less suspicious. How could Midoriya live with a Quirk like that for more than a decade and not have any control over it? I might've understood if he wanted to maintain a civilian life, but people applied to the Hero Course for one reason, and that led to a third fact I could be even more certain of than the first two.
Midoriya wanted to be a Hero.
I should've been less concerned about him and more concerned about the fact that I ended up in fourth place. It was my own fault for assuming we stood on equal ground just because we happened to be in the same class, but ranking below Bakugou landed an unexpected blow to my ego, and Yaoyorozu dominating in first place rubbed salt on my already wounded self-esteem.
"See you tomorrow, Rei!"
Nevertheless, I buried those thoughts in the back of my mind and waved at the grinning brunette, grateful for a distraction not for the first time since we met. Maintaining a smile required less effort than it did this morning, but it would take a lot more than a crack in the mask to break such a practiced routine. I can count on both hands and then some all the things that could happen in the three months until summer break, and though change was inevitable, I was more stubborn than I cared to admit sometimes.
As I made my way out of the classroom, I took a peek at the desk on the other side of mine. I was mildly disappointed to find it as empty as it had been all day, but I knew it was more out of curiosity than concern. I would meet them tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. More routines, but I couldn't complain, especially when surviving the first day of high school felt like victory enough.
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