A/N: Over a year later, I have returned, hopefully to a more regular update schedule. I'll probably go into more detail about why it took so long over on the Spacebattles thread at some point, but TL;DR - a combination of writer's block plus a few minor and major life events.
It's good to be back!
Lots of people said that Quirks were the next step in human evolution. Most of the people who said that were morons, but it was a popular opinion, just the same. Naturally, since there existed a population of people willing and capable of being stupid in public forums on the internet, there were also people who were willing to oppose them, sometimes with well-meaning scientific arguments like 'if Quirks were an evolutionary adaptation why did further Quirks after the first pop up randomly, instead of being limited to the first Quirk-holder's descendants' and 'actually a lot of the first people with Quirks died or didn't have kids because they were seen as undesirable mutants,' other times with less cogent arguments, such as 'STFU you moron.'
Naturally, nobody ever changes their opinion thanks to arguments they read on the internet. Humans are still evolutionarily adapted to living in tribes of 250 people or less; biologically programmed to pay attention to the body language of the faces that they see in person, to feel shame and embarrassment when people look in their direction and laugh. Ten thousand years ago, susceptibility to peer pressure was an evolutionary advantage, and if you need real proof that Quirks aren't somehow related to evolution, consider the fact that there are dozens of quirks that give people super strength or flight or things like that, and not a single one I've ever found that grants the holder super-resistance to societal disapproval.
Which was a pity, because I sure as hell could have used a Quirk like that right about now. As I walked into the overpriced but stylish cafe, I could feel my skin crawl. Everywhere I looked, it seemed like people were staring at me. The waitresses, the customers… I even heard faint whispers and mutters, as if just by seeing me, people were suddenly breaking into conversation. I walked stiffly towards the back of the restaurant, partly just to get out of the entryway where everyone could see me, but also because I spotted a familiar pastel-blue ponytail. As I got closer, the blue-haired girl glanced over her shoulder in my direction, only for her eyes to widen. So did mine, and I was suddenly grateful for the sunglasses over my eyes. Kawasaki Saki looked good normally in just her school uniform, but seeing her in a stylish black top that showed a hint of decolletage? Wearing makeup? I couldn't help but stare. She stared back at me as I slid into the seat across from her. "Hey, sorry I'm late," I said. "Were you waiting long?"
"Hikigaya?" Kawasaki said in surprise, before a frown of annoyance spread across her face. "What the heck are you wearing?"
I flinched reflexively. Not exactly the ideal words to start a date on… if this was a date, anyways. "Uh… an anti-paparazzi disguise?" I said, wincing at how lame it sounded even as I said it. Maybe the paper face mask had been overkill on top of the sunglasses and the baseball cap. Sheepishly, I unhooked the mask from behind my ears and jammed it into my pocket. "Cyberpunch said there were supposed to be rules about journalists using underage students' likenesses without permission and stuff like that, but also that tabloids don't always play by the rules, so… I dunno." I'd called Cyberpunch up in a panic this morning; something about seeing clickbait headlines implying that she and I were in a romantic relationship and that Manaka had slapped me due to a tawdry love triangle had freaked me the hell out. Cyberpunch correctly pointed out that anybody who believed tabloid headlines was an idiot, which almost calmed me down until I realized just how many idiots there were in the world, but either way, she had told me to just ignore the gossip and go about my life as normal. I probably should have taken her advice. "I didn't want to get you involved too, I guess?" I told Kawasaki sheepishly. "I might have overreacted."
"Just a little, you think?" Kawasaki said. Despite the fact that her eyebrows were twitching in irritation, I couldn't help but notice the corner of her mouth curl up in amusement. "If anything, dressing like that is going to make people more suspicious about what's going on with you! Take it off already!" She hissed.
"Sorry," I muttered, taking my seat. I took off the sunglasses as well, hooking them by the frame onto the collar of my shirt, then looking around nervously to see if anyone reacted. Miraculously, it seemed that if anyone else in the cafe recognized me, they were polite enough to keep it to themselves. "I don't know why anybody wants to be famous, if this is what it's like," I groaned. "It sucks." Was it too late to change careers? Nobody took pictures of ordinary house-husbands and used them to sell magazines, right?
"Famous. Right." Kawasaki said. Her voice was as arid as a desert. "So… how was the big party last night?"
I cringed. Even though this was only maybe, kind of, sort of a date; and even though going to the Hosu charity ball with Manaka last night had been out of a combination of work obligation and self-preservation, the part of my brain that was evolutionarily programmed to notice societal disapproval was rather insistently pointing out that if you looked at the situation the wrong way, it would be pretty easy to come to the conclusion that I was a giant man-whore, and that Kawasaki Saki should hate me for using her costuming skills in order to go on a date with another woman. The fact that I didn't know I had been on a date wasn't that much of a defense, if I was being honest with myself - being so self-absorbed that I hadn't noticed any of the clues Manaka had given out just meant that instead of cheating on Kawasaki with another woman, I had cheated on her with my own narcissism.
But I was enough of a scumbag that I was going to try to ask for Kawasaki's forgiveness anyways. People sometimes say that love songs only sound cliche until you're in a relationship, at which point they take on deep and profound meaning; I wouldn't know, but I was gaining a whole new appreciation for cliche soap operas and predictable relationship dramas - you never appreciate the entwined hope and despair of lines like 'wait, let me explain!' until you're biting your tongue to keep from saying them yourself. Steeling myself, I took a deep breath. "So-"
"Welcome to Kohikan," a voice interjected. Startled, I looked to my left to see a uniformed waitress staring at me and Kawasaki with poorly concealed curiosity. "Can I take your order?"
I picked up the menu, staring at it blankly while my face did its best to set itself on fire. As expected, the food was overpriced and overly fancy. Who thought putting black pepper on macaroni & cheese was a good idea? And why did they think they could charge an extra 200 yen for it? I blindly picked a sandwich off the menu, judging that it was hard to actually mess up meat, cheese, and just enough lettuce to trick yourself into thinking you've eaten a vegetable between two slices of bread, and got an iced coffee to wash it down.
Kawasaki ordered a sandwich as well, although with juice instead of coffee, and didn't take her eyes off of me to check the menu while she did it. As the waitress bustled away, I took a deep breath and started filling Kawasaki in on what had actually happened… more or less. I couldn't exactly explain the whole bit about having been caught on tape admitting that Midoriya was All Might's love child, so instead I just rearranged the timeline slightly, implying that Cyberpunch asking for help with the investigation was the reason I took Manaka up on her offer in the first place, rather than just the reason I stuck around for longer than half an hour. I felt like an asshole doing it, like I was leveraging my status as a supposed "Hero" in order to get away with acting like a self-absorbed jerk. But I was desperate enough not to lose a friend and a chance at maybe something more that I did it anyways. "But, uh, I couldn't exactly tell Manaka that was why I accepted, since she was technically sort of a suspect, so she wound up thinking we were there on a date. And… then I ignored her all night to investigate, did a bunch of dancing with other women while I did it…"
Thankfully, Kawasaki's expression had slowly calmed down over the course of my story from an intense look of judgment to a more neutral gaze. "So… you were a jerk."
"It's not like I knew she thought it was a date," I groused, one hand lifting involuntarily to rub my cheek. I was still trying to put weight back on, so I hadn't used Regeneration since last night. Despite not being visibly bruised, my cheek still felt sore when I touched it. "If I'd known she thought it was a date, I'd have said no and gotten a ticket from Cyberpunch."
"Why not?" Kawasaki asked. I raised my eyebrows, not expecting that question. She didn't meet my eyes, looking off to the side even as she sipped at her ice water through a straw. "I mean, I saw some pictures of her online. She's pretty cute."
"I, um." I felt my face flushing, and hurriedly picked up my own glass of water to match Kawasaki. "You know," I stammered. That was actually a good question. Why was I more comfortable with being blackmailed into a work arrangement to help someone get popular than being blackmailed into a date with a pretty girl? As the answer came to me, I couldn't help but look down and mumble into my water glass. "Because I only want to go on a date with someone if they're someone I like… I guess?"
When I finally looked up to see Kawasaki's reaction, she still wasn't looking directly at me, but her cheeks were significantly pinker. "Oh," she mumbled. "That makes sense." She paused, then looked at me, her periwinkle eyes full of curiosity. "How did you not realize, though? I mean, did she really not give you any hints that it was a date?"
