Chapter 1: Slippery Slope
Sero's stopped wearing jeans. Even when worn with a belt they make the unhealthy thinness too obvious. He's always been a skinny guy, but the way his hipbones stand out now isn't from fitness or genetics. He's been losing weight. He'd thought he could get away with skipping a meal here and there, eating a little less at most occasions, but the hero lifestyle is demanding even for a sidekick. He really needs to eat more, but a good diet means neglecting his rent so it's not gonna happen.
Turns out, marketing a tape dispenser hero is pretty rough in an industry climate set by guys like Todoroki and Bakugou and otherwise defined by the grand wake of All Might's era. Sero's good at his job. He's just not popular. Maybe if he were handsome things would've worked out. He just doesn't have the public appeal, a plain-faced guy like him. He'd been hoping to land a sponsorship from a packing company, but it fell through. He doesn't like to think that it's because they took one look at how gaunt his face was getting and bailed, but it probably was.
He struggles along for another month. He's nice to the other folks at the agency he's employed at, but they still don't like him very much. There's only so many times you can turn somebody down for after patrol drinks before they start thinking you're an asshole. In truth, he just can't afford it, hasn't been able to for a long time. Not that it would take much to get him drunk because he doesn't have the body mass to handle alcohol anyway. Sero's dismissed from his position and not one of his coworkers seems to particularly care about that.
In the end, Sero goes underground. It's government funding that replaces his costume with something less...bright fucking yellow. It's a good call. Now that his paycheck is defined by more than how much people like his face, he's started to make better money, not great but better. He doesn't even have to change his hero name. He didn't have enough renown in the first place. He doesn't mind working underground. It's nice not having to gussy up for the press. It makes him a little lazy actually. He stops cutting his hair, which wasn't short to start with but just keeps getting longer, and he barely shaves anymore. He looks more and more like Aizawa by the day. The ponytail and stubble suit him more than he'd like to admit.
But his underground work is not enough. His finances are still a mess and while he's lived on less he can't really put anything aside for savings without his health suffering. There's only so long you can live slowly starving, especially doing hero work. And hero-work is about all he's qualified to do. He takes a second job, a second job he doesn't tell anyone about. Sero takes a job in an adult store, which is a polite way of saying that he sells lube, leather and silicone to the horny. It's not a great job, but it's a job.
Chapter 2: The Nightmare Scenario
Sero is adjusting to his new jobs.
The words are PINK SLIP.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sero has been getting bugger-all sleep, but he's putting weight back on. The virtually nocturnal life of an underground-hero-slash-sex-shop-late-shifter is proving more than a little difficult to adjust to. He's finally been able to afford some decent blackout curtains, though, which is helping. He's half tempted to get himself an Aizawa-style sleeping bag for behind the counter at work - so he can cocoon himself and emerge as a fully-formed workaholic insomniac.
Honestly, his bosses - the co-owners of the store - would probably allow it. They're eccentrics - all three of them - though they do kind of balance each other out. Takahashi - a silvering kinkster who answers the work phone with the phrase 'Daddy's here' - has a few clear product biases that would overtake the stock if he wasn't being curbed by Mori and Arai. Arai - who quit her job as a sex therapist when she took up partial ownership - is knowledgeable but can be a little overwhelming for new customers and browsers. And Mori - an ageing drag queen and perhaps Sero's favourite of the three - stops the whole operation from spiralling into a vibrating, latex-garbed disaster.
Perhaps he's exaggerating. The shop isn't too bad really. Most of the hardcore shit is relegated to the back wall, and even some of the milder stuff doesn't make it as far as the counter. Most transactions are pretty boring - quirk-specific lube or condoms make up a decent portion of the shop's bottom line and once you get past all the bright colours, weird textures and even weirder shapes, a vibrator is a vibrator. He is occasionally amused by some of the novelty items that the trio of co-owners choose to stock - like the 'After Dick Mints' that sit by the register and the few copies of Sexopoly (which he's pretty sure is infringing on copyright or trademark or intellectual property or whatever) that he'd shelved a couple of nights ago. Mori even stocks an assortment of smutty 'literature'. He's actually encouraged to read it so that he can make recommendations. so he doesn't feel too bad for picking up the odd shitty novel to pass the time during quiet shifts.
