AN: When I uploaded chapter 18 last month, this site was experiencing an issue where people with Outlook accounts weren't getting email notifications, as the site had gotten itself blacklisted by Microsoft. That issue has since been resolved. If you didn't receive a notification that I uploaded last month, and this is the first you're hearing from me in over a year, please go and read the previous chapter.

The Symbol of Peace and Justice

Chapter 19 – Hearts on Fire

A serene silence pervaded the fighters' waiting room, broken only by the systematic ticking of the lone clock on the wall.

Gohan lightly drummed his fingers along the smooth white marble of one of two tables in the room, waiting patiently for Midoriya to defrost himself following his chilling confrontation with Todoroki. The green-haired boy was sat on the seat opposite his, sipping away at a cup of steaming hot oolong tea to try and warm up.

Gohan and Mina had run into Midoriya in the halls on their way back to their class' box, and after congratulating him on his thrilling victory, Gohan had offered to help him prepare for his match with Bakugo. Midoriya promptly agreed, so Mina went ahead to rejoin their class, while the two males made their way to the second of two designated waiting rooms set up for the combatants.

Now, Gohan had to suppress a scowl as his protégé set down his cup with a distinct clink, faint swelling and dryness still visible on his fingers. Damn frostbite. "Any good?" he asked.

"Great, actually!" Midoriya chirped, letting out a satisfied sigh. "I had no idea you were so good at this!"

Gohan couldn't help but crack a grin. "I've spent my whole life brewing tea; it makes sense I'd learn a thing or two along the way."

"Once you retire from being a hero, you should open a tea café," Midoriya suggested, taking a sip. "You can entertain your guests with stories of your hero days. You'd make a killing."

"That's actually not a bad idea," Gohan remarked with a chuckle, instantly being reminded of Rocky Balboa. "Sure beats my old plan of retiring to the mountains to live as a hermit… maybe write a book or two."

Midoriya laughed. "You know, that suits you, too."

"It does, doesn't it?" Gohan mused, letting his protégé take another drink before glancing over at the clock. His smile dimmed. "You ready for a debrief?"

Midoriya stiffened, then snapped to attention. "I am."

Gohan nodded. "Do you know where you went wrong in your fight against Todoroki?"

The green-haired boy grimaced as he pondered the question. "I… let him control the match?" he half-asked, half-answered.

"Precisely," Gohan replied. "You let him set the pace and dictate the tempo of the match. He had you on the back foot the entire time, and probably would've won if he hadn't been so overconfident. And, even though you won in the end, you still ended up hurt because you were backed into a corner."

Midoriya warily eyed his bandaged left pinkie. "How do you think I should've handled the fight?" he asked quietly.

"First, tell me how you think you should've handled the fight," Gohan countered. Both Piccolo and his father had taught him that any fighter worth their salt should be able to recognise their flaws and think critically about how to improve upon then.

Midoriya's face scrunched in thought. "I… I guess I could've used my superior speed to rush Todoroki after his first attack?" he replied, before his eyes widened. "B-but then I would've been too close to avoid his second attack! I-in that case, I could've used- no, that wouldn't work either. Maybe… no, that'd leave me stuck!" A groan slipped from his lips and he let out a tired sigh. "I don't know what I should've done. Everything I think of has some sort of drawback."

Gohan's expression softened. "It's ok. I didn't expect you to be able to answer that, since there would've been some risk involved regardless. Besides, there's no certainly that my approach would've worked any better than yours," he revealed, much to his protégé's surprise. That made him smile. "What's with that look? I'm capable of making mistakes, too, you know.

"But since you asked, I would've taken advantage of your element of surprise and tried to take the fight to Todoroki. You're right that rushing him right off the bat would've made you a much easier target, so I would've tried circling around the edge of the ring at full speed, slowly edging closer and closer to him. That way, he'd have a much harder target to hit, and when he did launch those ice walls at you, it would've kept him busy for a few seconds, allowing you to close the distance even quicker."

"But wouldn't that leave me with the same problem as before?" Midoriya queried. "As soon as I got close to him, I'd have like no time to dodge his ice attacks."

"And therein lies the risk I was talking about," Gohan grumbled, his smile evaporating. "Yeah, you would've been an easier target, but you could've anticipated his next ice attack and jumped over it, putting you directly above him and free to land a hit."

Midoriya's mouth hung open and his eyes widened. "I-I never would've thought of that," he muttered. "That's… wow, that plan is something else."

"Like I said, my way was also reckless and risky, but it's never a bad thing to think outside the box," Gohan exclaimed, brightening up a tad.

Midoriya bowed his head. "I'm sorry for letting you down, Son."

Now it was Gohan's turn to grimace. "Hey, don't apologise! You were great out there, and I'm proud of you for winning against one of the strongest guys in our year!" he reassured, unable to suppress the surge of guilt that coursed through him. He sighed. "I'm sorry for being so hard on you. I've… never really trained anyone before. I wasn't taking your perspective into consideration, and for that, I apologise." It wasn't like they were training to fight the Saiyans or anything.

"It-it's fine," Midoriya stammered. "I actually prefer it that way, believe it or not. I don't want you to sugar-coat things."

"That's a good attitude to have," Gohan praised, smiling warmly at his friend. Hearing that was a pleasant surprise. "The profession we've chosen doesn't give us the luxury of second chances. That's why I was pushing you so hard to think critically. I'm not trying to be mean; I want to prepare you as best as possible for whatever's ahead, and the sports festival is a fantastic opportunity to test yourself in a saf- well, mostly safe environment."

"I know. And I appreciate that. Thank you, Son, it… means a lot," Midoriya mumbled, his lower lip quivering ever so slightly. "Seriously. You have no idea how grateful I am for all your help… I-I don't know how I could ever repay you."

"Ahh, geez, there's no need for that," Gohan stressed, his hand moving to scratch the back of his head. "Remember, I'm the one that offered to train you. As long as you give it your all and keep up the hard work, I'll be satisfied."

"R-right. I can do that," Midoriya asserted, steeling his features.

"Great!" Gohan grinned, although it didn't last long. "We should probably start thinking about your next match, huh?"

"Probably," Midoriya agreed, shooting a wary glance at the muted TV in the corner that was broadcasting the tournament.

Gohan sighed. "Bakugo… that jerk. You got a plan of action?"