I groaned. "Looking back on it now, I mean, she did… but every time I assumed she was being manipulative because she wanted attention from a hero, or she was naturally flirtatious, or just…" I sighed heavily. "You know, being nice." As I said it, I couldn't help but watch Kawasaki closely, for any signs of flinching or sudden reveals that she was some kind of hero groupie herself. Instead, Kawasaki looked at me with puzzled incomprehension. Part of me wanted to drop the subject there, but … right now, this was a not-date, and it wouldn't take very much for that to change into being, well, not a date. I owed her at least a little bit more of an explanation. "Back in middle school," I began, only for the waitress to arrive with our food. For a minute or two, it seemed like what I wanted to say would be lost in the shuffle of plates and cups, but as we each took a few bites of our sandwiches Kawasaki eventually looked straight at me again.
"Back in middle school?" She asked.
I sighed. "Yeah. Back in middle school, I, uh, didn't have a lot of friends." I couldn't help but close my eyes for a second, unable to help but picture Zaimokuza, the friend I didn't realize I'd had until it was too late. "And I definitely didn't have any friends who were girls. So, uh. I wasn't very good at telling the difference between a girl being nice to me because she liked me, and a girl being nice to me because she was just nice."
Kawasaki winced in sympathy, though she couldn't help but smirk at the same time. "That explains a few things," she said, then suddenly asked, "is that why you confessed to Orimoto?"
I flinched. "Haha, you, uh, remember that, huh?" I stammered. "Yeah, uh, I made a mistake and thought she liked me, and she was cute," and I had a terrible torrid crush on her that definitely didn't need to be brought up right now, "so I asked her out. And got rejected. And after that, I pretty much swore off assuming that girls were interested in me, ever. Once burned, twice shy, I guess?" Or, five or six times burned, but who was counting? The pithy retelling of an event that had not too long ago filled me with enough raw spite and resentment that I had decided to become a Professional Hero felt inadequate; there was no way to describe to Kawasaki how miserable I had been, the shame I had felt as seemingly everyone in the school had laughed at me. How happy I had been that someone, anyone, at that school had noticed me as more than an almost-quirkless wonder; and how crushed I had been when I learned it was only my delusion.
I couldn't explain, but maybe I didn't need to, because Kawasaki's smirk suddenly turned into a much softer smile. "That actually explains a lot," she repeated. "So, uh, hypothetically, if there was a girl you liked," she said. "You, uh, wouldn't ask them out right away, right? You'd probably ask them to, like… hang out, first. Or something."
"I, uh." I took a sip of my coffee. I wasn't sure why I needed it, my heart was beating more than fast enough already. "Yeah. Or something," I said.
Kawasaki Saki didn't respond for a second. Just as I was beginning to get concerned (by which I mean just as my anxiety over what I'd just said was about to overpower my fear of saying something else stupid), she smirked and brushed a strand of periwinkle blue hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. "That's a shame," she said. "There's girls out there who are weak to being confessed to, you know."
Unable to continue meeting her eyes, I dropped my attention to my rapidly disappearing sandwich, taking a bite as much to stall for time as to fill my belly. I scarcely tasted it. What the hell should I say back to something like that? Slowly, I chewed and swallowed, my gaze rising to meet Kawasaki's lavender eyes once again. "Even if there was a girl I, uh, thought I maybe liked," I said, doing my best to ignore the rising tide of heat in my cheekbones, "I'd, um. I'd probably want to hang out with them for a bit first. To be sure, you know? But I'll, uh. I'll keep that in mind."
For a minute or so, neither one of us spoke, both conspicuously intent on our remaining meals. From time to time, I snuck surreptitious looks up at Kawasaki, only to find myself having to look away as her attention flickered up to me in turn. At some point I must have finished my sandwich, though I could barely remember what it had tasted like. In the end, it was Kawasaki who broke the silence. "So, uh," she said. "Where else did you want to, uh, hang out after this?"
It's a well known fact that the antidote to a bad movie is a good movie. And, since the events of the past week had left me completely appalled by bad filmmaking, that just meant that going to the movies with Kawasaki Saki was a purely rational course of events, one that definitely had nothing to do with the fact that going to the movies together was a classic 'first date' activity… is what I would say, if I were a shitty harem anime protagonist with the emotional IQ of a brain-damaged rock. Even I could notice that after not-talking about the emotions we both weren't admitting, that the atmosphere of our not-date had changed. It wasn't that we suddenly started standing closer to each other, nor did we suddenly start whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears. If anything, I was a little bit more careful not to stand too close; a little bit more hesitant to say what I was thinking, and from how Kawasaki was acting it felt like she was doing the same thing. If music was noise punctuated by silence, then as we walked side by side through the crowded mall towards the movie theater, it felt like Kawasaki and I were dancing to an anti-tune of our own; a silence full of all of the things we weren't saying to each other, and of all the ways we weren't saying them.
Or, this was just a friendly get-together, I was reading into things that weren't there based on overactive hormones, and I was getting my hopes up. Again. There were definite downsides to the whole 'not communicating openly and honestly' thing. Still, things felt like they were going almost unrealistically well. Was this the Hero Halo in effect? Had my telling Kawasaki all about how I was a desperate loser in middle school been miraculously recontextualized into my having been a hopeless romantic? She already thought that me telling off the purple-haired kids from the Sports Festival was some kind of motivational speech, because everyone knew Heroes weren't the type to brag sarcastically; just how much was I benefiting from the benefit of the doubt?
Part of me wanted to ask, to confirm one way or another whether this was actually a date, but I was too much of a coward to actually take that next step even if I had known what to say or how to say it. As Kawasaki and I got in the line for the ticket counter, rather than broach the subject or fill that silence with something meaningful, I turned to my maybe-date and asked, "did you have a movie in mind that you wanted to see?"
She turned slightly to look at me, then looked away, her cheeks pink. "I mean… Some of my friends said some good things about Second Chances - that movie where the leads are stuck in a time loop together? I don't know if you want to watch a romantic comedy, though," she muttered, turning and staring with great apparent interest at the movie poster in question.
I cleared my throat. "I, um, it's not what I'd usually watch, but I guess I'd be okay with it?" I said tentatively. That was definitely a 'date' movie, right? Her suggesting that was a good sign, wasn't it?
"I mean, I'm not really sure what's out right now," Kawasaki said hurriedly. "Maybe we should check and see what's playing first, and if we see something we like better than Second Chances, then we can watch that instead?"
Shit, did I sound too negative when I responded before? Did I make Kawasaki think I wasn't interested, when I was just trying not to get overly excited? "If you want," I said, doing my best not to sound too eager to change movies. "Let's see… what else is there?" Out of habit, I switched to a telescopic vision quirk so I could read the posted showtimes more easily. "There's The Little Chicken? I'm not really in the mood for an animated feature, though… I think I saw an ad for Blue Horizon, that looked okay," I said, "but it looks like the next showing isn't for another hour or so, and I'd rather not wait around that long."
Kawasaki's nose scrunched up adorably as she frowned at me. "Even if we were willing to wait, that's not really my kind of movie," she said. "I don't mind prog-fantasy as a genre in general, but when your main character is staring at menu screens for half the movie, it gets boring."
I fought to keep my dismay from showing on my face. Blue Box-kun wasn't boring, he was a staple of the genre! How were movie-watchers supposed to understand how much stronger the main character was getting without being able to see numbers go up? "Philistine," I accused her, though I grinned to show I was kidding.
She just snorted in derision, continuing to stare at the listed movies. "The only other thing I'm seeing is Courting Death, which…" she quickly tapped at her phone, only to make a frown of disgust. "... is 'a movie about a young cultivator whose pure Yang constitution makes him the idol of his sect, but the beautiful female ghost haunting his dwelling wants to keep him all to herself, and keeps killing any women he shows interest in. A Harem Horror/Comedy.'"
That absolutely sounded like the kind of garbage I would laugh myself sick hate-watching, but from Kawasaki's facial expression right then might not be the time to verbalize that particular opinion out loud. "Let's just stick with Second Chances," I suggested.
Kawasaki lifted her eyes from her cell phone and met mine, then blushed, quickly looking away to tap at her phone for another second or two before putting it away. "I mean, yeah, looks like there's nothing else worth watching, so, yeah, sure."
