He strains, he yearns for praise, for compliments, for recognition. All he wants is the positive attention, and he blooms under it like a flower turned to face the sun. With encouragement he is the best , and without it he’ll push himself without regard for anything around him until he’s there again at the forefront of people’s minds. He’ll force them to acknowledge him if he has to, because he can’t live without it.
And it’s not enough to come “first.” He needs to be indisputably number one. He needs...he needs his accomplishments to be set in stone, to be inarguable, so that his nagging brain doesn’t begin to pick them apart. So that he doesn’t start to look at the failings, to obsess about the mistakes, to run the events over and over in his mind until he begins to feel the crushing pressure of failure even after he’s won. So that he isn’t kept awake at night wondering whether he’d have won if Todoroki had taken him seriously.
Even if you come first, you can be a failure. Huh, Katsuki?
“If you weren’t so weak and got yourself kidnapped, you wouldn’t have caused all this trouble,” his mom says, and to All Might and Aizawa’s eyes she likely looks like she’s joking but she’s not. Or if she is, it had lost its humor long ago, the years ago that she’d first said that he deserved what he’d gotten. The years that she’s said things like it, over and over until it’s fucking drilled into his thick skull that when you’re hurt it’s your own fault. It’s your own failing. You should have done better, you should have tried harder.
“I’ll send you into the ceiling,” he says.
I killed All Might, he thinks.
If you knew how to use your quirk you wouldn’t have burned yourself, he remembers, from when he was six. If he’d known how to use his quirk he wouldn’t have laid in bed, sobbing as blisters broke beneath fingers curled into palms. His skin wouldn’t have peeled back from the flesh, shiny and red and leaking clear fluid onto his sheets. It wouldn’t have hurt at all if he’d known better, if he’d done better and been better.
But then, if you’d told me it was this bad you wouldn’t have gotten it infected , she’d said, and then he’d learned that the punishment for letting someone find out your mistakes later was worse. If he’d known how to take care of it, how to clean and bandage it himself, he wouldn’t have had infections beneath burned and ruined skin. He wouldn’t have had to visit doctors who made his hands hurt down to the bone. Who’d made him miss school.
Who’d made him fall behind.
Do badly in one thing and it was you don’t deserve to go to school. So many other kids around the world would have begged for the chance to go to school. Would have killed for his quirk, for his natural born gifts, and if he was wasting them, then he deserved everything he got.
So he’d practiced every day and taken care of himself when he failed. Popped his own arm back into its socket when he had been thirteen and he’d gotten carried away, setting off a blast big enough that the recoil had dislocated his shoulder. Cried and cried as he’d tried to jerk it into place, even though every limb was shaking so hard he could hardly stay upright. Visited the hospital on his own because you don’t leave this stuff to chance, you don’t risk your future on laziness, you take care of it now and you don’t bother anyone else. He hadn’t told his parents about what had happened.
He’d also never told them how it had felt to be crushed and suffocated nearly to death. He had come home after the sludge villain had attacked him, showered and changed his clothes, and sat at the dinner table as though nothing was wrong. But this time they’d known.
“So how did that happen?” his mother had asked him as he’d fiddled with his food, turning the katsudon over in the bowl. He hadn’t been hungry, had spent all afternoon vomiting and the idea of putting food into his stomach had felt like asking for trouble.
“What?” he’d muttered, and raised his eyes to meet hers. They were hard and the steady stare burned into the backs of his retinas. He’d dropped his gaze to his food again almost immediately. “The sludge thing?”
“Yes,” she’d said, “It’s not like the police didn’t call us, Katsuki.”
“Yeah,” he’d mumbled. His father had been silent, as was his preference most of the time. Katsuki had chanced a glance at him, but he wasn’t looking back, just eating as if nothing unusual were happening.
“Yeah? That’s all you have to say?”
“Well, fuck, what do you want me to say?”
“Well, first off, how about how my son managed to get captured by some sentient sewer water and then did a billion yen’s worth of property damage* while trying to escape?”
He remembers feeling the seriousness of her question, the way it made everything inside of him shrink away, recoil from her questions, because he could yell and bluster at everyone else, but not his mother. “He grabbed me from behind,” he started.
“So much for your hero career,” she’d finished, with a snort. Despite himself he’d looked up again, feeling fury and shame in equal parts rising up his throat. “Can’t even avoid being caught by some literal trash, huh Katsuki?”
