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Catalyze

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Shouto was washed up by age 22. He’d done the hero thing, crashed and burned, and was back living with his parents. His career was already a distant memory, over after barely beginning. His only solace was what a crushing disappointment he was to his father.

That thought was what got him out of bed most days. That and the excruciating pain of his meds wearing off. The only way he was getting more was dragging himself to breakfast.

With a groan, Shouto rolled off his futon. His clothes were laid out for him, as they always were by one of the housekeepers his parents employed. He never saw the staff come and go, but their nearly invisible presence invaded every aspect of his life. Shouto squirmed into the clothes, then with a sigh dragged himself to the wall.

Getting up is the hardest part, he reminded himself.

His forearm crutches leaned against the low table in the corner. If he pulled himself on top of the table, it was easier to get the crutches underneath him. It was an everyday inconvenience that made him miss the western-style bed he had back in his old apartment. If he was still there, he could just swing out of bed. Instead, he was left pushing himself up the wall with one leg, trying not to put any pressure on the other.

Once that was done, he awkwardly shoved open the sliding door and headed out, not bothering to close it behind him. Someone else would do that. That’s what they paid people for.

In the dining room, his mother sat at the chabudai , staring into the courtyard. Her food sat untouched in front of her. She turned to look at Shouto, and he hated the expression on her face. Like every time she looked at him it caused her physical pain.

“Do you need help sitting down?” she asked.

“No.”

It came out sounding more aggravated than he meant. Speaking to his mother always felt like walking across a frozen lake in the dark. He wasn’t sure where was safe, how to navigate, so mostly he avoided it.

Shouto lowered himself to the table, suppressing the pain he felt in his right leg. Life wouldn’t be so hard if his family didn’t insist on traditional furniture and flooring. But they did, and he’d learned from a young age that you twisted yourself to fit the household, not the other way around.

As he began to pick at his rice, his mother rediscovered her own food. She sighed and started to eat.

Four years. After fighting so hard, that’s all the time I got away from this place, he thought to himself.

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

She asked him that several times a day, sometimes multiple times in one sitting. Shouto wanted to really answer her sometimes, tell her he hurt and he was angry and this place wasn’t making him better. He never did.

After deciding he’d eaten an adequate amount, she rose to get his medicine. The doctors had suggested that maybe, given recent events, Shouto should have someone monitor his painkiller usage. So he had to take his medication from his mother like a child.

“I’m going to meet Fuyumi for lunch today. Do you want to come with me?” she asked, placing the pills in front of him on the table.

“No.”

His mother let out a small sigh, and the look on her face said she wasn’t surprised at his answer but still disappointed anyways. Cramming the pills in his mouth, Shouto washed them down with the remainder of his tea. He forced himself up from the table, leaving as quickly as he could.

Endeavor had already left for work. His duties as Number One Hero meant he was often gone early and back after dark. Age was catching up with the old man, and he was working longer days than ever in order to keep up his high capture rate and maintain his position.

If nothing else, at least being here means I get to watch his fall from the top firsthand.

Shoving open the door to the training room with one crutch, Shouto breathed in the familiar smell of fresh tatami and lingering smoke. The mats had a soft give that squished under his crutches, making his footing unsteady. Keeping close to the wall, he made his way around the edge of the room.

This place had been his personal hell when he was younger. Hours every day in pain, worked to the brink of exhaustion. However, he’d been using this place to burn off energy, and for that he was grateful for its existence.

After Shouto had left and his father lost his only sparring partner, the man had started acquiring more weightlifting equipment. Shouto had never focused that much on weightlifting, since hand-to-hand combat was a more efficient training method and he had no shortage of eager combatants at the agency. Back when he was employed. Now he was in the same position as his father, lifting weights for lack of another outlet.

His doctor would disapprove. He was supposed to be recuperating, getting his strength back. His shoulder still ached from the impact, and exercising definitely made it worse, but he was used to a little pain. Pain from working out, using his body, that felt natural. That was something he knew how to deal with.

Besides, if he sat around and waited for the doctor’s approval, he’d atrophy. That thought scared him more than he was willing to admit. If he let himself waste away, then it would be admitting that it was all real. That his life as a hero was over.

He was being delusional. It didn’t matter how much he trained, he wasn’t getting back what he’d lost.

Shivering, Shouto realized his right half was starting to ice over. He’d frozen himself to the bench.

That’s what you get for letting your mind wander.

Gritting his teeth, he shook himself free from the thin layer of frost cementing him down. At least it had been ice this time, and not fire. His parents had taken the necessary precaution of putting fire extinguishers in every room, and they had definitely seen use.

“Shouto?” Rei called, pushing him out of his thoughts.

With a sigh, he reached for his crutches. It wasn’t that his training was a secret so much as getting caught in the act meant he had to endure more pained looks from his mother. She never actually said anything against it, which somehow made it worse.

He was halfway to the door when it slid open, and his mother peeked in. Her trademark look of worry greeted him.

“Shouto, a friend is here to see you.”

“Friend?” he asked, confused.

“I didn’t catch the name, but he says he’s from your agency.”

Not a friend, then. A work associate. That made more sense. They were probably here to drop off more severance information or maybe a gift basket. Shouto braced himself for another awkward social encounter and followed his mother to the courtyard. There, a young man was observing the koi pond with intense curiosity. His hair was a wild mess, curling around a lightly freckled face. Shouto didn’t recognize him, but then, he’d never been good with faces. Or names. Or anything to do with people.

The man was muttering under his breath, staring at the fish so intensely he didn’t notice Shouto approach. Shouto cleared his throat, but that failed to get his attention. Biting back his annoyance, Shouto spoke up.

“You’re here to see me?”

The man jumped and let out a tiny squeal. He whirled to face Shouto, almost tripping over himself in the process.

“Yes, that’s why I’m here! Nice to meet you! Except I guess we’ve already met before, huh?” he said, words coming out in a nervous clutter. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t remember me at all though, since we only met a few times and it wasn’t like I was anyone important.”

The man laughed nervously, fidgeting with the files he held.

After a short pause, Shouto realized the man was waiting to see if he remembered him or not.

“What was your name again?” Shouto asked. It didn’t matter. He was going to forget as soon as the stranger left.

“I’m Izuku Midoriya,” he said, holding out his hand. It was only then that he noticed the crutches, and he turned red faster than anyone Shouto had ever seen.

Shaking hands actually wasn’t that hard with these crutches. The arm cuffs meant he could remove his hands from the handle without them immediately falling over. However, he wasn’t feeling very charitable towards this Izuku Midoriya, so he let the boy (it was getting harder to think of him as a man) withdraw his offered hand, burning with mortification.

“What did you come here to tell me?” Shouto asked. He could see the boy wilt under his gaze.

“Well, I, uh, I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but as you may be aware, I was doing an internship at your agency to help gather data for my thesis-”

Shouto wasn’t aware of any of that. Possibly someone had told him at one point, but the information had been superfluous and he had long since forgotten it. Again the boy paused, looking for some glimmer of recognition. When Shouto had none to give, he sighed and continued.

“I heard about the circumstances of your injury, and was wondering if you had considered Quirk Therapy,” he said, gaze dropping.

“The agency didn’t send you here?” Shouto asked, although it was mostly for clarification. It’s true he didn’t remember this individual intern, but he’d seen plenty of them come through the office. He worked (had worked) for a large agency, and they always had a flock of interns. They were disposable. Forgettable. No one would trust them with anything important.

“Uh, no, I actually came here...on my own.”

Shouto should have told him to get out right there. However, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. So with a sigh, he pushed past the intern to lower himself onto the stone bench next to the pond. Izuku Midoriya shifted uncomfortably on his feet, obviously not sure if he should sit down beside him or not. Shouto provided no indication.

“Well, anyways,” Midoriya continued, still standing, “I guess I should explain from the beginning. I’m currently studying to be a Developmental Biologist, with an emphasis on Quirk manifestation. Basically, we’re studying the way the Quirk Factor interacts with a person’s body and trying to isolate the different genes that determine what a person’s Quirk is.”

“Eugenics,” Shouto said, eyes narrowing. “You’re studying eugenics.”

“No no!” Midoriya defended, waving his hands furiously and looking flustered. “I mean I’m sure there are people in this field with that in mind and I’d be lying if I said that we’ve never received funding proposals from groups with unsavory goals but I’m pretty sure we usually turn them down I mean that’s not my department I’m just a grad student but I assure you my lab has-”

He trailed off, voice shrinking to nothing under Shouto’s unblinking gaze. Finally, he summoned enough courage to continue, even though his voice was still small.

“I actually...got into this field to help people, you know? People who have Quirks they can’t control, that hurt their body or the people around them. When I heard about your accident, I figured…”

“Can you fix it?” Shouto asked. He kept his voice even, trying to sound as disinterested as always. Trying not to show how desperate he was for hope. “Can you make it so I can control my Quirk again?”

Midoriya hesitated, biting his lip. Finally, softly, he said, “I don’t have a cure on hand. And, um, it doesn’t look like one is going to be around for a while.”

Even though he kept perfectly still, the disappointment must have shown on Shouto’s face, because he could see the pity reflected in Midoriya. It made him sick. Who was this skinny, disheveled nerd to feel pity for him? Even powerless, even with one leg unuseable, Shouto was still pretty sure he could kick his ass.

“So what is it you want from me?” Shouto asked.

“I...I want you to be a research subject!” Midoriya said, stooping into a deep bow.

“Research subject?”

Shouto didn’t bother to hide the distaste in his voice. His intonation was obviously too subtle for this boy, who just raised his head to look at him with a puppy-like eagerness in his eyes.

“That’s right! There’s a surprising number of cases like yours, where something happens to trigger a destabilization of the Quirk Factor, causing an ability to deteriorate. If...if we can isolate what causes the deterioration...I don’t want to make any false promises, but...it could put us one step closer to learning how to fix it.”

“What are the odds?”

“What?” Midoriya blurted, looking lost.

“What are the odds,” Shouto said slowly and deliberately, “of this research finding a way to restore my control over my Quirk?”

“Oh, um, very low,” the other boy confessed. “We aren’t a medical lab, you see. We focus on understanding the technical side of how the cells interact with each other, and then that information can be used down the line for other labs-”

“You said low,” Shouto interrupted, “but you didn’t say zero.”

Midoriya let out a little giggle, replying, “I don’t want to give you any false expectations. Science can be...frustratingly slow. I mean, think of how long we’ve been studying certain diseases and we still don’t have a cure for them.”

“But this could be like smallpox or polio or something where you do find a cure.”

“Um, well, those were both viruses, and this is probably something more akin to an autoimmune disease, but-”

“But it’s not zero.”

“No,” Midoriya reassured, giving him a smile, “the chances of this research leading to a cure is not zero.”

“I’m in.”

The look on Midoriya’s face was positively euphoric. It was an emotion Shouto had never felt himself, but he’d seen it on his classmates back when he attended U.A.

“Oh thank you so much!” Midoriya gasped, bowing again. He pulled out the file nestled in the cleft of his armpit, extending it towards Shouto. “This has all the information you need. There’s several consent forms you’ll need to sign, and a general outline of the procedure we’d like you to participate in.”

Shouto took the file, feeling the heft of it in his hands. There was a good 20 pages in here. Midoriya was chattering away, talking about setting up an initial consultation and timeframes and thanking him several more times. Shouto didn’t hear any of it. His eyes were glued to the folder. While it was an unassuming manilla color, to him it looked like a golden ticket.

A hand entered his field of vision. He followed the extended arm to see a beaming face that radiated energy. This time, Shouto took the offered hand, giving it a shake.

“I’m so excited to be working with you!”

“Yeah,” Shouto replied, and was surprised to find it was true.

He didn’t think he’d forget the name Izuku Midoriya again.

Chapter Text

The dream was a little different each time. The conclusion was always the same, but how he ended up there varied. Sometimes he’d manage to take down the five thugs, only for a new wave to appear. Others, he’d turn tail and run, only to meet a brick wall blocking his path. Then, he’d be on his back, agony shooting through his body as his head swam. A hand reaching for him, coming to twist his insides and take his power away. Usually these dreams ended with him in pain and waking up to his bed ablaze or covered in ice.

This time, though, he was shaken awake before he could reach that point. Dream-dazed, at first he couldn’t remember where he was or who could possibly be leaning over him.