Even as she said that, the line moved forward, and the moment of truth approached. With one look back at the blushing face of Kawasaki Saki, I took a deep breath and spoke to the ticket agent. "Two for Second Chances, please." Maybe it was absurd of me to make such a big deal about paying for Kawasaki's ticket - especially since had I not managed to get into UA, my backup career plan was to find some way to become a house-husband. But, with so much unspoken between us at the moment, this was a chance to shake the imaginary 8-ball and answer the critical question - was this a date?
As I paid for the tickets and glanced back at Kawasaki, she smiled. "Thanks," she said. "I'll get the snacks." Or, in other words: 'Answer unclear, try again later.' If she had insisted on paying for her own ticket, that would have been a solid refusal of the date; if she had let me pay for everything, then it would have been a solid acceptance, but this? Maybe taking turns to pay for things was a perfectly normal thing that friends did when they hung out at the movies. I wouldn't know; the only person I'd been to the movies with in the last five years or so was my sister.
Whether it was a date or not, as Kawasaki and I collected popcorn and sodas and took our seats in the theater, I came to the sudden realization that at the very least, it was way closer to one than anything I'd experienced before. Sure, last night with Manaka had involved fancy dresses and costumes, music and dancing, and all the other ingredients of a romantic rendezvous - in theory. But as the lights dimmed I found myself hyper-aware of Kawasaki in a way that I hadn't been with Manaka. I could faintly feel the heat of Kawasaki's body in the seat next to mine, where we would only have to lean in towards each other slightly or reach for the popcorn at the same time for our arms to touch. Underneath the smell of popcorn, I could faintly make out the clean smell of soap, and the barest hint of perfume. And in the soft light reflected from the theater screen, Kawasaki's face was beautiful enough that I found myself constantly sneaking glances her way instead of watching the movie.
I must not have been the only one who was less than totally gripped by the movie's mediocre plot, because all of a sudden, I noticed Kawasaki's eyes looking back. For a few seconds, our eyes met. In the dim light, her pupils looked deep and wide, and I felt like I was going to get lost in them. Then, my eyes dipped lower, where I couldn't help but notice that her lips looked incredibly soft and inviting. I felt butterflies in my stomach, and couldn't help but swallow. All of a sudden, this was definitely, certainly, kind of maybe actually looking like a date. As I pulled my gaze away to focus back on her eyes, I couldn't help but notice that they had moved closer. That Kawasaki's whole face was closer to mine, in fact. All I would have to do would be to lean in, just a little…
So why didn't I? I could make excuses. I could claim that it was rude to kiss in a theater, or that I was too shy to do something like that in public, even with no-one watching. But those thoughts never crossed my mind. It wasn't like I didn't like Kawasaki. It wasn't like I didn't want to kiss her. I could care less about popularity or being liked by everyone, but I cared a lot about having just one person who liked me, just one person who accepted me as I was. The 'me' of the past who was shot down by girl after girl was practically screaming at me to just go for it, to take the plunge.
But if my lips did touch Kawasaki Saki's, who would she be kissing? Would it be me, or would it be the Myriad? The bundle of self-destructive impulses and despair who needed her affection, or the invincible president of 1-A, the riajuu who had encouraged her to reach out for her dreams?
After what seemed like an eternity, I just turned away to focus back on the movie. Maybe I should have made up a lie about having been looking at her because I wanted the popcorn, or whispered an inane question, but in the moment my brain was frozen in panic. Instead I just sat there, staring at a movie I didn't really care about, and tried to ignore Kawasaki Saki's eyes intermittently boring a hole in the side of my head for the rest of the film.
The movie itself was probably good, on the whole. If I had paid attention, it probably would have been too melodramatic for my tastes, but that's par for the course given that it was a romance movie. Certainly, the other moviegoers seemed to enjoy it; as the lights came back on, I could hear people discussing how sweet it was when Yuki declined the option to leave the loop so he could stay with Amelia or when the first cherry blossoms finally began to fall. It was easy to overhear, in fact, because Kawasaki and I were just standing around awkwardly, not saying anything. Even now, part of me wanted to ask if this had been a date, if she had had fun, if… no.
More accurately, there were questions I wanted to know the answers to, but I definitely didn't want to be the person asking them. There were only one and a half questions that I could bring myself to ask; first, if I could walk her back to the train station - and then, when we got there, I asked "see you in school?"
For all that it was only half a question, more a conversational gambit that happened to have an upwards inflection at the end, I was still happy to hear it when Kawasaki smiled and said, "yes, definitely." For a second, it felt like I hadn't managed to completely mess everything up, even though that was probably a self-centered delusion. And for once, at the end of a weeklong vacation, I was looking forward to going back to school.
Although that possibly also had to do with the fact that over the course of my 'vacation', I got stabbed, slapped, thrown into the ground repeatedly by experienced martial artists, photographed by the paparazzi, and had to deal with not one but two Yukinoshitas, plus their cousin. Frankly, a heavy dose of academic tedium was starting to sound pretty good right about now.
The skin on the back of my neck crawled. Everywhere I looked, I saw people either staring directly at me, or hurriedly looking away. The cavernous hallways of UA had never seemed so tight and claustrophobic. It wasn't just my imagination, right? Part of me was almost tempted to switch quirks to Earphone Jack so that I could hear the murmurs that seemed to follow in my wake, but my already tenuous sanity decided it was better not to know.
Class 1-A's door was intimidating in size to begin with, but that morning it almost seemed to dwarf me beneath it. As odd as it might have seemed to the 'me' of a few months ago, I actually had 'friends' in class; people whose opinion I cared about. If random strangers were reacting so strongly to the paparazzi publishing stories about me, what would my classmates think? Would they make fun of me? Stop talking to me?
"Oi, Hikigaya!" A familiar strident voice shouted from further down the hallway, and suddenly I found myself much less scared of what was on the other side of the doorway in comparison to what was on the same side of it. "Hold still!" That was Bakugo Katsuki for you. A normal friend would probably have said something like 'wait up,' but then again, a normal friend probably wouldn't be stomping towards me with murder in his eyes - or so I assumed, since he was still a few dozen feet away.
Hoping to put off the imminent explosion for a few more seconds, I turned the handle and stepped back into the familiar classroom. Despite having last left it only a week ago, so much had happened in the interim that it felt like it had been longer. And what greeted me were… smiles. Some people, like Kaminari or Tobe, just looked up to see who was coming in the door, nodded in my direction, and returned to their conversations; a few people who I was closer to like Kirishima, Yaoyorozu, and Yuigahama waved me over, opening up their body language as if to invite me into their conversation. I found the corner of my mouth twitching up in return, just a little, but I didn't head over to the three of them directly. Instead I stopped by my desk to drop off my bookbag - and to put a few more warm bodies in between myself and the door.
"Get back here you fucker!" The door slammed open, the sound of its impact with the frame punctuating the sharp crackle-reports of the multiple explosions going off in Katsuki's hands. He was absolutely livid with rage, veins twitching at his temples. The glare in his eyes and the set of his jaw promised a heaping helping of pain ready to be served up in my direction.
And I couldn't take any of his rage at all seriously, because his hair was still stuck in a perfect, model-student, parted hairstyle. Even though I knew it was just going to make things worse, I helplessly started to smirk. "Sup," I said, trying as hard as I could not to laugh outright. "So, uh… keeping the new haircut, I see."
Unfortunately for Katsuki's ego, Kirishima had significantly less restraint. "Bwahahaha! What the fuck, Bakugo!"
"You want to die?" Katsuki growled. "It's not my fault, my hair's fucking stuck like this!"
"Leave him alone, Kiri-kun!" Yuigahama butted in, as if she hadn't sent me covert pictures of this very same haircut a few days ago. "I think it looks nice!"
She wasn't very convincing, not with the fact that she was visibly fighting to keep a straight face, and I doubted that her sudden attempt at backpedaling would convince Katsuki to be any less pissed at her, but what the hell, it was worth a try. "Yeah, it's, uh, it's actually not bad," I lied. Almost immediately, my attempts to keep a straight face failed. "snrk- Very professional-looking," I half-said, half-chortled.
"I'm glad you survived fighting Stain, Hachiman." Katsuki snarled. "It means I get to kill you myself!"
