Where Golden Flowers Bloom

Chapter 18: Vulture's Eye

SevenRenny

She couldn't focus.

The reason why was clear. It sat a few seats in front. Katsuki didn't move around much in class, merely staying at his desk, sometimes glaring at whoever sat on his desk for a casual, one-sided conversation.

Though, just before Shouta arrived, Eijiro had been leaning on Katsuki's desk, and Katsuki's glare had only lasted three seconds before he slouched back in his chair. Was that uncharacteristic of him, or had she just noticed because of her newfound personal vendetta against the guy? She had to stop. She knew she had to. It wasn't like she was trying to start something. Forming a feud wouldn't help her through her studies at all. And she'd told Izuku she wouldn't start anything.

It didn't make her feel any less guilty knowing her best friend's bully had been in her class the whole time. She'd leave it be, or try her best to, at least, for Izuku's sake.

If only it were that easy.

Her mind twisted with semi-digested information as she slipped on her gym uniform. Grabbing her pink flip phone, she prepared to stuff it into her locker when it buzzed in her hand. Silent, on vibrate, its buzz lasted shorter than a second. It was a text message, most likely.

She had a quick look. A 'Good luck' text from Izuku. He had a habit of texting her short good-luck texts to ease the stress of her days. Thanks! She texted back quickly then placed the phone back into her locker.

She needed that luck today. She and her classmates stepped outside, where she'd impressed everyone by scoring 'infinity' at the ball throw test. They'd practiced combat out here before, inside the white lines on the ground. The rule was to throw an opponent out of bounds; though, at some point, they had to hold the opponent down for a full minute. She'd lost most often when being up against classmates that attacked from afar. There wasn't much to use, and she'd only won by either dodging until time ran out, or dodging and touching her opponent, or waiting for them to come at her. She'd won against Mashirao when he'd held her down and wrapped his tail around her and she'd managed to touch his tail.

She'd failed most, but now that she had trained with Gunhead, she had a better chance.

Everyone dressed in the blue and white gym uniform, their chatter dwindled as their teacher, Aizawa sensei, stood in front with a smart pad in his hand and a tired look in his eyes. "Alright. You've done this before; hold your opponent down for one minute. You have five minutes to do that so don't waste time. Step forward."

It was interesting to see Kyoka go up against her friend Denki, maybe because no one had made a move at first when everyone had expected Denki to go all out the second he was allowed to. Maybe he did learn from the Sports Festival. He actually ran at her, thin lines of electricity zipped up his outstretched arms, using small bursts of electricity instead of a self-destructive explosion. Kyoka's earjacks stretched in opposite directions and whipped at him, one earjack went just over his head – a bluff –and the other swiped at his feet, tripping him. The confident look on his face dropped and he panicked when the earjack wrapped around his leg. A panicked Denki was a desperate Denki. He used full voltage too late, when he was already off the ground and Kyoka had just let go. Yellow sparks jumped out of him, spraying the ground, the nearby polls, and the tips of Kyoka's earjacks. She yelped from the shock, but she was still within bounds. He wasn't.

It was a win for Kyoka, though she wasn't too happy about being electrocuted. Her normally flat hair was sticking out in all directions as she shuffled back, rubbing her right ear. Mina congratulated her enthusiastically. Hanta and Tenya had to help a dazed Denki walk back to the line of students. The guy had his thumbs up.

The teacher ran his finger over the Ipad screen, then called out the next students, "Uraraka and Bakugo."

She froze, her brain stopping to recollect the information she'd pushed back over the days. She was going to fight him. Sure, it was a practice fight. But she was going to fight at the command of her teacher. And fight him, of all people. She only snapped out of it when an excited Mina slapped her back and yelled, "yeah, rematch!"

So far, she'd tried to avoid him as much as she could, mostly because she didn't trust herself – didn't trust her boiling emotions to not act out of order. Now, she had to face him, something part of her really wanted to do, but another part of her reminded her to look the other way.

She couldn't look the other way, now.

He stood just on the other end of the small arena, his knees bent, his arms out, palms open. If he had struggled against her during the Sports Festival, when he was just an acquaintance and she was still levels behind, then he didn't know what was coming at him now. Students cheer for both of them.

As soon as Shouta blew the whistle, the knowledge of this being just training went out the window. This wasn't training. Not to her. This was another attempt at the Sports Festival, with her charging at him and him standing his ground. The aim of the exercise didn't matter. She needed to win, knock him down a peg, see how he liked it. It was selfish, she knew. She was selfish. While most of her classmates entered UA to either save people, or for glory, or because Heroic careers ran in the family, her reason had been mainly for financial gain while (hopefully, presumably) doing the right thing.

She ran at him with no thought of an emergency brake, adrenaline pumping through her. She expected explosions to erupt from the swing of his hand. It was empty. A few inches from grabbing him, she saw the frustrated, pissed off look on his face. He wasn't focused. Not like how he'd been at the Sports Festival.

His weapons were his palms, so she went for the arms, the elbows. It was an easy grab he hadn't expected. He was heavier than her sparring partners from the dojo. smaller but more compact. Gunhead had expressed the importance of making the shoulder throw quick so as to not dislocate the shoulder or give the person enough time to reclaim their arm. Katsuki was caught off guard and didn't take advantage of her poor timing. She threw him over her shoulder and slammed his back against the ground. The thud was oddly satisfying.

Someone on the sidelines whistled, impressed, cheering.

With a growl, he flipped away from her and swiped an open palm that went passed her neck and shoulder. Strangely, no explosions.

Oh. He couldn't.

