Wow. I can't believe it's been like, 5 months. I know it probably doesn't mean much of anything coming from me at this point but it really is my intention to update this again fairly soon (right after HP). Unlike the previous couple of updates that have been left to chance, I've been able to fit this one into my schedule definitively.
October was a productive month for me, update wise (aside from that crash at the end). Let's hope for similar vibes during the month of november.
Big thanks to all of you awesome people on pa treon who voted for this chapter's illustration, and a crist high five to Hyououin Kyouma who attacked the beta stuff for this chapter like a hamster on adderall.
There was a blond-haired boy kneeling on the ground, his head leaning against the lockers and a hand raised to nurse a bruise forming on his cheek. A pair of kids, around the same age, stood over him with condescending sneers. They glared at the downed UA student for a moment longer before wandering off.
Shirou frowned and stopped a few paces away. The hallway was pretty empty; classes would be starting soon. The only reason why he was here to see this happen was that he just so happened to have been a bit pressed for time thanks to an errand that he was running for another teacher.
Even then, though, he only caught the end of the exchange.
Without a second thought, he walked over to the boy and knelt down so that he could face him at eye level.
"Hey. You okay? Did those other guys do this to you?"
The boy's eyes remained downcast for another second before he looked up with a bright smile.
"Haha… yeah, I'm okay! Those guys are my friends. They were just messin' around, ya know. I'm kinda clumsy and run into things a lot. They were just teasing me as usual."
Shirou helped him up to his feet.
"Didn't look that way to me," he countered, though the response didn't do much to make the boy more forthcoming.
"No, really! We're friends. I promise you're just looking into it too much. Thanks anyway, though."
It was only then that Shirou noticed the small feathered wings twitching behind the boy's back as he exclaimed animatedly.
Shirou could only nod dumbly.
Was this kid serious? Even though he hated to admit it, there wasn't much that he could do here if the boy didn't want him to.
He wasn't an idiot. He knew that "they're just messing around!" wasn't a very likely story. The boy probably just didn't want to cause any more problems for himself by getting someone else involved.
Still, who was he to say what was or wasn't the truth?
It wasn't his place to get in the way. More than that, he couldn't picture a scenario in which butting in was a good idea for anyone involved.
On one hand, what if they really were his friends? He'd be making an ass of himself and possibly this kid too if he picked a fight for what was supposedly no reason at all. On the other hand, even if the kid was being bullied, he was making it very clear that he didn't want help. What if there was more to it? What if he was being threatened and something bad would happen if Shirou did anything?
In the end, Shirou just didn't know enough to do anything more than smile and pull the kid back up to his feet.
"Well, if you need anything—"
"Thanks. I appreciate it—really! I do." The kid answered gratefully, though perhaps a bit too forcefully for Shirou's liking. "You're Emiya-san, aren't you?"
"You know me?"
His junior beamed at him.
"Of course! Everyone in our year knows you. Or at least, we know who you are. Sensei uses your videos from last year as references a lot."
Shirou could only scratch his cheek sheepishly. It was kind of nice to know that he was seen in such a positive light. It was the first he'd heard of this, though.
I hope—" the boy continued before cutting himself off. He blushed and laughed nervously. "I just look up to you, is all. I'm kind of scatter-brained and I'm still pretty small, but I hope that I can be as cool as you are… eventually. Even someone like me wants to be a great hero one day!"
The red-haired second-year didn't really know how to take that. Though he had certainly been praised by others in the past, no one had ever been so upfront about their admiration before.
It was the only thing he could think to say."
"Anyway… see you around, Senpai! Class is gonna start soon."
His junior scurried off to class. Shirou was left to his thoughts in the hallway.
Taking a deep breath, he dragged his hand down the length of his face before turning around and heading toward his homeroom class.
Hah… how frustrating. He knew it was for the best to leave the kid alone, but that didn't mean it didn't annoy him to leave things as they were.
"Huah… Why do they keep pairing me with you!?" Usagiyama complained, relentlessly stabbing her lunch with her eating utensil. She refused to look at him, instead choosing to glower in some random direction.
Shirou was totally unbothered. Ignoring the girl seated across from him, he ate his meal in peace.
"Are you listening!?"
Shirou grabbed his juice box and wrapped his lips around the straw. He allowed Usagiyama to continue trying to bore holes into his head with her glare for a little while longer while he finished his beverage.
"It's because—" he began, crumpling the carton, "—no one else is willing to put up with you."
"There are plenty of people who—"
"The last time they tried to give you a different partner, you gave him a black eye before the end of the period. You don't exactly put up with them either."