As expected, the change of topic changed the atmosphere in the classroom. People had been looking in our direction to begin with - Katsuki's hair had ensured that - but now all eyes were definitely on me. Yet oddly, the familiar angry ranting helped me stay calm. I took the death threats in stride, leaning back a bit to brace my shoulders against the classroom wall. "Uh huh," I said, being as noncommittal as possible because I knew it would piss Katsuki off even more. "That's nice."
Before Katsuki could continue shouting, Kirishima spoke up. "Dude, so what was it like?" He asked, his eyes lighting up with excitement. "I mean, maybe it's a stupid question, but like… dude, you have an official Villain collar before you're even an official Pro! That's manly as hell!"
Despite the fact that he was audibly grinding his teeth, even Bakugo was more or less silent waiting for my response, much less the rest of the class. I couldn't blame them for being curious - I sure as heck would have been if I were in their position. Some people were looking at me with naked curiosity, others with equally unrestrained envy, and a few, like Kirishima, with just a hint of awe, but all of them wanted to hear what I had to say. "It sucked," I said. "We definitely weren't ready for that kind of fight."
Iida Tenya cleared his throat obnoxiously. "The rules and guidelines surrounding Hero Licenses are there for a reason, after all! The fact that you all were able to escape harm is extremely fortunate!"
Normally, the fact that Iida had a massive stick up his ass tended to irritate the crap out of me. In this case, he was right. Still obnoxious, but right. "Yeah. The only reason we lived is because Stain was an egomaniac and wasn't really taking us seriously."
Kirishima winced. "Seriously?" He asked.
I nodded solemnly. "Have you ever seen a cat slapping around a toy mouse? They'll bat it around for a while, just for fun, but when they get too worked up they'll grab it, bite the shit out of it, and start kicking it in the belly with their back legs to try to disembowel it. We basically survived by making jingly bell noises for long enough that Stain was too busy having fun to try to kill us."
An aggrieved female voice suddenly cut into our conversation. "Hikigaya. That's a terrible metaphor." I turned towards Yukinoshita Yukino, who was closely followed by Todoroki Shoto. To my relief, they both looked fully healed after our mutual post-Stain hospital stay. Not that I had expected them to still be hurt, given that of the three of us, neither of them had been the ones coming away from the fight with major body parts looking like raw hamburger, but seeing Yukinoshita walking without issue on her previously wounded leg and Todoroki without his arm in a sling was still a relief. Seeing the frown on Yukinoshita's face was less pleasant, but still comforting due to being so familiar. "Stain was nothing like a cat," she said, glaring at me in indignation.
For a second, I did a double-take, trying to figure out what had gone wrong; then I remembered Yukinoshita meowing up at the cat I rescued from the tree, and rolled my eyes. "Fine, then. You come up with a way to describe how little chance we stood against Stain."
She barely even paused. "Like Eraserhead-sensei fighting the League's minions at the USJ, only we were the Villains."
I shrugged, trying not to show how irritated I was that she had a better description than I did. "What she said," I agreed, turning to the rest of the class.
"Okay, hold on," a new voice spoke up; I turned to see Kaminari Denki. "I get the Stain stuff. I mean, mostly. Like, I definitely still wanna hear a blow-by-blow of how it all went down. But what I wanna know is, why are there all these tabloids with pictures of you getting slapped?"
My face turned red out of embarrassment and shame. "That's, um… it's a long story."
Unexpectedly, it was Todoroki who came to my rescue. "I didn't exactly see what happened, but I had to work with Manaka last week while Campestris was on the film set," he said. "She didn't seem very stable."
"She's not," I deadpanned. Heaving a sigh, I ran one hand through my hair in frustration. "I went with her to the Ball because she asked me for a favor, and I think she got mad because… I treated it like I was doing her a favor, and not like I was her boyfriend? I think? I'm honestly still not entirely sure."
"That sucks, dude," Kaminari said, albeit with a grin at my misfortune. "Hey, at least maybe this'll help you get rid of that Casanova nickname."
"I kind of feel like it's only going to make it worse, kero," I heard Asui mutter.
"Any other questions?" I asked with exasperation, raising my eyebrow at the class.
"Oooh, ooh, I have one!" Ashido Mina said, raising one pink-skinned arm with a wicked grin. "Does that mean you're still single? Inquiring minds want to know!"
"Uhhhh…" I just froze like a deer in headlights. Honestly, I wanted to know the answer to that question myself. "No comment," I said, trying not to blush. Mina's eyes sharpened, like a beast suddenly smelling weakness, but luckily for me, that was when the bell rang and Eraserhead stood up from his sleeping bag and announced a pop quiz to measure how much studying we'd done during our internships. Resolutely, I focused my attention on my test papers, and told myself that the eyes burning holes into the back of my neck were just my imagination.
A year ago, I would have spent my lunch period alone in an isolated courtyard to the side of the school, alone with one other person on the roof if I was feeling social (since the only person who ever willingly ate lunch with me had a tendency to pick places as 'light novel protagonist-like' as possible to eat) or as a last resort in case of inclement weather, alone at my desk in the classroom. Then I'd acquired an unfortunate case of group project-transmitted friendship, and all of a sudden eating alone became a rare occasion. Slowly over time, I went from eating with my HEART group, then adding Yaoyorozu and Saika, and occasionally getting visitors like Kirishima, Ashido, Hagakure, and Shoji. Some days, it was a squeeze trying to find enough seats at even the larger tables in UA's cafeteria.
Today, however, even squeezing was a lost cause. For one, Todoroki had suddenly showed up, sitting next to Yukinoshita and myself. For another, while Yaoyorozu, Saika, Yuigahama, and Katsuki had heard most of the story already via text messages over the weekend, our other friends all flocked to the table to hear the story firsthand. As did the class gossips. And the people who usually sat with the class gossips. And a suspicious number of eavesdroppers from other classes. Our 'lunch table' wound up metastasizing across an entire corner of the massive cafeteria, with tables being dragged to within earshot. And I couldn't even escape, because the new meal plan that Lunch Rush had started me on involved truly massive amounts of food, enough that getting it out into a courtyard would have been a logistical nightmare. Also, people probably would have followed me.
It just went to show the allure that the Hero industry has on people. I'm sure there was an element of people wanting to make sure we were okay, but mostly? Todoroki, Yukinoshita, and I had indisputably achieved something that at least looked like "real heroism" from the outside, and as their peers, we were naturally the best choice for all the people who'd only experienced the barest tastes of hero work, and who were dying to live vicariously through us. Every blow we took, every wound and scar, should have been cautionary tales encouraging everyone to leave the Hero profession as soon as possible. Instead they were devoured by eyes shining with envy, transformed by the magic of unrealistic ideals and equally unrealistic expectations into badges of honor and glory. Part of me wanted to yell at them, to grab them by the shoulders and make them realize that it wasn't worth it; on the other hand, it wasn't like I intended to quit working as a hero myself, so rather than acting more aggressively hypocritical than usual, I spent most of lunch stuffing my face, taking advantage of the sheer volume of food I had to eat in order to let Yukinoshita take the lead on describing everything that happened.
All in all, I was pretty glad when, as lunch came to a close, the subject finally changed to my classmates' second favorite subject other than unrealistic tales of heroism - themselves. Granted, I didn't exactly care about Kaminari's futile attempts to get the phone number of the 'cute sidekick' his mentor had, or Kobe's gushing about the 'mad rhymes' he learned from some hero I'd never heard of named Street Speedster Sekitoba Kung Fu, but there were definitely people whose internships I was just a bit curious about.
"So, how'd it go with Air Jet?" I found myself asking Yaoyorozu as the group of people who had been eating together walked down the hallway en masse back to the classroom.
Before the internships, my… vice president had looked uneasy and indecisive about where she wanted to intern, so I was relieved when Yaoyorozu smiled confidently. "Oh, it was edifying," she said. "I've experimented with creating support equipment before, of course - simple radios, smoke bombs, tasers, those sorts of things; but that's very different from instruction by a specialist. Actually, my control of my quirk isn't good enough yet to accomplish some of the things Air Jet-sensei had me try - I need more practice at creating precision parts with micrometer tolerances."
"You know, if you can improve your build quality, that would potentially go a long way towards making the limited supply of your quirk stretch farther," I pointed out. "If you're limited by the mass of what you make, being able to create, say, a stun baton instead of a baseball bat actually sounds like an upgrade without a lot of downsides."