Midoriya gave a terse nod. "I'm thinking I stay on the defensive and try to counter whatever he does. I know his tells, his quirks, his favourite moves… I know he'll be going on the offensive, but since his attacks don't have the same AOE potential as Todoroki's, I-I think I can handle them," he declared, albeit with a barely perceptible waver in his tone.

Gohan raised a brow at that. "Interesting. I propose you do the exact opposite and take the fight to him."

Midoriya's eyes bulged. "S-seriously? But he's so aggressive!" he protested.

"Exactly," Gohan affirmed, unperturbed. "He's going to be coming at you hard from the start, so I reckon you should match his intensity right off the bat. Don't let up even for a second, because the moment you do, he'll pounce."

Midoriya gulped. "That sounds risky."

"It is," Gohan agreed. "Your focus needs to be dialled up to the maximum for this, because Bakugo's gonna be going all out the whole time." He clenched his fist on the table. "But that's why I think it'll work. He won't be expecting you to take the fight to him; to fight fire with fire, so to speak. And as for knowing his tells? Do you seriously think he won't have changed things up after you humiliated him that one time in All Might's class?"

Midoriya winced, his eyes glazing over at the reminder. "I-I guess you have a point."

"Bakugo's a merciless fighter," Gohan stated, injecting some steel into his voice to hammer his point home, "and he doesn't hold back no matter who his opponent is. Given your history, it's also possible he's going to display an entirely new level of viciousness." When his protégé recoiled, the demi-Saiyan grimaced. "Now, I can't confirm that for sure, but we can't discount the possibility, so we need to be prepared. If he steps it up a notch, you'll have to match him."

Midoriya's eyes drifted downwards. "O-okay."

"Are you scared?" Gohan asked softly, unable to keep the frown off his face.

Midoriya didn't reply, opting instead to avert his gaze entirely and stare blankly at the wall.

Gohan felt his heart clench. "It's not a bad thing to be scared, you know," he said, pleased to see his friend relax just a bit. "It's not cowardly, or childish – and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. To be scared is to be human. It means you're aware of the stakes… aware of the consequences of failure. It may make you overly cautious, true, but it can also heighten your senses, and push you to try harder than you normally would. Fear, if you know how to use it, can be a powerful weapon. Trust me on that."

By now Midoriya's full attention was fixed firmly on Gohan, his jaw having gone slack. He swallowed thickly. "I am scared," he confessed in a near-whisper. "I didn't think I would be – a-and I wasn't back when I realised I was fighting Kacchan… but now that the match is so close, it-it just hit me."

"It's okay," Gohan soothed. "Like I said, there's nothing wrong with being scared. Tell me, what is it about Bakugo that worries you so much?"

"I know he has it in for me, and I know he's going to be coming at me hard," Midoriya admitted with a rueful shake of the head. "I knew that even without you telling me. It's just… the Kacchan I'm fighting now is way different than the Kacchan I grew up with."

Now that made Gohan raise a disbelieving eyebrow? "Seriously? After everything he put you through?"

"I mean it," Midoriya snapped back, unflinching. "Back then Kacchan was still really mean, but you got the feeling he didn't really mean it; like he was trying to be funny more than anything." Gohan didn't believe that for a second. "But now, he's so much more malicious than he ever used to be. I know he still wants to be a top hero, but he's so cruel, and brutal, and just really, really unpleasant."

Gohan clasped his fingers together and fixed his friend with a stern gaze. "Or maybe, Bakugo's finally showing his true colours."

Midoriya's pupils flared. "Th-that can't be! Kacchan's not like that!"

"Just, hear me out," Gohan pleaded, rubbing the bridge of his nose. His protégé looked like he wanted to protest, but thankfully remained mute. "From what you told me, before he came to U.A. he'd spent his whole life being praised, and pampered, and told he'd by the next big thing by everyone around him. He never faced any adversity, and there was no one around to challenge him even a little, so he genuinely believed his own hype, and his ego grew and grew to something monstrous.

"I'm willing to bet that when he got into U.A. and realised he wasn't the top dog anymore – far from it, in fact – it completely shattered his worldview." A light bubbling of guilt welled up in his gut, but he forced it down; Bakugo's shitty attitude was on him, and no one else.

"That's why he's so aggressive and rude to everyone. That's why he's willing to go so far against his classmates. He's not used to being second, third, fourth- hell, even fifth best, so he's overcompensating by lashing out at everyone with some messed up macho mentality. He's desperately trying to claw his way back to the top, but no matter how hard he pushes himself, he just can't find a way to reach it – and that insecurity is eating away at him, bit by bit."

"So then what do I do?" Midoriya whimpered.

"Nothing," Gohan shot back. "Let him sort out his own problems. You need to focus on yourself." When his friend's forehead creased in worry, the demi-Saiyan let out a weary sigh. "Look, Bakugo has three years to get his shit together. If you have that much faith in him, you should have nothing to worry about. How do you think he'd react if he knew you were worrying about him?"

Midoriya flinched, then nodded, his emerald eyes taking on a determined sheen. "You're right. It's none of my business."

Gohan smiled in relief. "Good to know. Now come on, let's go warm up," he suggested, standing up and motioning behind him. "You need to get your head in the game, and we don't have a lot of time."

Midoriya nodded once more and followed the demi-Saiyan to an empty part of the room, away from both the tables and the row of lockers along the side. It didn't offer them a lot of space, but it'd have to do.

"How's the frostbite?" Gohan asked, giving his friend a once-over.

Pursing his lips, Midoriya wiggled his fingers, then clenched and unclenched his fists. "Mostly gone, but I'm still feeling it a bit."

Gohan frowned. "Go Super."

Midoriya's eyes bulged. "Here? Now?"

"Yes," Gohan replied. "It'll help you warm up faster." In both ways.

Midoriya gulped, but nodded nonetheless. "O-okay. I trust you."

He took a deep breath, then spread his feet shoulder-width apart, fists clenched and elbows bent. His eyes slid shut, and his breathing stilled – in through the nose, and out through the mouth. When they reopened, then tension he'd been harbouring had dissipated, and a quiet calmness had settled over his features.

His skin darkened ever so slightly, and glowing red veins wove their way up his body, pulsating more harshly by the second. Upon reaching their apex, they snaked to form an X-shape, and the energy that had been building up exploded in a shower of emerald sparks.

