Ito Matsu likes the man who lives upstairs. He’s about her age, she thinks. Late middle-aged, though he has the look about him of someone who spent most of his youth very ill. He’s tall, thin, a little worn-looking. His eyes are shadowed by a tired, heavy brow. But he’s kind, and offers to carry her groceries for her even when she fears they might be heavy enough to break his spidery arms.
Really, most of the time he’s a pretty good neighbor. He has a dog, but it’s very quiet. A service dog, she remembers hearing him say. For anxiety. The two of them never cause any trouble.
There’s only one problem.
It starts with a boy. Green hair, mid-twenties. He shows up once a week with a cooler. When Matsu bumps into him in the elevator, he sheepishly explains that it’s full of frozen meals he’s made for Mr. Yagi. Matsu hums a little under her breath, but answers his polite smile with one of her own as she steps off at her floor.
It makes sense, she supposes, that such a delicate man would be worried over by his children. And really, he ought to eat more. She’d nearly screamed just three days ago when she’d seen him in the hall—he looked almost exactly like a skeleton from a distance.
There’s a girl after that, around the same age, with short hair and bright eyes. She comes in with Mr. Yagi, carrying about ten bags of groceries as though they weigh nothing at all. She’s chatting amicably—more at him than with him—but he smiles as he nods along, his little dog watching him attentively as it trots at his heels. The girl waves at Matsu as the three of them pass her on the sidewalk—with the same hand that’s carrying two cartons of milk and what looks like several large jugs of dish and laundry detergent.
“Anyway,” she says, returning her attention to Mr. Yagi, “He started in on this whole speech about the individual versus society...”
Matsu shakes her head a little, but goes about her business. It’s nice, she thinks, that Mr. Yagi’s children look after him so well. Her own son barely comes by on the holidays.
The third one Matsu only notices because of Mr. Yagi’s dog. He’s walking it in the little green space next to the parking lot, waiting patiently as it makes tentative explorations of the few tree trunks within range, adjusting his glasses and stretching a little. Stretching a lot. He’s very tall, she notes, and thinks as he nods politely at her that he must be another of Mr. Yagi’s brood.
After that, everything seems to snowball.
There’s a girl with a wide mouth and long fingers who offers Matsu one of the boxes of seaweed tea she’s bringing to Mr. Yagi. “It’s good for your circulation,” she explains, and then—inexplicably—adds, “Ribbit!”
She almost jumps out of her skin one day when she opens her door at a knock only to find that—instead of the Amazon delivery she’d been expecting—there’s a somber boy with two-toned hair standing on her doorstep. He falters when he sees her, a bag from what Matsu recognizes as a very high-end therapy product brand looped over his wrist.
“I’m sorry,” he says woodenly. “I’m looking for Mr. Yagi’s apartment.”
Matsu blinks owlishly at him, then gestures upward. “Same room,” she explains, “Next floor.” Then, “Oh! And could you take him back this umbrella? He loaned it to me a few days ago, I’ve been meaning to take it up.”
The boy accepts the umbrella with a brief nod, thanks her, and excuses himself.
Five, she thinks. A large family, but not unheard of.
Then there’s one with strange teeth and a reckless grin dragging a new sofa up the stairwell, a well-dressed and fine-figured girl pacing the front walk and speaking rapid-fire into a cell phone about Mr. Yagi’s living arrangements. Matsu gets a static shock off of a blonde, who apologizes with a broad grin as a set of—to all appearances—empty clothes chides him fondly.
Matsu comes to Mr. Yagi’s door hoping for his help changing a light bulb—he’s much taller than she is—only to be assisted by a bird-headed boy who speaks softly but casts a rather… odd shadow.
And really, Matsu thinks, bewildered, that is altogether too many children. And clearly, with their range of quirks and appearances, not a shared mother between them. It’s all very suspect, but again and always, none of her business.
It isn’t until some time later that things come to a head. There’s some kind of heated conversation going on upstairs. Matsu—who of course isn’t eavesdropping—can’t quite make out what is being said, but it sounds like an almighty row. She hears something break, and decides that—her business or not—it’s time to get involved. She can hardly expect Mr. Yagi to stand up for himself, after all, when the man can barely climb the stairs without getting dizzy.
She marches up to his apartment and raps smartly on the door, ready to give whichever child is mouthing off a piece of her mind, when the door itself is blasted off its hinges. She teleports smartly out of the way, steadying herself on the wall as she stares at the charred mess that had once been a rather nice welcome mat with little flowers on it (the short-haired girl’s handiwork, she suspects).