The current book is one of the better ones, less sex than most of what his boss puts on the shelves, so there's room for a little more storytelling.
"You sell books here?" comes an incredulous voice.
Without taking his eyes off the page he replies, "Of a particular sort, yes."
"Are any of these actually any good?"
"Well, I can't vouch for the ending but this isn't bad so far." He shifts the book to expose the cover, which features a peasant girl being swept into the arms of a princely figure.
"Medieval fantasy, actually." He absently flips to the next page.
"So like sword and sorcery and stuff?"
"Yeah, though it went off the rails a few chapters ago and it's become a swashbuckler." Halfway down the page, the current chapter ends so he looks up. "What did you neeeeed...uhh?"
For the first time since his first week on the job, Sero is too embarrassed to speak.
We all know who it is right?
Chapter 3: Customer Service Smile
Sero keeps his cool, but just barely.
PINK SLIP!!!! Now with more Mina! Check the END NOTES for a QUESTION.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The woman pulls down her sunglasses as if that's what he needs to recognise her, like her skin isn't distinctively pink. For the first time in a long time, he's looking into the dark sclera and yellow eyes of Ashido Mina. She's as striking as the day he met her. Maybe even more so. Her horns are a little longer. Her hair is a little wilder. Her form is so much fitter.
"Whoa! Sero?" She's grinning and surprised like he's the one who looks healthy and happy and hot.
"Hey, Ashido," he greets, as casually as he is able while pretending that this is a happenstance meeting in a park and not a nightmare reunion next to a tin of After Dick Mints.
"You know, I'm kinda digging the five o' clock shadow from yesterday or the day before look."
"Thanks." Sero wants so badly to move on from his haggard appearance that the next thing he says is, "So were you looking for something in particular?" He wants to smack himself in the face, but thankfully his customer service smile - formerly his hero smile - holds up.
"Yeah, well, you're probably more familiar than most with the fact that I shoot acid out of my hands. It's not exactly doing wonders for my sex life."
No, he wouldn't imagine it would.
She continues, "It even makes doing things myself a bit..."
Professional, be professional.
"Well, there are two main ways to address your acid production. The first would be acid-proofing, meaning supplying you with products that resist corrosion. And the second is neutralisation. With neutralisation, you can use more mainstream products."
"Which should I....?"
It's pure habit that allows him to respond. "Well, that depends on several things, but I can select you some products from both methods and you can see which sounds best to you."
"Okay, sounds good."
"Right, I'm gonna fetch some stuff from the back for you and in the meantime feel free to take a look around." With deliberate calm, Sero turns and heads through the door into the back, closing it behind himself. Sero allows only a brief moment of ashamed panic against the closed door. He does have to do his job.
Sero seats himself at the old desktop computer that his bosses have yet to replace. He searches their product database for corrosion resistance and neutralisation. He realises, with increasing dread, that much of the appropriate products aren't currently stocked. He'd have to order them in for her, which means that she'd have to come back. He wants to clock himself with the catalogue book. He doesn't think he could handle doing this more than once, but he's going to have to. Sero marks several pages in the physical catalogue with page flags - they're each printed with a cartoon penis. He kind of wants to cry. That will have to be for later though. Sero steels himself and heads back out front with the catalogue book, but it's not enough to prepare him for the sight of Ashido perusing the back wall.
What would you like to see Mina pick out?
Chapter 4: Dammit
Sero is an efficient and effective salesperson even despite himself.
PINKSLIP folks. Let's see how Sero's doing...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Oh, finished already?” Ashido places the harness she was looking at back.