Gohan placed one hand atop the other and positioned them in front of his face, eyeing the lighting cloak enveloping his protégé with no small amount of pride. "Alright, let's start off with some basic punches, just like we did in training."

Assuming a basic stance, Midoriya's brow furrowed in concentration, and he lashed out with a couple of well-placed jabs at Gohan's palms, followed by a right straight.

"Good," Gohan remarked. "Now start switching up your punches. Don't get predictable."

Midoriya launched another assault, this time mixing up his jabs and straights, as well as a couple of hooks. Gohan fired a quick palm strike at his opponent's face, but he slipped it and dashed forward, aiming a short uppercut at the demi-Saiyan's chin.

"Excellent," Gohan commended, blocking the punch with his palm. "Now take a few breaths and refocus. We'll be moving on to kicks next."

Midoriya nodded and retook his stance, inhaling and exhaling a few times before his features calmed once more.

Shifting his hands in front of his solarplexus, Gohan got to work. "Snap kick! Spin kick! Side thrust kick! Spinning back kick!" he rattled off, repositioning his hands after each strike so as to condition his pupil to target vulnerable points on the body.

After two rounds of this, Midoriya stepped back and wiped a thin bead of sweat off his brow. Despite the tangible energy wafting off his small but sturdy frame, his breathing was calm and steady – a testament to his impressive stamina.

"Fantastic work," Gohan praised, pulling apart his hands and letting them rest by his sides. "Let's switch it up to freeform. You can use both your hands and feet this time, but only go at about thirty percent intensity. Try and land a hit."

"Right," Midoriya exclaimed, slipping into his stance once more. He huffed out an audible breath, then attacked.

Gohan's hands flew about in a flurry, seamlessly deflecting any strike that came his way. Every now and then he'd strike out with a quick attack of his own, but Midoriya managed to react to each one and defend appropriately.

"We've come a long way, but our training is far from complete," Gohan stated, matching his opponent's focused gaze while blocking a barrage of speedy jabs.

"There are still things I wanted to teach you but didn't have the time to…" he trailed off, smacking away a meaty left hook.

'Or the knowledge to recognise them,' he added internally as he brushed aside a snap kick, his protégé's fight with Todoroki leaping to the forefront of his mind.

"But I'm still proud of you, and everything you've accomplished." Midoriya faltered momentarily, but maintained his assault.

"I didn't know what to expect when I decided to train you, but I am so glad that I did, because teaching you has been a blast. You haven't just met my expectations – you've surpassed them… and no matter what happens in your match against Bakugo, know that I'll always, always be in your corner."

By this point Midoriya's eyes were simmering with unshed tears, but he bravely kept them at bay as he continued his onslaught. If anything, his focus only increased after Gohan's plaudits: his punches became sharper, his kicks snapped out at greater speeds, and his overall attack patterns flowed more smoothly.

There was still a litany of flaws for Gohan to point out, but now wasn't the time for that. Now, the best thing the demi-Saiyan could do was shoot his friend a content smile – further reinforcing his faith in him – and continue acting as a mobile punching bag.

The creak of the opening door made Midoriya stop mid-swing. "Hello, friends- wait, why is Midoriya Super?" Sato boomed.

"Ehh? Deku's gone Super? Is everything okay?" Uraraka chimed in, her tone a tad more frantic.

Midoriya blushed and reverted to his base form. "E-everything's fine! We were just warming up!" he hastily explained.

"Yep. Nothing to worry about," Gohan assured, turning to face the newcomers. "Hey, Uraraka. Hey, Imhotep; nice to see you up and out of your coffin."

The heavily-bandaged boy's eyes widened, before a grin spit his lips. "Ahh, that was a good one. I approve."

"And I approve of you not unleashing any plagues on us," Gohan added.

Sato chuckled. "Two in a row? Nice. You're learning."

Midoriya and Uraraka laughed, which made Gohan smile. Hopefully he'd both assuaged the girl's worries and calmed down his startled protégé.

"I'm guessing it's time for my match?" Midoriya asked, quickly sobering up.

Sato's grin evaporated. "Yep. Present Mic just called you guys up, but…" His eyes flitted to the muted TV, which showed an irate Bakugo pacing up and down the ring. "We figured you'd be preoccupied, so we came to get you."

Midoriya sucked in a deep breath, then let it all out. His expression hardened. "I see. Thanks for letting me know."

"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Uraraka queried quietly.

Clenching his fist, Midoriya gave a firm nod. "I am."

"Well said!" Gohan chirped, clapping his friend on the back. "You're strong, Midoriya. You don't have to doubt yourself. You got this."

A faint flush broke out on the green-haired boy's cheeks. "Th-thank you, Son. I'll try not to disappoint you."

Gohan sighed and shook his head. "You need to focus on yourself, not me. Besides, nothing you do form this point on could disappoint me. Remember what I said earlier? You've already smashed my expectations, and I couldn't be prouder of you."

"Listen to Son, he knows what he's talking about," Sato reassured, flashing Midoriya a smug smirk. "You're a superstar, bro. You just need to go out there and show it."

"A-and remember, even if you lose, y-you'll always be a winner in my book," Uraraka stammered, her face heating up like a kettle. "B-but I'm sure you'll win! You're strong, Deku! Really, really strong!"

The confident façade Midoriya wore almost shattered, but he managed to keep his composure; the only sign of wavering conviction was his head sinking and a fist trembling. "Y-you guys… I-I-I don't know how to-"

"Eyes up," Gohan corrected, gently tilting his protégé's head so that it was facing forward once more. "Remember: a true hero must never lose sight of their goal."

"Got it. Thanks, Son," Midoriya stated, a hint of steel slipping into his tone.

Gohan smiled. "Anytime."

After making his way to the door, where a beaming Uraraka stood waiting, Midoriya turned around and faced his teacher. "I guess this is it, then."

"You got this," Gohan exclaimed, holding out a fist which Midoriya promptly met with his own.


Never one to be outdone in that department, Sato held out his own fist. "Go kick some ass."

A grin now splitting his features, Midoriya accepted the second fist bump.

"Good man!" Sato praised, shifting his attention to Uraraka. "Make sure he doesn't get lost on the way there, kay? There would be a lot of disappointed people in the audience."