“You were starting to smoke,” a gruff voice said. “Looked like you were going to set the bed on fire again.”

Now Shouto remembered where he was. Unfortunately.

“Why are you in my room?” he asked, trying not to sound out of breath as he pushed himself up. For some reason his heart was racing, and he was glad the lack of light hid his shaking.

“It’s my house,” Endeavor growled back. His flames sparked up, outlining his body. Shouto could see he was still in his hero suit, which meant he had probably just gotten back from patrolling. A quick glance at his phone told him it was 2 am.

Shouto scrubbed at his face with one hand. He felt like he had a fever, and his room smelled like smoke. Chances were he wasn’t falling asleep again any time soon.

“So...do you need a drink of water or something?” his father asked.

Inwardly, Shouto groaned, but he knew better than to give any indication at his annoyance. This was Endeavor making an awkward attempt at being considerate. The pressure of being Number One had changed him. Or at least, it had made him change tactics. He was the same controlling perfectionist he always had been, but his methodology had shifted from ‘drill sergeant’ to ‘life coach that knows better than you.’ He was bad at it.

“I’m fine,” Shouto ground out. There was a long stretch of silence where he silently willed his father to just leave.

“You sure?” the other man asked. “You’re breathing kind of hard.”

It was true, but Shouto didn’t want to hear him say it. Didn’t want his father to know just how close he was to retching. He may have woken, but his body was still feeling the aftereffects of the dream. Adrenaline coursed through him and his stomach was a tight knot. He was still tense, still waiting for an attack.

“I’m kind of tired, I guess,” he replied. To complete the facade, he laid back down and threw his blanket over him, turning to face away from the flames.

After an excruciatingly long pause, he heard his father sigh and say, “Fine, I get it. But you better not set anything on fire tonight. I want to get some actual sleep for once.”

Shouto didn’t say anything, and Endeavor left the room, sliding the door closed behind him. Only when his footsteps had retreated down the hallway did Shouto finally drop the pretense of being sleepy. For lack of anything better to do, he scrolled through his feed on his phone. He never used to use any sort of social media, mostly because he was busy and not social. But now, on nights like this where he couldn’t go back to sleep for fear he’d wake in flames, he could think of nothing better to do.

Miraculously, he was still connected with most of his old class from U.A. They had been a tight knit group, and even if he rarely opened any apps, somehow they always managed to find his account and add him. He wasn’t quite reclusive enough to turn them down.

So now he got to scroll through and see their lives, see them being successful heroes. About half of them were still stuck as sidekicks, but even that seemed like a distant dream. Asui had pulled six survivors from a shipwreck last night. Koda had been invited as the guest of honor to the groundbreaking of a new animal sanctuary. Jiro was involved with providing evidence against a high-profile human trafficking ring. What had he done today? The past week? The last six months of his life?

Pain shot through his leg, and he sat up with a gasp. Clawing the blanket off, he found a chunk of ice weighing it down, causing it to twist and aggravate his injury. Clenching his teeth, he pried the ice from his leg, taking some skin with it. Less painful than trying to use his fire and accidently burning himself.

His breath was accelerated again, those strange periods of breathlessness he kept getting whenever he thought about his own failures or lack of a future. No matter what he did, whether it was training or fooling around on his phone, something managed to remind him.

There is no escape from this. This is your life now.

He was shaking, and he realized it was because his right half was activating. Flecks of ice dotted his skin. There was nothing he could do but pull the blanket tighter around himself and will it to go away.

He didn’t get any more sleep that night. When the clock finally hit 5am, he deemed it late enough that he could get up without raising alarm. Suspicion, maybe, but not alarm.

There was the daily struggle to get on his feet, and then he was out the door. The help was working in the courtyard, feeding the koi and watering the plants. Shouto did his best to crutch quietly and not draw attention, and was grateful no one acknowledged him.

In the kitchen, he made himself a cup of tea, drinking it at the counter rather than trying to carry it to the table. His phone buzzed with a calendar alarm.

10AM Meet with Izuku Midoriya

He had forgotten. Or rather, he had been so focused on other things that he let it slip his mind. Today was the “initial consultation,” as Midoriya had called it. Shouto was supposed to go to his lab, located in a university 20 minutes away by train. It was close to where his old agency was.

Since moving back in with his parents, Shouto hadn’t left the house by himself. His parents were rich enough they could afford doctors to come to him, and on the rare occasion he needed to go in for an examination, his mother accompanied him. He wasn’t forbidden from leaving, but there was an unspoken agreement. Shouto didn’t want to deal with any press inquiring about his abrupt retirement, and Endeavor didn’t want news of his son’s failure to be widespread. He stayed out of sight where he couldn’t be an embarrassment.

They couldn’t really stop him from going, though. He was an adult. As much as living with his parents made him feel small and childish, it didn’t change the fact that he was allowed to make his own decisions.

There was still a long gap between now and 10 AM, though. And Shouto needed his morning dose of painkillers. So he stuck around, moving to the adjacent room where he turned on the television. Apparently Endeavor had been busy last night. The news was reporting on the encounter he’d had with a group of Quirk-enhancement dealers. There was a smoking ruin of a building that one reporter was standing in front of, reporting on the awesome battle that had taken place. Shouto changed the channel.

Around 7, his mother came in. Thankfully, she didn’t question Shouto’s early-morning presence, instead bustling about making breakfast. It was one of the things Rei always insisted on doing herself, rather than hiring someone to do it. Honestly, Shouto thought maybe she was afraid of having nothing to do. Maybe even Rei Todoroki needed a reason to get out of bed.

Shouto turned the television off and hauled himself to the table. He tried not to tap his finger impatiently as he waited for his mother to finish preparing the food. Honestly, after a night of no sleep and a drumming pain, he didn’t feel like eating. He just wanted his medication. But the doctor has said he needed to take his dose with food, and it wasn’t an argument he was going to win against his mother.

Just as she was finishing up, he heard a heavy rumbling of footsteps enter the room. Shouto didn’t even bother to look up, but immediately he tensed.

“You’re up early,” his father said, scorn obvious in his voice.

I usually sleep in to avoid this specific interaction.

Out loud, he said nothing, just focused on the wood grain of the table. His mother sat a bowl of rice and cup of tea in front of him. Grateful for the distraction, he immediately sat to work demolishing it as fast as he could stomach.

“Did you sleep okay?” Rei asked, settling into the zaisu next to him.

“Yes,” he lied, not missing a beat. He could tell from the frown on her face that she didn’t believe him, but she left him alone.

Breakfast was silent. More than avoiding his father, Shouto hated having to be in the same room as both his parents at the same time. There was a miserable tension every time they occupied the same space.

For all his supposed “tough guy who doesn’t care what anybody thinks” persona, Endeavor had been quick to get his wife out of the hospital once the press had started digging into their past. It turns out being the number one hero meant the media focused on you with laser precision, desperate to uncover every last bit of gossip. Rather than be known as the man who hospitalized his wife and risk falling from grace, he’d somehow convinced Rei to come home. The terms of their truce were unknown to Shouto, but whatever Endeavor had promised, it had been enough to get her to stick around these past dozen years. Publically they still acted like a functional married couple, and in private they barely acknowledged each other.

“Done,” Shouto said, placing down his empty bowl.

“Are you sure you don’t want any natto?” his mother asked, taking his bowl from him.

“Just the painkillers. Thanks.”

She went to unlock the cabinet, leaving him at the table with his father.

“How’s the physical therapy coming?” Endeavor asked.

“I’m still crippled. So not too spectacular.”

“Are you following all of the doctor’s instructions?”

It doesn’t matter what I do. We both know things aren’t going back to what they were before.

Sometimes it felt like Endeavor was holding out hope that Shouto would miraculously recover and go back to his career as a hero. As if he had forgotten that Shouto hadn’t even been that great at the superhero business before the incident, an unpopular second-stringer at a large agency that had only taken him because it valued quantity of heroes over quality.

Must be hard to admit you poured so much effort into me only for it to amount to nothing.

“I’m doing everything the doctor says,” Shouto replied, taking the pills his mother offered him. One swig of tea later, and he was medicated enough to make the trek back to his room to start preparing for his day.

Leaving the house. Why did it feel like a prison break? He hadn’t mentioned his plans to either of his parents. Even though he told himself that it was none of their business, that he was only hiding it because he liked his privacy, the truth was that he didn’t want to admit to them how hopeful he was. It was embarrassing, volunteering to be a human guinea pig on the slim chance it could restore his powers. He mocked his father for being delusional, but wasn’t he just as guilty?

Midoriya said this research could help people in the future, he reasoned with himself. Even like this, it would be nice to still be able to help people.

Shouto went through the motions of preparing himself for the day, trying not to think himself into a hole. He checked his phone again. 8:30 AM.

What the hell am I supposed to do until I leave?

He settled for sitting by the koi pond, watching the fish with forced concentration. A little before 9 Endeavor left, and Shouto let out a held breath as he watched him go. Now he wouldn’t have to worry about sneaking past him.

That still left his mother.

As Shouto was making final preparations, checking his wallet for the thousandth time and slipping on his shoes, Rei found him.

“Shouto? Are you going out?”

The incredulity in her voice was obvious. The unspoken “where could you possibly have to be?” hung in the air.

“Yes,” Shouto grimaced, not meeting her eyes. It took a lot of concentration to get his shoes on suddenly. It had been a while since he’d worn them, after all.

“Do you need me to come with you?”

She meant well. Probably. But that didn’t stop a sudden wave of heat from Shouto’s left side, and he hoped she didn’t see the sparks that fell from his fingertips.

I’m not a child. I don’t need you to escort me.

He wanted to tell her how suffocating she was, how much he couldn’t stand it. Instead, he said, “I’m going to see a friend.”

“A friend?”

Again, her voice was thick with disbelief. He could imagine her calling his bluff, saying something like “Since when do you have friends?” And she’d be right.

Instead, all that came out was a sigh. Except it wasn’t heavy with defeat and exasperation like her usual sighs. This one sounded like relief.

“I hope you have fun,” she said, offering him a smile. “Call me if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay,” Shouto replied.

He felt her eyes on his back as he shuffled through the entryway. As he shut the door behind him, he felt an enormous sense of relief. Even if it was only for a few hours, the prospect of being away from that house lifted a weight he hadn’t known he was carrying.

Orienting himself, he turned and headed for the train station.        

Chapter Text

Shouto managed the train ride without incident. Fortunately, he had missed the morning rush of people trying to make it to school or work. There was less traffic at this hour. And as if his crutches signalled some contagious disease, the other passengers made sure to give him a wide berth.

At least this way I don’t have to make small talk or answer questions, Shouto thought to himself.

The worst part was once he actually arrived at the campus. Midoriya had told him to meet at the cross section of two prominent buildings, but it wasn’t like the structures were wearing nametags.

He’d never been on an actual campus. That was for people who went to college, who hadn’t gone into a career where you started working straight out of high school. He felt like an imposter infiltrating enemy grounds. There were plenty of students walking around, sitting on steps and reading, generally existing and being excited about it. They weren’t that much younger than him. It was strange to think that so many people lived this kind of life he knew nothing about. His own brother and sister had lived this life. That only made it feel more foreign.

Rather than ask for directions, Shouto wandered around the complex weaving of sidewalk, trying to decipher the occasional signpost. Finally, he spotted an explosion of green hair in the distance. Midoriya looked as nervous and disoriented as Shouto felt. He had his hands crammed in his pockets and was slouched against the building wall. However, when he noticed Shouto, he brightened up. With an eager waving of his hand, he beckoned Shouto over.

I’m going as fast as I can, Shouto thought, a little annoyed at the other boy’s exuberance.

“I’m so glad to see you,” Midoriya said when Shouto was close enough to talk without shouting. “I was starting to get a little worried that you weren’t coming.”

“Am I late?” Shouto asked. “I got turned around on campus.”

“That’s okay! I’m just glad you’re here. I’m pretty sure my PI was about to take this project away from me if I couldn’t find a volunteer soon,” he giggled nervously.

“PI?” Shouto asked.

“Um, my science boss. She’s the one who runs the lab.”

Midoriya led the way inside, scanning a badge at a few points to open up doors. The place felt more like a hospital than part of a university. Then again, Shouto had no idea what a regular university was like.

