When Walls Talk

SevenRenny

Chapter 2: To Thrive

Beta-reader: Madam_Chauncey

Refuse, possibly have her parents take the brunt of her choice.

Accept, live with the regret of taking the life of a beloved Hero, but finally see her parents after… how long has it been? Ten years? What year was it? Has it really been that long? Had all her years gone down the drain so easily without her noticing? She was still a little girl, in her head. Still a little girl who wanted Mom and Dad.

"It's okay, baby astronaut," Madame cooed. "Just a bad day and you can come home and see them always. And look on the other bright side! You'll finally be a lady. Here, try these on. Black is traditional. Goes well with any color." She dumped the new boxes of newly purchased lingerie. Madame stepped back to scan Ochaco's body. "Will be cute with your pink undies. Be sure to wear that. Oh, and sweetie."

Ochaco almost dropped everything, including herself, to the floor when a cold hand cupped her crotch, the pedicured nails uncomfortably grazing her pink sex. An involuntary gasp escaped her throat and she quickly stepped away on shivering legs.

"Be sure to wax that. We're trying to make you look presentable, here."

Ochaco bit her lip, holding back the urge to strike the woman in the neck.

You:

Hi

Is this Deku's number?

It's Uravity

Or Uraraka is fine too

Sorry if I'm texting too early

I'm not sure when you start work

There was no response for a while. She got more comfortable in bed, wrapping her blanket around her tucked legs, her phone in hand. It had been impossible to sleep that night. She wasted a few hours. It wasn't clear how the Madame was monitoring her phone. Did it send live information or did it just store everything like a memory? Either way, it was a naked feeling, knowing another pair of eyes was seeing everything in a private conversation between two people. He was typing. He was named 'Hero' on this phone. Madame's doing.

Hero:

Hi Uraraka!

I'm just on patrol but I can talk. Sorry if my replies might be late.

She pictured him in his costume, marching confidently with shoulders straight. She wasn't the best with conversations. Didn't have much practice these past few years. Act happy. People liked nice people.

You:

I'm taking the day off

Thought I should rest

The Madame wasn't going to let her out anytime soon. Not with the Number One Hero possibly keeping an eye on them. Hang in there, he'd written on her palm last time. Hang in there… for what?

Hero:

That's great!

I'm happy to hear you're taking care of yourself.

Be sure to treat yourself today. Maybe sleep in. I do that sometimes whenever I can

Okay. The plan. She can do it. Go for it.

You:

Actually

Can we hang out sometime?

When you're not busy

"Smooth. Very smooth," Madame said in her ear. Oh. So she was reading along at the moment.

Hero:

Really?

Sure!

That'd be nice

Should I pick you up sometime?

"Meet up," Madame ordered quickly.

You:

Maybe we can meet up?

After eight tonight sound good?

Hero:

Yeah!

I'll be done by then

Casual dinner or do you have another idea?

"There. He's hinting at it." Madame insisted. Ochaco wasn't sure how to reel him in without dying of embarrassment. Was she really going to do it? Was it really going to happen tonight? She'd hoped he'd be too busy. At least then she'd have a good excuse to get out of this temporarily. This was a mistake – a god-awful mistake.

You:

Something else

Maybe dinner after

Izuku knew something was up. He informed the detective right after the messages were exchanged. The area was suspicious. The timing was suspicious. The fact that she contacted him at all was a red flag. She'd looked scared of him before. Contacting him meant either: she was in deep trouble and really needed him, or someone… else… was in charge…

He had requested a few items from the well-known Hatsume for emergencies in case this woman really was in a pinch. She hadn't specified what this… something else was, just that it didn't matter how formal or casual he had to dress. He went with his checkered shirt and left his green dress shirt open, the front left unbuttoned.

There weren't many people out at night. The area was a cluttered mess of buildings and stores and the stench of booze. Signboards lit up like Christmas trees at night, each one flashing for attention. He checked his phone again. He was the one early.

He didn't expect the clicking of heels to come from her.

"Sorry I made you wait." She came to a stop, awkwardly rubbing her arm and looking away.

"It's fine. I was here early," he assured her.

Despite the sweet smile on her face, her body moved like a puppet. She looked uncomfortable, like snakes were slithering under that dress of hers. She kept closing that cropped jacket in an attempt to feel less exposed.

"Oh, good. I thought I made you wait." She began walking ahead. Her steps were uneven, awkward, and he saw her almost trip. This was not her usual attire. "It should be here somewhere." She kept her eyes up, reading the signboards attached to multiple buildings. "Should be at a corner."

Izuku followed and looked around, searching for anything that might be eye-catching. "Can I ask what is it? Or is it a surprise?"

Music leaked out of a nearby bar. Cigarettes littered the walkway. Corner vending machines remained untouched, ignored thanks to the many stores nearby. The smells of alcohol and wasted food in trashcans reeked.

"There," Ochaco said in front of a corner building that resembled a hotel. "I think that's it," she thought out loud.

Izuku saw the purple sign and felt his stomach drop.

Doki Doki Oasis – with small hearts and two rabbits either being friendly or preforming a reproductive ritual.

This was the last place he'd assumed they'd be hanging out. Was it too late to abort mission?

She was not used to heels higher than her usual 2-inch boot heels. This was complicated. Her feet were no longer her feet. She couldn't tell where the bottom of the shoe was, and she touched the floor sooner than her brain predicted every time. Her heart tried to crawl up her throat. She didn't want this. She hadn't slept a wink thinking about it.

Just… get it over with.

The person on the counter kept his eyes glued to a book as he automatically handed her the card to their room.

"Wait, wait, wait, I – I think–" Deku stuttered, his face turning pink as he walked alongside her. The Number One Hero looked so flustered. It was nothing like his confident self she'd seen on television. "I think I gave you the wrong idea!"

"Kill him tonight, Uravity," Madame ordered through the earpiece.

"When I said hanging out, I meant, like – like the mall or – or – or bowling even… though I don't… know bowling… but I heard it's fun! Or the nightlight park! Yeah! We should go sometime."

She trapped them both in the elevator, and it became deathly quiet. The longer she stayed with him, alone, the more it seemed like he was not interested in the whole charade. He looked as uncomfortable as her. She was almost his height with those heels. Almost.

"Just push him on the bed if you can," the Madame instructed. "If he holds you down, face him. I've already coated the knife. Make a deep cut. It doesn't need to be lethal. Just get the venom in. Make yourself presentable. It'll break his focus. It'll pinch you a teeny bit but I know you'll take it like a big girl."

She didn't want it. He didn't seem like he wanted it.

As if reading her mind, the Madame continued, "Just wait for it. Get that room and he should switch. Go straight for the kiss so he doesn't think you don't want it. He'll be rougher if you don't melt him."

She finally tripped when exiting the elevator.

He caught her by the shoulders. "Are – Are you okay?"