The brown-haired girl chuckled. "Don't worry. I'll do my part."

With that, Midoriya and Uraraka departed, and once the door closed, Gohan slumped into a chair and raked his fingers through his spiky locks. A deep sigh slipped from his lips.

"How's he looking," Sato asked, taking a seat beside him.

"Good, I think," Gohan answered. "I've done all I can for now."

"Of course you have. And I'm sure Midoriya knows and appreciates that," Sato remarked.

"Yeah… it's up to him now," Gohan murmured as he unmuted the TV, and Present Mic's piercing voice split his ears.

"- a thrilling contest – and one that I am willing to bet my own personal boombox will not disappoint! Now let's make some noise and draw our wayward warrior out of hiding!" The crowd cheered, but Present Mic clicked his tongue. "What the hell was that? It was so quiet I could've sworn I heard a pin drop! Now, let me ask you again… LET'S MAKE SOME MOTHERFLIPPIN' NOISE!"

As though a volcano had erupted, the audience exploded, their vociferous roars hitting the stadium with such magnitude its very foundations seemed to shake.

"Now that's what I wanted to hear! Can I get another- oh, would ya look at that? Our second semi-finalist has finally graced us with his presence! Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a well-deserved round of applause to Midoriya Izuku!"

Gohan swallowed thickly as he watched his protégé shuffle over to the ring. To the green-haired boy's credit, he didn't appear outwardly affected by the rapturous applause; instead, his expression was set in a steely stare, his gaze firmly unwavering.

Finally ceasing his furious pacing, Bakugo fixed his opponent with a fierce grin. He wasn't wearing his usual scowl, but the way his lip curled while quivering did little to mask the burning hatred he felt for his one-time friend. Completing the ominous image was a pair of heavily narrowed crimson eyes, the brow pinched together so tight there was a literal vein throbbing on his temple.

"I don't want to keep you guys waiting any longer, and these two warriors certainly need no further introduction!" Present Mic boomed, earning an emphatic cheer from the crowd. "Bakugo Katsuki! Midoriya Izuku! You may begin!"

Bakugo rocketed forward with a spirited war cry, but Midoriya was quick to match him, a surge of electrical sparks dancing around his speeding figure. The blond's beady eyes widened imperceptibly, and upon closing the distance he lashed out with a right haymaker, only to retract it mid-swing and let loose a left hook to the gut.

Midoriya paid him no mind, though; he merely leaned forward, shifted his arms into a peek-a-boo-esque guard, and ploughed into his opponent like a lighting-coated cannonball. Bakugo's eyes bulged and a glob of spit flew from his mouth, the headbutt to his solar plexus quite literally knocking the wind out of him.

It also had the added effect of making his head drop, and Midoriya took full advantage by grabbing it with both hands, thrusting it downward, and smashing a knee into the blond's gaping face.

"Holy shit!" Sato bellowed, his jaw hanging open as a geyser of blood squirted from Bakugo's nose, the crunching collision having made his head shoot upwards.

Midoriya didn't hesitate to press his attack, spearing his stunned opponent to the ground and scrambling to mount him. Then, once he got into a good enough position, he unloaded a brutal barrage of punches at whatever target he could find – fortunately, most of them slammed into Bakugo's face.

"Oh! My! Goodness!" Present Mic roared, the crowd cheering in kind. "Feast your eyes on this, ladies and gentlemen! Our brave underdog has taken down his opponent and is going to town with a deadly ground and pound! Is this the end?! Will our first semi-final end in a huge upset?! Will I still get paid for a full day's work if the sports festival ends early?!"

"That's hardly an appropriate topic for commentary," Aizawa scolded. "Besides, the sports festival is part of the regular curriculum… we're not getting paid extra for this."

"Whaaaat?! Why didn't anyone tell me?! That's a bloody outrage!"

Gohan pursed his lips as he watched Midoriya wail on Bakugo, unable to keep his brow from furrowing.

"Son? What's wrong?" Sato queried, ever vigilant when his best friend was concerned.

"Midoriya's punches are effective… to a degree, but he's not getting the most out of them," Gohan explained with a frown. "They're too wild and unfocused. They look strong, sure, but he's not putting his weight behind them."

Sato's eyes widened in recognition. "I see. Looks like he's trying to end the match quickly, so he's panicking and getting all desperate." He clicked his tongue and crossed his arms. "A rookie mistake."

Gohan grimaced, then outright winced when Bakugo clapped Midoriya in the temples with two explosive smacks; through a combination of frantic blocking, dodging and tanking, he'd weathered the storm long enough to gather his bearings for a quick counterattack.

Sickly-looking black smoke wafted from Midoriya's ears, his onslaught having ceased, and his eyes and mouth were agape. His brain had been rattled, and it'd take him a couple seconds to recover… seconds his fuming opponent was nowhere near kind enough to give.

Snarling like a rabid dog, Bakugo clenched his fist and slammed a vicious right hook into Midoriya's ear, knocking the green-haired boy off him. They both lay there momentarily, huffing to catch their breath, before scrambling to their feet.

Bakugo was just a tad quicker, however, and upon standing up fully, rushed his opponent and fired a right straight at Midoriya's head. An explosion permeated the ring upon impact, and the audience gasped.

Scowling venomously, Bakugo attacked again, this time with his left hand, which set off yet another explosion. His right hand flew forward, followed by his left, then his right again, and soon enough a hailstorm of frenzied punches rained upon an unmoving Midoriya, each subsequent explosion earning an audible wince from the crowd.

"And just like that, Bakugo has turned the tables!" Present Mic roared. "Bathed in the black smoke of his explosive adversary, Midoriya has been rendered helpless! Is this the end of our heroic underdog?!"

"Not even close," Gohan growled.

"You sure about that, bro?" Sato asked warily. "I hate to say it, but Midoriya looks done for…"

"Look closer," Gohan ordered, eyeing the way his protégé's arms moved in tune with Bakugo's. "The first punch hit Midoriya dead-on, but each punch after that has had its effectiveness massively diluted."

Sato squinted at the scene, and his eyes widened. "No way…"

"Yep," Gohan chirped, cracking a small smile. "He's using his palms to block Bakugo's punches at the last moment. It may look like he's helpless, but he's actually absorbing most of the impact. That's why he's not getting blown back or knocked down."