She remembered he hadn't used his Quirk for a few days. Was it part of his training? Holding in his explosions for some reason; or was he just unable to do so? It surprised her when he actually backed away; and even more so when he attempted to punch her when she charged at him again. It was so shocking seeing him fight Quirkless she almost forgot to move away. He barely grazed her.

She didn't have time to dwell over his reasoning for not using the same technique he'd used at the Sports Festival. He was still fighting, so she had to as well. He was punching freestyle, throwing noticeable hard, frustrated punches – and missing. Missing, because Ochaco knew those amateur moves. Wild, unplanned strikes. She'd used them before during her first day at the dojo, when she hadn't known better. He applied strength in the hits, if the sound of his fists going past her ears was anything to go by. He attacked like she was a sandbag; it was obvious he was new to the whole attack-without-explosions.

She kneed him in the gut and he let out a pained grunt, staggering back but resisting the urge to hug his stomach. He glared, his eye squinting through the pain. He refused to show just how much it actually hurt. He was still refusing to take any back steps. It was uncanny how different this mini-match was from the Sports Festival. She hadn't been even touched him then. With no explosions, he was wide open.

With a very frustrated snarl, he tried for a grab – something he was used to doing, grabbing and aiming. It was instinctive, so he most likely forgot he wasn't using firepower.

She ducked. The arm went over her head. He focused so hard on his hands he hardly ever used his legs. Gunhead had told her to be more careful with opponents who aimed at the lower body. He'd also told her to use her smaller size to her advantage. She was harder to catch when crouching, and most enemies aimed for the face or stomach, rarely going for the hips and legs. 'Switch it up,' he'd said. 'Make your moves unpredictable.'

So, she kicked his feet right from under him.

He almost caught himself. Almost, if she hadn't pressed her elbow to his back. The body's instinct to get away from the painful jabbing at the spine had had him pressed to the dirt with one of his hands under his stomach. She hopped over him, her knee on either side, and she swiftly twisted his free arm behind him, making sure his palm was to his back, just in case he decided to fire.

The audience had gone quiet. Confusion radiated from the sidelines like smoke from a faraway fire.

Holding him down, she finally had time to think. He hadn't used his Quirk, but neither had she, she realized. It hadn't been a decision, but an instinctive reaction to whatever he did. She'd made contact. She could've floated him but hadn't. Instead, she held him down. His struggles were almost frantic, desperate. His cheek pressed against dirt. At some point in his struggle, he picked his head up and slammed it against the ground in frustration. The visible half of his face was scrunched up, panicked, and Ochaco swallowed the lump of sympathy. His legs were easier to hold. She simply twisted her leg around his. His arms were stronger. it was an awkward position, but she had to make sure he didn't free either of his arms.

The one minute was painfully slow. Awkward. Almost silent, with the only noises being strangled grunts, shoes scratching dirt, and her own panting. He tried to push himself up using his forehead. It didn't help him any.

She'd never seen him like this.

She did feel sorry for bringing him down this way.

Sorry for not ending it quicker. Embarrassing him wasn't her intent. This hadn't been her original method to win.

Win. Yeah. She remembered. She was doing this to win, to see how much she'd grown. It wasn't revenge, she tried to convince herself. At least, she didn't want it to be.

"Time's up," Aizawa announced, stopping the timer on his phone.

Katsuki instantly went limp in her hold. There was a look of horror on the visible half of his face. She loosened her grip, worried she might've actually hurt him. He didn't spring up and march away, but slowly lifted his head off the ground and stayed like that.

She sat there on her knees, unsure what to do, her eyes going over the shape of his back and shoulders, looking for signs of physical discomfort, finding none. He was in shock.

"Uraraka," Shouta called. "Back in line. Bakugo, come here."

She gave a meek nod and stepped away from Katsuki. The boy took a while to stand up. He kept his head down. She suspected he hadn't lost like this in a very long time.

"Wow..." Mina's eyes were wide. "Where'd you learn to do that?"

Ochaco rubbed the back of her head. "Gunhead taught me a few things."

Tenya has a hand up to his chin. "I have to say, I am impressed with your new techniques in combat."

"Those were some rad moves," Hanta said, whistling. "Took Bakugo down like it was nothing."

Momo was deep in thought, her eyes trailing Katsuki as he shuffled over to their homeroom teacher with his eyes downcast. "I wonder why Bakugo hadn't used his Quirk," she voiced her concern.

"Yeah, that was pretty weird," Rikido agreed. "I thought he was all about them explosions. Come to think of it, I hadn't seen him use it for a long time."

"That is quite odd," Tenya agreed.

"You think he was trying somethin' and it didn't work?" Mina asked Eijiro.

It didn't look like the boy heard her, his eyes still watching his friend with a worried expression.

"Ki-ri-shi-ma. Oooiii!" Mina tried getting his attention and waved her hand at his face.

He startled. "Oh – eh, huh? Yeah. Yeah… Weird." He only glanced at her before returning his attention to Katsuki taking a note from Aizawa and walking away.

Mina huffed, folding her arms.

Ochaco had to admit, that fight, if she could call it that, felt odd. It had been too short, but also too long from her perspective. He hadn't used his Quirk. He hadn't in a few days. He'd tried to use it on her, she guessed. He attacked like he planned to fire from his hands, but nothing had come out. She'd attacked him while he couldn't use his Quirk; but she had also not used her Quirk. It had to be a fair fight, so why didn't it feel like one? There was no satisfaction in the way he walked away with his shoulders slumped and eyes down.

He's not a nice person – she reminded herself, like it would help reason with the mixture of guilt and dissatisfaction.