Sero plasters his Customer Service Smile back on - he’s sure he looks almost vacant - and hefts up the catalogue book.
“I’ve a few suggestions,” he says, guiding her back to the counter. Sero lays out the catalogue and flips to the first marked page.
Ashido makes a face and he’s not sure whether it’s because of the phallic page flags or the anti-corrosion vibrators that the page describes.
Sero takes a breath. “This sort of thing would be more for you than for a partner. They’re a little pricey, but the durability can make something like this a good investment item. They last well if you care for them properly, which is simple enough. Just avoid exposure to anything alkaline as this item is specifically for resistance to acid. Though, if you’re worried about the pH of a cleaner that you want to use, most of them actually come with a testing kit. That said, the material is anti-microbial so it can be cleaned with just water.” Sero finishes his spiel, looks up at Ashido’s face, and realises that perhaps he’s underestimated Ashido’s budget if the designer sunglasses she’s wearing are anything to go by.
“Hmm.” She taps a finger against her lips. Her nails are manicured but chipped.
“Or you could also try these.” He flips to a page he marked in a different section of the catalogue. The page showcases a variety of single-use gloves with chemically reactive inner coatings. “Five minutes of wear will neutralise acid residue even deep in the skin. After wearing you just rinse off any excess neutraliser. Unfortunately they’re single use, meaning you’ll have to re-buy, but they’re one of the simpler neutralisation methods.”
“That does sound pretty simple.”
“And finally,” he turns to a page towards the back of the catalogue, “this I think is more novelty than anything, but it might still be useful for you.”
She looks at him skeptically. “Indicator lube?”
“The actual risk from your acid is, on most occasions, not that high. It’s actually determining that risk that is the challenge. This would give a visual cue.”
“I’d suggest getting a sample to test for any reactivity, but that also gives you a chance to see if the consistency is to your liking. I’m pretty sure we can get a product sample for the gloves too. Unfortunately we don’t keep these specific items in stock, but we can order them in for you.”
“Hmm, well, they’re worth a try. I’m gonna keep thinking on the vibrator though.”
“Right. I’ll order in the samples for you - there is a small fee, but it’s better than ending up with a product you can’t use. Would you like them sent to you directly or would you like to pick up?” Sero internally panics the second that the question is out of his mouth. Why didn’t he just ask for a mailing address? He could have done that. Who is he kidding? Every bit of training he’s had from day one on this job is why he couldn’t just skip that question.
“I’ll pick up.”
His cheeks are starting to ache from smiling because it’s so forced. “We’ll need a contact number and email address to let you know when things arrive. Would you prefer that communications be consolidated or would you like to know as they come in?”
“As things come in, I think.”
Dammit. He needs to stop asking things on autopilot, but he’s just so tired. “Right.”
“And in the meantime,” Ashido plucks a copy of the medieval-fantasy-gone-swashbuckler from the shelves near the register and slides it onto the counter, “a bit of light reading won’t go amiss.”
Still smiling, Sero rings up the sample order and the novel. She uses a fancy credit card at the till, which she slides back into an overstuffed wallet.
Ashido takes up her purchase and leaves the shop with a cheerful “See ya Sero!”.
He watches Ashido leave. He tries not to think too hard about what thinks of him. It’s not very effective.
Just your luck huh Sero?
QUESTION - What did we think of the products that Sero has suggested? Useful? You decide.
Chapter 5: What else you got?
Mina's intuition is spot on, and Sero's too exhausted to be tense about it.
I'd say something witty about my triumphant return, but mostly I'm just tired.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
In the days that follow, Sero dreads the arrival of Ashido’s samples. They're not due for some time, but, of course, she comes into the shop anyway.
He's borderline falling asleep at the counter. He's barely attending to the shop, but it's also empty so it's fine. He's upright, as in standing, but otherwise, he's pillowed his head on his crossed arms. It means that Sero hears Ashido's voice before he sees her.
"You look like death...or Aizawa." In her wake, she brings a waft of coffee aroma - espresso, and strong at that.