"Ye - Yeah, yeah," she laughed it off awkwardly. "Sorry. I'm not used to these shoes."

"Are they hurting you?" he asked with genuine concern, guiding her to lean against the wall.

There was a suspicious thudding sound from one of the many rooms, followed by a muffled moan; a reminder as to what kind of establishment this was.

"Just not comfortable," she admitted. "They're new so I didn't get to walk on them long."

"Do you want to take them off? They might really hurt your feet if they aren't sized right," he fretted.

"I know your size! He's trying to undress you out here," Madame sounded offended.

Ochaco couldn't agree with Madame on this. He sounded worried. Maybe he was just a good actor. The thought of the former being true was like a warm blanket. Had he figured out her license was a fake? It was unlikely for an observant Hero to not look into it. If he had, indeed, dug through her lie, she found it odd that he hadn't made a move to capture her, unless…

Hang in there – he'd told her silently. He'd told her in a way that only she could receive the message.

She ignored Madam's buzzing in her head. It was impossible to operate with her nagging. Everything was already confusing. She didn't need more commands than she could already physically handle.

She took off her shoes in the hallway and sighed with relief as air hit the red marks on the back of her feet. The movement made her very aware of the foreign stockings and straps her skin was complaining to her about.

"We don't have to do this," he told her in a gentle voice. He was almost pleading with her.

She looked him in the eyes. He had very expressive eyes. Worried eyes. Sympathetic eyes. Eyes of a caring person.

"Yes, you do."

"I…" She lingered, torn.

There was a glint of recognition on his face. He realized something. She couldn't tell what.

"Is this really what you want?" he asked, suddenly confident.

No.

"Yes."

"I… yeah." She didn't want to hurt him. She didn't want to hurt her mom and dad. She didn't want to hurt anyone other than herself for being so weak, so controllable.

He was suddenly being more… analytical. Looking her over, examining something in her eyes. He gave her a kind smile.

"Alright. Lead the way."

Something changed. He was planning something. He was known for cooking up the craziest strategies in under seconds. Was she really going to have sex with him, or did he plan something?

What did she have to do? What could she do that wouldn't piss Madame off?

He locked the door behind them. Everything was dimly lit with an orange-pink light. The lighting was turned up or down instead of simply switching off. A curtain was flat against the wall next to the bed in case more privacy was needed. The bed itself was king-sized with leopard print covers for a wild look. Flower petals were sprinkled over the bed, and portraits of zebra stripes decorated the walls. The pullout couch was positioned perfectly in front of the television screen. One of the remote controllers on the bedside table wasn't a remote controller at all, judging by the padded head and rubber handgrip. A miniature vending machine sat on the side, containing condom packets and folded themed outfits, to plastic warped adult toys and lubricants.

It became too real. This was happening. It was really happening. She wanted to fast forward. As he looked through a pamphlet, she found the Viagra pill tucked in her breast pocket and, with shaky fingers, slipped it between her lips. It didn't go down. her throat sized up as she willed herself to take off her cropped jacket… and stopped there.

She knew, if she wanted this to work, she had to be able to reach the knife sheathed in a disguised casing hidden under the band of her stocking, up on the side of her thigh.

However, she didn't want to get out of her dress.

"Uravity," Madame warned. "Yes, yes, it's a nice room. Now get out of that pretty dress and get him to drop his pants."

I don't want to.

"Uravity, sweetheart, don't you freeze up on me, now. If he cuffs you – whether it's for bed or the police, I don't care – if he cuffs you, I swear those people will have worse to worry about than just no supper."

I can't kill him. I can't. Stop yelling at me. Let me think. Let me think let me think let me think let me – her throat strained. She was talking. When had she thrown up the melting pill? When had she started talking? Why was it hard to breathe? Was he choking her? His face was too close. No. He wasn't. His hands were under her pits, gently lowering her to the floor just as her legs gave out.

"It's okay. Breathe," he instructed gently. he sounded calm, but his eyes were panicking. "You're having a panic attack. Just breathe. Take your time. You're okay. I didn't mean to scare you. We won't do anything. It's okay." He remained crouched, his hands tucked back in case she found them threatening.

Madame was yelling things in one ear. Ochaco's hands automatically went up to that assaulted ear and tried to somehow claw the voice out. Deku's hand came up to stop her, sandwiching her hand in his.

"You're doing fine," he assured her with a smile. His eyes were sympathetic, understanding, apologetic. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. How about we just order food and watch a movie? Is that okay?"

People were confusing.

The food tray was delivered through a slot in the door. It took him a bit of time figuring out how the remote worked, and even then, he had to scroll past a list of pornographic videos before he realized he had to backtrack to reach the main menu that also listed music and movies. The couch was smooth and slippery, possibly for easy cleaning.

"Are you seeing something you like?" he asked her kindly, his finger on the arrow button.

"I…" The television in her room had no audio feature. She'd gotten used to reading lips. Over time, the screen became a light and nothing more. No stories to be told. No reason to be told stories. Time and days and years blurred. It had been so long since she went to the cinemas. She only remembered them having big screens and occasionally the shadow of someone's head blocking the bottom.

A colorful image swiped across the screen and she perked up. He caught on to the reaction and scrolled back, stopping on the 2D poster for MULAN.

"Oh, I remember this!" Deku said with recognition. "It's been years."

Been years… Just how many? She remembered Mulan, colors, the art, the fat horse, but the story itself was lost. She remembered watching it with her family. "I used to watch it… with Mom and Dad," she said. "Can we watch it?" she asked, her throat still tight.

"Yeah. Sure."

And so, she, a criminal, a Villain, sat with the Number One Hero in a love hotel to have shrimp with vegetables and rice, followed by eating ice cream mochi, all while watching an old kid's film. For a grown man with battle scars, he was surprisingly into it. He took the second couch to her left, taking up all cushions and using it like a bed with his head over the pillow, and sock-covered feet on the other end, almost over the armrest.

The Madame was surprisingly silent.

"Hey, Deku?"

"Yeah?"

"What time is it?"

He craned his stiff neck to check his watch. "Past ten. Do you need to go home?"

She wanted time to stop, even if it did seem like it wasn't actually going anywhere. Maybe it was just progress that was on-hold but the numbers on clocks kept going. If only everything could stop with a press of a button, or rewind on command, or fast forward past everything that was unpleasant to get to the happy ending.

The Madame said nothing, so…

"No," she said with a tired sigh.

"Are you sure? It's pretty late. Do you have work tonight?"

She was tired. Tired of pretending. Tired of everything. "No work tonight. But I have to be home tomorrow morning."

"Hmm. I'm still really sorry. About, you know… giving you the wrong idea. I'm not good at talking to people. Or making friends," he admitted shyly.