The white-haired girl crossed her arms.
"Well, screw those guys. I don't need a partner."
"You want to write this entire essay on your own?"
"I didn't say that!"
"Who knows who'll be paired with whom next time, but this is our first group project as second-year students. Sensei probably just wants things to go smoothly so she put us with people she thought we'd work well with."
Usagiyama stood up and slammed her hands down on the table. It was loud enough to resonate throughout the entire cafeteria, though her flipping out was such a common occurrence by now that the only ones who reacted were the first years who weren't used to her yet.
"We've been together for every project in every class! For an entire semester!"
He went back to picking at his food.
"And there's nothing we can do about it. It's gone fine so far, more or less."
Before she could find a way to drag out this pointless argument, a kid—probably from the year below them—bumped into their table. It wasn't overt enough to be noticed by anyone else, but it was enough to rattle the food trays of the only two people seated there.
Usagiyama lost her train of thought. She froze with her mouth open and ready for another wisecrack that never came.
It was a subtle thing: that kid didn't trip. One of the boys walking beside him knocked him off balance with his hip before carrying on as if nothing happened. Did he see that right? Shirou wouldn't have thought that he noticed the action at all if it weren't for the fact that he recognized the one that bumped into their table.
"The hell was that about?" grumbled Usagiyama. She was facing the other way, so she caught very little of that exchange. Miraculously, she seemed content to ignore what she would have otherwise flipped her shit over and went back to picking at her food.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Shirou thought it a good idea to explain "what the hell that was about".
"I recognize those guys. I ran into them the other day."
Usagiyama turned around to get a better look at them. Shirou frowned.
"I think they knocked the kid with the bird wings into us on purpose… but I can't be sure. Maybe I didn't see it right."
He saw that she got ticked off and moved to get up. He immediately grabbed her by the arm.
"Stop. What are you gonna do?"
She quirked a brow at him.
"Give them a piece of my mind," she answered simply.
"For what? I told you, didn't I? I could be wrong. Don't make a scene."
"You said they were knocking him into our table, didn't you? That means they're tryna start shit."
"Maybe. I'm not sure, I said."
She was growing impatient. It was getting harder to hold her in place.
"What makes you think whatever the fuck you were just saying, then?"
Shirou loosened his grip; she immediately ripped her arm away and glared at him. He averted his eyes.
"I… think they're bullying that kid. I didn't see much, but there's a chance it wasn't an accident. That's all."
The stare that she levelled his way was quite possibly the coldest look that he'd ever seen on her face.
"Huh? And you haven't done anything about it?"
Shirou got a little angry. She was accusing him of something without understanding the situation.
"I don't know if anyone's getting bullied. Didn't you hear me? If—"
She stopped listening to him entirely right then. She had already slung her legs over the stool and stalked toward the offending group of underclassmen.
"Damn it," Shirou cursed under his breath. He chased after her, but it was too late.
"Hey. You people."
The group of kids was about to leave the cafeteria when she called out to them. They stopped and turned to face her.
As a second-year student, Usagiyama was already infamous at this point in time. It took no time at all for a crowd to form once people realized that she was confronting someone for some reason.
"Hm?" one of them started with a carefully-crafted look of confusion on his face. Clearly, he intended to play ignorant. "What's u—"
She buried a fist in his face. There was enough weight behind that punch to fold him like a lawn chair.
All hell broke loose.
"Holy shit! Usagiyama just rocked that guy!"
"What did he do?"
"I think one of the other guys nudged her table a bit."
"Jeez. Just that?"
A cold sweat ran down Shirou's spine. This wasn't good. Not good at all. He had to stop her before—
The kid with the tiny wings just watched open-mouthed as Usagiyama wasted no time beating the other boys to the ground. She kicked them in the ribs whenever one tried to move.
Shirou finally managed to get a hold of her. He locked his arms under her armpits and took advantage of her short stature in order to lift her clean off the ground.
She elbowed him and he grunted.
"You're gonna get us in trouble—"
"Listen up, dickwads!" she yelled at the groaning bodies strewn on the floor before her. "Leave Shortstuff alone or else I'll beat your asses again!
One of them managed to push himself up.
"You're crazy. We didn't do shit to you."
"Is that an excuse to pick on Shrimpstick?"
The blonde kid didn't really seem to appreciate her nicknames.
"Uh, my name's—"
Usagiyama had enough of being manhandled, she wrapped her legs around the back of Shirou's knees and headbutted his chin.