"Well, the more complex something is, the longer it takes to visualize properly," Yaoyorozu equivocated, "so in an emergency it's still useful to stick to simple constructions. But otherwise, I totally agree, and Air Jet pointed out something very similar! What about you?" Yaoyorozu asked. "It just struck me that for all that people have asked at length about the incident with Stain, I don't think I've heard you say much about the prior parts of the internship. Did you learn anything valuable from Cyberpunch?"
I couldn't help it. My lips twisted further, my smile growing from a smirk into a full-on, shit-eating grin. "You could say that," I said, absent-mindedly clenching one hand into a fist. "I got some martial arts instruction, but more than that… Cyberpunch helped me finally figure out something really important. It's not the sort of thing that will help right away, but in the long run? It's gonna be great."
"Oh, congratulations!" Yaoyorozu said, a slight bounce in her step as she matched my excitement with some of her own. "That sounds exceptionally promising! You'll have to tell me all about it after we change," she said as we reached the doors to the locker rooms.
I said goodbye with a silent smile and nod, but despite the cheerful expression on my face… I was beginning to feel a weight forming in the pit of my stomach.
Fear is a funny emotion. You'd think that after staring down someone who literally wanted to kill you - for a third time, that is - everyday classes at school wouldn't faze me in the slightest. But as I got dressed for Heroics, I began to feel the sort of slow, creeping dread I normally only felt when staring at a test I hadn't studied for. The fight with Stain had only been a few days ago, and rather than rest and recover, I'd gone to the Hosu Charity Ball and then out to the movies with Kawasaki. Yesterday had been the first time I'd taken remotely any kind of personal time to myself since the start of the semester, and already I was feeling guilty about having done it, because my stores of Quirks were at an all-time low.
It didn't help that my costume had come down with a bad case of 'bloody, tattered rags'. I was hardly the first person to have to wear their gym uniform to Heroics class, but sitting there, surrounded by excited classmates in their hero costumes, chattering excitedly about their internships, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that I was a mere mortal amidst the mighty. I desperately needed a weekend, or better yet, a vacation, to properly charge my powers and get them back to something resembling usefulness, but it was a Monday, and as far as the school was considered, 'vacation' was a dirty word - they had us do our internships over Golden Week!
If I had still been learning to be a Hero out of nothing more than petty spite, I might have started wondering why I was forcing myself to endure this kind of stress. I'd probably be whining to myself about how insane the teachers were here at UA, contemplating switching to the Gen Ed track or switching schools entirely, and cringing at the humiliation I was about to experience knowing that all of my classmates were about to completely outdo me.
I mean, I was still bitching and moaning, don't get me wrong, just… not seriously.
Quitting wasn't an option.
No matter how much it sucked to leave the locker rooms and then be told by a smirking Eraserhead-sensei that our training location for the day was five kilometers away at Training Grounds Gamma, and that 'a nice, quirkless run to training should be a good warm-up.'
Usually, quirkless exercise would be right up my alley, especially with my quirks so diminished, but I was definitely still recovering from all the stab wounds I picked up fighting Stain, and it was getting close enough to summer that the afternoons were starting to get warm and muggy, so rather than my usual habits of trying to get to the training grounds as soon as possible with the tryhards, I stuck around with the slower members of the pack and tried to regain my energy. Disconcertingly, Katsuki for once skipped sprinting as fast as possible to try to display dominance in order to hang back and jog next to me. That led to Kirishima jogging next to him, and Hayama and Tobe falling in behind them; somehow after that it seemed like most of the class had, for once, decided to stick together with the group. Even Iida decided to chat up with Midoriya and Uraraka rather than running loops around us all.
People definitely weren't all sprinting as hard as they could on most training days because I was the one who was motivating them into being Plus Ultra. It was definitely a coincidence. Yup, it just occurred to me that Todoroki and Yukino were injured and recovering too. Clearly, everything was Todoroki's fault; but with him recovering, we reached Gamma as a unified class rather than arriving in dribs and drabs.
Gamma was, like most of the training grounds in UA, an obstacle course thinly disguised as some piece of urban architecture we could conceivably one day have to either fight in or rescue people from. In this case, as we neared the the entrance gate to the complex, above the boundary walls I saw a combination of warehouse roofs, catwalks, dangling cranes, and bulbous spherical storage containers that made me think we would be doing our 'hero'-ing inside of the bastard offspring of an industrial warehousing complex and a chemical plant. Also, as we arrived at the site, there was no teacher visibly present.
"Looks like All Might's teaching today," I muttered to Katsuki as we stopped to catch our breath.
"Hmph. I wouldn't mind a combat class," my friend muttered, flexing his fingers menacingly. "Best Jeanist spent all week drilling us on boring bullshit like PR. I haven't gotten a chance to punch someone's teeth in for ages," he said, looking straight at me with a threatening grin. "And since you were fucking around on the run here, that puts you at the top of my target list."
I did my best to return the smile as blandly and inoffensively as possible. "I wouldn't mind a combat class either," I said with total sincerity. "I'm still pretty tired, so it would be great if we did an exercise the teachers would let me skip."
"Tch." Katsuki clicked his tongue in exaggerated disappointment.
It was funny. A few months ago, someone threatening me with gross bodily harm would have had me shaking in my boots - hell, a year ago, Katsuki and a few of his asshole friends acting vaguely menacing had me within a hair's breadth of dropping my wallet on the ground and running as fast as I could. It wasn't that I thought Katsuki was exaggerating; he could, would, and had hit me with explosions during training before, though never going all out. It wasn't fun. I knew for a fact that getting exploded hurt like a bitch. But after a couple of months and a couple of real fights for my life, potential full-body bruising was… just another Monday at class.
I had to hand it to UA; their child soldier indoctrination programs were on point.
As if summoned by that thought, All Might - childhood hero of most of Japan, a man lionized in official and unofficial media alike - finally arrived for today's lesson on how to be the best government-sponsored enforcers of state violence we could be. With a mighty leap, he landed in front of the class, his trademark smile on full display. "Greetings! For I am here!" And then, for once, he did something I didn't expect - namely, his megawatt grin dimmed down to a much more normal, casual smile. "Alright, we've gotten to know each other well enough that we can skip me doing the big entrance every time," he said wryly. "Let's just focus on class, shall we?" There were some laughs and chatter from the class at that; a few people sounded disappointed, but I personally was glad to see All Might acting a bit more casual. It was hard to take his 'icon of heroism' persona seriously when I knew he was hiding the fact Midoriya was his secret love-child.
The more that All Might explained the day's exercise - a race, from the perimeter of the massive faux industrial complex to some indeterminate location inside of it - the more I found myself frowning. A 'rescue race' in complex terrain was definitely not something I was prepared for. I had used all of the movement quirks I had left in that final, desperate lunge to get to Stain in time to stop him from murdering Yukinoshita Haruno, and in the days since, I had prioritized recharging the quirks I used for defense, rather than the ones I used for mobility. That meant I was going to have to do today's exercise using only combinations of my base 1/108th strength quirk copies, which was… less than ideal. I did have one advantage, though; I wasn't in the group going first.
The unlucky candidates running the exercise blind were Hayama, Uraraka, Iida, Ashido, and Midoriya. Due to the size of the arena, All Might had to summon robot chauffeurs in little golf carts to drive our classmates to their starting locations; in the meantime, the rest of us got set up in front of a widescreen display so that we could evaluate our classmates' progress via drone-cam. "Do you think UA has had all this fancy tech for years?" I asked Katsuki out of curiosity as we waited for the exercise to start. "Or do you think it's new?"
He looked at me quizzically. "Why the fuck would it be new?" He asked. "It's not like things here sucked last year."
So All MIght could give his kid extra-special treatment, I almost said, before realizing that Bakugo didn't know yet that the kid he used to bully was his idol's son. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall when he found that out. "Just wondering if maybe All Might made a big donation before he started teaching or something," I deflected.
"I dunno," Katsuki said, "never really thought about it. All Might posts his charitable donations publicly online, though, so check it yourself if you care."
"Huh, he does?" I said curiously. "Maybe I'll do that." Not that I believed for a second All Might would make the size of this particular donation public.
"Do it," Katsuki said with a smug looking grin. "It'll help you figure out how much I'll be donating in a few years, if you add on a little extra."