"No, no. I was the one who insisted. Sorry I pushed you. I wasn't thinking," she corrected him. "I'm sorry I took some of your free time like that…"

"Oh, no – I just wanted to hang out. And… we're hanging out, aren't we?" He paused, thinking. "I wasn't lying when I said I wanted to get to know people here. I lived here for a bit. Went to school here and lived with my mom and met my teacher and all, but… I felt really lonely."

She listened, tugging the blanket she had held onto for the past hour around her shoulder. On the other couch, in casual wear, the Number One Hero looked like any other person she could bump into in the street. No bulky costume. No grand speeches. Just a guy. A very average guy.

"But... people love you, know," she said in a hopeful note. He was on shirts and cups and key chains and toys. His signature red shoes were very marketable.

"In a way," he said, chuckling tiredly. "It feels nice, to make people feel safe. It was what I always wanted to do as a kid. Back then, everyone told me I couldn't do it. The kids from school were mean before I got into high school. I remember one girl who was nice to me, though."

Ochaco tightened her hold on the blanket. If she hadn't heard his interviews, she would've assumed it to be any other girl. But he'd repeated the story to the media. He was consistent with it.

Deku used to be an insult

A stranger told me it sounded like 'you can do it'.

It was the nicest thing someone said to me back then.

She changed the meaning of my name

And I never got to know hers.

She didn't remember much of her younger years. The memories she did remember, she held onto them in a vice-like grip. She remembered that day. She'd been late for school when a notebook fell over her head. He'd sounded so young and childish back then, with a stutter and the cracking voice of a teenage boy. It was hard to believe that boy had become this widely known figure. She'd heard the name Deku from Madame, then on the radio, then saw it written on a news headline on television, and saw him on the screen for the first time, as a Sidekick. He was cool. He was also someone she had to fear.

"She said Deku sounded like 'you can do it'. We said we'd try to be Heroes together one day." He turned on his side to look at her with a soft look. "I wonder where she is now. How she's doing."

He knew.

He knew it was her.

He knew much more than she'd expected.

He didn't say it out loud. He knew. He knew they were being watched.

Hang in there – he knew he couldn't say it; knew something was wrong; knew he had to be careful.

And she wondered how a human being could be so kind.

"Deku does sound cute," she said, smiling softly.

She was sure that was a blush on his face.

The sound of her buzzing earpiece was muffled against the pillow she leaned on. They'd closed the lights for the night. The TV was still on and the glowing logo on the loading screen gave off just enough light to see shapes and outlines and a bit of darkened colors.

He was on the uncomfortable couch with his neck on the hard pillow and a blanket that didn't cover him too well, leaving his feet and arms exposed. She had the bed that was meant for two people. The deadly knife was still hidden away under her dress, tucked to the side of her thigh. He turned in his sleep, facing the backrest, showing her his unprotected back.

Why was he being so trusting? Why did he not dispose of her when he could have? Why did he leave himself open despite knowing there was something shady going on on her part?

Her ear buzzed. It was possible she'd damaged it.

Would he forgive her? Would he be alive to forgive her? He'd talked to her through a wall. One day. One time. Why remember such a thing for years to come? He hadn't even seen her. He might as well have talked to the wall itself. Why hold it to his heart?

I felt really lonely.

She understood that. It came together. That wall had been the only thing keeping him from reaching out to kindness when no one bothered to give him any. Kindness had been behind the wall. It was still behind the wall. Multiple walls. Tunnels. Walls that separated the Villains from the Heroes. Walls that kept them alone. Walls that monitored who came in and who wanted out. Walls that kept them safe but also starved them to death.

He'd been in a box made of brick walls when she hadn't.

And now, she was in a box of steel walls and he wasn't.

I just

The world was its own prison.

Want

She and he and her parents and everyone was trapped in it.

To be

Heroes and Villains and the law and the system and all of it.

Home

He called her name to wake her up. It was odd, waking up in a place that wasn't the Room. She almost panicked until she took a good look around to have memories flooding back. He kept rubbing the side of his aching neck, the poor man. Her purse was on the other couch; her torturous shoes by the entrance.

"Sorry if I woke you too early," he apologized meekly. How did this kind man manage to switch into a madman at will? "I didn't know how early you needed to leave."

She stretched. "This is good. Thanks for being my alarm clock," she joked.

He grabbed her purse to hand it over. "Do you want to have breakfast or are you in a hurry?"

"I'm good, I'm good," she said, embarrassed to declaim the kind offer. "Thanks, though. And… thanks for…" She fiddled with her fingertips, then looked away and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Thanks for last night. The movie, I mean… and for the food. I hadn't relaxed like that in a while. Work and all, you know?" She laughed shyly. Thanks for being nice to me. "I must've freaked you out with all… this." She looked around the room.

He blushed. "No – eh – I… a little?" He didn't want her to feel bad.

She'd dragged him into a love hotel, and he was the one trying to make it less weird. She giggled. "You know, you're not what I expected you'd be."

They made their way down the hall, her shoes in her hand.

"Really?" He tilted his head with the question like a curious dog. "What did… did you expect?" He sounded afraid to know.

The Number One Hero was a shy goofball. And suddenly, the boy she'd heard from behind the wall was here, all grown up and taking on the world.

"I don't know. More… like how you are on TV? All Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow–!" She punched the air, her purse jiggling with the movement.

He looked flabbergasted and pointed at himself whilst scratching the nape of his neck in embarrassment. "Am I really that wild?"

"…Yeah, a little bit. Just a little. It's not bad! I promise it's not!"

They both laughed through the elevator ride down. It was less stressful going through the hotel knowing the night had been mostly innocent in nature. They lingered by the exit door.

"So…"

"Umm…"

"How about that park next time?" she offered, unsure. "If… you… want a next time, that is…"

"Yes! I mean, uh – yeah. Yeah. Sure!" he said too quickly, his cheeks glowing pink. "Park, it is. Do you want me to walk you home?"

She took a moment, thinking hard; too hard for the simple question, her eyes morphing between sadness and regret and bittersweet gratitude. "It's okay. Thanks"

"Are you sure?"

"…yeah."

He searched her eyes carefully. He was doing it again, being silently observant. "Okay. I'll see you soon. Be safe."

Why did he have to be so… Like that?

Deku:

Woke her up

She's going home now

You:

How did the date go?

Deku:

It wasssn a day

*wasn't a datw

Date

You:

Where did she take you?

Deku:

A hotel

We didn't do anything I promise

Watched a movie and fell asleep

You:

I would tease you about this but I'm guessing this isn't a good time

Deku:

I think she's being controlled

Her conscious is there but

I don't know how to explain it

Like a brainwashing Quirk

I'm not very sure

Just that she's being ordered to do things she doesn't want to do

She had a panic attack yesterday. She was more natural when I said goodbye to her

You:

So your suspicions were correct

Deku:

I think multiple people are involved

You:

Why do you believe so?

Deku:

I thought it was a coincidence at first. I'm more sure now

Back when we were having dinner the other day. There was a cockroach in the restaurant. I found another on her purse last night.