“Welcome to the lab,” Midoriya said, leading him at last to a room filled with several workbenches cluttered with paperwork. It was...surprisingly normal. It looked more like an office space than a science lab. “The first step is to introduce you to my project manager. He’s the one who will go over all the paperwork with you and make sure things are squared away legally.”

Shouto made a noncommittal grunt. A few people tossed him curious looks from the benches.

“Kojima-san!” Midoriya greeted, snapping to attention in an almost military-like fashion. A man with greying hair and long tusks curving back towards his cheekbones approached. Despite his intimidating face, he was gangly under his lab coat.

“Well Midoriya, is this our man?” he asked, angling his head towards Shouto.

“Yes sir!” Midoriya confirmed, and he almost saluted. It was obvious from his tense body language that this man made him nervous.

“All right, come with me,” Kojima said, motioning for Shouto to follow him.

Tucked away against the back wall was a small room that looked like a mix between an office and storage. There was one tiny desk surrounded by huge file cabinets. The light overhead was a single uncovered bulb. Kojima offered the single chair to Shouto, swinging himself up onto the desk.

“You brought the forms?” he asked. Shouto pulled out the file from the backpack he carried. Kojima flipped through them and nodded. “Okay, good. Not to make you nervous, but any sort of human testing requires a bunch of disclaimers and red tape, even if the tests themselves are fairly benign.”

What followed was half an hour of outlining the risks associated with testing and informing him about his rights to terminate the trials at any time, etc. etc. Shouto tried not to come off as impatient. Really, he could be signing up to juggle swords in a tiger pit and he’d be fine. It wouldn’t be any more dangerous than the job he had done for years, facing off against the criminally insane every day.

Finally, the process ended. Midoriya had waited for him just outside the door, his excitement visible in the way he bounced slightly on his feet.

“All right, kiddo,” Kojima said, giving Midoriya a playful bop on the head with the file in his hand, “you’re clear to get started. Just make sure to ask if you need help, okay? Wada-sensei won’t forgive you if you blow this. We could get a lot of grant money if this works out.”

Again, Midoriya practically saluted the man. His mouth was a grim line of determination, but his eyes still glimmered with anticipation.

“Are you ready to get started?” Midoriya asked. Without waiting for an answer, he herded Shouto down the row of workbenches. At the far end, there was a bay with a neat yet towering stack of notebooks. Gracing the end of the bench was an All Might action figure. Shouto hasn’t seen one of those in years. Not since the hero’s sudden disappearance 12 years ago.

“We aren’t doing anything too exciting today,” Midoriya explained, pulling out a stool for Shouto. “I’m just going to ask you a bunch of questions that will help me tool the experiments to be as efficient as possible.”

He sat on his own stool, shuffling close enough to Shouto that their knees were practically touching. Running his finger down the stack of notebooks, he expertly slipped one out of the stack. It looked random, but he must have had some sort of organization system, since the one he had selected said “Shouto Todoroki Case Study” across the front. He flipped it open, and Shouto noticed that there were already several pages filled with notes. The writing inside was so cramped it might as well have been code, but Midoriya didn’t have trouble reading from it.

“So, um, some of these questions might be a little...personal,” he warned. “You don’t have to answer anything if you don’t want to. Just tell me to skip it and I will. It’s just that the more background we have, the better foundation we can lay, you know?”

“Okay,” Shouto replied, unaffected. He wasn’t entirely sure how his personal life played into ‘laying a foundation.’

“The first question is: when did you first notice your powers acting up?”

Ah. That sort of personal.

“Shortly after waking up in the hospital, after my accident.”

“And, uh, for clarification, um, I don’t really know the details of, you know, what happened, so-”

Shouto broke him off with an exasperated sigh. After a quick glance, he determined that no one was close enough to overhear them. Not like privacy mattered, since the data was probably going to be shared with most of the lab. Still, the less sympathetic looks he drew, the better.

“I was chasing down some members of a local criminal gang. I tracked them back to their safehouse, where I was outnumbered. The details are a little fuzzy. As far as the doctors can determine, I was attacked by some sort of psychic-type quirk, which affected my short-term memory. However, they aren’t really sure if it was that or the head injury I suffered that caused my Quirk to go out of control. I don’t remember it first-hand, but the entire safehouse was burned to the ground. Then I woke up in the hospital.”

He saw Midoriya cast a quick glance down at his legs.

Go ahead, ask. I dare you, Shouto silently challenged. Ask if that’s when I got my leg injury.

Midoriya chewed on his lips for a second, the wheels turning in his head. He gave his head a little shake, moving on to the next question.

“How long ago was that?”

“Six months.”

“And have you regained any control over your Quirk since then? Has it worsened? Remained the same?”

Thinking for a second, Shouto mused, “I’d say the same, although I don’t test it out regularly. I’ve learned to not activate it.”

“What happens when you attempt to activate it?”

I embarrass myself.

“It’s like turning on a faucet and getting a firehose,” Shouto explained, “and then the faucet handle breaking so you can’t turn it back off.”

“Interesting,” Midoriya mutterd, jotting down notes. “So you have no trouble accessing it, but controlling it is the problem. This might suggest that Dr. Rosenburg’s Duality theory on the Quirk Factor having separate on and off functions in the brain is correct.”

He mumbled to himself a while longer, speaking quietly enough that Shouto didn’t catch everything he said. It didn’t feel like his comments were directed at Shouto, though, so he wasn’t worried about it. Instead, he took the time to study the boy in front of him, slouched protectively over his notebook like he was afraid someone was going to snatch it out of his hands at any moment. There was a bird-like twitch to his movements, quick and abrupt, that spoke of someone who was used to cowering and creeping around the outskirts of any spotlight. In short, the exact opposite temperament he usually saw in Pro Heroes.

Besides that one upperclassman who was a little like that. What was his name again?

“Do you ever find your Quirk activating without you being conscious of it?” Midoriya asked, apparently done talking to himself.

“Yes,” Shouto grimaced. He thought back on all the times in the past few months he’d been doused with a fire extinguisher. Or that one time he froze himself to the slick bathroom tile, and rather than call for help he lay there shivering until he thawed enough to pry himself out.

“Can you isolate any common factors that cause your Quirk to activate?”

Midoriya pierced him with a green gaze, innocently awaiting his answer. Shouto shifted in his chair, unwilling to meet those eyes. He thought about the feeling of breathlessness, how he always felt like he was suffocating right before his Quirk went out of control. How was it that talking about his career-ending injury was more comfortable than admitting this?

“Usually it happens when I get...emotional,” Shouto explained, cringing on the last word like he wasn’t used to saying something so profane.

“Emotional as in too excited? Or frustrated? Is it linked to negative emotions or positive emotions, or any emotion in general?”

“Negative ones,” Shouto responded, then adds, “although I’m not entirely sure if...if it would happen if I felt strong positive emotions. I don’t think I’ve felt too many of those recently.”

Midoriya flashed him a look that made Shouto want to set his precious notebook on fire. He could tell what that look was. Pity.

“I’ve recently lost my career,” Shouto justified without being prodded. “Excuse me if I haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with positive emotion lately.”

“Oh, yeah, no, that makes total sense,” the other boy said, too eager to agree. “I don’t blame you. I totally would feel the same way. Yeah. That makes sense.”

Shouto’s glowering was enough to silence him. After that, Midoriya switched tactics, asking more benign questions like what doctors he’d seen about his condition and what medications they had tried. Had he had a CT scan? What healing Quirks, if any, had been attempted? Had he attempted alternative medicine like acupuncture or yoga?

“Hey Deku!” a voice called out, and a woman craned over the bench from the next aisle. “Do you mind if I rearrange your petri dishes so I can fit my leftovers in the fridge?”

She pointed to a small fridge sitting under the bench between them.

“Um, you really aren’t supposed to use that fridge for edible food. You might cross-contaminate-”

“No one likes a narc,” she replied, bending down to open up the fridge and rifle through it. Next to him, Shouto saw Midoriya tense up. However, he just silently watched the woman shove some trays around before wedging in a white takeout box.

“So you’re the test dummy, huh?” she asked, closing the fridge door with her foot. “Deku’s creepy little yammerings haven’t scared you off yet?”

“Deku?” Shouto asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Um, that’s an old nickname,” Midoriya explained, holding up his notebook to hide his face. Shouto still saw the tips of his ears turn red. “It’s not one I actually like all that much, though.”

“It’s written all over the inside of your older notebooks,” the woman said. She had a short pixie cut that curled around her ears, giving her face a dark-blue spiky outline. She winked at Shouto, making him notice her eyes. Black sclera with irises so pale they look translucent.

“You know I don’t appreciate you using your Quirk to read my private notes,” Midoriya said. He still hid behind his notebook.

“If you got it, flaunt it,” she retorted. She then leaned as far as the could over the tall bench, offering Shouto her hand. “The name’s Hitomi Kakudai. My Quirk’s Scope Eyes. I can see through something if it’s not too thick and I’m basically a walking high-power microscope.”

Shouto wasn’t sure why this woman was bragging to him, but rather than make enemies, he extended his hand and gave hers a shake.

“Your father’s Endeavor, right?” she asked. “I’m a huuuuge fan. Do you think you could score me his autograph?”

A pit formed in Shouto’s stomach, and he released Kakudai’s hand to avoid the risk of freezing them together. Before he could formulate a response, Midoriya jumped in.

“Sorry Kakudai-san, but could we do this later? We’re actually in the middle of something.”

Kakudai shot him a condescending glare, under which Midoriya immediately blushed, but he didn’t retract his statement. Sighing, she turned to go.

“Yeah, yeah,” she called over her shoulder. “Just don’t weird him out so bad he doesn’t come back.”

Shouto watched her go. After she was far enough away, he turned to Midoriya and said, “She seems annoying.”

Midoriya let out a startled laugh, clapping his hands over his mouth.

“Oh, she’s not so bad. She’s just, you know, so amazing, so sometimes she, uh-”

“Acts like an arrogant ass,” Shouto finished.

Midoriya shrugged.

“Still, she’s so good at her job,” he said. “Her Quirk makes her amazingly efficient and thorough when it comes to research. She can gather data twice as fast as anyone else.”

He looked down at his notebook, sighing heavily. Drumming his fingers against the paper, he admitted hesitantly, “I wouldn’t mind a Quirk as useful as that.”

“What’s your Quirk?” Shouto asked.

He was met with silence, just Midoriya’s hunched shoulders. It was a question Shouto was used to asking and being asked. In his line of work, it was a standard ice-breaker. From the look on Midoriya’s face, though, it was a question he wasn’t used to answering.

After an awkward pause, Midoriya whispered, “I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have what?” Shouto asked, cocking his head to the side. “A Quirk?”

Midoriya nodded. He busied himself with flipping through the pages of his notebook, not meeting Shouto’s eyes.

Quirkless. It wasn’t that uncommon. Twenty percent of the population didn’t have a Quirk. One out of five. That meant more than likely there had been Quirkless passengers on the train with Shouto, Quirkless students he had passed on his way through the university. Hell, judging from the amount of benches in this lab, Midoriya probably wasn’t even the only Quirkless person in this lab.

But Shouto wasn’t sure he had ever talked to someone Quirkless before. He’d grown up surrounded by the strongest Heroes society had to offer. Went to school with classmates from prestigious Quirk families. Worked at an agency where even the person manning the front desk could heat their coffee with a pointed stare.

But here was Izuku Midoriya. Quirkless. Another world Shouto knew nothing about.

Midoriya still didn’t look at him. Instead, he pretended to review his notes. Shouto noticed that his grip on his pencil was white-knuckled.

Shouto wasn’t the type to offer consolation or empathy. It didn’t come naturally to him. But he didn’t want to just sit in sad silence with this other boy, so he offered an admittedly weak attempt at concern.

“I guess that means we’re both functionally Quirkless. You’ll have to teach me the ropes.”

Midoriya looked up at him in surprise, but a smile spread across his face as he comprehended.

He let out a little laugh.

“Yeah. I guess we are.”

Shouto had been raised to think that being compared to another person was an insult. He was on a different level that any of his classmates or peers, constantly pushed to perform by his father. To admit similarity was to admit shortcoming. However, realizing he had something in common with Midoriya didn’t fill him with disgust. Instead, it made him feel...a little less lonely.