Eijiro was being… not himself. He wasn't as loud and bright. His smiles were more forced, like he didn't have the energy to do so but tried anyway. Tsuyu had been the first to say it out loud during lunch when Eijiro excused himself from the table to look for Katsuki. Mina slumped over the table and pouted. Denki looked confused, like he was missing something vital for communication, and Hanta shrugged.

Ochaco only saw Eijiro leave from where she sat a table away with Tenya and a group of mostly girls from class.

"Is Bakugo perhaps ill?" Tenya hypothesized.

"He hasn't been using his Quirk for a while, kero," Tsuyu pointed out.

Ochaco hummed instead of stating what was on her mind. She didn't like Katsuki. Eijiro, however, was a good friend. He was friends with everyone; even with Katsuki. She had no ill will toward Eijiro. He was a swell guy, as far as she knew. There wasn't much that knocked away his smile and his will to make others happy.

Today, he wasn't himself, and everyone had noticed.

He was lingering around Katsuki more. She picked up on that. If she hadn't known Katsuki was Kacchan, maybe she would've voiced her concern. But Katsuki was Kacchan. Everything was more complicated in her head.

She got a text message just as she tucked her textbook into her backpack for the end of the school day. Kids packed up their stuff and trickled out in pairs or groups, or lingered, waiting for friends. Leaving her pink backpack on her chair, she fished out her phone. She was usually the one to text Izuku at this time. Maybe he wanted to inform her about a change in plans. She'd wanted to visit today and maybe do some baking with him and Eri.

She read the name of the sender. That wasn't Izuku.

Kirishima: Hi

Kirishima: got a moment?

His timing was… unusual. He had texted her before. It was usually to do with planning a group hangout, or asking if she'd heard from Mina when the girls went out together, or asking to add Izuku into a group chat.

But Eijiro hadn't been himself lately. If there was something going on, then he had closer friends to confide in. So why–

Eijiro was friends with Katsuki.

Eijiro knew Izuku.

"Is everything okay, kero?" Tsuyu asked.

Ochaco's phone slipped out of her hand. She juggled it from one hand to the other before finally getting a good hold. "Ye– Yeah!" Trying to play it smooth, she heard her own nervousness in her voice. "Just need to take this. You go on ahead."

Tsuyu and Tenya shared a look. To her relief, Tenya gave a nod. "Very well. Stay safe."

She waited until a few more kids left. Eijiro usually left with Katsuki. They both weren't here. Eijiro had texted her from elsewhere. Whatever he wanted to say, he couldn't say it in class.

Her heart drummed against her chest as she typed a reply.

You: Yah whats up?

Just how much did Eijiro – one of her kindest classmates – know? Katsuki didn't look like a person who would share personal information, especially not this kind of information – the kind that could potentially end any future career for him in Heroics.

He kept typing for a while. Weird. He was usually fast at typing.

Kirishima: hang out for a bit?

Kirishima: walk to the station or any time?

She'd assumed he always left with Katsuki to the station. Or waited for Katsuki whenever Aizawa wanted to have a word with him.

You: sure

You: Bakugo wont mind?

His reply came a few seconds later. His Red Riot profile picture made it look like the Pro Hero was talking to her.

Kirishima: no hes stying for somthin

So he wasn't with him. It would (maybe) just be her and Eijiro. It begged the question where Katsuki actually was. He didn't seem like the person to stay for after-school activities. Had she really hurt him? She had never injured a sparring partner in the dojo with that move. Maybe it was a problem with his Quirk. He was having trouble with it, because there was no way he wouldn't use his firepower when he had so many opportunities to do so.

You: sure where are you?

Kirishima: by the gates

Kirishima: if that's ok

You: be right there!

Who knows how long had he stayed there. He'd probably waited in case she was alright with walking to the station with him. She grabbed her backpack, strapped it on and ran out and down the stairs, not wanting to make him wait any longer. Tenya would've disapproved of her going over the indoor speed limit.

She found him where he said he'd be, his back against the blue gateway, nodding to someone he knew, and smiling brightly when his doppelganger, Tetsutetsu, stopped and gave his own smile and approached for a manly hand hold that looked like a photograph of an arm-wrestle. The guy managed to make friends with everyone.

She waved for him when she got close enough, and he waved back happily.

"Sorry I made you wait," she said, lowering her speed so they could walk at a more peaceful pace.

Eijiro grinned happily. "Nah, I got to see my bro, Tetsu!"

"Oh, yeah, you two get along, right? Even after the Festival," she said her thoughts out loud.

"Yeah, it's all good. He's great to train with when Bakugo can't be around."

For a second, she almost forgot about Katsuki. "Oh yeah, why's Bakugo staying?" She probably should've thought that question over in her head before blurting it out.

"Oh, that." Thinking, he looked up, as if an easier answer would fall from the sky. "Uhhh, not exactly sure? Think Aizawa wants to help him with his Quirk," Eijiro explained, putting his palms out in emphasis. "He's been having a bit of trouble with it, ya know?"

"Yeah, I noticed," she admitted, keeping pace with his steps. "I kinda feel bad with what happened this morning…" She wouldn't admit part of her wanted the fight to go on; or, at least, be unsupervised. But that thought scared her, because he'd looked so broken down when the one minute was up. No matter how many ways she tried to reason with herself that he deserved it, she was scared she would become him. If she attacked him for reasons he didn't know, then wouldn't she be just as bad?

"Hey, you did awesome!" Eijiro tried to cheer her up. "You didn't even use your Quirk. It was a fair fight."

While the praise did make her feel better, she still couldn't shake off the confusing mixture of emotions. "I don't think Bakugo saw it like that…"

Eijiro looked away, sad, thinking, remembering.

A crow cursed from atop a skinny tree branch. Two bicycles passed by, the leading bicycle ringing the bell.