“No,” he’d snarled, “My quirk didn’t work on the guy - what was I supposed to do --”
“I don’t know,” his mother had said, nonchalantly, “Fly away? Knock yourself out of his reach? Your little friends didn’t get caught, now did they? I’m guessing they had the good sense to remove themselves from a situation they couldn’t handle.” It’s true it’s true it’s true -- “If only you were so sensible.”
“It wanted me because I have a strong quirk, Mom,” he’d insisted, voice ragged.
“Do you? Seems to me like all it’s good for is destruction of property. Maybe you should go into the construction business, fill in for some sticks of dynamite.”
His face had been burning. His eyes too, “No, I’m going to be a hero.”
“Better start acting like one, hey, Katsuki,” she’d interrupted him as he’d stood abruptly from his seat, “I don’t remember excusing you from the table.”
His fist had been clenched so tightly around his chopsticks that they’d ground together unpleasantly in his hand. Through his teeth he’d gritted, “May I be excused?”
“No,” she’d said. “Sit back down.”
And he had.
He’d thrown up everything he’d eaten at dinner later that night.
And now there’s this, and he’s back from the villains’ hideout, on house arrest, and there’s nowhere he can go as he slips, slips a little further back, into Deku’s shadow, into that place out of the sunlight where nothing grows and he stagnates and becomes rotten. And for the first time, he finds he doesn’t care, not after seeing All Might as he is now, sickly and fragile, and knowing that that’s because of him.
For the first time, he actually does wonder if this is all wrong. Whether it’s not his destiny to become a hero. Whether he’s fighting against his own inadequacies and will never win because all he fucking has is a flashy quirk, after all! The kind of quirk that others would kill for! The kind of quirk that people attack other innocent people for, that gets others in trouble, that fucking -- ends with All Might -- like that -- because he’s such a fucking piece of shit that no matter what he does he can’t fucking escape the dark cloud of not good enough --
Ugh, god, it hurts, it feels like everything inside his ribcage is raw and used. Like he’s had something torn out from his chest. He presses a palm to his sternum and pushes down hard, as though he can stop his breathing from there. He’s not the best at being a hero, not by a long shot, and he doesn’t even have the personality to make up for it. People think he’s a villain, isn’t that the crux of it? He’d had nothing redeeming if not for his strength and now he doesn’t even have that.
He rolls over so that the tears on his cheeks are absorbed by the pillow before they have a chance to track down over his skin. So that he can pretend he’s not so pathetic that he’s crying over being a worthless piece of shit.
He shifts a little, so that his arms are crossed over his chest, hands clutching at the opposite arms, and as his weight bears him down against the mattress, it almost feels like he’s being held.
He fails the hero examination right after that and can’t bring himself to tell his parents, so he just ignores their calls. He doesn’t have to talk to them now, right? Not when he’s living in the dorms.
He doesn’t tell them about the fight with Deku either, nor the subsequent suspension, but he’s pretty sure the school must have informed them, given the sudden burst of calls that he declines and the increasingly angry text messages. He dreads listening to the voicemails, which he knows will be a litany of swearing and almost-screaming. So he lets them sit there until the voice mailbox is full.
“How come you never pick up your phone?” Kirishima asks one day, while they’re studying.
“I do,” says Bakugou, “I answer your calls, don’t I?”
“Huh,” hums Kirishima thoughtfully, “That’s true. But you never pick up when your mom calls.” Sure enough, the caller ID says Mom, and it and her associated picture is in full view of Kirishima where it’s sitting on the desk. “She looks just like you.”
“I look like her, you mean,” says Bakugou and hits the button on the side of his phone to turn the screen black.
“Guess so, but I knew you first.”
“You don’t know her at all.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” says Kirishima, and there’s about five seconds of silence before he speaks again, pen pushed thoughtfully against his lower lip, “You think I’ll ever get to meet your parents?”
“Well, you met mine,” it’s true, and they’re just like Kirishima, all smiles and touches and hugs, like there’s sunshine bursting from inside of them that they just can’t contain, that they have to let out or else explode. He’d felt burned by it, uncharacteristically revealed as the dark and gloomy person he is beneath the bravado. Kirishima’s smiling at him now, all wide eyes and gleaming teeth, “I dunno, just feels like looking into a crystal ball or something. What you’re gonna be like when you grow up, I’m interested to know!”