Midoriya resumed asking him questions. Finally, after gathering enough data, he shut his notebook with a snap.

“That’s everything I need for today,” Midoriya explained. “We’ll get together next week after I set up the experiments.”

They exchanged phone numbers in case they needed to communicate more directly than email.

As Midoriya showed him out of the lab, he remarked, “You can feel free to text me outside of, you know, science-related stuff.”

“You mean like if I get sick or something and can’t make it?” Shouto asked, confused. He had felt like that was a given.

“Uh, yeah, stuff like that. Or, you know, if you just want to talk or something.”

“Oh.”

Shouto knew that was an inadequate response, but he had nothing else to give. It had been a long time since anyone had made an overture at friendship, even one as clumsy as Midoriya’s. They walked the rest of the way in silence, parting with an awkward wave at the entrance of the building.

After he left Midoriya behind and made his way to the train station, Shouto thought to himself about the possibility.

A friend, huh? Shouto considered, navigating through the throng of students.

It was probably a bad idea. After all, he needed to work with Midoriya for this research. What if their friendship ended poorly and made things awkward? Shouto was painfully familiar with that outcome.

No, Midoriya’s number would sit in his phone unused save for emergencies.

It was easier that way.

Chapter Text

It was late in the evening, meaning Shouto had nothing to occupy his time until bed. This meant he ended up flipping idly through channels on the television.

“So I heard you went to see a friend.”

Shouto grimaced and contemplated turning up the volume to tune his father out. His father had just gotten back from work and was eating, his spot at the table giving him unobstructed view of Shouto in front of the tv.

How did you even find out? Shouto wondered. The obvious answer was that his mother had told him, but that would imply the two of them had talked, which wasn’t a common occurrence.

“Last I checked I wasn’t a prisoner here,” Shouto shot back, not looking over his shoulder.

“Could have fooled me, the way you’re always moping around.”

Shouto exhaled sharply, but chose not to rise to the bait. Sometimes all his father wanted was the last word, and as long as Shouto let him have it he could get back to minding his own business.

That wasn’t the case this time, though.

“Well, if you’re feeling cooped up in here, you can accompany your mother and I to tomorrow’s Hero Society Gala.”

Shouto’s stomach dropped at the thought. Even when he had been an active hero, he had avoided those things like the plague. It was pomp and circumstance, a chance for politicians and the press to invade his privacy in a formal setting. He knew his father despised such events, too. However, if the Number One Hero didn’t put in the occasional appearance, they had to deal with reporters waiting outside the house on a daily basis. Shouto remembered experiencing that during middle school, trying to weave through a tangle of microphones on his way to school.

“I’ll pass,” he said evenly, trying to sound bored.

He heard his father rise from his seat, making his way over to Shouto. Like a rabbit caught in a predator’s gaze, Shouto went very still. Endeavor settled down on a cushion, casually picking up the remote and changing the channel on the television. Shouto couldn’t even recall what he had been watching, but his hackles still raised at the nonchalance with which his father disregarded his agency.

Not looking away from the television, Endeavor noted, “Getting out of the house is probably good for you.”

No, it isn’t. Not when it means running into a bunch of people who knew me from before.

Maybe that was his father’s aim: to drag Shouto in front of everyone and let them see what an embarrassment he was. But Shouto’s failure would also reflect badly on Endeavor. That’s what had kept the peace so far: threat of mutual reputation annihilation. It’s what had kept them out of each other’s business, and it had been working fine.

He must be really pissed that I went out in public, Shouto thought.

But that still didn’t justify putting him on display in front of a bunch of high profile heroes. Especially considering his father was all too happy to let his other children slide into the background of existence.

“You have a suit that fits, right?” Endeavor asked.

Why are you doing this?!

“I don’t want to go.”

“Too bad,” Endeavor growled, his voice taking on the stern tone Shouto had grown up hearing. The one that meant Shouto could either contort himself to fit in the little box of his father’s expectations or his father could twist him up and shove him in. The end result was the same, it was just a matter of how much Shouto felt like fighting.

Shouto was too exhausted to fight. He made a series of noncommittal grunts, not agreeing but not defying either. Once Endeavor was finally satisfied, he clapped Shouto on the back and left him to his own devices.

Shouto sat in front of the television for a few more hours, desperately trying to think of a way out and not being able to come up with anything.

 

Rei was practically cheerful the next morning at breakfast. Probably she was grateful she would have someone else to talk to at the Gala besides her husband, and for that Shouto couldn’t blame her.

However, the entire day was filled with nothing but dread for him. Which of his former coworkers were going to be there? Would he run into any old classmates? Could he fake sick?

“I’m just so happy to see you going outside again,” his mother confessed, offering him a warm smile. “It’s hard for a mother to see her children be so unhappy.”

Shouto didn’t know what to say to that. He couldn’t deal with his own pain, much less the pain he apparently inflicted on others just by existing. In the end, though, it was the thought of taking away the smile on his mother’s face that got him changed into a suit and into the car without offering resistance.

All the way there, though, Shouto felt too hot, and he knew it wasn’t just the suit. If he ended this evening without catching on fire, he would consider it a smashing success.

Endeavor had gone ahead, since he apparently had business matters to discuss. That was fine with Shouto, because it meant he and his mother could pass through the press waiting outside without attention. If they’d had the Number One Hero with them, it wouldn’t have been that easy. By themselves, though, no one recognized them. Even with Shouto’s distinctive appearance, he had been ranked #231 on the billboard. Not high enough to really draw attention.

The Gala was as boring and tedious as Shouto remembered. There was a sea of tables covered in crisp tablecloths with some sort of ridiculous floral centerpiece. For all the trappings of high society, they still had assigned seating like schoolchildren. They were served fancy food and listened to several speeches. The Prime Minister was there, as well as several high-ranking members of the National Police Agency. Crime rates were the lowest they’d been in a decade, prosperity was up, it was cause for celebration.

Crime rates are still higher than they were when All Might was around, Shouto thought to himself, picking at the salad on his plate. It was past time for his nightly dose of medication, and slow waves of pain were radiating up his leg.

“Are we leaving any time soon?” he asked, not directing the question at anyone in particular. Most of his line of sight was blocked by the towering centerpiece, so really the only person to ask was his mother sitting on one side. She, however, was paying rapt attention to the conversation happening on the other side of her, nodding along dutifully. To Shouto’s left, Endeavor’s seat was vacant.

I guess the real reason they brought me was so they didn’t have to actually sit next to each other. Shouldn’t have even bothered.

His father had been absent most of the evening, making the rounds to the other tables, sizing up the other heroes and their families in the never-ending pissing contest he had challenged the entire universe to. Occasionally his voice would drift over the tables, brash and too-loud for the environment.

With a sigh, Shouto settled to picking at the tablecloth, tracing the intricate design embroidered on top. This was boring, but bearable. At least he hadn’t run into anyone he knew.

“Todoroki!” a voice boomed.

I spoke too soon.

Even without turning around, Shouto recognized the enthusiasm and commanding tone of his former class representative. Tenya Iida, Ingenium, Rank 34 on the Hero Billboard, but definitely coming in at a solid 5 on Shouto’s personal list of people he did not want to interact with. As if he still held the mantle of class rep, Iida acted like it was his personal responsibility to keep up with everyone’s business and disseminate that information to the rest of the class. In short, he had inadvertently become the center of gossip in regards to the old class 3A.

For a second, Shouto considered diving under the table to avoid the encounter. However, Iida had obviously already spotted him. There was no other recourse but to grit his teeth and try to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

“Iida,” he said, nodding his head as the other man settled into the empty seat beside him.

“I came over as soon as I heard you were here!” Iida replied, throwing his hand out by way of greeting.

Hiding his reluctance, Shouto took the hand and shook it.   

“Your hands are freezing. Are you feeling all right?”

Just trying not to ice myself to the chair.

“I think I’m under the air conditioning vent.”

Iida wasn’t stupid enough to fall for a lie like that, but he ignored it.

“I haven’t seen you in forever. Why haven’t you been responding to my messages?”

Over their years in school together, Iida had learned to always cut directly to the matter when speaking to Shouto. It was Iida’s way of being considerate of his fellow classmates, adapting his conversation style to suit the other party. He had won Shouto’s respect with that method, and Shouto had always been a little jealous of the ease with which Iida could communicate with other people.

“I’ve been busy.”

Iida wasn’t stupid enough for this lie, either, but he didn’t press. Instead, he launched into a run-down on the going-ons of their classmates’ lives. Things he somehow knew Shouto was curious about but would never ask, things the social media feeds didn’t necessarily show.

“Tokoyami keeps threatening to form his own hero agency because he’s tired of putting up with Hawks’, as he puts it, ‘ludicrous manchild facade,’ but I don’t think he actually will. Tokoyami is a bit of an enabler in that respect, and I think he’s scared Hawks will overwork himself to death if he’s not there to reign him in.”

“And the popularity by association must be nice,” Shouto interjected. “Number 12 in the rankings. That’s the highest out of any of us.”

“He is doing very well for himself,” Iida agreed, “although I doubt someone like Tokoyami cares all that much about rankings.”

A waiter came by carrying a tray of something minced and on a cracker, and Iida flagged him down and took a couple. He offered one to Shouto, who accepted but put the concoction on his plate untouched. While Iida ate, there were a merciful few moments of silence. Shouto knew it couldn’t last.

“So what are your plans from here?” Iida asked after finishing the h'ordeuvre.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t mean to rush your recovery, but have you put any thought to what you want to do now that heroics are, mmm, let’s say off the table?”

To his credit, Iida’s eyes didn’t even flicker to his crutches. He’d made eye contact with Shouto throughout their conversation, no trace of pity or awkwardness in his voice. It had almost been enough for Shouto to forget his own condition. He had felt normal. Now he just felt like he was about to melt his way through his chair.

“I don’t really think I have much of a future,” Shouto replied, schooling his face so there wasn’t a flicker of emotion.

“Nonsense!” Iida countered, clapping him on the shoulder. “You’re one of the most motivated and determined people I know. A few physical limitations don’t change that.”

Shouto was sweating, his skin prickling with heat. He wanted to shout at Iida, to tell him things weren’t that easy. But he also didn’t want to cause a scene, didn’t want a thousand eyes drawing to him. So he stayed silent, biting his lip to contain his words. Taking in his frozen countenance, Iida’s expression softened.

Ah, there’s the pity.

“You know,” he said, reaching into the pocket of his suit and pulling out a sleek business card, “my brother was also very discouraged after his accident. But he found out there’s a surprising amount of hero work that can be done from a desk. Filling out the proper forms, managing schedules, looking for new recruits, the like. I know our agency could benefit from someone with your experience.”

He held the card out to Shouto. As with the h'ordeuvre, Shouto took it automatically even though he had no desire for it. He opened his mouth, not sure what he wanted to say but knowing that something needed to be said, some rebuttal of not needing help or pity. Iida beat him to it.

“I wouldn’t offer a man a job unless I knew he was competent for it. Although I’ll admit, being able to see you more often would certainly be a perk,” he said, offering Shouto a smile. “No rush, though. I know you’ve probably got your hands full recuperating. Think it over, and get back to me when you feel you’re ready.”

Iida clapped him on the shoulder once more as he rose from his seat. With that, he was gone, striding back into the crowd to continue his mingling. Shouto was left staring at his business card.

Team Idaten it read, Representative: Turbo Hero Ingenium v4.0

The card shook a little in his grasp. He thought of Iida, the sad way he looked at Shouto, how Shouto was now going to become part of the gossip chain. Pathetic, broken, unemployed Shouto.

The card caught fire in his hand. With a hiss, Shouto dunked it into his water glass, where the flames died with a sizzle. However, that drew the attention of his mother, who looked at him with worried eyes.

“Is everything okay, Shouto?”

“Yes,” he growled, even though there were thin trails of smoke leaking out of the cuff of his left arm. He was definitely on the verge of self-immolation. Ever the practical problem-solver, he grabbed what was left of his drink and dumped it on his sleeve. There was a distinct hiss and a fluttering of steam.

“Oh my,” Rei said, then turned and excused herself to the person she was talking to. Wordlessly, she helped Shouto retrieve his crutches. They were out of the venue and back to their car before anyone else could accost them.

I guess all it took to get out of there was setting myself on fire.