That was Katsuki for you. While at first glance, he was an egomaniacal thug; when you looked deeper, he was an egomaniacal thug with incredibly poor impulse control. And when you looked deeper than that… he was an egomaniacal thug with incredibly poor impulse control, and, I supposed, there was a heart of gold somewhere in there. Or a kidney of gold. Maybe an appendix. "It doesn't count as a donation if it's court-mandated repair costs for damage you caused in the first place," I said with a smirk.
Katsuki folded his arms and scowled. "Like fuck," he replied, but before he could continue the jumbotron screens in front of us flashed to life, revealing the first heat of racers.
"It's gotta be Hayama who wins this, right?" I said as the screen showed our classmates taking sprinter's positions and otherwise getting ready. "Iida's faster, but there's all kinds of obstacles in the way - it's tough to beat flight for getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible."
"I mean, it's a rescue race," Katsuki said, "so if All Might's gonna do something tricky and hide in one of the buildings, it might be hard to hear him shouting for help from way up high. Feels like he'd save that for our second time doing the exercise, though." He sneered. "Half these extras can't even walk and chew gum at the same time, I doubt All Might's gonna make them run and look for him."
Although Katsuki and I had been standing off to one side of the main group, we weren't exactly far from the rest of the class, and neither of us was bothering to be particularly quiet, so it wasn't surprising when someone else joined our conversation. "I do not believe that either Iida or Midoriya should be removed from consideration," Tokoyami's deep voice interjected. "While my internship with Hawks certainly taught me much of the manifold advantages that flight possesses, both of them have sufficient speed that their fates for this exercise are not yet written in stone."
Katsuki scoffed. "I can maybe buy the shitty four-eyes pulling something out of his ass, but Deku? No fucking way." Tokoyami opened his mouth as if to reply, but Katsuki kept steamrollering right over him. "The only reason Deku did halfway decent in the Sports Festival race was because there were a bunch of obstacles he was good at - that and someone helped him out," he added with a glare in my direction. "In a fair race, either Flyboy or Glasses smokes him."
Naturally, that was when the race started, and Midoriya started bouncing from building to building like an electrified jackrabbit. We watched in silence for a few seconds, Katsuki's scowl growing ever deeper, before I finally said something. "Looks like Midoriya picked up some decent moves from Mirko," I said non-committally.
"Indeed. The quality of Iida's movement appears to have improved as well, likely due to strength derived from his bonds of blood." Tokoyami agreed. "Even Uraraka appears to be doing relatively well - normally she experiences the call of the void when negating her own gravity, but she appears to be withstanding the might of her own power quite admirably."
I glanced over at Katsuki, who continued quietly seething, then turned back to Tokoyami. "I almost forgot, you're on the same HEART team as Midoriya and Uraraka, with Yaoyorozu, right?" Yayorozu's comments two weeks ago about feeling like an outsider in the group suddenly came to mind. I was curious what Tokoyami thought about it, but I also didn't want to reveal the fact that Yaoyorozu had complained, so in the end I settled on the inoffensive question, "what's that like?"
Tokoyami hummed, thoughtful. "A deceptively difficult question. I find the qualities of certain experiences to defy casual description. How would you describe your own HEART group?"
Again, I couldn't help but look at Katsuki. He was staring with monomaniacal focus at the jumbotron, gritting his teeth as Midoriya somehow managed to just about keep pace with the much more maneuverable Hayama. Familiar as I was with Hayama's quirk, I could see that he'd chosen to gain altitude to spot All Might and was about to go into a dive that would give him an easy victory, but for this first half of the race, the little green dot representing Midoriya was equally close to the finish line as the red dot representing Hayama, and it appeared to be driving Katsuki absolutely spare. Shrugging, I turned back to Tokoyami. "Ah, well, we bicker a lot, but somehow we manage to get along and get stuff done anyways."
"No mention of how your bonds were baptized in bloody battle against the shapeshifting villainess who infiltrated the campus, but rather a succinct statement that captures the atmosphere of your interactions… I see," Tokoyami said. "In that case, I would describe my group as… perhaps more polite and well-mannered than yours, and a bit less close from the perspective of comradeship, but, I hope, equally effective in accomplishing our goals. I have no complaints."
"That's good," I said distractedly as, on the jumbotron, Hayama clinched the easy victory I had expected from him. Midoriya truly wasn't far behind, though; he showed up, red-faced and panting, a few seconds before a less red-faced but much more disappointed-looking Iida. If anything, Iida seemed more disappointed to have finished third than Ashido did for finishing fourth or Uraraka did for finishing last; by contrast, Hayama looked insufferably smug at having taken first place despite literally having a perfectly suited quirk to the objective. How about taking pride in something you weren't literally born with? In disgust, I turned back to Tokoyami to give him my full attention. "Honestly, though, you don't have to fight villains together to make friends," I said. Maybe trying to help Yaoyorozu out would improve my mood. "I mean, our HEART Team was getting along in our own way before we fought the spy. Right, Katsuki?" I asked.
As Katsuki's attention snapped away from the jumbotron, I could tell that as usual, he was going to stretch the definition of 'getting along'. "Who's this 'we?' You didn't even fight her," he sneered. "She won the fight before you even got a chance to start, and all of us had to rescue your ass."
Internally, I winced, but I refused to give Katsuki the satisfaction of knowing he had scored a hit. Instead, I put on my most bashful face, fluttered my eyelids at him, and folded my hands together under my chin. "My heeeerooo," I simpered in a saccharine falsetto.
"Alright kids, let's get set up for the second heat!" All Might's voice echoed from the Jumbotron speakers. "Bakugo, Miura, Kirishima, Jiro, Hikigaya, please board the carts to your starting locations!"
"Anyway," I said over my shoulder to Tokoyami as I headed for the carts, "what I'm trying to say is, just keep at it, if you want to make friends it just takes time." I was lying out of my ass; I was barely even convinced that I even had friends, let alone that I had any special wisdom or advice to give to Tokoyami that I wasn't regurgitating from bad television. But if all that helping Yaoyorozu meant was acting like a hypocrite for a few seconds, I was willing to do it. "It's not a race."
"Yes it is, meatbag," the robot chauffeur said as I stepped into the over-engineered golf cart.
"Shut up, I wasn't talking to you."
The robot let me out roughly a quarter of the way around the perimeter. The gate was closed, but I saw a forest of industrial smokestacks over the top of the wall that made me think the scenery beyond would be some kind of chemical processing plant. I started cracking my knuckles and rolling my neck around to get the kinks out as I warmed up, doing my best to focus on the task at hand and not wondering whether everyone else in the class watching on the giant jumbotron thought my warmup routine looked lame.
So, how was I going to approach this? With only fractions of my quirks available and nothing saved up, I was limited to the power I could eke out of my muscles, and not much beyond that. Given that Midoriya had managed to place ahead of Iida just now, it was clear that taking the 'high road' and running along the rooftops would be faster, assuming I could make all of the necessary jumps; with a few flight quirks in my mental constellation, that was a pretty good assumption.
Huh. Maybe I wouldn't suck that badly at this after all?
As the lights above the gate went from unlit to red, I bounced on my toes a few times, first just to wake up my muscles, then to re-acclimate myself to how much extra power I had while channeling Stockpile, then again to try to get used to how much slower I came down when I had Hayama's flight quirk going alongside Stockpile. As the light turned amber and matched the glow now coming off of my body, I started bent down into a sprinter's crouch, craning my neck upwards to stare at the light. Then it turned green, and the doors swung outwards, revealing a narrow pathway through a maze of industrial piping. It was a rat's warren, easy to get turned around in; the sort of territory that would be a nightmare to try to rescue someone from.
So naturally, instead of running, I leaped. Not for the open doorway, but for UA's overbuilt doors. Between my strength and the flight quirk, I managed to get both hands on one of the doors' top edges, and promptly dragged myself up using that handhold as hard as I could. All of a sudden, I was going up. Once I was high enough I kicked off the wall, something that would normally send me flying backwards in exchange for a little bit of height, but by putting all of my copied Flight quirk into forward momentum, I was able to stay close enough to the wall to kick off of it again in a second or two. I wasn't quite running up the side of the wall, I didn't have enough forward thrust for that, but I was scaling it faster and easier than a normal person would go up a ladder.