"Well goddamn," Sato exclaimed with an appreciative whistle. "It makes sense he'd have no issue tracking Bakugo's punches after being your punching bag for two weeks."

"Perhaps," Gohan conceded, his brow furrowing when another boom sounded from the TV, and he caught a flash of charred skin through the smoke. "He can't keep this up, though. While he is absorbing most of the damage, those punches still hurt… and those explosions are nasty."

Fortunately, Midoriya seemed to have realised this as well, and when Bakugo lashed out with a right haymaker, the green-haired boy staggered forward – almost tripping in the process – and slammed his palms against his opponent's shoulder joint and bicep, stopping the punch at its source.

Bakugo's lip curled, then Midoriya drilled a right elbow into his sternum, making his face contort in anguish. The green-haired boy wasn't done there, though; he planted his feet firmly on the ground, pulled back his left arm, and slammed a devastating punch into Bakugo's nose, making it gush blood for a second time that day.

"And Midoriya musters a counterattack! I can barely believe my eyes, folks!" Present Mic bellowed to rapturous applause.

Unwavering, Midoriya pressed on, driving a right snap kick to Bakugo's gut that made him hunch over and shudder. He followed through with his left leg, but the blond managed to grab his foot, much to his astonishment. Then, with his face twisting in an almost-tangible fury, Bakugo flew forward and smashed his forehead into Midoriya's nose with a nauseating crunch.

"Oh snap! That had to have been intentional!" Present Mic hollered.

Meanwhile, Midoriya had staggered back from the jarring impact, a river of blood gushing from his nose like a leaky faucet. Roaring like a madman, Bakugo dove forward and thrust a palm into his opponent's face, tightening his grip and harshly driving the green-haired boy to the ground.

His digits still digging into Midoriya's skin, Bakugo's hand glowed a deadly orange, but the downed fighter had enough speed to swing his open palms and smack his blond oppressor in the sides of the head, drawing a started gasp and leaving him visibly staggered, his ears no doubt ringing up a storm.

Without waiting for a response, Midoriya grunted with visible exertion and pushed Bakugo off him; unfortunately, this seemed to snap the blond back to his senses, and the pair managed to scramble to their feet at roughly the same time. Not even taking a breath to compose themselves, they charged one another and started brawling in the centre of the ring.

"Wow! Christmas must have come early because this match just keeps on giving!" Present Mic whooped.

"You know, he's not that bad at infighting," Sato remarked as he watched Midoriya duck a hook, then pepper Bakugo with quick and compact body blows.

"No, definitely not," Gohan agreed, just as his protégé leant back to narrowly avoid a nasty elbow strike. "Even without knowing the fundamentals, he's got good instincts."

"Good size and build, too, and that power…"

Gohan side-eyed his best friend. "What are you scheming?"

Sato's grin morphed into something not too dissimilar to the Cheshire Cat's. "Something genius. Say, do you know if Midoriya likes manga?"

Gohan blinked, genuinely caught off guard. "Not a clue. Seems like more of a comic book kinda guy, though."

"Well, as long as he's not the comic book guy, I can work with that," Sato mused while stroking his chin.

Turning his attention back to the match, Gohan saw Bakugo block a rising knee, then retaliate with a shoulder barge that Midoriya met with one of his own. The pair pushed against one another, their teeth clenched hard, before separating and re-engaging.

Bakugo fired off a jab, but Midoriya deflected it and threw out a straight. The blond slipped it, darted in close, and lashed out with a double palm thrust to the chest, only for his green-haired foe to sidestep it completely and counter with a meaty hook to the ribs – which was promptly blocked by a forearm.

Another round of punches was exchanged, but none hit their mark – the bout as a whole wasn't some grand display of martial arts, but it was an entertaining, closely-fought contest between two fighters with a point to prove… two fighters who were still very much human.

Gohan could see the sweat piling up on the combatants' faces; fighting at such a high intensity for so long was a downright exhausting endeavour. The fact that they were still going at it with such vigour was an immensely impressive feat, but the tiredness was quickly setting in.

Fortunately, Midoriya had stamina in spades, and that advantage was quickly becoming apparent.

While Bakugo's blows became sloppier and more haggard, Midoriya's maintained their crispness; a couple of jabs slipped past the blond's guard, and a snap kick hit its mark. A forceful push to the chest sent Bakugo staggering, and a side thrust kick planted itself firmly in his gut.

"What's this? It looks like the momentum is shifting! Could this titanic tussle finally be nearing its conclusion?" Present Mic questioned, only for the audience to answer with a downright deafening cheer that had Gohan wincing.

He quickly refocused though, and try as he might, he couldn't shake off the unease slowly bubbling up in the pit of his stomach. Something seemed off. Very, very off.

For all the headway Midoriya was making, Bakugo didn't seem too bothered – a genuine headscratcher, given the volatile blond was usually easier to read than a children's picture book. Now, he wore a cold, almost calculating expression as his opponent put on the pressure.

Still, Midoriya kept piling on the punches, mixing in a kick every now and then. They didn't all land, but even the ones that missed helped push Bakugo closer to the edge of the ring. As for those that did hit, they lacked the dynamism they once had… almost as if-

Bakugo batted aside a jab, then used the same hand to launch an explosive thrust at his foe's face. Midoriya moved his free arm to intercept it, but the blow was too powerful, and made his forearm fly back and smack him in the face.

Brow furrowing in concentration while Midoriya staggered back, Bakugo dug in his feet, squared his hips, and fired three powerful punches at the green-haired boy's gut, each one punctuated by a stomach-churning explosion.

Midoriya's head dropped, sheer agony etched on his face, and his hands flew to his wounded abdomen; instantly recognising the danger, Gohan's heart clenched.

Unsurprisingly, Bakugo picked up on this, too, and with a savage smirk marring his features, he clenched his fist tight, wound it back, and arced it in a three-quarter uppercut aimed directly at his shocked opponent's unprotected face.

Gohan's breath hitched as Bakugo's fist drew closer and closer, but Midoriya mustered just enough strength to put his hands in the way. Whatever relief the demi-Saiyan felt was short-lived, however; his protégé's guard was frail and flimsy, and Bakugo's punch blew through it like a freight train through plywood.

Fortunately, the uppercut's momentum was diffused just enough that Midoriya had time to stagger out of its way.

Unfortunately, he was still very much dazed.