I know it sounds like I'm reaching

But please hear me out

There was something stuck to it. I couldn't see it very well but it didn't look natural. It looked like a chip was glued to its back.

You:

You're suspecting someone's indeed watching her

Deku:

It's either a control Quirk that affects animals too

Or someone with a brainwashing Quirk and another with an animal Quirk

You:

I think you're referring to a Villain

His friend called him the Buggy Man

According to what we've been told, he controls cockroaches

We've yet to see him control mammals or other insects

If this Villain is indeed involved then it is possible we're dealing with a gang

Deku:

I used Hatsume's tracker

Detective I need help to help her

You:

Tell me what you need

Hatsume had outdone herself. He'd asked for the smallest tracker, and she delivered. It looked like a button with a sticky underside. He'd pressed it to the sleeve of Ochaco's cropped jacket when he'd helped her lean against the wall to take her shoes off.

Pulling on his thick gloves and slipping on his mouth guard, he took another glance at the hand-sized digital map. She went down the subway and continued to go through what he'd assumed were passageways underground. This was why she declined he walk her home. It looked like she'd walked straight through the wall. A hideout. He found the location. Now, it was time to call in a cavalry.

He had to hurry. There had to be a reason for her to take him to the hotel. A reason for whoever controlled her to want them to have sex. Had the plan been to extract information from him? He'd provided her with whatever he could give to ensure her safety. If the plan had been to kill him in the hotel room, then she was going to be in trouble with whoever was in charge.

Part of him didn't want to let her go. Another part of him reminded him she probably had no choice. He'd been waiting for her for years. They were going to be Heroes and he'd ask for her name and Hero name and they'd talk about how cool Heroes were. He found her, and she had a fake Hero license, a criminal history, and tired eyes tainted with agony and loneliness.

Hang in there

Please, hang in there

Exiting the cab, he took in the tall building in front of him. Animal Hero Agency. The automatic doors welcomed him in. The inside was designed to mimic a jungle, with plenty of potted plants, wood flooring, a baby giraffe plush, indoor fountains, and colorful seats.

A hairy sheepdog trotted up to him, its tailless butt wagging. The employee ID card hanging from its collar read: Welcoming Staff. He gave the dog a pat on the head.

"Ey, Deku!" a familiar voice called with excitement. Cellophane waved at him from the upstairs railing of the second floor. A few other Heroes stood by his sides; Anima, Earphone Jack, and Charge Bolt.

One Heroe hadn't shown up yet. Kacchan wasn't around.

It was fine. This was more than enough. He could work with this.

"I forwarded the message," Charge Bolt said as soon as Izuku reached the top of the spiral stairs. "I freaked out when I got it. Said Deku wanted a few Pros. I'm nervous now."

"I'm glad you came," Izuku said. He'd only seen them from afar or during the license exams or Hero speech events. Working with them would be an honor. "How much were you told?"

"Just that you wanted help with a kidnapping case," Earphone Jack explained, leading the group through the hallway. Her boots clapped and echoed. The other footsteps followed.

"Right. I'll tell you everything I can," he said as he thumbed the screen of his phone, sending the detective the suspected location.

Earphone Jack showed them the meeting room on the second floor. It had see-through rodent pipes on the ceiling and a dog bed and water bowl in the corner. A blonde was sulking with his elbow on the table, his head leaning against his knuckles. When Izuku walked in, the disgruntled man slapped his palm on the table. He searched Izuku up and down with red eyes, silently judging him. The glare aimed right at him like deadly arrows was disturbingly familiar. It grabbed at memories, pushed them to the front.

The group of Heroes was saying something. Deku had gone deaf the moment he locked eyes with the one person he dreaded seeing but reluctantly requested; because it wasn't about his feelings, it was about saving someone who had been taken advantage of for who knew how long. He hadn't spoken to Katsuki since… before high school. He'd seen him on TV, on posters, in the newspaper. He was a talented Hero worthy of being on the number three spot; but for the most part, Izuku never bothered to interact with him. His few years in Osaka were lonely but eventful enough to keep him grounded and focused on tasks that chained him to the moment.

And now, Ground Zero was glaring at him like an angry cobra, ready to take a bite at him.

The group caught on to the uncomfortably thick atmosphere. Charge Bolt's confusion wasn't subtle, looking back and forth like he'd missed something important. Izuku knew it was ridiculous to flinch over something so stupid; but he did. It was like they never grew up, like they were still fourteen. He liked Katsuki as a talented Hero. It was hard to like him as a person. Not at the moment, when he still looked so much like the schoolyard tormenter that left burned marks over his body – his first-ever scars even before Izuku could trip and hurt his knee on a pebble. Izuku's fists instinctively tightened. The hairs on the back of his neck stood.

He expected yelling.

He expected heat and smoke and eardrum-popping explosions.

What he got was silence.

Katsuki simply looked away, like it hurt to look at him. He still had his arms stubbornly crossed and his shoulders slouched, but to see him... not being him was unnerving.

"Are you just gonna stand there?" Katsuki said, straightening his shoulder and leaning back in his chair. The springs of the used chair creaked at the back. "Saw the detective's message. Rounded up the Heroes you wanted. You took me off my schedule for this. Make it quick."

"Right," Izuku said firmly.

His new team took random seats.

"You already know what to do, right? Like, who's our target and all? You wanted Anima and us specifically," Cellophane said.

"Sort of. Not everything," Izuku began, eyes all on him, now. "I don't know everything, and I'm only speculating. But I do know we need to help someone." Reaching back into his utility belt, he retrieved a piece of paper, folded into a cigarette. Unraveling it, he pushed the illustration and thumb-sized photo to the center of the table. "Please, everyone. I need your help."

He just hoped Anima's fear of insects wouldn't be a problem.

She'd gotten telekinetically pulled in right after she knocked to have the door unlocked for her. The action was so fast and violent, her back curved with the pull. She hung in the air, her feet kicking, her hands trying to grab at the invisible hands around her throat and touching her own skin instead. A strangled groan squeaked out of her squeezed throat. Adrenaline pumped through her once more, her body telling her she had to fight or run when she couldn't move.

Madame stood with her hand out. Her hair moved like snakes, slipping out of the bun.

"You. Had him," the Madame growled with a dry throat.

I'm not your puppet. Ochaco struggled to open her jaw. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt it hurt it hurt– It felt like nails were pushing the apple of her throat in, and her eyes rolled up.

A gust of air, and her body smashed the ceiling. Her teeth chattered. Her heart dropped the same time her body did, heavily hitting the ground. Her mouth felt odd, like teeth going out of place. Unseen weight held her down even as she struggled with straining muscles to lift her head. She glared at Madame from the corner of her eye, squinting in agony.

"I gave you a chance. Then another. Then another. Why are you like this?" the Madame growled.