"Ha hah," Sero says, without raising his head, as a humourless imitation of a laugh.
Of course, she just had to come in when he's post-patrol. He usually tries to schedule his shifts at the shop before his patrols instead of after, but sometimes things just don't work out. He's slouched up against the counter, body aching from sling-shotting himself around downtown. He raises his head. As he sits up, his shoulders and spine make a series of cracks and pops. Putting more weight on his feet makes his knees and ankles twinge - a few landings taken just that bit too hard.
Ashido steps a little closer to the counter. "Nice helmet hair."
Sero makes a half-hearted effort to flatten his hair, knowing that the end of his ponytail is wind-matted to shit. "Occupational hazard," he says with a half-cocked smile.
Ashido laughs, bright but brief. "Don't look so down, I brought coffee."
She takes a long sip of what looks to be some sort of berry frappe. And then, she sets down a to-go cup from the cafe down the street in front of him. 'Cellophane' is scrawled on it in black pen. He feels odd seeing that name written so casually - under-grounders don't get much recognition so hero names are used a little differently. It lands like a punch to the chest - she still sees him as a public figure, an obscure public figure but a public figure regardless.
"Ah, thanks," he says a little stiffly.
"Oh, and this." Ashido pulls a small to-go box from her bag. "They were clearing out the cabinets for the end of the day so..." She gives him the box, inside of which is a cheese scone that's been warmed and buttered.
"You didn't have to-"
"Well, I just had a feeling." She shrugs, as if her choice to get him something to eat and some strong coffee wasn't damn near prophetic - like the fates themselves had told her he'd be calorie deprived and about to fall asleep standing up. She takes a sip of her own drink.
Sero takes a sip of still-too-hot espresso and takes a tentative bite of the cheese scone. They're delicious, but he's too aware of the fact that the two items probably amounted to something similar to the remains of his bank account - even with the End Of Day discount on the scone.
Sero brushes scone crumbs from his mouth. "I'm sorry but your sample orders won't arrive for some time."
The hand holding her frappe is starting to drip with condensation. Ashido shakes off some of the drops. "What? I can't come to see my favourite smut peddler? That swashbuckler was pretty good by the way."
"The bosses will be glad to hear it."
And then, with a glee that he's only seen from his boss when it comes to the books, she says, "What else you got?"
I'm curious, what drew you to this story? What's the thing that you wanted to see?
Chapter 6: Espresso Lament
Sero muses on the significance of a simple cup of coffee.
Sero needs a gosh dang hug
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ashido leaves the shop that day with a smutty paperback that he'd assured her was terrible, but that she'd bought anyway. Sero takes a sip of the coffee she'd gotten him - still just slightly too hot - and turns the cup in his hands to look at the scribbled hero name. The coffee is strong enough that he's sure the whole shop smells of espresso now. So tempting, but he puts it to the side to cool a little more.
He picks at the scone, despite being so hungry, just to prolong the act of eating it. After all, with Ashido's brief stop-in over, the shop is empty again and there's very little to do but wait. He gives up the farce of peckishness about half-way through and scarfs down the rest. He makes a mess of the counter, but the scone crumbs are easy enough to sweep into the bin kept by the till. He definitely feels better for having eaten something reasonably substantial.
Finally, the coffee is cool enough to drink. As he sips at it, he begins to taste a hint of something subtle about the flavour. He almost thinks he's deluding himself because it's not immediately apparent beneath the bitterness of strong coffee, but now that he's noticed it's unmistakable. He turns the cup again and squints at the barista-squiggles on the side of the cup. He's pretty sure that a couple of those marks look like a hastily written 'HZ'. He takes another sip, lets it rest on his palate for a moment.