“Yeah, that’s what you think about two-face too, is it?”
There’s a pause, and Kirishima’s smile falters at his brusque tone, “A-ah, well...no, I guess not. But maybe he’s more like his mom?”
Bakugou hasn’t told Kirishima about what he’d overheard at the sports festival, but they all know that Todoroki is less than a fan of his father. Kirishima, however, is likely unaware that Todoroki’s face is fucked up because his mother had poured boiling water over it…
“Not everyone is like their parents,” mutters Bakugou. Sadly, he knows that he is . He’s exactly like his mom in almost every way. The thought makes his skin crawl.
“Guess that’s true,” says Kirishima. A couple of minutes pass before he speaks again, haltingly, like he’s struggling to put the words together, “Sorry for being pushy, I know you like to be a bit mysterious.”
“It’s fine,” says Bakugou. “Since when do you give a fuck about being pushy?”
Kirishima changes after his internship. He takes it more seriously now when they’re on the field or in practicals. Even off duty he’s less carefree, though Bakugou is still gratified to see that whenever Kirishima looks his way, that sunshine begins splitting out of him, as though when he’s with his friends, Kirishima can’t contain it.
And friends Bakugou thinks they are. Indeed, Kirishima says it enough, almost daily, as though trying to convince everyone around them. It’s worked on Bakugou at least, and now sometimes in his bad moments he dares to think of going to a friend for comfort, for cheering up, if not to tell him what’s bothering him.
Sometimes, when he catches Kirishima staring at him, or when he sees him smile at his approach, Bakugou dares to wonder: best friends? Are they?
He’s never had one before. As a child, he’d always been in charge. The people who trailed after him were not friends but rather lackeys, a term he’d heard villains use in his childhood cartoons, but which seemed apt to use for the useless people tagging along with a hero as well. ‘Sidekick’ was certainly too generous. Deku was the furthest from, the most useless, the most annoying, and nothing Bakugou had ever done had dissuaded him, made him go away.
(And it had made him sick, because if Bakugou isn’t good enough, then how can Deku be? If nothing he ever does is perfect, or right, or even worthy of his own self-praise, then how can Deku look at him and so proudly proclaim that he’ll be a hero? How could he devalue the meaning of being a hero with paper thin promises and cotton candy dreams? Wishing doesn’t make it happen -- (except it does, if you’re Deku)).
And yet, here they are. Deku is steadily gaining experience as Bakugou falls further and further behind. It’s a strange and visceral jealousy that he feels when he looks at Deku, at the way he improves, at the contacts he makes, at the things he sees and does. At the way fucking -- All Might -- fawns over him, gave him his power, entrusted him with everything .
At the knowledge that being that next pillar of peace, that next number one is Deku’s destiny .
It makes him itch beneath the skin, makes him feel like a fuse that’s always lit. Makes him want to explode .
But no one else wants that. The behaviour that had been overlooked or even praised in middle school is not acceptable here. The administration and his fellow students had made that abundantly clear over the last few months.
It’s obvious that venting his anger is not appropriate and that he will be punished for it, but now he doesn’t know where it should go. If not out, then where?
Simply don’t feel it seems to be the only answer given by the people around him. Don’t be angry with Deku, work together, be part of a team, accept him, accept those around you as strong, you’re just another member of the class, you’re not special, you don’t deserve more than the others here and they don’t see you as a threat, everyone sees Deku as their rival and you’re just -- nothing --
He’s cracking under the pressure of everything threatening to burst from inside his chest, and he can’t hold it in -- it’s not like the sunshine from Kirishima, it’s vitriol and he can almost see himself leaking, trembling fingers unable to hold himself together as he wraps his arms across his chest as though he can contain it. As if -- this is like being held --
When he breathes out next it comes out as a sob, a broken, ugly thing.
The sound makes it worse, the pathetic noise ringing in his ears, hanging in the air around him, and he breaks, just a little, enough for the tears hanging in his itchy eyes to flow, to stream down his face as he clutches at his upper arms and weeps. This isn’t like it had been before, it doesn’t even feel like it’s from sadness, but rather from being overwhelmed, like he’s too full.
And he sobs for a long time, long enough that the sun sets, that his stomach is empty and furious, that he’s cold, until finally he’s run out of tears. His eyes are swollen and itchy, face hot and sticky from where his nose has run.
He doesn’t feel better.
He feels hollow, like he’s been emptied out and there’s nothing there to replace it.