The view from the top reaffirmed my decision to take to the rooftops. Compared to the winding maze of warehouses, I could see that my path to the red smoke of All Might's 'distress flare' was, if not completely straightforward, at least only lightly impeded by chimneys and gaps in the roof coverage. Too bad I'd never actually done the whole 'roof-hopping' thing before. But I'd watched Midoriya do it, and I'd seen it on television, so how hard could it be?
Pretty hard, as it turned out. I had no idea how people managed it without flight quirks holding their hand. I had no idea how to plan my routes, and often found myself zig-zagging around obstacles that in retrospect I could have climbed, and then climbing obstacles I should have bypassed. More than once, I misjudged a jump and had to glide to make it to the opposite roof; once I even jumped too far and landed halfway down the face of the next building, and had to climb back up. For a first attempt, though, I felt like I was doing pretty well, and it wasn't like anybody was really dying, so messing around with my flight quirks and taking things relatively easy sounded fine to me. I could hear the sounds of explosions and see the flashes of light that told me that Katsuki was definitely going to beat me to first place by a significant margin, but I was guessing I'd come in second or third place, given the fact that everyone else was on foot.
Then I noticed that Bakugo's trail of explosions was curving. Instead of staying on a course to get to the red smoke, he looked like he was heading towards me. I frowned, my footsteps subconsciously slowing for a second as I watched. Was there something wrong? Had Katsuki blown himself off course by accident? He was usually a pretty good flier…
As another kra-koom thundered in my ears, and Bakugo once again headed directly for me, my jaw dropped. "You can't be serious," I said to myself even as my feet kicked back into high gear. Again, another explosion, and Bakugo continued to home in on me like a heat-seeking missile. "Fuck, he's serious." At the last minute before we were about to collide, Bakugo suddenly swung around sharply, placing himself between me and the red smoke, both hands facing back towards me as he glared at me over his shoulder. I crossed both arms in front of my face and kept sprinting forwards towards him. "This is about the hair jokes, isn't it?!" I shouted, then grit my teeth and activated the copy of Kirishima's quirk I had just finished restocking.
Honestly, the explosion itself wasn't that bad. With an armor quirk up, at that distance it was a little bit like being in a pillow fight with a giant; just an enormous soft whump that picked me up and threw me backwards, rattling my teeth and snapping my head back a little, filling my ears with an annoying high-pitched whine and my nose with the smell of burnt caramel, but not doing any real harm. Sadly, I couldn't say the same about the fall off of the rooftops and into the alleys below.
UA being UA, of course, there were carefully designed crash mats along the most traveled roofhopping routes, engineered to blend in and look natural while also serving as protection from the most dangerous falls. Normally I would say I approved of this 'Plus Ultra' approach to student safety, if they hadn't mocked up fake trash with real smells to fill all those fake dumpsters. By the time I dragged myself out of the slippery pit of scent-soaked sponges, found a way back to the rooftops, and made my bedraggled way to the finish line, I found that everyone else had already passed me by. Miura had, like me, taken to the rooftops somehow, possibly by using the recoil from her arrows to propel her across gaps, while Kirishima and Jiro had beaten me on foot with sheer athleticism and superior navigation skill respectively.
"This wasn't supposed to be a combat exercise, young Bakugo!" All Might admonished.
Bakugo didn't say anything, but from the smirk on his face I could guess that he wasn't feeling particularly repentant.
With a sigh, All Might turned his body slightly, looking almost but not quite at me. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw a hovering camera drone - how long had that been there? "I suppose I didn't actively forbid combat either when setting up the rules of the race, so that's my mistake!" He smiled sheepishly, showing brilliant white teeth. At that moment, I felt a little bit betrayed - was Bakugo really going to get a pass on just attacking me for no reason? Thankfully, however, All Might continued.
"That actually reminds me of the purpose for this Rescue Race exercise," All Might said. "First, of course, a hero should always try to save someone in trouble as quickly as possible!" Again, he gave a smile so flawless I could practically hear it gleam. "But aside from that noble goal, this training serves a more practical purpose, in that at times, you as Professional Heroes will find yourselves in competition with other nearby Heroes for reputation and rankings. In those cases, it is the first Hero to arrive at the site of the Villain or at the location of the civilian needing rescue who receives the credit for that act of service. Unfortunately, sometimes more unsavory professionals," he said with a significant glance at Bakugo, who responded with a dismissive click of his tongue, "will choose to sabotage their rivals in order to get ahead."
All Might paused for a beat, then looked at the camera solemnly. "I can't say I recommend this practice. First, because you never know when rushing to the scene of a crisis whether you will need the help of the Hero behind you. Secondly, because, I hope, it's simply beneath you all. And thirdly, it's just not a strategy for long-term success. Because when you get caught performing such unsavory acts, the Hero Commission" he said, turning once more to glare more directly at Bakugo, "tends to be less than pleased." Again, All Might paused for effect as he stared Bakugo down.
Bakugo didn't flinch.
"Detention," All Might eventually pronounced. "After school. Everyone, return to the waiting area; Heat Three, get on the carts and get ready to go! And remember, combat is prohibited for this exercise!"
As we made our way back to the larger group, thanks to the lingering scent from the 'dumpster', everyone gave me a wide berth. Or possibly it was due to my sudden onset of resting bitch face. Before the internships started, I had thought Bakugo was my friend. Even knowing that he was kind of a violent asshole, the fact that he had basically assaulted me out of the blue today hurt, more than the explosion had, or even the injury to my pride. Of course, I was handling the sting of betrayal extremely well; I definitely wasn't contemplating ways to spread the picture of that stupid hairdo to the entire UA student body or pondering ways to have random people come up to Bakugo and ask him if he can get them Midoriya's autograph.
But it was weird. Bakugo didn't look resentful at having gotten detention, and he wasn't acting all smug about having gotten one over on me. If anything, as I saw him occasionally looking over in my direction, it almost looked like he wanted to say something, but couldn't quite figure out how. For a second, I contemplated going over, asking him why he did it, but even just thinking about it I could already feel the words choking in my throat. For the second time in as many days, I felt silence between myself and another person like a tangible weight. Again, I felt practically crushed by the weight of unasked questions. And yet again, I found myself unable to ask them; settling for ambiguity rather than risk receiving the wrong answer.
Normally in our HEART group, whenever there was an awkward silence like this, Yuigahama - or occasionally Yukinoshita - would find a way to fill the gap and smooth things over. But both of them were busy running on rooftops, making things look easy. Probably especially so in comparison to my half-hearted flailing. Disgruntled, I let out a sigh.
"Don't mind it." Startled by the unexpected voice, I twitched. At some point, Miura Yumiko had stepped close enough to me to have a conversation, though some part of my brain noted that she did so from upwind. I hadn't noticed her getting closer despite her green-and-orange costume or the heeled boots she wore, which just went to show how distracted I had been. "I'm sure falling in dumpsters or something equally as bad will happen to all of us by the end of the year," she said, offering a commiserating smile.
I hadn't really been dwelling over that particular topic, but I couldn't help but nod anyways. "I'm sure UA has some kind of study that shows that relentlessly hazing and gaslighting their students makes them better prepared for the rigors of hero life, or something."
She exhaled sharply in amusement, but didn't contradict my point. Again, I noticed a silence, but this one wasn't so bad. It was the silence you got between people who didn't really know each other, the silence of two people desperately trying to figure out a point of commonality they could use to fill the void. Just as I was about to resort to discussing the weather, Miura opened her mouth. "Are you still hanging out with that kid from the tennis club?" She asked.
"You mean Totsuka?" I asked, almost offended that she hadn't remembered his name, given that we'd spent weeks all training together. "Yeah, we still eat lunch together and stuff. What about you? Still talk to…" and I promptly blanked on their names.
"Ooka and Yamato," she reminded me. "And no, not as much. I haven't really seen them since the Sports Festival," she said, sounding a little wistful.
"I mean, it's only been two weeks," I pointed out. "And one of them we haven't even been at school for."
"I suppose," she said, but she didn't look convinced.
"Maybe you can invite them out to do something for summer vacation," I suggested.
"That's true," Miura said, sounding more cheerful. "Do you have anything planned for summer vacation yet?"
"I plan to sleep for at least a week straight," I said, only half-facetious.