Hazelnut. She'd bothered to ask for hazelnut syrup in this caffeine kick monstrosity. He doesn't quite know how to feel about that. For one, he knows that it makes this already-expensive coffee slightly more expensive. And for two, it means she remembers his stay-awake-please-let-me-pass-study-till-you-drop coffee preferences from their last year at UA - he attributes his passing grade entirely to espresso and hazelnut syrup. He's hit with a wave of nostalgia - even though those exams were hell on earth - because he hasn't been able to afford barista coffee for a long time, let alone with syrups. He holds the cup in both hands, letting the warmth seep into his palms.
"She remembered. I can't believe she remembered," Sero mutters to the empty shop. He gets a little louder. "It's been years, actual years." He's struck suddenly by the realisation that he hasn't really talked to Ashido in five years. Sure they'd been in some similar circles while he was still overground, but they hadn't really been close - and that distance had only grown as his career had slowly withered.
He picks up one of the copies of the book Ashido just bought and talks to the shirtless figure on the cover. "Fuckin' eh, Yorick," he says, poorly parodying Shakespeare - knowingly poorly too, because he's read the book and the character gracing the cover with his photo-shopped muscles is named Oskar. "I knew I drank a lot of coffee during those exams, but I didn't think it would be my legacy." Sero raises the coffee cup in a mock-toast to no one. "At least I'm known for something."
I'm a spicy chai latte kinda person myself, but hazelnut syrup is rad yall
Chapter 7: Two Weeks Wait
Ashido doesn't always come at the same time, but when she comes in at night or during the evening she brings in coffee.
This is what I would like to call a 'Momentum Chapter'. A montage through the exposition or whatever so that the intriguing stuff can be introduced a little sooner.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She keeps coming in. There's something like a two-week wait on her orders, but she's in the shop practically daily. Ashido doesn't always come at the same time, but when she comes in at night or during the evening she brings in coffee - always with hazelnut syrup, even if the drink itself varies - and something from the cabinet. Muffin, mini-quiche, scone. Something. If he's not working, she shares with whoever is, but he's usually working.
Ashido almost single-handedly makes keeping the shop open at night commercially viable. Barring last-minute purchases of lube and condoms, the shop doesn't sell much at night. Whenever Ashido comes in, she always leaves with a purchase - always. That said, she still falls into the trends that most of their customers do - she spends more money during the day.
Sero only knows this because Takahashi 'casually' drops mention of it. Apparently, one of the ladies on day-staff - the lucky bastards who don't have to watch the shop by themselves - had fitted her for an extravagant lingerie set, which he doesn't want to think too hard about. Arai chides Takahashi for teasing him about her selection. Mori joins in with the teasing - he briefly reconsiders Mori's position as his favourite boss.
Within the first week, Ashido has bought no fewer than four smutty paperbacks from him - to Mori's delight. And in the second week, she starts picking up novelty goods - a penis cupcake pan, an oversized pinup t-shirt, a dirty favours coupon book. She even buys a tin of the After Dick Mints.
Ashido is cheerful - every time - and chatty. She's always leaning against the counter and into his space - pulling in close. He's not an idiot - she's flirting with him and he does know that. He's aware that that's a thing that's happening. It's light, as far as flirtation goes, and feels more teasing than anything. It feels like she's just having a bit of fun, nothing serious. So he just tries his best to roll with the punches and not take any of it too much to heart.
He's lousy at keeping up their volley, probably the furthest thing from smooth. He's just not used to it. For most of the flirtations that he's been on the receiving end of he's had the luxury of reacting through the tinted face-shield of his helmet. Not that it happens much these days. Also, half the time he's just exhausted - which doesn't improve his skills as a conversationalist. She doesn't seem to have the same problem, always far too energetic for being at the end of a heroing day. He's envious of her stamina.
Against all odds, Ashido's samples arrive at the same time despite coming from different suppliers. He's too aware of the packages, even after they're stowed beneath the counter. The idea that Ashido might pick them up and then not return is...well, it's a dour thought. Not a realistic thought, not really, considering how often she drops by, but it's still a thought that he has. He rearranges the book display and tries not to think about it.
Comments get me excited to write.