There’s a blonde boy standing in the doorway, one hand extended as though to turn the knob that is now on the other side of the corridor. He closes his eyes. Matsu thinks she can see him mouthing numbers, slowly, from one to ten.
When he opens his eyes, he turns around to face the interior of the apartment again.
“Sorry,” he says, his voice low. “I’ll replace that.”
Then he’s off like a shot, brushing past Matsu with a muttered apology and disappearing into the elevator.
Matsu pushes away from the wall, staring at the closing elevator doors in befuddled shock.
When she turns around, Mr. Yagi is standing in the doorway. He looks slightly abashed, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck. “I’m sorry if we disturbed you. Young Katsuki is facing something of a rough patch at work, and he gets a bit heated when he goes on a rant. Are you hurt?”
“Ah— no. Thank you, no.” Matsu dusts off her sweater.
Mr. Yagi gives her a light pat on the shoulder. “Good! Excuse me, but I really ought to tell the building manager what’s happened. Nasty surprise otherwise, hm?” He walks past her, moving off in the direction Katsuki had gone.
And she just can’t hold it in any longer.
“Mr. Yagi,” she says, unable to contain her burning curiosity. “I have to ask. How many children do you have?”
He pauses mid-step, glancing over his shoulder with confusion written clearly across his features.
“Oh,” he says, brow wrinkling. “Ah. None, I’m afraid.”
Then he’s gone, and Matsu is left with one question answered and a hundred more clamoring to be asked.
The mystery deepens when a friend of hers—Chiba Seiko—accompanies her out to lunch one day. They’re on their way back to Matsu’s apartment for a little dessert—Matsu has a bottle of good sturdy brandy she’s been saving for a rainy day—when they nearly trip over the green-haired boy as he steps out the front door of the complex.
Matsu is fairly certain his name is Izuku. He’s around more often than the others, sometimes with coolers and other times with arms full of DVDs. She secretly thinks he might be Mr. Yagi’s favorite, though she’s never said anything.
He bows a little to them, apologizing for the near-collision. Matsu waves his words away, smiling indulgently. Secretly, Izuku is her favorite too. He holds the door open for them, then bows again and disappears down the walk.
Turning back to Seiko, she’s about to make a remark when she notices that her friend hasn’t stopped staring at the door Izuku had just exited.
She jumps, then turns wide eyes on Matsu. “You didn’t tell me,” she says, a little breathless, “That Deku lived in your building!”
Matsu blinks. “I… don’t think that’s his name. And he doesn’t live here, Mr. Yagi does. He just visits.”
“Of course it’s not his name,” Seiko says, rolling her eyes so hard they’re at risk of falling out. “It’s his code name! Don’t you watch the news?”
“It depresses me,” Matsu says with a sniff. “All those crimes.”
“Matsu,” Seiko says, grabbing her shoulders and almost shaking her. “Matsu, that was Deku. That was the most famous superhero in Japan! Even you have to know that!”
For a moment, Matsu doesn’t say anything. She’s cataloging experiences, going over mental notes, remembering the bits and pieces of news she hasn’t been able to avoid.
“Oh,” she says, when she’s done. “Oh dear. I think we might need to look something up.”
“That one, too.”
“Matsu you can’t be serious. That’s Ingenium. He runs a massive agency, he wouldn’t have time to visit some old man.”
“I saw him bagging poop for Mr. Yagi’s dog. It was definitely him. And that one, with the goggles.”
“Froppy? She’s single-handedly eliminated seafaring smugglers. She’s won like nine medals.”
“Oh! The girl with the very adventurous neckline.”
“Creati is a multi-millionaire.”
“And the boy with the exciting hair?”
“A legacy hero. Matsu, the Prime Minister gave him an award on national television. How can you not have recognized any of these people?”
“I mind my own business,” Matsu says with a shrug. “What about that one, with the nice smile? She’s been around a few times.”
In the end, Seiko has to stay the night.
Matsu doesn’t get the chance to speak to Mr. Yagi again until a week later, when they run into each other at the building’s gymnasium. He’s walking on the treadmill, pace even, with a book open on the control panel in front of him. She recognizes it as one that the angry boy—whose code name escapes her, but whose fame Seiko has assured her of—brought by last week, something about inner tranquility and quality of life. The Road to a Happier You, she remembers.