“Are you okay?” Kirishima asks him at lunch.
He hasn’t been feeling right today, not since he’d cried himself to dehydration last night. His eyelids are still swollen too, giving him the look of someone with a cold. “Fine,” he says, but it comes out flat. He doesn’t want his food but he eats it anyway, because it’s on his meal plan and he needs the calories for training later.
“You seem kinda down,” continues Kirishima, and Bakugou desperately wishes that they weren’t surrounded by the other idiots at this table. Thankfully Kaminari, Ashido and Sero seem to be caught up in something in a magazine that the former is waving. It’s probably not a coincidence that Kirishima chose this moment to speak to him.
Suddenly there’s a hand on his forearm, where it’s resting on the table. Bakugou looks down. Kirishima’s hand is wrapped over the top of his wrist, the heel of his hand resting on bare skin, his fingers atop the sleeve of Bakugou’s jacket. He’s so warm, and it suddenly strikes Bakugou that it’s been a long time since someone else touched him except in battle. It’s always Kirishima, and only Kirishima. “Hey, if you wanna talk, how about we hang out later?”
“I don’t need to talk.”
“I didn’t say ‘need,’ I said ‘want.’” Kirishima smiles at him just a little, teeth kept safely tucked away behind slightly pursed lips, “I wanna hang out tonight either way. It’s been a while since we’ve had bro time.”
Bakugou is loathe to admit it, but this aspect of Kirishima’s personality - the ability to stand his ground, to nose his way in - is the reason why they’re friends. For someone so reticent to socialize as Bakugou, there is no room for subtlety. “Whatever,” he says, and Kirishima beams.
They meet up in Kirishima’s room that evening, and Bakugou sits on Kirishima’s bed as he scurries around setting up his gaming console. The room smells like Kirishima - a sort of spicy, masculine scent Bakugou knows is from a combination of deodorant and body spray - and it’s overwhelmingly, oppressively red . “Don’t you give a fuck about colour psychology?” Bakugou mutters, pulling his socked feet up onto the bed to sit cross-legged.
“Sure,” says Kirishima. He’s presently trying to get some wires plugged in and Bakugou wonders what the fuck they’re supposed to be playing that requires a component cable, “Red is for excitement and passion!”
“You don’t want something calmer for a bedroom?”
“No,” says Kirishima, unwinding two remotes. He finally turns to look back at Bakugou, seemingly pleased by the fact that he is curled up on top of the atrocious patterned bedspread, “When I’m going to sleep my eyes are closed. The rest of the time I want to channel that passionate mood.”
“Right,” says Bakugou, reaching for the controller being handed to him. He hasn’t played one of these in years - not since Deku was still inserting himself into Bakugou’s little group. “You don’t get tired of it?”
“Sometimes,” says Kirishima, hopping up beside Bakugou, “You know, no one can be one way all the time. Sometimes I feel pretty shitty about myself - well, you know that - like, that I’m not flashy and not cool and shit, like I’m not good enough to be a hero -- don’t say I’m being stupid, I’m just saying I feel that way sometimes,” Bakugou’s mouth clicks closed from where it had been opened in outrage, “And so sometimes the red seems, I dunno, wrong? But then it reminds me of what I want to be, so even then it’s good in a way.”
There’s a long pause. Bakugou doesn’t speak, suddenly wondering if the walls are thin enough that Kirishima might have heard him crying. It’s too on-the-nose, isn’t it? To say this right as Bakugou’s arrived, pretty much…
“Hey, sorry, you okay?” asks Kirishima when the silence stretches on too long.
“What colour is your room?”
The title screen for the brawler is glowing on the monitor. Bakugou chews on his lip. Kirishima’s never seen his room and he lives next door , “White.”
“You never painted?”
“No,” and his sheets are the same, plain, navy and blue checked pattern he’s always had. There aren’t any posters on the walls or anything like that. He hadn’t been able to bear looking at the All Might posters in his room back at his parents’ place after what had happened, and there had been little else that had interested him as a child that would have translated into decor.
They play for a bit. Bakugou barely remembers the controls, but he has good reflexes and the mind-numbing clicking of his fingers feels pretty good as the time melts away into flashes of light and colour on a small television screen. The sun goes down, something he doesn’t notice until Kirishima gets up to turn on a lamp and he realises they’ve been sitting in the dark for close to an hour.