Roaring furiously at his failure, Bakugo lunged forward and let loose a left jab, but just as Midoriya scrambled to block it, it was revealed to be a feint; the blond quickly retracted his fist, instead lashing out with a right palm strike to the face. It connected, an explosion followed, and Bakugo raked his hand away, drawing a pained scream from his former friend.

"The hell?! That was dirty!" Sato protested.

Intentional or not, the eye rake made Midoriya's hands fly to his face, leaving his toro exposed. Regaining his trademark scow, Bakugo primed himself like an Olympic sprinter, then surged forward, slamming a tackle into Midoriya's midsection and carrying him several metres, before driving him into the ground with a bone-bruising thud.

Ever the merciless opportunist, Bakugo mounted his fallen foe and let loose a deadly salvo of machine-gun like smacks to his face, bathing the pair of them in a thick smog as booming explosions reverberated through the stadium… explosions that were quickly drowned out by the rapturous roars of the audience.

"Bakugo, that's enough!" Midnight called, only for the blond to keep going.

"That son of a bitch!" Sato seethed.

"Bakugo! Get off him! The match is over!" Midnight tried again, but to no avail; if anything, the crowd only cheered harder.

"Umm, Bakugo, you should probably do as she says…" Present Mic supplied unhelpfully.

"Damn it, Bakugo! Get off him this instance!" Midnight thundered. Yet again, her orders went unheeded.

A whip then flew into the smoke cloud, and a second later, Bakugo was yanked out by the neck, cursing up a storm and trying futilely to free himself. When it slid away, he huffed out a few breaths, then stormed over to a fuming Midnight and got right in her face. "What the hell was that for?!" he screamed.

"The match is over, you disrespectful little twerp!" Midnight fired back unflinchingly, and with equal intensity. "Midoriya can't fight back anymore!"

"Well how the fuck was I supposed to know that?" Bakugo spat.

"Because I called it three times!" Midnight roared, finally shutting up the seething blond. He blinked.

"Oh. Well, shit. I guess I didn't hear you," he muttered, not a shred of remorse in his voice. As if to further prove his point, he started picking his ear with a pinkie. "Things got pretty loud back there."

Midnight's eyes narrowed ominously, a throbbing vein etched on her temple.

"Well, folks, it looks like the match is over! But, ahh, poor Midoriya looks really out of it!" Present Mic announced, despite the cameras refusing to zoom in on the green-haired boy; all the TV showed was his motionless body lying in the distance. "In fact, I think we may have to entertain the idea of disqualification for excessive force!"

A chorus of boos pelted the stadium, and Bakugo's eyes bulged, his prior nonchalance vanishing on the spot. "What? You've gotta be kidding me!"

"Midnight. As the referee, it's your call whether to disqualify Bakugo or not," Present Mic added, his tone turning uncharacteristically grave.

"C-come on, Midnight-sensei!" Bakugo scoffed, trying to play down the situation. "You were at ringside! You heard how loud my explosions were! And I was in the middle of them! A-and those extras in the audience weren't helping things either – they just wouldn't shut up!"

More jeers reached the stage, but Bakugo was unperturbed. A flurry of medics rushed into the ring and surrounded Midoriya, then gingerly loaded him onto a stretcher. Once they were done, they hurried off. Not once did the camera focus on their work, leaving the defeated combatant's condition a mystery to those watching on TV.

Meanwhile, Midnight appeared unreadable as she glared at Bakugo, save for a few sporadic twitches. Having pleaded his case, the object of her ire had his arms crossed and was watching her intently, his face scrunched unnaturally in a blatant attempt to look non-threatening. Seemingly swayed by the tense atmosphere, the crowd also quieted.

The silence stretched on, and the ticking of the solitary clock in the room grew aggravatingly loud. A myriad of emotions flashed through Gohan's head – the main one being fury. He was absolutely livid at Bakugo's callous brutality, so much so that his fist was clenched hard enough to draw blood. 'Please disqualify him, please disqualify him, please disqualify him,' he pleaded internally, his body shaking in his seat.

The TV showed Midnight still at an impasse, and a few audible jeers sounded through the speakers.

"Let him fight, ref!" one of the spectators heckled.

"Yeah, we wanna see some action!" another guy added.

A rough-sounding woman spoke up next. "Disqualifying him would be boring!"

"Let Son Gohan kick his ass!" a fourth guy hollered.

"Yeah! Give us Son versus Bakugo!" another female demanded, and this time, a resounding murmur spread through the crowd.

"Son versus Bakugo would be epic!"

"I'd pay double to see that!"

"I'd pay triple!"

By now, the atmosphere in the audience had amped up significantly, with more and more people vociferously voicing their support.

"Let them fight!" someone screamed.

"Yeah, let them fight!" another person screeched, the plea picking up so much steam a chant of "Fight! Fight! Fight!" had sprung to life, with no sign of stopping.

Down in the ring, Bakugo was trembling in a manner not too dissimilar to a victim of hypothermia, his face contorting like the malfunctioning T-1000 as he strained to keep his rapidly rising rage under wraps.

Gohan couldn't care less though; not about Bakugo, and certainly not about the audience. 'Don't listen to them, sensei… please… please, do the right thing and disqualify him!' he begged.

Midnight raised her hand, and the chanting quelled. Gohan swallowed thickly, and the referee pursed her lips. "On account of being unable to hear my calls, Bakugo Katsuki will not be disqualified, and will be going through to the final round!"

Gohan shut off the TV and rose from his seat, suppressing the fury churning in his gut. "Let's go see Midoriya."

Sato was quick to block the doorway. "I'm not sure that's a good idea, bro," he cautioned, raising his hands placatingly. The demi-Saiyan's eyes narrowed, and Sato adjusted his collar. "J-Just hear me out! Please!"

Gohan's features softened a fraction, and Sato mustered a shaky smile.

"Look, I don't know how badly Midoriya's hurt, but I don't think he'd want us to see him like this and start worrying even more – especially not you," he explained, raising a valid point. "Besides, you have a match coming up."

Threading a hand through his hair and picturing himself in Midoriya's position, Gohan huffed in resignation. "You're right. But even so, it's not right to let him suffer alone," he muttered.

"Then let me go see him," Sato offered. "Besides, Uraraka's probably gonna need some cheering up."