He fell backward and she pushed herself off of him. Usagiyama marched up to the blonde and stared at him intensely, uncaring of how he seemed to wilt under her gaze.
"Y-you…" he stuttered out in a weak voice. "You shouldn't have done that. They'll be angry, I think."
She turned her head and smiled viciously at the injured boys.
"Won't that be fun, though? We'll have a nice back-and-forth going on. They try to fuck around, find out why they shouldn't have, rinse and repeat. I can keep it up 'till they kick me out, buddy."
Shirou gnashed his teeth.
This idiot… She was really going to get herself suspended over this, wasn't she?
Her ire seemed to be redirected at him for whatever reason. She poked him in the chest and he took a step back.
"You should've done this. Not me."
He gnashed his teeth, stepped forward and poked her right back.
"Done what? Make a mess? I was asked to stay out of it, so it's only right that I—"
"What kind of hero needs to be told what he should or shouldn't do, dumbass!? You knew what you had to do. Stop lying to yourself. Even if someone doesn't want you to save them, shouldn't it be obvious that you're supposed to save them anyway!?"
Both of them were sent to the principal's office that day.
"Hero Killer Stain has breached level three! I repeat: Hero Killer Stain has—bleurk!?"
The radio transmission cut off before the guard could finish his sentence. The warden of Tartarus gripped the device so tightly that it started to crack at the seams.
"Damn it," he cursed.
What the hell was that guy doing here? The Commission didn't give him any heads-up about this. Stain was supposed to be one of those dime-a-dozen street prowlers, right? For fuck's sake—how did he even get here? The island was five klicks offshore!
Tartarus was supposed to be the most secure prison in the world. There was no way that he'd let two break-ins go unpunished with one happening so soon after the last.
"Get Public Safety on the line!" the warden barked. Another man wearing a mask hurried over and handed him a phone; he pressed the device to his ear.
"...You know why I'm calling, don't you?"
The warden's face tightened as whoever was on the other end spoke.
"...I don't care. Fix this mess! We'll do what we can, but even though we should be equipped to handle one fucker just fine, he's able to get through us like we're not even putting up a fight. Get heroes over here right now!"
The phone was crushed in his grip. The warden threw whatever was left of it onto the ground and stared at the wall in front of him silently for a tense few seconds.
"...Sir," spoke his assistant cautiously, "Something's not right. Black Knight was one thing, but Stain is—"
"Yeah, I know." He sighed. "Someone on our side isn't doing their job, for sure. Now, whether that's on purpose or not is another story entirely."
An elbow to the face shut the guard right up and dropped him before the man could finish his sentence. Stain didn't bother offering the man anything beyond a cursory glance as he passed him by.
Here he was. The lowest level of Tartarus. He knew exactly how much time he had to operate, but that didn't mean that loafing around was ever a good idea.
His every footstep echoed throughout the dark, narrow chamber. It was empty for the most part; he knew there would only be one cell per level from this point onward.
At the end of the hallway, he stopped in front of that one cell. Stain didn't bother saying anything, instead waiting for the prisoner to come to him.
"...You're not supposed to be here," a woman's voice remarked. It had a certain amount of levity to it, less an accusation and more an observation.
He looked her in the eyes.
Her figure wasn't difficult to make out. Quite the opposite, actually. Compared to the dreary and run-down halls of Tartarus, her cell was very well put together. It was brightly lit and furnished as though it were a utilitarian hotel room and not a containment room for a criminal.
"You know why I'm here," Stain countered.
She walked back to her bed and sat on the edge of it with crossed arms.
"Do I? Get on with it. I doubt you have long before they get on your case."
Who "they" were wasn't specified. It didn't have to be.
Suddenly, the palm of his hand slammed into the glass panel dividing them. Were it any other glass, the sound would've been quite startling. As it stood, the material and build were so sturdy that there was barely an audible "thump".
"Let me worry about that. Look: I can get you out of here. Work with me. Together, we—"
Slowly, his hand slid down the glass.
"...Huh? I don't understand. What do you mean, 'No thanks'? It's an offer to pick up right where you left off! I hold no delusions as to my own strength; they'll catch me eventually. But together? The message we could send would be powerful. It would stick. You think so too, don't you?"
A quick chuckle escaped the woman's lips. Stain couldn't help feeling a bit offended, though he buried those emotions as she got back up and leaned on the transparent barrier directly in front of him.
"They're using you," she said. "The Commission, I mean. Just like they used me. What makes you think I'll ever work with them again? Hell, why would they want to work with me again?"