Eijiro finally said, "He said it was fair." He sounded a tad bit sad and nervous. "Cause you both weren't using Quirks and he lost. He thinks he's not good enough for the Hero course. Said that was proof he couldn't do anything without his Quirk. And… I don't know." He sighed, battling with his own choice of words. "He can't use his Quirk but… said Recovery Girl told him it wasn't a medical thing." He stopped there and hoped she would put the pieces together herself.

It felt uncanny, having a heart-to-heart talk with Eijiro of all people. He was usually the boy with the smile of a thousand suns and was one of the first to start cheering riots over the simplest things.

He was sad. It made sense. Not everyone could always be happy. Everyone had sad days.

"I don't know how to help 'em and… well…" He slowed down to put more focus on thinking. "I… crap, just-." He facepalmed, possibly regretting doing what he was doing. "I sound stupid."

"No, no," Ochaco shook her head quickly. "You're just worried!" He was in a pinch, she could tell. She knew where he was trying to get to. He had trouble figuring out how to cross over. "I know I say weird things when I worry about Izuku sometimes." So she eased them over.

"…Yeah." He said nervously. She caught him rubbing his arm.

The school was ways behind them, now. It wasn't just students walking or cycling by, but old people with groceries, middle-aged folk just leaving work.

She already suspected where this was going. "Kirishima, is this about Izuku?" She left out 'Bakugo' in case she was jumping to conclusion. She'd stopped walking. He did so as well.

He rubbed the nape of his neck and gave her a forced smile that wasn't convincing at all. "I thought about it. I figured if you knew Midoriya and Bakugo then… you know, right? About..."

"Yeah." She didn't like the uncomfortable atmosphere. It was suffocating. No doubt it was making Eijiro uncomfortable as well. "Izuku told me when I got back from my internship with Gunhead."

"Oh," he sounded a bit surprised. Maybe he'd assumed she'd known way before. He looked more uncomfortable than ever. She imagined it was a terrible spot to be in. "He– Bakugo, I mean, he told me. Few days ago."

"He told you himself?" Ochaco asked with a head tilt. Katsuki exposing this information to anyone would put his career in jeopardy.

"Yeah. I didn't ask him or anything. He sorta just told me. Was really upset about it." Eijiro lowered his voice, because this was very, very sensitive information. "I'm glad Midoriya's okay, by the way," he quickly added in a louder voice. "Like, for real. He's a really cool bro. I'm glad I got to hang out and do cool stuff and all."

"Yeah. Me, too." She slowly directed the walk to a more peaceful path. A stone step going down a grassy hill and the empty train tracks were visible below.

"Does Bakugo know?" Ochaco asked, fiddling with her finger pads. "About Izuku, I mean. After everything."

"I don't think so," Eijiro said uncertainly. "He said he didn't know which school Midoriya went to, so I don't think so."

"He's not in school right now."

"He's not?" Eijiro looked down sadly. "Makes sense, I guess. Considering what happened…"

Ochaco hummed, unsure where to steer the conversation.

"He thought he saw Midoriya," Eijiro said, "during the party. He said he thought he was seeing things so… not sure. He's never mentioned you so maybe he wasn't paying attention."

Her heart almost stopped. They'd been so close. They'd unknowingly dodged a bullet.

"Must be creepy to hear," he tried to chuckle and failed. It was the most pathetic sounding chuckle he'd ever made.

"Little bit. Kirishima, do you still like Bakugo?" It was a cruel question, putting her friend in the spot like that, making him choose between friends. She prepared to hear him out. Eijiro was a friendly person – a peacemaker. Katsuki's actions weren't his. She wouldn't hate him because of association alone.

"He's my friend," he said, then quickly added, "But I am disappointed. I did tell him that. I don't like what he did. It was fucked up. Midoriya's my buddy, too."

"Umm." She bit her lip. "I'm not mad at you," she let him know.

"You're mad at him, though," Eijiro guessed right. "Can't blame ya'. I'm mad at him, too. But I get it, kinda. Midoriya's, you know, your dude, so… you kinda have a bigger reason to be mad at him. Won't blame you if you get angry at me, too."

Why couldn't things be as simple as yes/no, hate/love, here/there?

"I'm not gonna hate you, silly," she repeated. She didn't think like Eijiro. He had his own reasoning, but she knew him well enough to know he'd never intentionally create tension with himself or between his classmates.

"Thanks. I really appreciate it," he said. "Honestly, I had no idea what to do when he told me. I thought... You deserved to know I knew."

He could've kept it to himself and not risked his friendship. She could imagine this being difficult on him, being in the middle with Katsuki on one end and her and Izuku on the other. What Katsiku had done to Izuku hadn't been fair. Where the two boys ended up wasn't fair. She was scared of being consumed with hate, but hate against Katsuki was the only fair thing at the moment.

"He's…" Eijiro hesitated. "He's really sorry. I know it's nothing when it's coming from me and not him. I'm not trying to excuse him or anything. I'm not even sure I'm supposed to tell you all this but… he said he regrets a lot of what happened."

"Doesn't sound like Bakugo," she said honestly, trying to imagine an apology out of that boy's mouth. It just sounded uncharacteristic.

"It surprised me, too. Did and said a lot of things but… I'm not sure it's my place to say them." He clapped his hands together in front of him and bowed. "Please don't tell him I told you. He'll never talk to me again! I know this isn't my business but I didn't wanna just sit and do nothing."

He didn't lift his head until she gave a weak laugh. "You're fine. I'm glad you told me. And no, I won't tell Bakugo."

He sighed but kept his hands clasped. "Thanks a bunch. This whole thing got me all confused the whole time. There's… one more thing… You can say no – I'll totally get it and back off!"