His mother finally broke the silence.

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” was his automatic response, filled with more venom than he meant. He immediately regretted it. Snapping at his well-meaning mother was such an...Endeavor thing to do.

“I’m okay,” he said after a few moments of tense silence, his voice softer. “I’m not about to burst into flames.”

“Good,” Rei replied, a gentle smile forming on her face. “I’d hate to ruin the leather seats.”

It was the most jovial he’d heard his mother be in a long time. Hopefully that meant he hadn’t destroyed her evening too terribly.

However, his own evening was a disaster. Long after arriving home, Shouto couldn’t get Iida’s words out of his head.

“What are your plans from here?”

Shouto didn’t know. He didn’t know, but he thought about it the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Shouto woke the next morning to a text from Midoriya.

(I_M 7:19am) We’ve got all the back-end set-up out of the way. When are you free to drop by for a session?

Shouto wasted no time in replying.

(S_T 9:33am) Whenever.

(S_T 9:33am) It’s not like I have anything else going on.

(S_T 9:35am) I can be in today if you’re ready.

He kept his phone close as he went through his morning ritual, and when he got a response he checked it immediately.

(I_M 9:58am) Are you sure that’s okay on such short notice?

(I_M 9:58am) We’re totally ready for you! Swing by maybe around 2? If that’s okay. No pressure or anything if it’s not.

(S_T 9:58am) I’ll be there

Shouto wasn’t sure how to describe what he felt. It was a sense of impatient anticipation, but not in a bad way. Maybe this is what it felt like to be giddy.

And I’m not setting myself on fire, so maybe positive emotions don’t activate my powers.

“I’m going out again today,” he told his mother as he sat down at the table for breakfast. She would certainly find out anyways, with the way she always hovered over him, so he figured he might as well.

Rei smiled, and the relief was evident in her eyes.

“Is this the same friend?” she asked.

Shouto still hadn’t told his parents about the research. Frankly, he didn’t think it was any of their business. So instead he was going to keep up this facade of being friends with Midoriya.

I should probably come up with a better excuse. They’ll get suspicious if I hang out with the same person several times a week.

“Yeah,” he replied aloud. “Same friend.”

“You should bring him over here some time,” she said, lighting up. “We almost never have company.”

I cannot imagine anything more humiliating and awkward.

He grunted noncommittally. Across from him, Rei steepled her fingers and rested her chin on the fingertips. She studied Shouto, her mouth twisted with an unasked question. With her eyes on him, Shouto had to fight the urge to fidget uncomfortably. His mother never stared directly at his scar, but it was the perpetual elephant in the room, a metaphorical barrier neither could see past.

“I know we’ve brought it up before,” she said, “but I was wondering if you’d be willing to reconsider seeing a therapist.”

“I’m fine,” was his automatic response.

Sighing, Rei ran a hand through her hair.

“You can see a therapist even if you are fine, you know. It doesn’t hurt.”

Silence. This wasn’t a conversation Shouto wanted to have ever, but it particularly wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have when he had been in a good mood for the first time in while. However, he didn’t know what he could say to take the look of worry off his mother’s face. It didn’t matter how strongly he reassured her he was fine. She didn’t believe him.

Finally, she said, “Well, you’re old enough to make your own decisions. But if you change your mind, you know we’ll arrange everything. We can find a doctor, and we’ll pay. And...I’d sleep a lot better at night if I knew you had someone to talk to.”

Her sincerity scalded. Shouto didn’t know how else to deal with it besides to look at his empty bowl and mutter “I’ll think about it.”

Half-hearted as his response was, Rei still smiled.

“That’s all I ask,” she said.

 

The university wasn’t so bad now that he knew where he was going. Unlike a random city street, the campus wass clean and cheerful. It reminded Shouto of his days at UA.

Since he didn’t have a pass to get into the lab, Midoriya waited for him outside the building. As usual, when he saw Shouto his face lit up.

“Good morning! Uh, I guess technically speaking it’s afternoon, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Shouto affirmed. “Afternoon, I guess.”

“Okay, so we have this really cool experiment set up and I think you might like it but first we have to take some blood samples. How are you with needles?”

“I’ve had a lot worse than needles,” Shouto remarked, thinking back to his training. “I can handle it.”

Midoriya laughed along nervously. Shouto couldn’t tell if it was his presence that made the boy break out in a light sweat or if he was like that in general.

Midoriya led him back to the lab, where one of the lab assistants who had been trained in phlebotomy took a small sample of his blood.

“So today we’ll be doing initial tests to establish a baseline to compare later results to,” Midoriya explained, talking with the same fervent speed he always did, as if he was in a race using his mouth. “Um, so like, we have a room in the basement that is basically empty and we set that up, and we were hoping you could try and use your Quirk so we have a control to compare later results to.”

Shouto raised an eyebrow, and the other boy flinched under his skepticism.

“Are you prepared for me to set the building on fire?” he asked.

“Yes, actually, we have an emergency sprinkler system set up, and we have several fire extinguishers on hand. And, um, a change of clothes for you to wear during testing, since they might get destroyed. Several changes of clothes, actually. It was part of the budget.”

Shouto heaved a big sigh. He hated the idea, but it made sense from a scientific perspective. They needed a feel for what his Quirk-control was like now so they can compare it against results from later tests.

“All right,” he conceded. “I just hope you thought the safety implications through.”

“Yeah, that’s what Deku’s known for!” a voice called out from the workbenches a few rows over. “Being safe and not destroying things!”

Midoriya laughed along like the joke wasn’t at his expense, but he then he quickly gathered his things and ushered Shouto out the door.

“You’ll be fine, I promise,” he reassured. “They trained me how to use all the equipment and I may not look it but I’m actually really good at remembering-”

“It’s not my safety I’m worried about,” Shouto interrupted, since he knew that Midoriya would talk forever if he let him. “Do you have any safety gear?”

“Oh, I’m not even going to be in the same room. We’ve set up a camera and intercom. I’ll be doing the conducting from the next room over.”

Shouto scowled and remarked “That still doesn’t help you if I set the building on fire.”

Midoriya shrugged.

“Look,” Shouto began as they entered the elevator, “I’m worried you might be underestimating how powerful my Quirk can be. You’ve never seen it in action.”

“Yes I have,” Midoriya explained. “I watch the UA Sports Festival every year. Plus I saw the news’ coverage of your fight against Spore-riffic a couple years ago and it was amazing! The way you made a bunch of ice and then super-heated it with your fire to create a steam explosion that flash-fried all the mind-control pollen was amazing!”

The boy’s eyes shone so bright Shouto would swear he had some sort of illumination Quirk. Excited hand movements accompanied his descriptions, and he bounced a little on his feet, too.

“I...am surprised you remember that.”

Blushing, Midoriya suddenly became very preoccupied with the bag he was carrying. The elevator opened onto a bare hallway made of brick and concrete. It really did look like this place was never used.

“So what exactly is this experiment? Like what are we measuring?” Shouto asked, still skeptical.

“Well, we have one simple test that will measure two things. One is timing how long it takes you to consciously activate your Quirk and then deactivate it, and then the second is seeing if you can direct your Quirk and control where it goes while it is on.”

“Okay. I still might say no if I don’t feel like the safety precautions are enough.”

“Oh yeah, you’re free to stop at any time for any reason,” Midoriya said. “But don’t you have to actually focus your Quirk to generate, say, a 20-foot ice wall?”

“True,” he mused. “When I tried using my Quirk after an accident, it wasn’t necessarily full power. But it did set fire to most of my apartment.”

They reached the end of the hallway, and Midoriya pulled out a key and opened the lock. All the while, he was shuffling with excitement. This boy had more energy than Shouto had ever seen in one person.

The door swung open and they stepped inside. The room was almost bare, save for a row of fire extinguishers lined up against one wall, a chair in the corner, and in the center of the room, a grid of pipes cross-hatched the ceiling with several sprinkler heads emerging from them. On the far wall was a crudely painted target, drawn in what looked like chalk.

“Fun fact,” Midoriya explained, “They used to do experiments trying to genetically graft Quirks onto chimpanzees at this university way back, you know, when that sort of stuff had less red tape around it. Anyways, this is the room where they would wash the monkeys.”

I can still smell the monkey, Shouto thought. Wrinkling his nose, he moved under the shower to inspect it.

“It has a handle you can pull yourself if you need to,” Midoriya explained, gesturing, “but I also have control of it from my room. So just stay under here and we should be able to put you out if you catch fire.”

“Great.”

This was starting to feel less like a serious scientific undertaking and more like a middle schooler’s science fair project.

“Did you plan any way to deal with the ice?” Shouto asked.

“Um...I figured if we alternated ice with fire it would kind of take care of itself.”

Provided I don’t freeze myself so bad I can’t move.

“So, uh...do you think you’re ready to do this?” Midoriya asked. “I mean does this look safe?”

It won’t be the most unsafe thing I’ve ever done, Shouto thought to himself.

“Fine,” he agreed, “let’s do this.”

With a hoot, Midoriya threw his fist in the air.

“Oh holy crap, I was so worried you were gonna say no. I promise you won’t regret it! You can change into the spare clothes we’ve prepared over there. I’ll leave so you have privacy, and when you’re ready, just hit the power button on the camera and we should be ready to go.”

With that, the over-excited lad rushed out of the room in a blur of green. It was like he had left an after-image of his excitement, though, because Shouto couldn’t help but feel a coil of anticipation in his stomach. They were doing this. For better or worse, it was happening.

I just really don’t want to end up burning him alive.

On the chair were the spare clothes: a greyish jumpsuit that looked like it belonged to an astronaut-in-training. It was hideous, but he wasn’t here to win awards for fashion. Also he didn’t think Midoriya would judge him based on his clothes. He had been wearing a t-shirt labelled ‘sweater vest,’ so his fashion taste was questionable.

Once he was done, he went over to the camera. It looked like the kind of webcam you’d use for streaming. To either side of it were speakers, jutting from the wall like the antlers of a bizarre beast. The look was completed by a circular shaped microphone below the camera. Shouto switched everything on and waited for a few moments.

“Can you hear me?” Midoriya’s voice came from the speakers.

“Yeah. We ready to start?”

“You bet!”

Even though he couldn’t see Midoriya, Shouto imagined the boy was sitting on the edge of his seat in excitement.

“Okay, stand under the showers. I’m going to give you a countdown, after which I want you to attempt to activate the ice half of your Quirk. Once I confirm it’s active, I’ll tell you stop, and I want you to attempt to stop it. I’ll be timing both events,” Midoriya instructed. “Also, try to direct your Quirk towards the target on the wall. Keep it as confined to that area as possible.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Shouto replied, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. It was easy in theory. In practice, things could go horribly wrong.  

Shouto positioned himself under the shower grid. Closing his eyes, he took a few moments to breathe, trying to focus himself. How long had it been since he had practiced with his Quirk?

“All right, starting the countdown!”

Shouto felt a tingle of excitement run down his spine. He shifted his weight to his good leg and left crutch, raising his right hand.

“Go!” Midoriya shouted at the end of the countdown.

Shouto wasn’t the one timing, but he was fairly certain it only took a heartbeat to start the ice. Even after all this time, his Quirk was right there, lurking under the surface. For a second, it even felt like he had control of it. A slow pillar formed between his hand and the floor, catching the fluorescent lighting and casting it back with a chilly sparkle.

“Now stop,” Midoriya instructed him.

Off, Shouto thought, trying to shut the valve in his body that controlled his power. He’d never had to consciously think about or visualize turning off his Quirk before. It had just happened as soon as he stopped concentrating. Now, when he tried to shut it off, it felt like trying to close a door in a tornado.

Instead of his power petering out, it got worse. A line between his feet and the wall formed, fractured crystals spreading along it.

Stop! He thought with more force. He closed his hand into a fist, trying to shut off a place for the ice to come from. Instead, ice started to bud from his leg. The weight dragged at the twist in his knee, shooting pain through him.

He fell to the ground, but that didn’t stop his Quirk. His breath flew from his mouth like a white flag, begging for surrender. Ice crawled up his back, an icy finger tracing the line of his spine.

ENOUGH!

With a final crackle, the ice stopped forming. However, Shouto couldn’t get up immediately. He knelt in a shivering huddle, one hand propping him up under the weight of the wing-like blossoming of ice sprouting from his back.