Spell broken, he puts down his remote and with what could be construed as a sigh, he announces, “I should probably go do homework.”
“No,” says Kirishima, dropping back onto the bed with a grin, “There’s nothing due tomorrow.”
“There’s shit due the day after though,” Bakugou grumbles as Kirishima shuffles closer.
“So do it tomorrow.”
“This is why your grades suck.”
Kirishima just laughs. “But yours don’t. I think you can afford a day off.” At Bakugou’s frown he continues, “Come on Katsuki, I think you work too hard.”
It does not escape Bakugou’s notice that Kirishima has just used his first name, but it sounds natural enough coming from Kirishima that he doesn’t bother to protest. If Kirishima wants to be on a first name basis, that’s fine. Fucking Deku still calls him ‘Kacchan,’ after all.
If Kirishima’s grin begins to spread as Bakugou begins speaking without correcting his use of the name, Bakugou pretends not to notice, “If I was working too hard , I’d be number one already.”
“No, fucking...ponytail and exit sign did better than me.”
“In the written midterm, yeah, but not in practicals.”
Deku did better than him in practicals. Reckless, the report from his final exam had said. Deku had gotten a higher grade because he’d been more willing to work as a team, and because he’d landed the final blow and dragged Bakugou’s unconscious body through the exit gate. So no, he wasn’t the best there either. He doesn’t say that out loud, just stares at where his fingers are interlaced over his shin. Rests his chin on his bent knee.
“You okay, buddy?” asks Kirishima, after a few moments of elapsed silence.
The silence seems to fall heavy, punctuated only by the rattling thud of his heart in his ears. His whole body seems to shake with it, trembling around the fulcrum of his knee. The seconds tick by, awkwardly, that weight of the quiet becoming more oppressive as time rolls on, until finally, he breathes , “No.”
He’s not sure what he’s expecting, what reaction he thinks Kirishima will have, but a hand settling on his shoulderblade is not it. It’s so warm that he can feel it through the thin cotton of his long sleeved shirt. He doesn’t dare to look at Kirishima’s face, even though it must be close now.
“Can I give you a hug?” Kirishima asks, quietly.
And yeah, Kirishima touches him all the time, but they’ve never hugged before. Kirishima seems to recognize hugging as the intimate act it is, as though he knows that no one ever holds Bakugou that way and that he’s not used to it. And usually he’d tell Kirishima to fuck off. That he doesn’t need comfort, that he’s not weak, that Kirishima is being a pussy and implying he’s one too.
But wrapping your arms across your chest is not really like being held.
“Yeah,” he says.
Kirishima does it carefully, shuffling forward and wrapping long arms around the entirety of Bakugou, his chest pressed to Bakugou’s knee. It’s nice, comfortable, and when it doesn’t end after a moment, Bakugou lowers his knee so that it’s flat against the bed, and Kirishima shuffles forward into the space created by the V of his legs, pressing up against him so that their chests are flush.
No sooner has Bakugou’s chin come to rest on Kirishima’s shoulder than his eyes begin to well up, filling mistily with tears until the film of moisture makes it almost impossible to see. He tries not to blink for fear that they will fall, but the next intake of breath through his nose likely gives him away; it could charitably be called a sniffle.
Tentatively, his hands come up so that his forearms are at a ninety degree angle with his biceps, resting lightly against Kirishima’s mid-back. It’s barely a touch but it’s all he can think to give, even as Kirishima’s own arms coil tight around Bakugou’s arms and shoulders. He doesn’t even remember the last time he’d been hugged or cuddled, and the feeling is foreign and strange and…
It’s so nice.
Kirishima is warm and smells good, his body solid beneath Bakugou’s feeble grip, his arms strong around his torso. Every time he breathes in, Bakugou can feel it as Kirishima’s chest expands to push against his own, and he feels the hot escape of breath against his neck when he exhales. “This okay?” he asks, voice coming out a deep rumble that Bakugou can feel as well as hear.
“Yeah,” he mumbles, wondering how long it’s normal for male friends to hug.
He decides to let Kirishima decide when to end it, but he doesn’t, he just holds Bakugou as he starts to relax in his grip, until his cheek is balanced against Kirishima’s trapezius muscle, most of his weight supported by the hard line of Kirishima’s torso. And it goes on, and on, until the tears are gone from his eyes and his muscles are like jello and he’s left with the aching, empty certainty that this is more than he deserves.