She tilted her head. "What is it?" A request? A question?

He bowed again. "Is it okay if Midoriya and Bakugo talk over the phone?"

There was an uncomfortable silence. A crow cursed again, like he was mocking them.

Her instincts screamed 'no!' because that sounded like a stupidly bad idea. Izuku had dealt with enough. He was trying to move on. She didn't want to bring the bully back into his life after he'd finally disconnected from him. There was no way she was giving Katsuki Izuku's number, not after she knew how low Katsuki was willing to stoop just to hurt him.

She looked down, biting her lip. "Why? It sounds like a bad idea…" She worried. Eijiro had Izuku's number. She wouldn't be able to stop him if he tried this plan own his own. Though, the fact he was asking her meant it was unlikely he'd do so without her say in the matter.

He raised his head, just a bit. "I've been thinking about it. About what happened and what Bakugo said, about him wanting to talk to Midoriya but he can't find him and… maybe if he knew Midoriya's doing okay and Midoriya knows Bakugo's sorry and– I know I'm reaching! I'm not gonna give away Midoriya's number or anything like that! I thought, maybe, Midoriya could use your phone? Safer that way? I don't know – I didn't plan that far ahead. I wanted to ask you cause it's Midoriya. We won't do it if you think it's a bad idea!"

Her guts said 'no'. She wasn't sure how Izuku would handle it, or if he even wanted this. It was hard to believe Katsuki would ever say sorry. Was Izuku's mental state worth Katsuki's probable half-assed 'sorry'? She could discuss it with him, but if he did agree, and it didn't go well, she'd have no one to blame but herself for allowing it to happen.

Katsuki's supposed apology was the main problem. After years of abusing her best friend, her boyfriend, she couldn't get herself to believe he suddenly wanted to throw an apology – an apology that would do nothing to right all the wrongs.

With a determined look, she said, "Sorry, Kirishima. I don't think Bakugo's the type of person to just say sorry…" It hurt to turn down Eijiro, but Izuku mattered more.

Eijiro looked disappointed, finally putting his hands down. "It's okay. Was worth a try. It's hard to believe; I get it… Would… would it change things if he apologized to you, instead?"

Ochaco blinked. "Me?" She pointed at herself. That was a cluster of complications squeezed into a hastily gift-wrapped box. For one, she wasn't the one asking for an apology. Also, unless the whole situation was explained, Katsuki wouldn't know why Eijiro wanted him to apologize to her. Katsuki had no knowledge his victim had a girlfriend who went to the same school as him.

He explained as they sauntered down the steps, going under the sign of the train station. "Yeah, if you're fine with that? Would he prove himself if he apologized in front of you? Or… just – I want him to say something. I'm sure he'd wanna if he knew. I get it if that's a 'no'."

Someone like Katsuki apologizing. It was unbelievable, even when Eijiro sounded confident he would do so. She considered talking with Izuku first, but was that really a good approach? She'd talk to him about Eijiro's suggestion – that she'd talk to Katsuki and Izuku wouldn't need to get involved – then he'd think about it, and she didn't want him to go back in time just to think about it.

They took a seat to wait for the correct train. Her backpack still strapped on, so sitting was uncomfortable. It would only be for a few minutes. "Okay."

Eijiro looked so surprised he almost forgot to sit. "Fo– For real?"

She'd talk to Katsuki first, then judge and decide where to go from there, if he was worth the time. "But we won't talk if he gets all mean about it."

He puffed out his chest and gave her the most determined thumbs up. "Deal! I'll handle him first. Tell you how it goes. That good?"

"Sure." She had her hand on the brake, ready to stop it all at the slightest bump in situation.

She remembered what he'd said before, about Katsuki's Quirk troubles not being medical. Was he hoping Katsuki confronting his mistakes would unblock that dam that had him frozen? What happened between Katsuki and Izuku was between them, but they were all involved now, and if Eijiro was fighting for Katsuki, then she'd fight for Izuku, even if that meant gatekeeping the bully out.

Ochaco had made cookies before. She'd taste the raw dough and continue tasting until her mother told her she'd eat it all at that rate. Would it be disrespectful to eat the cookie dough when it wasn't her family this time around? She'd resist, for now. More importantly, she had to focus on holding a flouting Eri in place so the girl could see the creation process.

"Here, Eri, let me do the eggs. They're kinda messy," Izuku knocked the egg over the counter twice and – to Ochaco's amazement – broke the shell one-handed.

"Woooh!" Ochaco gaped, peering into the bowl. "No shells, too!"

Izuku chuckled bashfully, wearing his mom's pink apron with a cheaply-designed mama bear holding a red heart. The color of his light blue shirt underneath stood out. "I used to be bad at breaking eggs when I was younger."

Inko gently placed a bar of chocolate on the counter. "Do you need any help, kids?"

"We got it, Mom. Here, Eri, do you want to mix?" They had a mixer, but where was the fun in that? He gave her the spoon and she held it like how she usually gripped fat crayons.

Ochaco mixed with her when it looked like the dough was trying to eat the spoon. Izuku handled the chocolate, pressing the knife into the bar and chopping it into small chips. There was still flour on the countertop that puffed at the slightest gust of air. Remembering the pranks she used to do with her parents, Ochaco swiped a bit of flour with her finger and booped Izuku on the nose. She laughed at the cross-eyed look he pulled. Even when he wiped at his face and asked – while giggling – if it was still there, Ochaco couldn't answer him through her laughing fits that were contagious enough for Eri to catch. The little girl was more wide smiles and less noise. Ochaco later took pity and helped clean his face while still laughing. He squinted as she ran a cloth over his nose and held his face still with her other hand on his cheek.