Miura chuckled. It was hard to tell if it was because she thought I was joking, or because she thought I was serious. But some part of my brain chose that particular moment to realize that an objectively attractive girl was laughing at my jokes, and that part of me almost immediately started appreciating how the sun hit her blonde hair and how closely the faux medieval hunting outfit clung to her chest and hips before my sense of self-preservation could rein it in.
I didn't really know Miura. We'd trained the Tennis Club together, but even so, there was always a bit of separation between our HEART groups. People tended to stick to their cliques, even when those social groupings were completely arbitrary constructs handed down from upon high. What I had seen of her reminded me in some ways of Iida - she didn't have his dogmatic inflexibility, but she had the same 'more heroic than thou' personality. I couldn't think of three words she'd said that wouldn't get past a Public Relations committee, which either made her painfully idealistic or pathologically manipulative. Either way, not exactly a girl I wanted to get involved with. And she was almost certainly laughing out of politeness and not actually that amused. And I already had a not-girlfriend. And had just gotten slapped. And there were a lot of other reasons I could probably dig up if I had to try, so shut up, brain, and remember to look her in the face - abort, she has pretty green eyes, just watch the jumbotron or something.
"You're not going to hang out with friends?" Miura asked, still smiling brightly. "I know I've got a bunch of people I haven't spent much time with because of the Hero program's crazy schedule."
My mood fell. I looked away, staring out across UA's more conventional sports fields. For a second, my gaze fell on Bakugo, standing impassively with folded arms as he watched the ongoing race, but I continued turning until I was staring out towards Tokyo Bay. "No," I said roughly. "Probably not."
After a second, I heard Miura walk away. I almost felt bad about it; I was sure that to her, discussions of friends and the things people might want to do with them counted as normal small talk. It wasn't her fault that I was too damaged to respond to ordinary conversation in a non-pathetic manner.
Either because of my obvious bad mood, or the wafting perfume of fake trash, no one else followed Miura's example and tried to make conversation for the rest of the exercise. That suited me. I was more than ready to call it a day. When All Might let us go, I rushed to the showers with almost indecent haste, as eager to get my clothes and leave as I was to stop smelling like the inside of a garbage can.
I didn't notice that Bakugo had taken the stall next to me until he spoke up. "You need to stop fucking around," he said, urgent and intense. Who the fuck started a conversation like that? You couldn't even be bothered to apologize?
I stuck my head back under the shower spray to clear the shampoo from my eyes, then shook the water out of my hair and pulled it back from my face with one hand just so that I could give Bakugo a glare. "Say again?" I said with annoyance.
"Taking Stain out doesn't make you hot shit," Bakugo said, glowering at me. "You need to stop fucking around."
"Oh, so that's what that was about?" I said, contempt creeping into my voice. "Jealousy? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, seeing how you act around Midoriya." Part of me was acutely aware that, although I was behind a divider, I was naked; that I was surrounded by peers and classmates who would all judge me on how I responded. But I was pissed enough that I didn't really feel like lowering my voice, and a darker part of me welcomed the opportunity to call Bakugo out on his shit in front of an audience.
"Fuck no," Bakugo instantly denied, though I saw his eyebrows twitch enough that I knew I had scored a hit. "I'm not jealous of someone who's being a dumbass just cause they got lucky."
"Oh yeah, because I've been totally walking around rubbing that shit in people's faces all day," I said sarcastically. "I sent you one text as a joke, and that means it's okay to explode my face in? Get a grip."
Bakugo's face contorted in frustration. "You've been fucking around all day," He accused. Uncharacteristically, instead of shouting like he usually did when he got mad, Bakugo's voice was low and serious, barely audible over the hissing of the showers. "Beating one dude doesn't mean you just get to half-ass shit in class. You wanna rub that shit in people's face, you know what? Go for it. You fuckin' earned it. But don't you dare show up and think that means you can get away without doing the fuckin' work."
I sputtered. "What the - are you - seriously?" I said, looking at Bakugo with incredulity, matching his hushed tones. "I just got out of the hospital! Have you literally never heard of a freaking rest day?" I grabbed the soap and started scrubbing myself vigorously, channeling the anger I was feeling into movement that didn't involve punching someone's stupid teeth in.
"I've seen you on rest days," Bakugo accused, "this was you fucking around. You think the League of Villains is going to give a shit if you're too skinny, or if your fucking quirks aren't charged up?" I blanched a bit at him blurting out that particular secret and almost looked around to see who was listening, but apparently he took it as acknowledgment that his diatribe had some kind of point, because he doubled down. "You think taking Stain down hasn't painted a giant fucking bullseye on your back? If you don't go back to taking shit seriously, some Villain is gonna do more than knock you in a dumpster."
"And if you keep attacking people instead of, oh, I don't know, talking to them, eventually some Hero is going to put you in jail on Villainy charges, you… you… psychotic man-child," I said with a combination of acrimony and ridicule.
"Pfft, like I'd pull that shit on someone I didn't know could take it," Katsuki said, smirking at me. "Besides, this got the point across better."
Part of me suddenly wished for an eye-rolling quirk, just so I could express the sheer magnitude of disdain I felt for that idea. "Uh huh," I said, with as much sarcasm as I could physically muster. "Right. Enjoy your detention." I twisted the water off and grabbed my towel, heading for my locker. "I'm going home."
"Watch your back," Katsuki called from behind me. Typical. Even his well-meaning advice sounded like a threat.
Part of me was tempted to give myself one more day of rest, if for no other reason than to spite Katsuki. God knew I could probably use it. Nothing I had told Katsuki was a lie. I really had been advised to take things easy by the doctors. I really could tell that I desperately needed more time to heal and recover. Meditating under the influence of Stockpile was still a physical and mental strain, and I was far from eager to resume the endless struggle of dedicating hour after hour every night. But he was right about one thing - at this point, I probably had a target on my back. How does the saying go? It's not paranoia if you've already been stabbed twice? I wasn't going to get back to full charge in one night or anything, but that evening I put in enough time that I was feeling marginally more prepared for class the next day than I had the day before.
Eraserhead promptly disabused me of that notion. "Some of you are falling behind academically," he said flatly, thankfully not naming any names as he stood behind the podium in the front of the class. I did my best to hold the returned quiz tilted to the side, so that nobody else could see the number in red ink written on it. Turns out that being stabbed and spending time in the hospital wasn't really great for trying to study - not that I'd tried that hard, admittedly. Besides, who really needed math? "At this point," Eraserhead continued droning, "you all should know who you are. With six weeks remaining until the end of semester exams, I strongly encourage you to change that. Make sure that you're taking your academic studies as seriously as you take your hero classes; having the skills you need to keep a normal life going is a big part of having a successful career as a pro."
As I stared at the returned quiz, I felt a sinking pit in my stomach. My schedule was already so crowded that I was abusing quirks to survive sleeping only three to four hours a day. Where was I going to find any additional time to study? I was barely keeping everything together as it was, and that was pushing my body to the literal breaking point. I hadn't even found time yet to start actually training my quirk like I should have been doing for years, and now they wanted me to spend my time doing Math?
I was absorbed enough in my contemplation of the test results that I didn't bother looking up at the knock on the door, and therefore was taken by complete surprise as I heard the distinctive voice of All Might. "Pardon me, Eraserhead," the famous hero said, "but I need to borrow Hikigaya for a few minutes." My head snapped up in alarm.
"Right," Eraserhead said dully. "Go ahead," he said, nodding in my direction. With some trepidation, I grabbed my book bag and headed out into the corridor. I did my best to stay calm, but my mind was racing. Had Manaka finally released the video of me trying to distract Stain? Was it something to do with the case against All For One? Was there some sort of disciplinary action against Katsuki they needed my input for but that wasn't handled by the detention yesterday?
My nerves only got worse as All Might brought me to a small break room and took a seat on the couch. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing at the stool across from it.
I was tempted to say something stupid about him taking the good seat and leaving me with just the stool, but thankfully my self-preservation instinct made me bite my tongue. "Um," I said, pulling the stool out and perching on it nervously. Instinctively I bounced my foot up and down a few times out of sheer anxiety before I even realized I was doing it, but I eventually managed to hold still and focus. "Can I help you? Um, sir?"
All Might gave me a disarming smile. "No need to worry, young Hikigaya," he said in a warm voice. "You're not in trouble."
"Oh," I said, with no small amount of relief. "Good."
"However," All Might said, "I do have a question to ask you. Hikigaya-shonen. Have you ever copied my quirk?"