It was dark in the kitchen at this hour, but there was no mistaking the way her shoulders shook at every breath or those soft, almost wheezing exhales. Her back was to him, hunched as she was over the sink surrounded by what looked like every single piece of dinnerware they owned in the new on-school apartments.
“Hey Ochako, you okay?” Izuku asked, voice soft so he didn’t startle her. Ever since the incident with All for One, she’d been first furious, then distant, then distracted. This wasn’t the first time after that he saw her alone somewhere, lost in thought; this was just the first time he’d also seen her crying, and the flash of desperation on her face when she turned toward him made something tighten in his chest.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Totally fine,” she said, and Izuku was surprised at how even her tone was given the fresh tear stains shining in the light of the microwave clock.
He glanced at the network of plates and glasses nearest him on the floor and began to pick his way over to her, leaving a respectful distance in between so she could continue to pretend she wasn’t crying. “You uh, looking for a midnight snack, too?” he said as he leaned against the opposite counter, internally writhing at his terrible excuse for humor.
Ochako did smile, though, so maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. “Have you ever felt useless before, Deku?” she asked after a shaky breath, hands still clutching the sink behind her.
An avalanche of memories overtook him: Kacchan’s merciless fists and stinging words on the playground, his classmates’ jeering laughs at his Quirklessness, his mother weeping ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ over and over. But he couldn’t tell her about any of that, couldn’t tell any of his new friends about his Quirkless past without raising awkward questions, so instead he said, “Yeah. In the woods, I was right there, and I couldn’t stop them from taking Kacchan away. He was there in front of me, just about in arm’s reach, and I still couldn’t save him.”
Ochako was looking at the floor now and remained quiet for longer than Izuku was expecting. He was about to say something when she raised her head, eyes filled to the brim with new tears, and stepped over a plate to bury her face in his neck.
Startled, he brought one arm up to pat her back while he had a moral crisis about where to put the other, finally settling on somewhere above her waist. She had begun to sob in earnest during that time, and Izuku made awkward comforting noises and tried to think of what All Might might do in this situation.
“You guys went out there and risked your lives trying to bring him back,” Ochako sobbed, leaning back to wipe her face despite the wet spot Izuku could feel on his shoulder. “While I stayed back and did nothing. Not that I would have been much help, as I am now, but just you wait Deku, just you wait. I’m gonna be as strong as you or Bakugo or Kirishima.” She bent over to touch all of the plates and silverware in their immediate vicinity, and as they rose, she walked around the rest of the kitchen, touching dinnerware as she went. Soon there was a mass of floating plates and cutlery around them, but before Izuku could ask her what she was doing Ochako had brought her hands together. Taking a deep breath, she squeezed them together and the plates began to drop a little. Another, harder squeeze, and all the floating utensils began to drift downwards at a much slower pace than if she’d simply released them.
The moment the first glass touched down she pulled her hands apart and ran to the sink, gagging, and suddenly it all made sense to Izuku: she’d been training her Quirk alone, trying to get stronger.
“Next time, I’ll protect you guys,” she said, spitting into the sink. “Next time, I won’t have to wonder if my best friends are coming home.” Her voice broke on that last sentence, and now it was Izuku who stepped forward to pull Ochako to his chest.
“You know,” he said, holding her a little too tightly but wanting to be sure she got the message, “before I met you, I was unsure about a lot of things. I looked up to All Might, but he was on such a different level that sometimes it was hard to believe I could really keep going. But when you heard Kacchan call me Deku, you didn’t hear ‘useless’ -- you heard ‘you can do it.’ And that change in perspective has helped me so much over the last year.” He leaned back enough to look her in the eyes, large and shining and damp around the edges. “Truth is, you’ve been protecting me for a while now, Ochako.”
She met his gaze without a word as what he said sunk in, at which point Izuku became suddenly and violently aware of how forward that sounded. “I uh, you’re great is what I mean, and you shouldn’t worry about being strong because you fought Kacchan during the Sports Festival and he’s scary when he’s mad and--” He stopped talking when his feet left the ground.
Their arms were still around each other as they floated and Ochako laughed, a lighthearted, sincere sound that filled him with a strange giddiness, before releasing her Quirk.
“Thanks, Izuku,” she said, face dry and voice back to its usual upbeat tone. “You always know just what to say.”
He was grateful it was (probably, hopefully, oh god please) too dark for her to see the blush that was burning its way along his face, but just to be safe he changed the topic anyway. “Anytime. Here, lemme help you put these dishes away.”
They made short work of returning the dinnerware to its rightful storage place, and then they were left standing awkwardly in the middle of the now-spotless kitchen. “So, um, have a good rest of your night, Ochako,” Izuku said with a lame half-wave. He turned to head back to his room and try not to think about how much he just embarrassed himself or the weird new feeling in his stomach when he remembered how warm Ochako was to hug, except he only made it to the door before he heard her clear her throat.
“If inspiring someone is protection, then you’ve been protecting me for a long time, too. ‘Night, Deku.” She waved and walked towards the door to the girls’ rooms, and if Izuku stood frozen for an extra few moments, well, he’d say he was simply readjusting to gravity.