Gohan ground his teeth at the reminder. Uraraka Ochaco was a bright, bubbly and cheerful girl, whose pleasant smile and radiant disposition had the power to light up a room. Just the thought of how distraught she'd be over Bakugo's savagery… how shattered she'd be to see Midoriya in such a sorry state… it was enough to make Gohan's eye twitch, and his heart ache something fierce.

Still, he reigned in his frustration, opting instead to nod Sato's way. "Alright. I'll come find you guys after I'm done with Tetsutetsu."

He received a small smile in response as Sato opened the door. "Sounds good. Now go kick his shiny metal ass."

After stepping outside, the pair took off in opposite directions: one towards the medical room, and the other towards the ring.

"Hey, Son," Sato called out, making Gohan stop and turn around, only to be met with an uncharacteristically pleading gaze. "Please don't blame yourself."

The demi-Saiyan blinked, genuinely caught off guard. Was that what Sato had been so worried about? How unsurprisingly thoughtful. "Don't worry, I'm not," he replied evenly.

Sato breathed out an exaggerated sigh of relief, a cocky grin sliding onto his face. "Good. I'd be disappointed if you were."

Unable to suppress a snort, Gohan shook his head and set off down the hall. As touched as he was that his best friend cared so much, he was way off the mark. Gohan knew he wasn't to blame for what happened.

Bakugo was.

The sports festival was supposed to be a sporting event – a stage where the brightest hero prospects in the country could strut their stuff on international TV and hopefully make a name for themselves. Nowhere in the event description did it mention a gladiatorial arena, or students being pitted against one another in mortal combat.

Bakugo must not have gotten the memo.

Still, Gohan was self-conscious enough to admit he could've trained Midoriya better. He'd spent too much time trying to draw out the green-haired boy's Quirk, and despite it being the reason for their arrangement, he should've been smart enough to recognise the dangers of tunnel vision.

For all his drive and potential, Midoriya was a gentle soul. He hadn't seen the world at its very worst, nor did he have the mindset to anticipate it… to thrive in it.

He'd never resort to underhanded tricks or deceitful tactics, and his fighting experience was limited to schoolyard scraps and supervised sparring.

He'd never come up against an opponent willing to do whatever it took to win, and he lacked the mentality or knowledge to compensate.

Even if dishonesty wasn't a factor, Midoriya's kind nature would put him at a disadvantage against foes of a similar level of strength, who were legitimately out for his blood.

The deeper Gohan dug, the more he discovered what a shoddy job he'd done, but he didn't let it upset him. He'd never trained anyone before, and he knew going into it he'd make mistakes along the way. Everyone had to start from somewhere after all, and in an idea scenario, he'd be learning alongside his protégé.

Midoriya would learn how to fight, and Gohan would learn how to teach.

In an idea scenario, their partnership would extend beyond the sports festival, giving them three years to work through any deficiencies in a safe, secure and supportive environment.

'Why then?' Gohan growled, feeling his fist open and close against his will. 'Why did that heartless bastard have to take things too fucking far?'

Todoroki may have gone a tad overboard, too, but he only did what was necessary to win. Bakugo did more than enough to win, and still unleashed a whole new level of savagery – on someone who was once his childhood friend, no less! And this guy was going to a school for heroes? How the hell did that work?

Feeling a few streaks of sweat start coating his forehead, Gohan came to a half. He inhaled sharply, then breathed out slowly, hoping it would extinguish the blazing embers roaring furiously inside him… or at least make them simmer down. The heat was making him seriously uncomfortable.

He needed to get his shit together.

"Could Tetsutetsu Tetsutetsu and Son Gohan please make their way to the ring?" Present Mic called.

For once, Gohan was pleased to hear the announcer's voice, and to get called for his match. It served as a much-needed reminder that he had more important things to do than stew in his anger like a scorned child.

Huffing out a few more deep breaths, he banished all thoughts of Bakugo from his head, and looked ahead to what would come once he'd beaten Tetsutetsu. That was something worth focusing on.

Placing his hands in his pockets to lessen the temptation to clench his fists, Gohan strode down the halls, and when his ears picked up the distant howls of the spectators, he tuned them out. Even when he stepped into the open, and the crowd started chanting his name, he didn't acknowledge them. He simply took up a spot on one side of the ring, withdrew his hands, and waited for his opponent to show up.

Fortunately, Tetsutetsu didn't leave him hanging, showing up not long after and stepping onto the stage with an eager, challenging grin that reminded Gohan a bit too much of Kirishima. Had it gone ahead, their fight would've no doubt been a proper slugfest.

"Our first combatant, Tetsutetsu Tetsutetsu, may not have gotten the chance to fight last round… but make no mistake, folks – he definitely deserves to be here!" Present Mic roared. "With his sturdy frame, steely disposition and staggering intensity, the Class 1-B powerhouse is certainly a force to be reckoned with!

"Even so, U.A.'s Man of Steel will have to dig deep and pull out every trick in his arsenal… for on the other side of the ring stands the undisputed Number One of the hero course, and the overwhelming favourite to win the tournament! Ladies and gentlemen… raise your voice and make some noise for Class 1-A's Son Gohan!"

Gohan faintly registered the crowd going absolutely wild, but he couldn't bring himself to care. The only voice he wanted to hear was Present Mic's, and true to form, the announcer didn't disappoint.


Tetsutetsu dashed to the side and darted around the edge of the ring, looking as though he'd been expecting Gohan to open with the same manoeuvre he'd used in his previous two matches. Instead, what he got was the demi-Saiyan sprinting right up to him, making his eyes widen in shock for a split second, before a swift leg sweep sent him smashing face-first into the stage.

Gohan was quick to follow through, getting on one knee and grabbing Tetsutetsu's right wrist, then wrenching it behind his back, drawing a pained wince from the downed combatant. Tetsutetsu's skin took on a metallic sheen as his wriggling intensified, but a sharp application of pressure and subtle twist of his shoulder joint had him gasping, and his free hand flew up to frantically tap the tiled floor.

"Tetsutetsu forfeits! Son Gohan is through to the final!" Midnight announced.

The crowd paused, then cheered, but Gohan paid them no heed. Quickly letting go, he couldn't help but cast a sorrowful stare at his bested foe. Poor guy. He may have made the semis, but in the end, he'd only had one match to truly make his mark. Hopefully it wouldn't hinder him too badly.