The door opened, and he heard a rush of footsteps.

“Are you okay?” Midoriya asked, falling to his knees to get level with Shouto.

“Shouldn’t you be in the other room?” Shouto growled.

In response, the other boy cringed, but he didn’t back off. Instead, he looked around the room, surveying the damage. There was a trail of ice four feet tall and three feet wide extending from where Shouto was to the far wall, where the ice erupted into a criss-cross of pointed edges.

“It took forty-two seconds, by the way,” Midoriya informed him. “To turn your Quirk off, I mean.”

“You still want to test my fire?”

Midoriya paled, which caused the smattering of freckles on his face to stand out in stark relief. Rather than provide an answer, he rose and went to inspect the target.

“Does it count as a bullseye if you cover the entire target?” the shorter man asked.

He pulled out his phone and took several pictures, documenting the results. Meanwhile, Shouto did his best to knock the ice off his body. It came in shattering chunks, forming a broken halo around him as he shook himself free. The thin material of the jumpsuit didn’t provide much in the way of insulation, so he was shivering.

“Do you need help getting up?” Midoriya asked, coming back to inspect him.

“No.”

Midoriya held out his hand anyways. Shouto considered ignoring it, but he could envision how hurt Midoriya would look if he did. Those big green eyes filling with disappointment, his shoulders stooping in rejection. With a sigh, Shouto took the offered hand. Midoriya hauled him to his feet with surprising ease.

“You’re stronger than you look,” Shouto noted.

Rubbing the back of his head, Midoriya waved it away with a mumbled explanation of “I work out.”

“So what’s next?” Shouto asked. “Do you really want me to burn this whole place to the ground?”

“Um, that would not be ideal,” Midoriya said, furrowing his brows. Shouto recognized that look as his thinking face.

Here comes the muttering.

“I suppose we could just change the target to being underneath the shower heads, and I could extinguish it immediately once it got out of control. But that wouldn’t really give us much data, since your activation time appears unaffected and it’s mostly the deactivation time we want to measure. Maybe I could stay in here with a fire extinguisher and apply it as needed-”

“No,” Shouto interrupted. “That’s way too dangerous.”

“Nothing ventured nothing gained,” Midoriya replied with a laugh.

“You have absolutely no survival instincts, do you?”

“You sound like my mom,” Midoriya deflected. “Anyways, the floor and walls are concrete, which isn’t flammable. I think the biggest danger is catching the door on fire or having the flames reach the ceiling. But you put so much ice up that I think we should be okay if you aim at that.”

He was probably right. However, Shouto couldn’t shake the image of a building in flames, of everything around him burning as he spewed flames uncontrollably. The thought made him feel sick to his stomach.

“Okay, I can tell you’re not thrilled,” Midoriya observed. “You know what? That’s fine. I suppose as long as we just consistently measure the ice, we’ll have the data we need. They’re just two halves of the same Quirk. The results shouldn’t be that different.”

“You sure that’s okay?” Shouto asked, even though the idea of not having to use his fire thrilled him. “I’m not going to get you in trouble?”

“No, I think I’d get in more trouble if I lost your participation in the experiment entirely,” Midoriya laughed.

Great. So if I ever did want to quit, I’d have to deal with the guilt of knowing I’m getting him in trouble.

Not that Shouto had any intention of giving up, but the thought that Midoriya would get blamed for it if he did was not a pleasant one.

“So does that mean we’re done?” he asked.

“Ah,” Midoriya breathed, cringing. “No, actually. In order to get reliable data we need to...repeat the experiment?”

The last part was almost a question, a plea for Shouto’s forgiveness. He sighed.

“How many more times?”

“We want to do at least five rounds. So four more times. Is that going to be too much?”

Shouto was still cold, and now that the frost on his skin was thawing, he was damp, too. Not to mention that the ice already in the room wasn’t going away.

“You should probably draw a new target so I can aim in a different direction,” he said, resigned.

Midoriya lit up with that same neverending energy and dashed off to do just that.

 

By the time they were done with five rounds of the test, every inch of the room save for the ceiling had ice on it. At one point, Shouto had iced over the doorway, and Midoriya had to throw his weight against it repeatedly to get it to open. Still, Shouto suffered through it. He was soaked and shivering, but he had done it.

“That last time was 53 seconds to shut off,” Midoriya noted, helping him to his feet again. “I think you’re getting fatigued.”

“You think?” Shouto asked, taking the crutch Midoriya offered him and regaining his footing.

“I’m so sorry,” Midoriya said. To his credit, he did look genuinely sorry. That didn’t really help the situation any.

“I’m not fragile. I can take more damage than this.”

“Oh, I know,” Midoriya affirmed with conviction. “I just, you know, don’t want you to suffer unless it’s scientifically necessary.”

Shouto snorted, taking the clothes Midoriya handed him. After round two, they had decided to relocate his street clothes to the safety of Midoriya’s control center, since it was apparent nowhere in the room was going to escape ice.

“Here, I’ll let you get changed while I go see if I can find a blanket and some coffee.”

Before Shouto could protest, Midoriya was gone. The boy didn’t hesitate to act, Shouto had to give him that. By the time Shouto changed and left the ice-dungeon of a room, Midoriya was back with the promised supplies. In Midoriya’s control room, Shouto sat in a chair and sipped coffee while Midoriya jotted down notes. Shouto was vaguely curious about what he could be writing, but he was too tired to act on it.

“The good news is that we probably won’t do testing like this for another month or so. We’ll come up with an attempt to treat your broken Quirk Factor and give it some time, then test to see if there are any results.”

Shouto grunted over his mug. Midoriya glanced his way, and Shouto was aware of how disheveled he must look.

Glancing at his phone, Midoriya said, “It’s kind of early for dinner, but do you want to go grab something to eat? I’ll treat you. It’s the least I can do after today.”

Shouto had forgotten to eat lunch before coming, so he was admittedly starving. And Midoriya looked so excited at the prospect, that he couldn’t summon the energy to turn him down.

“Fine, as long as it’s something quick.”

Midoriya jumped out of his seat, eagerly suggesting locations.

“What are you in the mood for? There’s a crepe stand on campus that we could go to. Uh, there’s a ramen shop between here and the train station, and a couple of fast food places. There’s also convenience store stuff-”

“Do you know someplace that sells soba?” Shouto asked.

Midoriya reassured that he did, so Shouto followed him out the building. They walked side by side, with Midoriya chattering away to fill the void. Much as Shouto was loathe to admit it, it felt...nice. When he was with Midoriya, the world felt a little less lonely.

Chapter Text

Despite being early spring, it was a warm day outside. Which was a good thing, because Shouto had spent the last hour intermittently covered in ice. The sun felt nice on his skin as he trekked alongside Midoriya, making their way to the promised soba-serving restaurant. If Shouto had any concerns about awkward silences, they were demolished by Midoriya’s chatty disposition.

“I’m a little disappointed at not being able to see your fire up close,” Midoriya admitted, the same passionate fervor coming over him as when he was furiously scribbling down notes. “You’re totally right, it was a bad idea and we probably would have burned down the building, but I think maybe I had selfish ulterior motives that made me push it, too.”

“Why did you want to see my fire so badly? Are you a pyromaniac?” Shouto asked. He wasn’t joking, either. The intensity that bubbled beneath Midoriya’s exterior- he could picture the boy huddled around a campfire with glee, searching for more sticks to burn.

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Midoriya reassured him. “I just wanted to see it first-hand. You know, since your Quirk is so cool and all! I actually always wanted to talk to you back when I was interning at your agency, but you seemed so…”

Cold? Unapproachable?

“Busy.”

Shouto still wasn’t entirely convinced the boy had interned at his agency. He couldn’t remember ever seeing him around. Looking him over, Shouto mused that maybe since Midoriya came off as so non-threatening, he had dismissed him outright and not wasted time worrying about him.

“Why were you interning there, anyways? Doesn’t seem related to your science,” Shouto said.

“Oh, that was back when I was an undergrad. I was majoring in Quirk Biology, and the internship was focused on providing Quirk Consultation.”

“So you were the ones who provided mission info on criminals’ Quirks and possible counters?” Shouto asked, thinking back. That had always been part of any mission briefing meeting and document, and he knew there was a Quirk Consultation department, but the thought had never occurred to him that there were actual humans who went to school to do that sort of job.

“Yup, that was me! It was actually a really fun job, and working in tandem with heroes was a dream come true for a hero otaku like me,” Midoriya admitted, albeit a tad bashfully.

Shouto had guessed that Midoriya was a bit of an otaku. He wasn’t exactly subtle about it.

“But I’m still getting to work hands-on with a hero now,” Midoriya continued, offering a blindingly bright smile to Shouto, “so it’s even better!”

“I’m not really much of a hero anymore.”

Like a kitten doused with a bucket of water, everything about Midoriya drooped at his words. Shouto kicked himself for saying it. All he’d done was unnecessarily dampen the other man’s mood and garner more pity.

However, he underestimated Midoriya’s ability to rebound, because it only took a few steps before Midoriya perked up and said, “Well for what it’s worth, you were a really amazing hero.”

“Not really. I never got that high in the rankings.”

Stop being such a mood-killer, Shouto silently berated himself, but he couldn’t help it.

“Hey, 231 isn’t bad for someone so young! It takes time to build a fanbase. And honestly, I think you would have risen a lot higher with a proper brand manager. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved working for our agency but they didn’t do a very good job at marketing each hero as an individual personality and helping-”

“Wait,” Shouto interrupted, “how do you know my ranking off the top of your head?”

This gave Midoriya pause. Enough time for color to flood to his face, starting across his cheeks and working to his ears.

“Um, I...I’ve kind of been following your career,” Midoriya said, voice quiet. “You were the same year in UA as someone I used to know, so I paid a lot of attention to your class and I just couldn’t help…”

His voice dwindled down to where Shouto couldn’t hear him. It probably didn’t help that they had both stopped walking, and Shouto was focused on him with a laser stare.

“I’m sorry,” Midoriya apologized. “I know it’s kind of creepy.”

Yeah, Shouto thought, it is a little weird.

But that was also part of the hero business. The more popular you got, the more obsessive fans you attracted. That’s why his father had all mail that came to their house screened, and he had heard stories from former classmates about people going through their garbage or complete strangers sending them love letters. Even Shouto, with his fairly low rank, knew he had a fan forum online where people posted pictures of him and compiled links to news articles and video clips detailing his work.

“You’re not going to post any personal details about me online, are you?” Shouto asked.

“Of course not!” Midoriya yelped, waving his hands furiously.

Shouto looked him over once more. Yeah, he definitely looked the part of nerdy awkward obsessive otaku, but he was also genuine and nice.

There are worse crimes than looking up to someone.

“Good. Now are we going to eat or not?”

A relieved smile broke out on Midoriya’s face, and they resumed walking.

The restaurant they finally landed at was a few short blocks from campus. It didn’t look like anything fancy, bare wooden tables and plastic chairs, but this close to the university fancy probably wasn’t in high demand. All that mattered to Shouto was that they served zaru soba, and he had his meal figured out before Midoriya had even looked over the menu. It didn’t take long for Midoriya to settle on yakisoba, and then they waited for their meals. Midoriya traced the rim of his cup with his finger, uncharacteristically quiet.

Is he still embarrassed about earlier? Shouto wondered.

Even though he hadn’t known the boy that long, seeing him silent and downcast felt unnatural. It was enough to force Shouto to attempt small talk.

“So how long have you been working at this lab?” Shouto asked.

“This particular lab? Only a couple of months, although I did a rotation with them last year when I first got accepted to the program,” Midoriya replied. “But everyone there thinks of me as the lab baby, since I’m younger than the usual applicant.”

“Did you skip a grade?” Shouto guessed, quirking his eyebrows. He’d never met someone who had actually been dedicated enough to go to the effort of finishing school early.

“Yeah, I graduated high school a year ahead,” Midoriya replied, but coming from him it sounded less like bragging and more like a guilty admission. “I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough.”

Shouto could tell from his downcast expression that was a sensitive subject, so he changed tactics.

“What made you decide to study...what was it again? Genetics…”

“Developmental Biology. And, um, mostly I was searching for a cure for my, um, Quirklessness. I actually did some research as an undergrad into Quirk Amplification drugs and their effects on Quirkless people, and seeing if it would be possible to maybe transplant a Quirk onto someone.”