It was like a brick wall was splayed over her back, crushing her to the floor. Her lunges had no space. Her breath came in short pockets before being forcefully pushed out of her. It was ridiculous to talk now. Risky. But after finally receiving kindness from the man she was assigned to murder, then coming 'home' to this and having all traces of contempt erased; she wanted nothing more than to smash her tormenters face in. "Screw you," she gurgled out, metallic blood gushed out of her mouth and over the floor.

Madame's pupils shrunk, and her hand slapped the air, shoving Ochaco across the floor and slamming her against the wall, then repeated the motion in the opposite direction, throwing Ochaco's body around like a football being kicked around by children.

Her ears hummed like the aftermath of a gong. The sound of the train station and air traveled through empty tunnels. Her heart beat so fast it hurt, like a finger painfully prodding at it.

She didn't think anything could hurt it even more.

"While you were out on your date, Hangnail had a little chat with your freeloaders."

Upon hearing those words, Ochaco's heart was struck with a sledgehammer. Panic. Get up. Get up. Get. Up! Why won't you get up?

"They're having fun playing games. Want to hear? Buggy, get the speaker! You want to hear? Have a listen?"

A watery growl of frustration ripped through her chest. Her battered skin tingled, warning her of future bruising. Useless body. Absolutely useless. Years wasted underground and this was all she had to show for it. She wanted her parents. But in the back of her mind, logic told her there was no possible way her family would get out of this alive, now or ever. Failure. A fucking failure, she was.

"Buggy, answer me you knucklehead!"

Madame's split-second loss of concentration on her target proved to be a mistake on the telekinetic Villain. Because at the moment – in that very second, something within Ochaco snapped.

Whether or not the Madame had expected for Ochaco to sit still on the ground in those few seconds of Quirk deactivation didn't matter, because feral instincts bit like an angry bitch. Ochaco's mistreated muscles moved before her mind gave a command. She moved with inhuman speed, got up, staggered, run hunch-backed, and as the Madame's head turned back to her in slow-motion, she struck the woman in the neck.

Ochaco wasn't sure what her face must've looked like. Murderous? Animalistic? Desperate? A mix of everything? Possibly, because the smack and pained grunt from the Madame was strangely satisfying. The dark rings under her eyes stored years-worth of madness.

The Madame floated, as did Ochaco after the Madame semi-recovered from the sudden assault, a look of disbelief scrunched her face.

She should've done this years ago.

It was exhilarating.

"You wench," the Madame growled, rubbing the sore spot on her neck. She lost her own temper. "You want to fight dirty? You'll regret this – I swear you'll regret the second you thought not to cut that man's windpipe."

She lifted her hand to telekinetically punch Ochaco to the wall – and they both simply drifted in opposite directions like negative magnets, floating and bouncing off the walls. They both flailed, not expecting this foreign dynamic.

Madame's Quirk clashed with hers.

Huh. Interesting.

Had her Quirk not been telekinesis as Ochaco assumed?

"Put me down – I swear you just signed your people's death warrants! Buggy! For fuck's sake get over here! I'm chopping heads and it's your fault, you hear me? Buggy!"

"I can't find them," the man's voice rang from another tunnel.

"Forget the speaker and get my keys! I'm taking those freeloaders' heads off!" the Madame's exaggerated hand movements had her tilting as she hovered close to the ceiling.

"I can't find them," he repeated frantically. There was the echoey sound of rummaging and hurried footsteps. "I can't find them. I can't find them."

"What? What, you big buffoon, what?" Madame demanded to know.

The muscular man finally peeked from another tunnel, looking disheveled and worried out of his mind. "My friends! My friends aren't here!"

His friends. His roaches.

"The bugs? Now isn't the time to look for bu–"

The lights went out.

"…gs," Madame finished.

All the lights dead at the same time. Ochaco fell suddenly, like a stone. Unable to see the ground, she roughly landed on her already straining knees. The Madame's Quirk had deactivated in the dark, but Ochaco's canceled out her own Quirk. The woman was still floating in the darkness. Creaks echoed through the hollow walls of the train station. Ochaco blinked hard, begging her eyes to hurry up and adjust. Her panic-fueled heart made her queasy. This wasn't normal. This had never happened.

"Buggy – someone, get the generator!" Madame commanded through clenched teeth.

"I can't find my friends. I can't find them!" Buggy sobbed over the sudden departure of his beloved insects.

As Ochaco remained deathly quiet to hear where the two other villains in the room were, a suspicious bang hit the curved metal ceiling above. It was like a dumbbell had been dropped over their heads. The sound was a metallic rattling that vibrated the tube-like headquarters.

Everyone went silent for four seconds. Deathly quiet.

The ceiling over their heads was hammered again, kicking loose a square tile. It clapped the floor, quickly followed by bodies dropping in, one by one. People infiltrated the head out.

"We'll get the other hostages!" one of the new voices yelled.

Lots of shifting clothes and pounding footsteps.

"Wah – what – who are you?" A panicked Madame demanded. "You're not authorized to be here."

A buzz. The whine of electricity coming to life. Orange light bulbs flashed, and there stood a number of heroes; Deku, in front. His mouthguard was up.

Green eyes pierced the shadowy tunnel like a laser in the night. He looked like different person here. He'd been so relaxed with her. Here, now, his shoulders flexed like a panther, ready, alert. His pupils had shrunk. It reminded her of how cats' eyes looked scary during the day but cute and round at night. He'd brought a cavalry.

Hang in there

I'll see you soon

Be safe

I'll break that wall

I promise you

No more walls

"De…ku?" His Hero name slipped out of her lips in disbelief. She must've looked like a horror prop, bloody-mouthed and bruised and dry-eyed.

"Deku," Madame realized with horror, still floating.

"Deku!" Ground Zero warned through his mask.

Everything happened quickly. Buggy charged with his knuckle duster-clad fist ready, his eyes leaking. "Where are my friends?" he screamed with anguish, directing the blame at them. He was a muscular man, but slow and sluggish. That was a disadvantage when going up against swift and fast.

And with Ground Zero came fire.

Buggy wasn't immune to fire. The open-palmed blast sent the large man flying back. Tape spat out from one of the Hero's elbows to stick the man against the curved wall. The tape stretched as the man struggled like an insect wrapped in spider silk.

Madame reached her hand out and Ochaco assumed the invisible hands stretched, snagged Izuku by the mouth guard and lifted him up and off the ground. It didn't last long. His fingers mimicked a gun when he pointed at her, and fired. A bullet of pressurized wind smacked Madame in the chest, pushing her back and smacking her to the wall. Her glasses flew off. Deku landed gracefully, his iron-protected shoes clapped the floor.

He'd prepared a calculated attack.

Somewhere in the distance, an electric explosion shook the underground. Other Heroes were somewhere within the perimeter. Other hostages, they'd said. Her parents. They were looking for her parents.