Letting out a sigh, Gohan held out a hand as a groaning Tetsutetsu rolled onto his back. Upon seeing the offered appendage, the defeated fighter grabbed it, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. Gingerly rubbing his bruised wrist, he shot the demi-Saiyan a curious look. "Damn, dude. You really didn't pull any punches this time, huh?"

Gohan grimaced. "Sorry about that. I have somewhere to be, so I had to end the match quick."

To his surprise, a sharklike grin spread across Tetsutetsu's face. "Don't sweat it, bro! I'm just glad you gave me your best!" His smile then dimmed, and his voice quieted. "You want to go check up on your friend, right?" At the resulting nod, he held out a fist, and his beaming grin returned. "Tell him he kicked ass in his match. And you'd better kick ass in the final, too. That Bakugo brat has it coming."

Gohan didn't verbalise his thoughts, but he did accept the fist bump, unable to stop the corner of his lip from quirking. Tetsutetsu was a pretty chill guy.

"How's that for a show of sportsmanship, folks? Let's give both these honourable warriors a massive round of applause!" Present Mic encouraged, but by the time the audience responded, Gohan had left the ring and was halfway to the tunnel.

When he felt the warmth of the sun slide off his back and get replaced by the sterile stillness of the stadium's interior, he hastened his pace and quickly reached the medical room. The door was closed – as expected – but Sato and Uraraka were sat on the floor beside it, their heads bowed and their expressions hidden.

Gohan could sense something was wrong – and it wasn't just the worry bubbling in his gut, which stung more with each passing second. He swallowed thickly. "How's he doing?"

Sato was the only one to raise his head, and even then, their eyes didn't quite meet. "He's unconscious, but stable," he answered quietly. "He's actually in a better state than Iida, if you can believe it."

"Okay. That's good, right?" Gohan queried, marginally more hopeful than before. When he didn't receive a response, his brow furrowed, now coated with a few traces of sweat. "Is… that not good? What happened?"

Sato breathed out a long, deep sigh, and his fingers moved to massage the bridge of his nose. "His face was busted up pretty bad, bro."

A chill enveloped Gohan, and his heart skipped a beat. "How bad?"

"Pretty bad," Sato whispered, his fists clenched and his teeth grinding; he looked like he was barely keeping it together.

Uraraka sniffled, and Gohan's attention flitted towards her. She slowly lifted her head, revealing a pair of tear-stricken red eyes and quivering lips that made his heart shatter on the spot. "Th-the burns were s-s-so bad… R-Recovery Girl doesn't know if they're ever going to fade!"

AN: Holy crap am I sick of writing fights. The really straightforward ones aren't too bad, but the evenly matched ones like Deku vs Bakugo require an obnoxious amount of planning to make sure all the moves make sense, and even more editing than normal to ensure it's easy to understand what's going on. And, most importantly, they have to be enjoyable to read. Normally I like writing fight scenes, but four straight chapters of nothing but fighting is just tedious. I spent so much time writing Deku vs Bakugo, that writing the scene afterwards felt jarring, and had me staring at the word document for like half an hour, trying to remember how to write two people having a conversation. Fucking tournament arcs. I genuinely can't wait to get back to making actual progress on the story.

As for this chapter, rest assured that it is not my intention to bash Bakugo. I hate character bashing. Even if I dislike a character, I'd still try and use them to their full potential in my writing, because the story comes first. And I don't actually dislike Bakugo; I find him amusing. It's just that, at this point in canon, he was a pretty nasty piece of work, and someone like Gohan constantly one-upping him would only exacerbate his mountain of issues. I do have further plans for his character, and I will try my absolute best to keep him in character. So, if you're having doubts about his role in the story, know that I do plan on doing him justice.

Now, given the crazy amount of attention it's received, I suppose I should address the whole shipping conundrum.

When I first started this fic, I'd already planned out all the major plot points. That includes the beginning, middle, end, major conflicts, and the pairing. However, all the stuff that happens in between those plot points hasn't been planned, because that would be impossible. My brain just isn't big enough to store all that information.

With the way I write, characters sometimes end up writing themselves. They do what they want, and drive certain aspects of the story how they want. If two characters get along really well, or certain scenes in the story push them together, they naturally gravitate towards each other. And I write that happening because it feels natural, even if it wasn't something I originally planned.

I never expected Mina to have such a prominent role in a story by this point, but with the way I was writing, and the way the story was going, it made sense that she would. I wasn't trying to ship bait anyone; I just wrote what felt natural.

As for Momo, all I'll say is that she hasn't had ANY time to shine yet. Mina has had a bunch of scenes in which she was in the spotlight, but Momo hasn't. And, the Mina stuff aside, that was part of the plan I had for Momo. I'd planned to dedicate more time to her, and her relationship with Gohan, at later points in the story, because that's when I felt it would make the most sense within the context of the story.

So, while I'm not surprised a lot of readers are favouring Mina at this point, all I ask is that people give Momo a chance. Wait until I give her the same amount of focus Mina has received, and then make your judgments from there. I know I made it harder on myself, and it doesn't help that Mina is a lot more open, affable and approachable as a character, but I'm confident that I can make Momo just as likable.

Now, if the story progresses in such a way that Gohan and Mina becomes a better, more realistic, more fitting pairing than Gohan and Momo, I'll change it. Romance is a relatively minor aspect of this fic all things considered, so it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But until it comes time to decide this, please don't jump the gun regarding the romance. There's still a ton of story to get through.

With that out of the way, I'm pleased to say that I've finished revising the earlier chapters, and I'm now mostly satisfied with how they are. I've probably still missed a couple of things, as much as it pains me to admit, but I have no doubt I'll comb through those old chapters again at some point. I'm pedantic like that. In any case, if you were thinking of going back and rereading the fic to refresh your memory, now would be a good time to do so.

In conclusion, I'd like to give a huge thanks from the bottom of my heart to everyone who offered their condolences and kind words after the last chapter. It meant a lot. Thanks as well to all the new readers who have favourited, followed and left reviews since then; you guys are awesome, too. If you have the time, please let me know what you thought of this chapter, particularly how I'm handling then fight scenes. I've been putting a lot of focus into trying to make them flow as smoothly as possible, so hopefully they didn't disappoint.

Until next time!