Stepping onto the treadmill next to his, Matsu starts up a gentle jog cycle. Gone are the days of long, all-out runs, she thinks wistfully. Too hard on the knees.
“How’s the book?” she asks, wiggling her fingers at Mr. Yagi in a casual greeting. He looks up, a little surprised, but smiles.
“A bit heavy-handed, but there’s something to be said for an author’s good intentions I think. How are you, Mrs. Ito?”
“I’m all right,” she replies breezily. Then, because slyness is for foxes, she turns to look at him. “Do you mind if I ask you a question, Mr. Yagi?”
“Not at all,” he says, though she notices the way his fingers tighten on the rails of the machine.
“You don’t have to answer,” she amends hurriedly. “It’s just. A friend of mine recognized one of your guests a little while ago.”
“Ah.” Mr. Yagi relaxes, his smile going from wooden to genuine in the blink of an eye. “Yes, they’re quite well-known in their field.” There’s more than a hint of pride in his voice.
“So I’ve been told,” Matsu says, trying to find a way to word her question that doesn’t sound hideously insulting.
“You’re wondering why so many famous young superheroes would darken the door of an old man like me,” Mr. Yagi supplies, his smile still wide and untroubled.
“You’re not that old,” Matsu replies automatically. “If you’re old, I’m old.”
He laughs, and it’s a laugh she’s only heard filtering through the ceiling when one of Mr. Yagi’s guests is visiting. It’s too big for him, shaking out of his narrow frame like thunder down a mountainside, and for a moment it’s as though there’s a younger man peering out through Mr. Yagi’s eyes. She can’t help but join in, her own laughter quiet and tinny by comparison.
“All right,” he says finally. “Let’s be not-old together then.”
Matsu nods, and almost forgets her question until he adds, “They’re my students. Or they were, a long time ago. I think they teach me more than I teach them, these days. Did you know they’re making holo-tablets now? Young Iida was explaining it to me...”
He tells her all about the latest advancements in technology, all of which seem more like science fiction than science fact. Occasionally his explanations break down into words like “thingy” and “doohickey”, but he seems delighted by the idea of it. Matsu finds herself swept up by his enthusiasm.
She thinks Mr. Yagi must have been a very good teacher.
Izuku—Deku, she reminds herself, what an odd code name—is waiting for the elevator a few days later when she comes back from her grocery shopping. He insists on taking some of her bags, though the large cooler resting on one hip prevents him from taking all of them. He smiles apologetically as he adjusts his grip.
“Sometimes I wish I had Shoji’s quirk,” he tells her wryly. “He’s got six arms.”
Tentacole, she thinks absently. The Tentacle Hero. Has he visited too? Did she miss him? How many celebrities has she met without knowing it?
“That’s an awful lot of mittens, come winter.”
Izuku laughs, and he reminds her so much of her own son that she can’t help a smile.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything but tank tops. I’m not sure he even owns a jacket. Toshi says it’s good to let your biceps breathe, but I think there has to be a limit.”
At the mention of Mr. Yagi, Matsu’s smile widens. “He’s awfully lucky, you know. Your teacher.” A soft ding alerts them to the opening of the elevator door, and Izuku waves her in ahead of him before joining her and pressing the button for her floor.
“Oh?” he prompts, adjusting his parcels.
“Of course.” The ride to Matsu’s floor takes only a moment, and then they’re both trundling down the hall toward her door. She sets down her remaining shopping bags to sift through her purse for her keys. “I think I forgot my teacher’s name three days after I graduated. I certainly never visited him, or brought him meals or anything. I think he would’ve called the police—I was a bit of a problem child.”
“I’ve met those,” Izuku says absently, waiting as she opens her door and ferries her bags inside. “But really, it’s the least we can do.”
Matsu chuckles as she takes the last of the bags from him. “He must have been quite the teacher, then.”
Izuku laughs. Shakes his head. “Well… not really.” He taps out a rhythm on the lid of the cooler. “To be honest, he was kind of terrible. But...” His expression softens a little. His eyes drift up to the ceiling, where Mr. Yagi is probably sitting on his very nice couch with his little dog curled up next to him, sipping seaweed tea and wearing therapeutic slippers.
When he speaks again, his voice is soft. Thoughtful. “Even if he wasn’t a great teacher. He’s the best man I’ve ever met.”
He bows then, and starts off down the hall. Matsu watches him until he reaches the elevators.
Mr. Yagi, she thinks, is an awfully good father for a man with no children.