“So you wanted to give yourself superpowers?” Shouto asked, face falling into a scowl. He distinctly remembered Midoriya claiming not to be interested in eugenics when they first met.

Midoriya shrugged, looking at his lap. Their food arrived, though, so they were spared from more conversation. At least, that was Shouto’s plan. He was going to enjoy the food in absolute silence. Without so much as a glance upwards to his companion, he dug in. However, it wasn’t long before Midoriya spoke up.

“I really wanted to be a hero when I was a little kid,” he said. “I used to admire All Might. Worship him, even.”

That wasn’t a huge surprise. He already knew Midoriya was hero otaku, so it made sense he had once entertained dreams of himself taking the spotlight.

“Anyways, it was always so frustrating to never have the power to help anyone. I didn’t even have the power to save myself most of the time,” he sighed, shoulders slumping. Shouto eyed him, noting how despondent he looked. This really hadn’t been the lunch conversation he was expecting.

Slowly, Shouto slurped the noodles drooping from his mouth, taking time to consider what he wanted to say.

“Well, you’re helping people now, aren’t you?” he asked. “You said this research could help cure people suffering from Quirk Degeneration.”

Midoriya sighed again, stirring his noodles with his chopsticks.

“Yeah, no, like I get it, but...it’s just not the same, you know? Like I’m still going to do everything I can to help people and make the world a better place, but it doesn’t change the fact that I wake up every morning and feel like a part of me is missing,” he confessed, staring out the window.

Shouto related to that. He let out a hum of solidarity.

“So the feeling of being a cosmic screw-up never goes away, huh?”

Midoriya let out a laugh, but the mirth didn’t reach his eyes.  

“You know, you’re...really hard on yourself,” he said, giving Shouto a piercing stare.

Am I? Shouto thought. He couldn’t help but think of his father’s training, of constantly being told he was underperforming. Endeavor had been quick to praise Shouto and place him on a pedestal, claiming he was a superior product and a different breed than anyone else. The other side of that coin was that whenever Shouto fell short of perfection, it was obviously because he wasn’t applying himself, wasn’t trying hard enough. At some point, Endeavor’s voice took over the inside of Shouto’s head, criticizing him for every mistake.

“I guess I’m not one to talk,” Midoriya piped up again, “but I know from personal experience that negative self-talk can be...you know, like really bad. And stuff.”

How someone so intelligent had to constantly struggle to find the right words was a mystery to Shouto. It had annoyed him at first, listening to Midoriya scramble to assemble his vocabulary into a coherent sentence. However, Shouto found it growing on him.

“Really bad and stuff, hm? Guess I should listen to the expert.”

Midoriya looked at him, searching Shouto’s face to see if the teasing was malicious or not. Shouto made a conscious effort to grin so Midoriya would know the ribbing was good-natured. It felt weird on his face. However, Midoriya smiled back, which made it worth it.

    “I guess this is really personal, so sorry if I’m overstepping any boundaries, but you said in your initial consultation that you hadn’t seen a therapist or anything since...you know,” Midoriya said, returning to busily shuffling his food around in his bowl. “And, um, I really think maybe you should consider one.”

Shouto’s body flushed hot.

I’ve gone most of the afternoon without my Quirk acting up. Great time to start.

Forcing down the wave of lightheadedness from the sudden influx of heat, Shouto preoccupied himself with taking another large mouthful of noodles. That was the wrong strategy, though, because it gave Midoriya more time to speak.

“You seem like the type to not admit you’re bleeding even if your arm’s cut off,” he chuckled nervously, “so I guess you probably don’t want to. But, um, I know it really helped me. With stuff.”

Once his noodles were successfully transferred from mouth to stomach, the first thing out of Shouto mouth was, “You needed therapy?”

It came out sounding more like an accusation than he meant it to.

You sound like an asshole, he chided himself.

But as he probably could have predicted, Midoriya’s instant response was laughter accompanied by a blush.

“Yeah, I mean, if you think I’m bad now, you should have seen me before I went to a therapist.”

“What do you mean if I think you’re bad now?” Shouto asked. The question only made Midoriya’s blush deepen.

“Oh, you know, how I’m really bad at holding a conversation and...talking. To people.”

Shouto had, in fact, noticed that exact thing. He had assumed that was the status quo of Midoriya’s existence. The thought that it was something Midoriya was actively trying to improve hadn’t occurred to him.

“So you went to therapy to talk to people better?” Shouto asked. Midoriya squirmed under his gaze.

“That and...I kind of went through a period where...it was really hard for me to make friends. I mean it’s never been easy for me, but it got to the point where I sort of gave up and assumed there was something that made me unlikable,” he explained, shrugging. “My mom was smart enough to make me see a therapist, though. It, uh, it really helped a lot.”

Shouto felt pity. Immediately, he was aware of the hypocrisy, of pitying this boy even when he himself despised the idea of anyone pitying him.

If you aren’t likable, what does that make the rest of us? Shouto thought to himself. Because for all of Izuku Midoriya’s stuttering and stumbling over words and muttering, Shouto had yet to hear him say anything unkind.

Maybe what Shouto felt was less pity and more admiration. Shouto hadn’t ever been allowed to admire anyone. Admiring implied that you considered someone above you, more advanced, and Shouto was supposed to be the best. However, he recognized the effort Midoriya put into talking to him, to sharing things that were probably painful to talk about. Shouto could admit that took more bravery than he probably had.

“I’d say you’ve improved a lot,” Shouto said, taking an uncertain step into the realm of consolation. “You took a friend out to lunch today.”

The smile on Midoriya’s face was bright enough to challenge the sun.

“I did, didn’t I?” he said, puffing out his chest with pride.

Shouto grinned again, but this time it didn’t feel unnatural on his face.

As if his words had unlocked Midoriya’s appetite, the boy stopped stirring his food around and began to actually eat. Shouto did the same. It was so much easier to enjoy the taste of the noodles when he didn’t have to sit at the same table as his parents. Midoriya was a huge upgrade.

After they finished, Midoriya paid and then insisted on walking Shouto to the train station. Shouto acquiesced, but only because it felt like Midoriya genuinely wanted to spend more time with him, and not because he thought Shouto was incapable. They chatted amicably on the way there. Or rather, Midoriya chatted and Shouto nodded and interjected occasionally. It was nice to have someone who didn’t mind doing most of the talking.

As they waited for the train, Midoriya shifted the conversation again, face growing serious.

“Promise me you’ll at least consider, okay? The therapy, I mean,” he said, eyes softening with concern.

Shouto let out a long sigh. Was this nagging? After dealing with his father, Shouto knew what being ordered, commanded, and bossed around felt like, and he knew how to ignore it. Gentle, well-meaning prodding, on the other hand, was something he had no defense for.

“I’ll think about it.”

Midoriya nodded, like he had anticipated that answer and was satisfied with it.

“And, um, promise me you’ll text, okay? I mean, if that’s not too much of a bother,” Midoriya backpedaled immediately, looking down at his shoes.

“Okay,” Shouto replied, knowing immediately he couldn’t afford to break that promise. It wouldn’t be wise to hurt the feelings of the man in charge of his cure. That, and he didn’t want to be the one responsible for putting a frown on Midoriya’s face.

There goes my resolve to keep this professional, he thought with resignation. However, as he got onto the train and watched Midoriya wave goodbye, he absolved himself of responsibility. He concluded that there was just no way someone could be around Midoriya for prolonged periods of time and not want to be his friend.

The boy was far too likable.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Endeavor was already long gone by the time Shouto made it to breakfast. Which was a huge relief, because he couldn’t imagine having this conversation in front of his father.

“What’s therapy like?” he asked his mom.

No one ever talked about Rei’s time in the psychiatric hospital. It was a forbidden subject. Her absence went unacknowledged, a five-year hole in her history everyone skirted around.

Thankfully, his mother didn’t react with shock or discomfort at his curiosity. She put a finger to her chin, giving it serious thought.

“I guess...when you first start, it’s really exhausting. Especially if you’re not used to talking about your emotions,” she said, giving Shouto a knowing look. “It can be uncomfortable. And frustrating. It takes so long to see results, it can feel like you’re getting nowhere.”

If this conversation was somehow supposed to convince him to get therapy, it was doing a terrible job of it. However, Shouto was surprised to hear his mother talk so openly, with no hint of shame or embarrassment. All these years he had assumed the subject was taboo, but maybe he had just never thought to ask.

“To be honest with you, I kind of miss it,” Rei confessed. “It took awhile to get there, but towards the end, I’d never felt more in control of myself and my emotions. And I’ve never felt more hopeful about the future.”

Rei smiled. The morning sunlight filtering through the shoji lit up her almost translucent hair, giving her a halo of light. It was a rare moment, for Shouto to occupy the same room as his mother and see her look so at peace.

“You know,” Rei said, lowering her voice conspiratorially, “if you’re curious, I could arrange a trial session for you.”

Shouto glowered, but he didn’t want to break the smile on his mom’s face, so he softened the look to exasperation. Not that he was sure his mom would notice the difference, as according to everyone, his facial expressions were inscrutable.

“It’s not a commitment,” Rei promised. “If you don’t like it after one session, you don’t have to go back.”

She looked so hopeful. And if he did go, he imagined Midoriya would give him a similar look when Shouto told him.

Not that I care for his approval, Shouto reminded himself. But he looks better smiling than worrying.

“Okay,” Shouto relented. “I’ll try it out.”

Rei beamed, looking for all the world like a heavenly spirit sent to bless earth with her presence.

“Excellent. I’ll make the call.”

 

It turned out that Rei had a list of therapists on hand. Whether that was leftover from her time in the hospital or she had done research in anticipation of Shouto acquiescing, he didn’t know. What he did know was that two days later he was sitting in a seldom-used entertaining room across from a Dr. Takanashi. He assumed his parents paid a small fortune to get this woman to make housecalls, for which he was grateful. It meant he didn’t have to sit in an uncomfortable waiting room.

Dr. Takanashi was short and sturdy looking, and her feet didn’t even reach the floor from the chair she sat on. This was one of the rare rooms in the house that had Western-style furniture. His mother had wisely suggested using it so Shouto could sit comfortably. Apparently sitting was something you did a lot of in therapy.

“So Mr. Todoroki, why are we here today?” she asked, giving him a warm smile.

Because people kept nagging me to get therapy.

That was the snarky response that came to mind, but it was also the only response he could think of.

“I want my mom to stop worrying about me,” he said after some deliberation.

“Do you think her worries are unjustified?” she asked. It was such a pointed question that even though her voice contained no trace of judgement, Shouto still bristled.

Of course her worries were justified. But letting people worry about him meant he was too weak to take care of himself, and Shouto had been raised better.

“I think...she underestimates me,” Shouto replied, even though that felt like a lie. If anyone in the universe knew exactly how much Shouto could handle before breaking, it was Rei. She had known his limits when he was five, kneeling beside him and begging his father to stop, telling him it was too much, he couldn’t take it.

But Shouto had taken it. It had broken him, fragmented off little pieces of his soul he’d never gotten back, but he’d done it. This was the same. It was more than he could stand, and he was shattering. Even if it meant he wouldn’t come out whole, he’d still get through it. He didn’t have any other choice, and his mother crying by his side wouldn’t change things. So why drag her into it?

“Does her worrying about you make you feel guilty?” Dr. Takanashi asked. She had a clipboard in her lap, but she was using it more as table to rest her hands on than to take notes. At least she wasn’t scribbling down everything he said. Shouto hated the idea of there being a written record of this conversation.

“I guess,” he replied. He huffed, running a hand through his hair, trying to think of the words he needed. “I think it’s more like, I don’t do anything besides make her unhappy. She’d be better off without me.”

I ruined her life.

If it hadn’t been for Shouto, she’d never have been locked away in that hospital. He knew that wasn’t rational, knew he shouldn’t carry the blame for it, but knew all the same he was a living reminder of all the years she’d lost.

“Has your mother ever told you that?”

Not in so many words. It was more a teakettle to the face that did the talking.

“She hasn’t said it out loud, but I can see it in her face when she looks at me,” Shouto explained. He realized he was fingering his scar without thinking about it. He snapped his hand down to his lap.