All clean, she gave him a feather-touch kiss on the nose. "Got it!"

He finally deemed it safe to open his eyes, his cheeks going so pink Ochaco couldn't help but laugh harder because gosh darn it he was adorable. He touched his nose, then realized too late his hand was flour-coated. He'd smudged more flour on his nose. It was so ridiculous even Inko couldn't stifle her laugh. Cleaning his face one more time, Ochaco felt how his cheek raised under her thumb with how hard he was smiling, trying to hold still. One eye closed, he peaked at her from one squinting eye. The look of youthful joy. Innocence that hid how tainted life really was. Eyes that knew not to take things for granted. Eyes that told. She looked. She listened.

Inko told them to call her if they needed anything. They had it covered. Ochaco focused on rolling chocolate-dotted dough into balls. Eri's circles were smaller, more oval. It looked funny so they didn't fix it. Izuku lined the tray with a baking sheet.

There was an underlining question in Eri's confused look.

Izuku understood. "They'll go flat in the oven."

He slipped the tray into the oven with a clutter of the tray's bottom sliding over the shelf. "Okay. It'll be done in a few minutes. Let's clean up and we can have some later."

Eri made an 'hmm!' sound with a nod. Ochaco was more vocal and animated, preforming an air punch like she was back in school, ready to go through one of UA's absurd challenges. Izuku focused on the countertop, putting the mixing bowls into the sink. Ochaco would clean a patch on the floor under the countertop then pretended Eri's clumsy, useless dry mopping was doing something.

It wasn't long before they all stopped at the sound of a buzz from the intercom. Inko went to get it, but by the way Izuku's shoulders tensed and Eri's sudden hold on his apron, they knew who was at the door.

The question had been at the tip of Ochaco's tongue when she heard women talking by the door. Multiple footsteps clicked. Heels.

"They're in the kitchen. I'll get you slippers, just a moment, please," Inko said, a hint of nervousness only detected by those familiar with the woman. Cabinets went thok. Ochaco noticed her boyfriend quickly and soundlessly put things away and out of sight. She followed his lead, putting the mop away. The visiting women were a pair of opposites: one short and stumpy, much like Inko, in plain purple with thick-rimmed glasses; the other thin and tall, black hair tied back, thick shoulder bag bumping against the walls, a thick file under her arm, her leopard print suit: an eyesore. Ochaco suspected which one was the leader.

The three women made short conversation.

"How're you?"

"Good. Good."

"Good to see you. Just a regular check in today, hope it's not a bad time."

"Oh, it's fine. Do you want me to get anything? Tea? Water?"

"It's quiet alright. Looks like your kitchen's occupied," Ms. Leopard print said. The woman smiled, her eyes going over the children. The voice she used next was more hushed, gentle. "Hey! Izuku, Eri. Happy to see you again."

Izuku gave her a nod, keeping his face neutral. "Hey, Ms. Fujioka."

Eri looked away nervously, shyly pushing her face against Izuku's leg.

The woman turned to Ochaco with the same kind voice that made Ochaco almost forget this woman was scaring Izuku and Eri. "And hello, cutie. Who are you?"

Ochaco almost forgot to talk. "Oh – ah, Ochaco Uraraka."

"A friend?"

"Yeah."

The woman smiled kindly. "Nice to meet you, sweetie. Ms. Fujioka. I didn't mean to crash your playdate. Pretend I'm not here. I'll make it quick, okay?" When the woman turned to speak with Inko –"can we sit down?" "Uh – yes, over here."– she used a different voice. Business adult voice. Judging by Inko's slight jitteriness, these women weren't friends of hers.

Things didn't go back to normal even with no one mentioning the visitors. Eri remained stuck to Izuku, only being comforted by him with gentle words, encouraging her to stay with Ochaco for a bit so he could get the cookies out. Ochaco pretended she wasn't straining to hear the adults' conversation. It was too murmured to decipher.

Izuku slipped on a pair of used mittens and pulled the hot tray out. The cookies had flattened, resembling actual traditional chocolate chip cookies, the chocolate dots glinting, still moist and melty. "They're all done. We have to wait for them to cool down – they're a little hot."

The smell of freshly baked cookies was a thin sheet of perfume that acted as a comforting blanket. If only they could focus on just the cookies. She knew it was rude to think those… visitors made her feel conflicted. Ochaco was a social person, but this unannounced visit made her hosts visibly uncomfortable.

She bit the bullet and asked in a low voice, close to Izuku's ear, "Who're the ladies?"

Izuku kept his voice equally as low, though it sounded like his usual voice considering how often he spoke softly. "Oh, they're – urm, they're handling her case." His eyes quickly darted at Eri, who was looking down, back to holding onto his apron. "Were, I mean, I think… I think A Hero agency's now working on it instead."

"Hero– uhh!" Alarmed, Ochaco almost forgot to lower her voice. She tried again, whispering this time. "Hero? Do you know which one?" How big was this case if a Pro Hero was getting involved?

Izuku quickly glanced back when he heard the murmurs of the women more clearly.

"–approved the move. He said he'll talk to you…"

"When are you moving, Mrs. Midoriya?"

"Maybe the day after tomorrow? Or the day after. I have to check in with them–"

Determining the women were too busy to hear him, Izuku replied in an even lower voice, his shoulder pressing against hers with how close he got. "Please don't tell anybody, okay?"

"I won't," Ochaco promised. This was an ongoing investigation. If a Pro was getting involved, then they were in possible danger. She wasn't sure what else Izuku wasn't allowed to speak of.