"You of all people should know what it means to work with the lesser of two evils, 'Lady Nagant'," he hissed at her. "I'm not blind; I'm using them just as much as they're using me. Make no mistake: they're next."
The amused smile that had been plastered to her face until now fell flat. She held his gaze for a moment longer, totally emotionless.
"You and I are alike in many ways," she muttered. "Just not in the ways that you think."
Stain forced himself to calm down. He quirked a brow.
"We've both done a spectacular job of failing to identify which evil is really the lesser of the two."
This conversation wasn't going anywhere. What a shame.
He held hopes that she could see past her hatred for the HPSC just as he had. Were they a cancer plaguing this society? Absolutely. They were corrupt, self-centred liars just like the rest of the pencil-pushing morons that spearheaded the workings of the world.
What they did not do, however, was call themselves heroes.
They never pretended to be selfless. They never pretended to be virtuous. They were just humans, and no one pretended otherwise.
The danger was never those bastards that scurried around the shadows like sewer rats, but rather those that were placed on a pedestal so high that no one would even want to out them as the plague that they really were! Heroes were protected and they were content to abuse that protection.
The law could handle a bad politician. Heroes, on the other hand, were a problem.
And he was the only solution.
"You're more small-minded than I had hoped," he told her. "It's a shame."
In response, the criminal sighed and stretched her arm over her shoulder.
"I feel bad for you, Stain. Lost. Nothing left for you to believe in."
He said nothing. She took it as an invitation to continue with a bright grin splitting her face.
"The difference between us is that I have someone to hold me accountable."
Momo took a deep breath.
The first event was finally done. An obstacle course, of all things. Who would've thought?
She clenched her fist.
Objectively, she did well placing fifth overall. In a group of sixty or so kids, that meant she was among the best, right? She was right behind a guy like Iida-san, who, realistically, was the best equipped for this sort of thing.
But still, it felt like she failed, somehow.
After all that talk, fifth-best was all that she could manage. Even when she was trying her hardest!
Bakugou-san said that he was aiming for the top and she had made it clear to him that she wouldn't just be a "stepping stone". But that's what she was, right?
"Better than most" wasn't her objective here. Midoriya-san. Bakugou-san. It felt like the only contest that mattered was between those two. Everyone else was an extra. Even Todoroki-san, a fast-tracked student like herself, seemed to be left in the dust.
This wasn't about her ranking. At the end of the day, she was still an afterthought.
How did Midoriya-san come such a long way in such a short time? Sure, his quirk was powerful, but it seemed so out of control until just a little while ago. She wasn't one to disparage the progress of others, but for him to have lapped her like this, for lack of a better word…
In an effort to be left alone for a little while, she took a walk down one of the empty colosseum halls of the sports arena. Present Mic would be making the announcement for when it would be time for the competitors to get ready, so it was fine for her to stay like this for a little while.
"Hey, you. Girl."
Her back straightened. Momo whipped her head over her shoulder.
"Wha—I mean, yes?"
There was a man standing in front of her.
No one else was there. Was he behind her the whole time? How did she miss him?
The man's strange red eyes were narrowed wearily. A phone was held up and away from his face; he was probably speaking to someone before he had called out to her.
…Wait, he was one of those foreign heroes, right? She recognized him.
"You're in Archer's class, isn't that right? The class representative. That means you're the reliable sort."
Momo put her hands out in front of her.
"I–in a fashion," she stuttered, "but—"
The man's cellphone was dropped into her hands.
"I need to go do something," he told her. "Take my phone to Emiya; someone's on the other line, but don't talk to them. Straight to your teacher. Understood?"
This was coming out of nowhere.
"But why?" she couldn't help but ask. "Is there something wrong?"
She could see that he was forcing himself to calm down. He relaxed his shoulders to seem less imposing.
"A technical issue. No one can get through to Emiya for some reason—spotty reception, I bet. Point is, his agency is trying to reach him and he's not picking up. It's important. You have some time before the next event, right? Just tell him to give me my phone back after."
He disappeared in a blink of an eye. She couldn't even get a word in!
…Where was Sensei again? He was on the east-end of the stands, right?
Rumi groaned and stretched her arms out, making sure to take up as much room as possible. Shirou kept trying to push her hand out of the way, but the appendage would just yoyo back into place.
"I can't see, Usagiyama."
"You're not sorry."
This time, he grabbed her arm and pulled it down to his lap. He kept her hand trapped between his leg and his palm so that she couldn't do anything else with it.
Rumi stopped putting up a fight. Her shoulders slumped as she leaned further back into her chair.
"I'm bored," she moaned.