There was a frustrated yell, followed by a shredding sound as the strong tape was roughly peeled. Buggy stood with white ribbons still attached to him, the parts around his midsection wrapped around him like a mummy. His knuckles clapped Red Riot style and the gold rings on his knuckles rang, his eyes squinting from the heated blast to the face.

"Oookay, more durable than I thought," Cellophane said.

Ground Zero had a disturbing smirk on his face, pleased by the potential challenge.

Meanwhile, Deku kept his focus on the still-floating Madame, who was still recovering from the air blast to the chest. Her eyes snapped wide and her hair waved like octopus arms.

The arms were coming. Ochaco knew the signs all too well.

"Deku, look out!" Ochaco shouted.

He was grabbed and hammered to the floor. He was probably used to being manhandled, because he still lifted his head (albeit with a hint of struggle) after the violent drop and hard neck grab that tried to squeeze the air out of him.

Thinking fast, Ochaco touched her fingertips, canceling her Quirk. Madame fell with a yelp. It was enough time for Deku to react. His strings of shadowy black whips exploded from within the holes in his thick gloves. The strings snapped tight in the air, entangled with invisible strings. The end of the Black Whip was a ball, curled tightly around something they couldn't see.

"I won't let you!" Madame screamed, her throat dry and voice hysteric. "Get away!"

Ochaco had seen that on television before. The Black Whip. The Madame knew what it was and tried to stop it at all costs. To Madame, having Deku here was a nightmare come true.

The Madame was so focused on the Hero, she had her back turned to Ochaco.

She was only fourteen. Fourteen when she assumed maybe things could've gone better if she'd done things differently. Fourteen when grownups stripped away her innocence, her trust in others, her security, her false sense of safety, her parents. She was fourteen when it had happened. Fourteen when the Madame happened. Fourteen when it shouldn't have happened.

It didn't need to happen.

And for once, she realized, it wasn't her fourteen-year-old self's fault.

It was some else's.

How was it possible to not feel but still obey that pain in the back of her mind, eating away at her like termites, like a disease planted into her years ago and only just reached the surface?

She didn't think when she ran at her.

She didn't think when she slid to a stop with her hand ready to swipe, or when Madame's head turned in surprise.

She didn't think when she struck Madame just above the nose.

She didn't think. Feeling the hard cartilage crack and seeing the Madame stumble back was satisfying. Distracted from the Hero, Black Whip was free to hiss in the air and grab the woman, pressing her arms tightly to her midsection. He held her up and off the floor, his face scrunched up in concentration.

He should've won. It should've been over.

Ochaco knew it was too soon to call it a win when she felt the knife strapped to her upper thigh get pulled.

SHINK – it sliced through the strap, pierced a slit in her dress, and spun in the air like a shuriken.

It occurred to her: Deku was focusing hard on his Black Whip that the incoming knife was a fuzzy blur to his vision.

"Look out!" ripped out of her throat.

He reacted with surprise and, possibly, trained reflex. His Black Whip never faltered when he lifted a leg and kicked the spinning knife that could've dug into the center of his chest. There was a spark as blade hit the iron underside of his boot. She saw a faint glint of the knife, the flat side stuck between the soles. His foot came back down and he stood on his toes as the knife got in the way.

Realizing he had to prevent the Villain from causing any more harm, he heaved his arms up, stretching the whips with him, and snapped his arms down, hammering Madame against the cold ground harder than the many times the Madame had done so to her over the years.

He pulled the dazed woman in, and his fist collided with her gut, knocking the woman out. She went limp over his shoulder. He lowered her to the floor. No one moved until the other team finished business with a now-soot-covered Buggy Man and came back to assist.

Ochaco sank to her knees, exhaustion turning her bones into rubber. It was hard to keep her head lifted. She expected to feel things. Nothing. The Hero who'd organized the rescue hurried over to her, limping because of the sharp object stuck to the bottom of his boot, his shoes clanking. He knelt and steadied her by the shoulder as her head began to loll. Her nose tickled and inside of her head fizzed because of her own bloody nose.

"It's okay," he reassured her calmly, his voice muffled by the mouth guard. Those were his eyes again, affectionate and curious, like a cat's at night. He cupped her cheek. "I promise, it'll be okay." He used a more determined voice when he pressed something over his ear with two fingers. "Charge Bolt, Earphone Jack."

She heard distorted noises come from his earpiece.

"Alright. The police and ambulance should be here. Patch them up as best you can. Anima should be outside. Thanks. We'll be waiting. Thanks guys." Satisfied, he kept his hand on her shoulder. "You might wake up in a hospital with security, but don't worry, I'll do my best for it to go well!"

He'd brought an army, small but powerful enough. He'd found her behind these walls. He'd smashed through the walls.

It was strange, to think she'd given up on herself so easily. Was her life still over? Would the people she scared in their homes forgive her? Would her parents still have a normal life?

Her parents…

"Mom and Dad…" she whispered, her vision becoming blurry, fuzzy. Her nose wasn't working, painfully caved into her face. Strings of red dribbled down her chin. He didn't look bothered by it. She briefly glimpsed at the Heroes tying up a limp Madame on the floor to an unconscious and slightly fried Buggy with tape.

"My friends found them. It's okay," Deku said. Even with his mouthguard on, she could feel the soft smile underneath.

Her temple rested on his shoulder, tired. Tired of everything. Tired of her body always being on alert. Tired of people. Tired. Just tired.

"Can I go home now?" she slurred.

"I'll try to get you all home together," he said with a hint of sympathy. "Just wait a little bit."

"'m tired."

"I know. Not much longer. Stay strong till then, okay?"

She wasn't strong to begin with. She didn't feel strong. What did that even mean? Being 'strong'.

"kay."

Her mind was blank as she stayed perfectly still in the hospital bed; one of her hands chained to the railing with padded Quirk-canceling cuffs, the other in a cast. She couldn't remember hurting her wrist. There was a fuzzy white curve obscuring the lower part of her vision, blanketing where her nose had been damaged. She let the nurses take blood and prick tubes into her chilled arm, slowly trickling painkillers up her cuffed arm like thin water streams disobeying gravity.

It was surreal, being hand-fed hospital food and asked if she could answer this or that. How much she remembered. How it all started. No demands. Just questions. Lots of questions. Questions and hushed voices and rattling stainless steel trolleys and pens scratching paper clipped to clipboards. She answered everything robotically in a silly, nasally voice thanks to her still-healing nose injury.

Exhausted and drugged, she might or might not have slept. It was hard to tell. The clock was forgotten.

Something grazed her shoulder.

"Hey," the familiar voice whispered.

Eyes half-open, she turned her head to the side with surprising difficulty to see Deku in a regular shirt and vest.

"Didn't know if you were awake," he continued to whisper, offering her a sympathetic smile.

"I'm dizzy," she slurred.