"We went to Sir Nighteye. He said he wasn't sure if the Villain he's after had something to do with where Eri came from, but he said we have to move into his agency. In case… in case it's bad." His voice was a mouse whisper so Eri wouldn't hear.

"That's really scary…" What if a Villain – a Villain a Pro Hero was already trying to catch – had been involved? How bad did an abuser need to be to be classified as a Villain? Absurd theories ran through her head: Villain activity plus child abuse. Child kidnapping. Human trafficking. Paranoia was creative, but how else would a Villain get on the Heroe's radar?

"Are you gonna be okay?" She wanted to know. Judging by what little she heard, they were moving in a few days. She doubted the Pro Hero would let her visit the agency just to hang out with the family. The move would stress them all out, and she still didn't know what else they were dealing with.

Izuku gave her a soft smile. "It's okay. Nighteye's a Pro. We don't know if the cases are connected yet." So don't worry.

There was a lot to worry about. Realistically, they weren't capable of doing anything. It was a matter the adults had to sort out. A matter that had a little girl stuck in the middle. A matter that required them to trust adults to deal with other adults who knew how to hurt kids and not get caught.

There was much to worry about. Izuku tried to steer their thoughts away. "I think the cookies should be cool enough." He touched the cookie, then began placing them on a plate.

His effort to keep a calm atmosphere dipped when Fujioka stopped by the kitchen and lingered there, bending with her hands on knees to be eye-level with the youngest in the apartment. "Eri, hey sweetie."

Eri didn't look, both hands holding a cookie.

"Do you remember me? Are you doing good today, baby?" The woman managed to keep calm and patient through the awkward silence.

Keeping close to Izuku's leg, Eri took a bite into the large cookie and chewed agonizingly slow. A tactic to keep her mouth full so she wouldn't talk.

The woman gave a sympathetic smile. "That's alright. Can you and your big brother show me where your bedroom is?" She extended a hand for Eri to take.

Eri leaned against Izuku, instead, her pointed horn pressing against him. He placed a hand on her back, looking down at her and giving her an encouraging smile that went ignored. "It's okay. I'll be with you. Let's go." He turned to give Ochaco an apologetic look. "Sorry. We'll be back in a bit. You can a few cookies, it's okay."

She gave a tiny goodbye wave as he assured Eri with him. The woman was in the lead, clearly knowing where the room was. This wasn't her first time here, Ochaco guessed. The kids' bedroom was used as a place to squeeze out information without the parent being there. The other woman, the pudgy one, was quieter, sitting with Inko in front of the turned-off television. This one didn't seem to make the mother as nervous as the one in leopard print. Aside from financial questions, the woman didn't say much unless Inko said something first.

Ochaco only managed to eat two cookies. They were nice, soft in the inside, chewy, made with love. It felt wrong to eat them alone. She gave one to Inko and the other woman. Another ten minutes passed before Ms. Leopard print, Izuku and Eri exited the bedroom. Eri came out the same way she went in, holding Izuku's leg and hiding her face.

The chubbier woman got up, passing the folder to the leader. The older women exchanged a few reluctant but socially necessary words on their way to the door.

"Good luck. Hope to see you again."

"New location. I'll talk to that Pro tomorrow."

"Thank you."

"Have a good night. Goodnight, kids," Leopard print woman yelled the last part. She was out of sight from where the kids were huddled.

A door closed. The lock clicked. Inko sighed, coming over with her hands wringing the hem of her pink cotton sweater. Stress. It had affected her more than anyone else. She tried to redirect everyone's attention back to the cookies. She talked about other kinds of treats she offered to make with them if they got the chance to. She showed them pictures in a cookbook: gingerbread cookies for Christmas shaped with the help of cookie cutters, Monaka biscuits, jam-dolloped thumbprint cookies, pudding, butter cookies she thought they might enjoy making with cutters she'd gotten but never used.

The talking calmed everyone down enough to start eating, switching topics; Izuku mentioned a Hero museum he wanted to visit someday. Ochaco talked about school, guiltily using Denki's embarrassing moment when he decided to tile-surf and he accidentally slid into the school's staffroom just as the door opened. It successfully lightened the mood, getting a few laughs, even Inko had to cover her mouth, managing to say, "That – That poor boy," while trying to stifle the sounds of her humor. It was a cheap move on Ochaco's part, but the result was worth it. She mentally thanked Denki for that.

It was getting late. She needed to head back to the station before it got too dark. She dreaded what Eijiro would ask of her tomorrow or the next day or the next week (his progress depending on his friend's willingness to cooperate). She was being mean, gatekeeping like that, but unless Katsuki begged on his hands and knees (an act he'd rather die than do), she wouldn't let there be any contact between that bully and her friend. If he came with just a half-assed apology, he'd only be rewarded with something as simple and vague as 'Izuku's doing better' and she'd leave it at that.

She'd have to see. If something did happen. Time would tell.

"I'll see you later, key?" She hugged him tightly, nuzzling against his neck.

He returned the hug, laughing lightly at how strong she was. "Yeah. Good luck at school."

They released and Ochaco lowered her open arms in Eri's direction. The smaller girl had a smile of wonder when she hugged her and gripped her clothes and let Ochaco squeeze her.

"I'll see you, too, Eri!" Ochaco promised.

"You be safe on your way home, now," Inko said, coming over for a hug as well. Inko gave such motherly hugs.

"I will!"

Shoes on, Ochaco headed out the door, turning to where the stairs were. She'd gotten used to the number of steps this building up to Izuku's floor had. The elevator wasn't necessary as she liked to exercise her legs. Hopping down every two steps, she slowed at the turn, and clumsily stopped at the sight of a tall man in a professional suit, who simply blinked at her like she hadn't been close to knocking him down the stairs. She veered to the side to avoid slamming into him in her hurry, her shoulder knocked the railing by accident.