"When's the next event starting? I feel like nothing's happened for a minute. Isn't Yamada supposed to move things along?"
He looked at her with half-lidded eyes.
"You don't have to be here, you know. I'm the teacher."
"Well, we're meeting up with Blondie after the festival, right? Going together makes more sense. Logistically."
He stared at her pointedly.
"Logistically, huh? I remember you breaking your leg trying to prove a point to a certain student of mine. What was that about, I wonder?"
"Well, you know."
Her eyes widened a little. Just a bit. Shirou wasn't looking directly at her; he had his head facing the empty arena below with a barely-perceptible smile.
"Thanks?" she repeated. "For what?"
"For looking out for Midoriya."
"I thought you wanted me to stay out of the way?"
"Mm. I didn't think you'd be any good at the whole 'teaching' thing."
For whatever reason, she didn't have it in her to put up much of a fight over that right now. She felt mellow, even.
Rumi just made a face.
"Huh? What are you talking about? I'm a great teacher."
"I'd totally skip your class"
"You're a top-percentile delinquent. I'd kick you out before you could ditch."
"How awful of you, Mister Teacher Guy."
His smile cracked for a moment. Shirou made a complicated face before the smile came back with a vengeance.
"That was an incredibly low-effort insult."
She wouldn't allow her own smile to make an appearance.
This was nice. She couldn't remember the last time they talked about nothing. Probably because they never did, come to think of it. Talking about nothing meant that they weren't doing anything, which neither of them particularly enjoyed.
She enjoyed this, though. It was… comfy? It felt like the wrong word, somehow.
Instead of finding a suitable comeback, Rumi lifted her free hand and flipped him off.
…Hold on, free hand—?
"E-excuse me? Sensei?"
Both Rumi and Shirou had their thoughts interrupted by the black-haired girl who stood in front of their row, red-faced.
"Yaoyorozu," Shirou greeted her. He quickly made note of her flushed complexion. "Are you all right? You look—"
"Ah! It's nothing! Here—please take this."
The pair was seated near the end of the bleachers, so it was easy for her to sneak past a seat or two and hand the man a cellphone.
He stared at the device in his hand for a second.
"One of those heroes from overseas handed it to me. He said that people have been trying to reach you but that your phone wasn't receiving calls or something. He took off to do something else—he seemed pretty busy—but he asked me to hand you his phone and asked that you give it back to him later sometime. Anyway, there's someone on the line apparently and I'm gonna go get ready for the next event. Talk to you later, bye!"
The girl rushed off. Jeez, he couldn't even get a word in.
Shirou shook his head. Was he supposed to know whose phone this was or something? It was unlocked; he could just check contact info afterward, supposedly.
First verifying that there was in fact an ongoing call, he brought the phone to his ear.
"This is Archer," he said.
As the seconds passed his expression grew more and more sombre.
He hung up and stared at the phone silently for a moment before pocketing it.
"Rumi, we gotta—"
She had a really stern look on her face, though it was even more flushed than Yaoyorozu's was a moment ago.
"My hand," she said in an oddly-small voice.
Slowly, he looked down to his lap. As if he were scalded by her skin, he quickly let go of the appendage that he had forgotten that he was holding this whole time. All of a sudden, he felt pretty flustered.
"Sorry," he apologised lamely.
Rumi did her best to play it off, though she was now rubbing the wrist that he had held like it was bruised or something.
"Don't worry about it. What was that call about?"
Her question helped him get his head in check. The critical nature of what had been relayed to him rose right back to the forefront of his mind.
"That was my secretary," he told her.
She was understandably surprised.
"Huh? What's your secretary doing calling random heroes?"
What Yaoyorozu said about people not being able to reach him came back to him. He pulled his own phone out; there didn't seem to be any reception issues.
"I just sent you a text," he said. "Did you get that?"
It took her a second to check. She waited a few moments longer just to make sure it wasn't delayed.
"Let me try calling you, then."
Rumi made a face.
"What was your secretary saying?" she asked.
Shirou got to his feet.
"We need to go meet Arthur a little earlier. Now, more like."
This was certainly coming out of nowhere.
She saw the look in his eye and knew that it was a big deal.
"Something happened at Tartarus again," he revealed. "Only this time, we know for sure who was involved. Stain."
Rumi wasted no more time asking questions. Barely a second passed before the pair was rushing to the exit doors.
"My car's closer, I think," Rumi told him. He heard the sound of her car keys jingling over his shoulder. "How bad did it sound?"
Shirou frowned deeply.
"There was no time to give me the details, but from what little she told me, it's bad. It's really, really bad."