He gave a breathy chuckle. "Yeah, I know. Been there a lot. Thanks for being honest with the police. The detective and I will handle it from here. Get more rest, okay?"

Oh, yeah. She'd told them emotionlessly what she and the Villains had committed and how, from disabling security systems to outright drugging people to sleep with Hangnail's, well, fingernails. Hangnail would need to peel a full nail right off. Another layer would somehow be ready in a week (earlier, if Hangnail ate more). Buggy's roaches helped unlock doors and windows from the inside. Ochaco admitted to her involvement with floating items for easier maneuverability. She told everything; where she and her family used to live, where they were forced to live, how they lived underground on a daily bases. Nurses had to break her earing off with pliers. When they lifted her hospital gown, they inspected the permanent two dots on her lower abdomen where a stun gun had once bit her when she was fifteen and forced her bladder to lose control for a day and a half.

"My parents…" she managed through her foggy brain.

"They're safe," Izuku said. "They're downstairs."

"I wanna see them," she said tiredly.

"I know," he said sadly. "You just need to talk to a few more people and I'll escort your parents up. Is that okay? Does that sound good?"

It didn't, but it was better than not getting to see them at all. She didn't like the next man. She was four questions in when she realized what he was insinuating – that she wasn't telling everything, that there was no need to 'protect them' so please talk, reminding her she could've told (even after she explained they were listening and seeing and threatening her parents), and why she suddenly called for a Hero now. His comrade thankfully stopped him from going on.

Why couldn't she just go home?

Deku came by often, sometimes in costume, sometimes in humorous 'T-shirt' shirts. He even brought her snacks, which, after eating hospital food for a few days, was glorious. With no operational hands, he spoon-fed her.

And she realized: it was strangely satisfying, to be spoon-fed. 'Let me know when you've had enough,' he'd say and promise to come by again.

They removed the padded cuffs from her wrist a day later. By then, she was much more coherent. Still dead-tired, but at least her brain was finally functioning. He knocked on her hospital door in a particular way; the same number of knocks with a strong fist that still managed to be both careful and firm.

She laughed, sitting up in bed. "Come in, silly. I know it's you."

He cracked the door open. "Wasn't sure if you were resting."

"Why are you hiding?" she asked, giggling.

He checked on something behind him. "I… uuuhh… You have guests."

She instantly stilled, her eyes trying to see who he was keeping a surprise. She had an idea, but maybe she was hoping for too much. It was sudden.

He opened the door wider to let them in.

She almost didn't recognize them. They looked older, with more wrinkles, gray hairs and smaller eyes with skin folds at the corners. They wore cheap clothes designed for home comfort, and slippers provided by the hospital. Both had rings of light-colored skin around their necks, where devices had clung to for multiple years.

They seemed to be having difficulties with this reality as well.

"Mom… Dad…" She finally spoke to them, saw them.

She was already pushing the blanket aside to stand up. She never got the chance to, because they went up to her first.

Her mother caressed Ochaco's cheek.

"Ochaco… Oh my goodness," she sobbed, her smile quivering. She touched her hair, her chin, over her brow. "Oh, sweetie, look at you." She was crying.

"You look like your mom," her dad said, attempting to laugh but failing. It came out as loud breathing – a barely contained sob. He reached up and, for the first time in years, placed his now-shrunken hand over her head. "You're all your mom."

She started silently crying, her face twisting in anguish.

"Mom… Dad…" was all that came out of Ochaco. She would've suspected them to be strangers disguised as her parents if she hadn't heard them talk. Both her bad and good hands came up to touch her mother's arm; her bandaged hand feeling nothing but continuing to paw anyway. Her healthy fingers clawed desperately at her mother's sleeve.

They looked older to her. She looked much, much older to them; tall and adult. A fully grown woman.

And yet, in her mind, she was still fourteen.

"Mom. Dad," she repeated, hiccupping, her vision turning wet and glossy.

Her dad smeared her tears with his bandaged thumb. She then took notice of the condition of his hands. "Daddy, your fingers…" Bandaged and fat at the tips, each one. They'd ripped his nails.

"It's fine." He didn't mind. He leaned in to kiss the top of her head and pressed his mouth to her hair to whisper, "It's fine. It's fine. We're so proud of you."

How long had it been since she'd gotten a family group hug? How long had it been since she'd last smelled the scent of her mother and felt the prickly stubble of her father's chin? The gut-twisting wail that bubbled out of her was probably heard by next door patients. Fat tears leaked out of her and smeared her parents' new clothes.

Deku stood with his back to the wall, his hands clasped in front of him. Staying silent, he held a grateful smile, feeling his own emotions wanted to pour out all over the floor.

It was fine.

She was pardoned. Every one of her crimes, erased.

She'd been prepared to hear the number of days for her imprisonment; prepared to hear the 'guilty' for this and that; prepared to be locked up again. It wouldn't have mattered. Her life was already over, but at least her parents could move on. In the baggy jumpsuit, she mostly stayed in bed in her temporary cell, her arm draped over her eyes, her ears picking up the sounds of cell doors sliding to close, her tattered heart refusing to mold back together. Nothingness.

Deku escorted her whenever she was needed to speak. He promised her, over and over, to stay strong, stick to the truth, and leave the rest to him. She didn't care about herself anymore.

Of all outcomes, she hadn't expected this kind of verdict.

She'd been forced, and had tipped off a Hero, they'd explained, among other things she couldn't recall hearing. She'd stopped listening.

It didn't sound real – didn't feel real. Her arms weren't her arms. Her body was a ghost.

Reality refused to sink in.

Not after she was told her family's apartment had suspiciously burned down years ago.

Not after her family was told to relocate.

Not even after the doctor told her it was normal to be shocked.

Maybe she was bound to never wake up.

She was okay with it. She was okay with this nice dream.

"Good work today, students," Gunhead praised.

Half the group of sweaty adults stayed on the dojo's floor to catch their breaths while the rest waddled to the showers. Ochaco brushed her damp forehead with her arm. A water bottle dangled in front of her face. She looked up.

"Nice work today, Uravity! Keep working hard and you'll pass that test for sure," Gunhead said.

She accepted the offered bottle. It was cool to the touch. "Thanks. I'll do my best!"

As she threw her head back to drink, he leaned in and whispered with his hand up to cover his already covered mouth. "You're boyfriend's been watching. Might want to see what he's up to."

She almost suffocated. She swallowed too much air and coughed. Slamming the cap back on, Ochaco pretended to focus more on twisting the lid than on the man by the dojo's entrance taking notes. He noticed, because he happily waved at her.

For a powerful man, he was a sweetheart, and continued to be so.

"You were so cool!" he said, beaming. He did that often, throwing rapid-fire sentences with excitement. "You've gotten so fast and you use your weight to your advantage. I saw you use your Quirk when you jumped to go up more. That was so smart!"

"You think so?" She messed with her hair, flattered by the string of compliments.