"Sorry, Mister!" she blurted out.

The man with parted hair, bangs on the right side of his head, and face-shape that reminded her of Tenya simply stared with a look of disinterest, his small eyes lacking emotion. He clicked his tongue and started climbing the stairs again. "Brat."

She would've thought it was rude, then remembered she'd been the one to almost collide with him. She deserved the rudeness back, she figured. Though, she hoped this guy wasn't a close neighbor to Izuku and Eri.

That aside, she hurried to catch the next train.

Shouta considered himself a patient man. It was trained into him. It was necessary for an underground Hero such as himself.

The curious case of Katsuki's record still irked him to no end. A big fat red mark, right there in the student's file. Student Harassment, the note said. Underneath: On-campus supervision required. Mandatory professional intervention. Mandatory afterschool counselor sessions. Mandatory extra lessons on Japanese Law (Quirk laws, Hero laws), Japanese History (Quirk and Quirkless History), World History (Quirkless history).

Shouta put two and two together, and he didn't like the picture. Damn Nezu, dumping this problem kid on his to mold into something acceptable. He'd raised a brow the day he looked over the list of students in his class. He was ready to expel the kid, eager, even. His pen, ready. This was extra work Shouta did not want to waste time on. It wasn't just him putting in the work on someone who was too far gone. Nemuri and Toshinori had to put in the effort, as well.

Shouta had extra papers to grade – Quirkless discrimination essays, to be more precise. Damn Nezu. This was a headache. This kid had been on the list of kids Shouta would've loved to expel on the first day – him, and that Minoru Mineta boy after the teacher noticed some… inappropriate behaviors. Shouta was tasked with handling most of Katsuki's extra lessons while Nemuri dealt with the other kid.

The teacher's curiosity got the better of him, so he waited, observed, judged from afar. One complaint – just one – was all that was required for that boy to be kicked out. To his surprise, and slight disappointment, nothing happened. He'd given him a warning; a reminder that Katsuki was on very thin ice, and Shouta wouldn't hesitate to take action. The kid had bit down his aggression at the start of the year, clearly finding it difficult to not lash out when teased by peers. A few months in and Shouta suspected either the boy had given up on fighting back with barely-contained aggression, or therapy was paying off. He'd scowl and wait for class to be over with. The cussing was still there, being blurted out mostly during social interactions in a way Katsuki was visibly not used to.

He'd been oddly quiet, uncomfortable, even, the first time he'd handed over a Quirkless Discrimination essay, supposedly disturbed by his research. To make sure the screw was deep in his head and not just stuck at the tip, Shouta hammered it in. Afterschool, no other students; just Shouta, Katsuki, and the board litter with definitions, important names and year dates. He'd throw in a pop quiz just to make sure the boy was listening and not just memorizing with no understanding. Shouta had the small key to lock-in the Quirk-cancelling cuffs whenever Ktsuki needed to leave campus, which the boy silently accepted every time.

The boy with a history of aggression had an impressively strong Quirk. A future disaster was ahead if Shouta and professionals hadn't gotten involved. Thankfully, the kid put in the work. Sure, it was at the threats of expulsion, but it was better than nothing. He brought in the essays no one else did but him on time. They started off being 'decent' enough, then gradually became more professional and longer. He stopped questioning 'why?' and just did whatever told. Still, Shouta kept a firm hold on him. He wasn't about to loosen the leash just because Katsuki was obedient so far.

The kid then had a full-on panic attack on-campus during the firework display. That… had been unexpected. Shouta has almost directed the cause at the employee Katsuki had left with before the meek man in uniform explained the boy had reacted to the sound and flashing lights. Even when that seemed more likely – considering how Shouta had found the kid with his hands over his ears, it was still farfetched. He looked through surveillance just to be sure the employee had been telling the truth. He had. Katsuki had reacted to something outside.

It was absurd to think Katsuki was triggered by an explosion. Katsuki created explosions. His hands were explosions. It couldn't be the explosion. It just couldn't. But then, the boy started having trouble creating any fireworks from his palms. "I can't make it work," he'd said in frustration, looking down at his hands like they were someone else's hands.

Shouta was missing the context. It was a missing variable, and he had a feeling it had to do with that red mark. He hoped Katsuki's therapy would dislodge that mental Quirk block sometime, anytime.

He watched as Katsuki had a look of horror when the girl pinned him for a full minute, then defeat as he was instructed to get up. His response had slowed. Shouta had told him to visit Recovery Girl, not because of injury, but because he needed to have a few words with him. Shouta did the talking, the questioning, the reminding that he needed to tell Hound Dog if he wanted to make progress.

Katsuki had the look of a corpse, hardly blinking. Shouta wondered if the boy listened to anything he'd said.

A few other students had displayed uncharacteristic behaviors. Ochaco had been suspiciously glaring at the back of Katsuki's head during the start of homeroom. Ochaco was a social student who thrived on positive interactions. Sure, she sometimes spoke before given permission, and would sometimes blurt out her thoughts when panicked, but that aside, she behaved. So her aiming daggers at another student – the one student with a questionable history – caught Shouta's attention. Then there was Eijiro's odd silence and stronger fascination with Katsuki.

The match-making for the training exercise that day had been computer-generated. It was a coincidence.

The girl hadn't thrown the boy out of bounds like he'd assumed. She showcased her newly-taught Gunhead martial arts. It was impressive. It was also slightly terrifying how 'possessed' she'd looked when attacking. The worried look on Eijiro's face right after made Shouta suspect he'd missed something.

Whatever teenage drama was happening, it involved those three, and it was starting to leak.

TBC