"Oh, yeah! You've improved so much so fast! I like your new costume, too."

Given the opportunity to design her own costume, she requested support items that would help, and added more pink and white to the bodysuit. It didn't feel like she was forced to wear someone's skin anymore. It felt 'her'.

"Thanks. It feels better," she said, showing off her gantlets. "They help lessen the effects of my Quirk. I need to train more with Cementoss so I can lift heavier stuff."

"You'll do great," he told her with that contagious confidence. "You worked hard. I know they'll do great."

"But… what if they think I'm…" I'm not suitable.

She hadn't expected him to hold her by her gantlets. "Hey, remember when we first met?"

"…Yeah. Yeah, I do." She hoped her blush wasn't too noticeable.

"Remember what you told me? What I told you?"

"Be Heroes together."

She'd been told to hand over her fake license a few months ago.

She never thought much of the license until it was time to part with it. She'd called Izuku from her family's new apartment which was looked after by a retired-Hero assigned to be the Urarakas' bodyguard. She asked, with no real hope, if she could get a real license.

To her surprise, he said he'd try, and that he'd write a recommendation letter to put her up for training.

"Promise me you'll keep trying," he pleaded, giving her the puppy-eye of his. "I couldn't get into UA, but I made it elsewhere, and I'm glad I gave it another shot. You're really strong." There it was again. Strong. "You'll make a great Hero, Uravity," he said.

A great Hero, Uravity.

"Thanks, Deku."

She grabbed his hand with both of hers, opened his palm and, with her finger, traced over his palm: thank you.

He kept his smile, and she saw the blush on his own cheeks.

"Are you… I – uh…" He cleared his throat and looked away. "Are you busy later?"

"Just need to study Hero Law for Vlad King's test. Why?"

"Oh, nothing – it's nothing… just… uhh…" He kept moving his free hand around vaguely. "If… you ever, you know – if you're not busy after, and… if you're-still-interested-in-that-night-park-sometime," he said the last part quickly with no breaths in-between. Fast, like ripping off a band-aid.

She took a few seconds to understand. The few seconds were enough to make him panic and shut his eyes, expecting the worst. "Sorry, I know. You have a lot on your hands already. I don't want you to make you tired–"

"How about tomorrow?"

"–and you don't have to answer now – ah, huh?" He blinked, caught off guard.

She'd never gotten to have friends, or crushes, or go on dates. The person who made her feel safest was asking her on a date.

How could she say no?

"T- Tomorrow," he stuttered, coming to his senses. "Yeah! Tomorrow. Sure! Alright. Okay. I'll… I'll call you?"

She giggled. "Sure you can, Deku."

She couldn't forget how he turned, accidentally smacked the doorway, and tried to act like nothing happened.

She trusted him when he invited her places. Stores, restaurants, parks, museums; her whole family to the cinemas or the mall to hand-pick clothes or buy décor, or just getting used to having a choice in where to go, what to do, what to say, who to talk to, how to live. She cherished the little things; the damp air at an after-rain night, the soft texture of mochi, the wide selection of food at markets, hearing voices of genuine concern, having family dinners once more.

Old thing. New things.

Things she'd missed. Things she was glad to have.

She had no idea what she was doing on these dates and outings. She just knew they were fun. She trusted him. He talked with her parents like they all knew each other for far longer. She simply needed to start trusting herself.

In casual attire, standing in front of the door of the third story apartment, Izuku raised his fist to knock, but turned to her, silently asking: are you sure?

Taking a deep breath, she gave a firm nod. He knocked.

The couple seemed as young as her and Izuku. They were eager for Deku and curious of her, assuring them in and offering tea.

"He's in the living room," the wife happily said. She changed her voice when she happily called out to another person in the room. "Arata, look who's here! Look who's here to see you!"

Sure enough, standing with the help of a baby walker, chubby hand on the toy rings strapped to the side, the baby stared up at the strangers who sat on the couch to be of eye level with him.

Izuku reached out to hold the baby's sticky hand. "Hi. You probably don't remember me. It's been a while since I last saw you."

The baby seemed more interested in chewing on the plastic key-shaped toy, behaving like a baby should.

Ochaco been told about the findings that were linked to a woman like the Madame. She'd been told about the baby, which Buggy had confirmed belonged to the Madame. This tiny person – the offspring of a Villain and a now-arrested rogue Hero –thrown away, had somehow remained with innocent eyes. If she hadn't been told, she wouldn't have guessed where this baby boy had come from. Maybe it was a blessing he couldn't understand nor remember.

Ochaco reached a hand as well. The baby suddenly focused on her finger pads with his eyes. She let him feel them. It was hard not to smile.

"He's so much bigger, now," Izuku said, smiling sweetly at the healthy child. "He looks really well."

The adoptive father walked over with a bright orange bowl and a kiddie spoon. "You can feed him if you want to. He's very good at it now."

"Can we?" Ochaco asked, surprised by the offer.

"Oh, it's fine. Let me just put his bib on." A Deku themed bib; green with rigid black lines and a gray bottom half that mimicked Deku's mouthguard.

Izuku held the bowl and she spoon-fed the infant. He was a clean eater. Not the most focused, though. Ochaco had to occasionally move her hand and float a toy to get his attention.

"It' hard to believe he's the same baby from before," Izuku said, possibly remembering that day the baby, fortunately, wouldn't remember.

"He didn't get a good start," the adoptive mother said. "But he's growing and he's a happy boy. He's strong."

Strong

What did it really mean?

She could take down a gang of Villains and pluck civilians out from a burning building; then she'd wake up at three in the morning, shaking and unable to breathe. She hated it. She hated it so much, she avoided going to sleep and only crawled into bed because her boyfriend kept begging her all night. It wasn't that she hated sleep. She hated the thought of possibly waking up from this nice dream.

She panted into her pillow in an attempt to be quiet. It didn't work. Izuku's hand rubbed her back. She heard him shift over the mattress from his side of the bed.

"Ochaco? Ochaco. Shhh… You're okay, Ochaco. Breathe. Take your time. It's okay," he'd say, every time.

Her parents lived in another room, and the downstairs floor was where the bodyguard lived. She saw herself on the vocal, noisy television that spoke a lot, and on wordy papers. She saw herself presented like how Deku and other heroes were presented: brave, strong Heroes; not as the vulnerable people they were at home. Izuku had his own difficulties with anxiety medication after-effects and painkillers for his years-old body pains.

"You're really strong," he said when she steadied and he drew her closer for a side hug. "You're really strong." He gave her a soft kiss on her temple.

She hadn't understood that part – that 'strong' part. Maybe it wasn't that kind of 'strong', but another kind – the kind that made one hold their ground even when scared shitless.

The kind that forced her to keep moving even with the heavy chains weighing her down.

The kind that told her to accept love and give love back.

That kind of strong.


Note:
-There we go. Was one of those story ideas that bothered me until I wrote them.