Dr. Takanashi nodded, but looked at him like she was expecting him to continue. If she was hoping to wring more out of him by playing the waiting game, she would be disappointed. Shouto was well-acquainted with and unafraid of awkward silences. It was where he felt most at home.

After a minute of waiting expectantly, the woman prodded, “What’s keeping you from talking to your mother about this? About asking her directly about how she feels?”

“I don’t know,” Shouto replied, shrugging.

“What do you think her response would be if you asked her ‘Would you be better off without me?’”

“It would be no,” Shouto said without hesitation. “Because even if that was true, she’d never admit it to me, or herself.”

That response finally prompted the doctor to pick up her clipboard and scribble something down on it. Shouto cringed, watching the movement of the pen with suspicious eyes.

“I’m making it sound like I have a mother complex or something, but I don’t,” Shouto defended. “We don’t communicate very well, but it’s not…”

It’s not what I anticipated talking about here.

Shouto had come prepared to rehash the events surrounding his injury, to tell another sympathetic, pitying audience how frustrating it was to suddenly be down a career. However, he had brought this on himself. She had asked him why he was here, and the first thing that came to his mind was his mom.

“Would you describe yourself as being close to your mother?”

“Not anymore. I used to be, when I was little, but...then the burning incident happened…”

He glanced up at Dr. Takanashi, who gave no flicker of surprise or recognition. It wasn’t exactly common knowledge how Shouto had gotten the scar on his face, but it also wasn’t top secret. Somehow, the story of Endeavor’s poor, tragically disfigured son had been leaked when he was a rising star at UA. His trauma had been part of the news-cycle, and though it had swiftly been displaced by juicier gossip, nothing was ever truly forgotten on the internet. Put “Shouto Todoroki scar” into a search engine and results would pop up. He could never be sure if the people he met had read his backstory online.

Rather than recap what the doctor could find out on her own, Shouto continued, “I was around ten when she was released from the hospital. I’d lived long enough without her that we couldn’t go back to being a mother and child.”

“Did she try to reconcile with you?”

Shouto paused, thinking back to those first few weeks after she had been released from the hospital. The pained glances, the silences between them. How Shouto had avidly avoided her, unsure of how to approach this woman he didn’t know anymore.

“She tried,” he explained. “It’s not her fault. I was the one who made things worse.”

“You blame yourself for the way things are between you now,” the woman observed.

Shouto nodded.

“There were a couple times in particular where she reached out to me, and I pushed her away. I think it hurt bad enough that finally she stopped trying,” he said.

“Tell me about these instances,” she encouraged. “How exactly did you push her away?”

Shouto was silent for a moment, not sure how to start. He wasn’t used to telling stories, especially not ones about that period of his life. Dr. Takanashi was patient, not rushing him. Encouraged by her devoted attention, Shouto began to relate the first incident that came to his mind.

 

It had been another day of keeping to himself. His father had left for a business trip, which meant that if he stayed out of sight no one could bother him. However, that didn’t help when Rei went intentionally looking for him, calling out his name. With Endeavor gone, he couldn’t use training as an excuse. He didn’t have a valid reason to avoid her, so after his resolve had weakened enough he reluctantly responded.

“I’m here.”

“Ah, there you are,” Rei said, and her face immediately sunk into a somber expression. “When was the last time you had your ears cleaned?”

She held up an earpick. Before the incident, Rei had cleaned her children’s ears regularly. It had been a special, calming ritual, laying his head in his mother’s lap, one hand gently combing through his hair while the other worked the bamboo pick in his ear. Fuyumi had tried to do it a few times after Rei left, but it hadn’t been the same. Shouto couldn’t remember when was the last time someone had offered to clean his ears, so he just shrugged.

“Come on,” Rei said, holding her hand out.

Uncertain, Shouto delicately threaded their fingers together, letting his mother lead him to her room. She knelt on the futon, pulling him down to rest beside her. It made him feel so little, to have his head cradled in her lap. It made him feel five years old again, young enough to believe that his mother could protect him from anything. Whether intentionally or accidentally, she had placed him so his right side was facing up, and she brushed aside his white hair.  

It was a strange sense of deja vu, the almost-forgotten familiarity of his mother’s touch. She hummed quietly under her breath as she worked. As a child, it had been hard not to fall asleep during these sessions, surrounded by warmth and security. Now, though, Shouto couldn’t disperse the tense knot of unease in his stomach.

What if she gets mad at me? What if I do something wrong?

He had done something, once, to make her so upset she hurt him. He had never figured out what that was, though, and so he wasn’t sure what he needed to avoid.

“Turn over to the other side,” his mother ordered with a gentle pat, indicating she was done with his right ear.

Shouto froze in place.

“Come on,” his mother urged, gently shaking his shoulder. “Did you fall asleep on me?”

He couldn’t be more awake. Hesitantly, as if he was hoping she would change her mind, he shifted to the other side. As relaxed as a coiled spring, he laid back down, exposing his left side to her. Rei shifted his hair out of his face, careful to avoid touching his scar.

It’s ugly. She probably thinks its gross.

Even though he didn’t dare look at his mother, he could tell she was hesitating. He imagined her looking at his left side, disgusted.

Unbearable. That was the word she had used to describe it. Just looking at it back then had caused her so much pain. Wasn’t it the same now?

Shouto imagined her raising the ear pick above him like a knife, ready to jab it down into his ear. If she put enough force behind it, she could probably drill straight to his brain. Rei shifted, and that was all it took for a panicked Shouto to spring up, scrambling backwards out of reach with one hand clapped over his ear.

“Stop!” he yelled. His eyes stung, but he forced the tears back. His father’s training had taught him how to shove any sign of weakness down, burying it where it couldn’t be used against you.

“Shouto?” his mother asked, bewildered.

She reached for him, but he just back stepped further out of range. For a second, they locked eyes. His mother looked betrayed. He had done that.

Without saying anything else, Shouto turned and fled from the room.

 

When Shouto was done, the doctor didn’t initially say anything. Instead, she scribbled several notes down on her clipboard. Shouto could only imagine the sort of things she was thinking about him. That he was a terrible son, that he let his own insecurities hurt his mother, that he was selfish.

“Do you ever worry that your mother might hurt you again?” Dr. Takanashi finally asked.

“No,” Shouto said firmly. “She would never.”

He was sure of it. Positive. Just like he had been as a child, sure that his mother loved him and would never do anything to harm him.

Look how that had turned out.

“...maybe,” he amended. “I don’t know. I...I think she still resents me for everything that happened, and maybe it will bubble to the surface again.”

Dr. Takanashi put down the clipboard, her lips pursed.

“Forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but...have you ever tried asking her? What’s stopping you from saying ‘Do you blame me?’”

“Because I’m afraid the answer might be yes,” he whispered.

It sounded so stupid to say it out loud. To accuse his own mother of blaming him. It was the sort of thing he never told people, because he knew the automatic response would be “Don’t be silly, there’s no way she blames you. It wasn’t your fault.”

“That is a scary thought,” Dr. Takanashi agreed. “She could have spent the last decade holding a grudge.”

Shouto looked up from his lap, surprised to find the doctor actually agreed with him. Maybe she saw something he didn’t, had deduced that of course Rei would resent him.

However, she continued, shrugging her shoulders, “Or she could not. There’s really no way to tell. Not without asking, at least.”

That last bit almost sounded like teasing, and she had a mischievous glint in her eye.

“Either way, you can’t control how other people perceive you. Don’t fixate on trying to do the impossible,” she advised. “Instead of worrying about what other people feel, think about your own feelings. How do you feel about your mother?”

She’s my mother. I love her.

I just don’t understand why she hurt me.

Shouto couldn’t find the words to vocalize that, though. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, but the thoughts were all tangled up and he wasn’t sure how to unravel them. How to bring them out as a coherent stream instead of a messy knot.

Checking her watch, Dr. Takanashi said, “That’s all the time we have for today. Can we schedule another session?”

“Okay,” Shouto agreed, but only because he couldn’t stand the idea of leaving this half-finished.

 

After the doctor left, Shouto sent a text to Midoriya.

(S_T 4:35pm) I tried the therapy thing. I hope you’re happy.

(I_M 4:43pm) Yay! How was it?

(S_T 4:43pm) Awful.

(S_T 4:43pm) I don’t know why I let you talk me into it.

(I_M 4:47pm) Haha, sorry about that -.-’

(I_M 4:48pm) Let me make it up to you! Dinner and a movie tomorrow? My treat!

Shouto’s first instinct was to refuse. He didn’t actually pin any blame on Midoriya for his decision, and he wasn’t about to take advantage of the boy’s reflexively generous nature. But as he typed out the response, he imagined Midoriya’s reaction. Probably the boy was used to his offers of friendship being rejected.

(S_T 4:53pm) You paid last time. It’s my turn.

(I_M 4:53pm) Is that a yes???

(S_T 4:54pm) Yes, but you have to pick the movie. I don’t know what’s out.

(I_M 4:54pm) Can’t wait!!!!!!!

That seemed like more exclamation points than strictly necessary. He could almost see Midoriya’s enthusiastic face, flush with success at getting Shouto to hang out with him. It felt nice to give him that. If that’s what it took to make Midoriya happy, then Shouto considered it a small price to pay.

Chapter Text

Shouto couldn’t remember the last time he had been to the movies. Literally, wracked his brain and came up empty. He was sure he had gone a few times in high school at the urging of classmates. Since then, the idea hadn’t even crossed his mind. So it was with some awkwardness that he met Midoriya at the theater. Going out with friends, attending a movie, it all felt like a cultural ritual he had forgotten the protocol for. If there was one thing he hated, it was being forced into a situation where he didn’t know how to perform, where he had no choice but to make a fool of himself.

Fortunately, he was fairly certain Midoriya felt the same way. The boy was waiting for him on the street corner outside the theater, nervously checking his phone. He lit up when he saw Shouto approaching. It was a gesture Shouto was starting to recognize as relief over not being stood up.

“Good afternoon! How are you?” Midoriya asked, as earnest as ever.

“Fine,” was Shouto’s automatic response. Then a beat later he remembered he was supposed to return the question. “How are you?”

“So good! I’ve really been looking forward to this movie! Normally I wait until stuff hits streaming to see it, but I really think seeing this one on the big screen will be awesome.”

Shouto grunted in agreement, trying to remember what movie that had agreed to see. He vaguely remembered it was some sort of thriller.

“So you like...movies?” Shouto asked.

He’d never been good at conversation. The last six months hadn’t helped.

However, the nice thing about Midoriya was that he didn’t seem to notice or care how bad Shouto was at basic social interaction, and it only took the smallest of prodding to get the boy talking. Shouto was treated to an enormous rundown of Midoriya’s theatrical preferences, most of which meant absolutely nothing to him. He nodded and grunted occasionally to show he was making a token effort to keep up.

As they sat down in the enormous theater chairs, though, his free pass from conversational contribution expired.

“So what kind of movies do you like?” Midoriya asked, turning his too-bright eyes on him.

“Uh...I’m not actually much of a movie person,” he admitted.

Midoriya’s face fell.

“Oh. Did...does that mean you didn’t want to come to this? I’m sorry, I never should have just assumed that you would enjoy movies, I mean really what was I thinking not even asking you beforehand I can’t believe-”

It was obvious that Midoriya was shifting into full social-panic mode. Even when Shouto tried to butt in to stop his worries, Midoriya’s mouth just kept going. With a sigh, Shouto reached over and placed a hand over Midoriya’s mouth so he could get a word in edgewise.

“You’re fine. I don’t hate movies, I just never saw many as a kid,” he explained. “I guess I just don’t think about them that much.”

He removed his hand from Midoriya’s mouth, who’s look of sheer panic had been replaced by dazed confusion.

“So like...your parents never took you to the movies as a kid?”

“No,” Shouto growled, trying to indicate with acerbic tone that it wasn’t a topic worth discussing. He succeeded, because Midoriya lapsed into silence. The movie started, but Shouto was too busy feeling like an asshole to pay attention.

You sounded like Endeavor just now. Losing your temper because you don’t know how to deal with people.

Rather than pay attention to the film, he was hyper-aware of Midoriya to his side. Midoriya seemed invested in what was going on. He gasped and laughed in the right places, and leaned forward in his seat once in a while. He didn’t look like his feelings were hurt. But then again, how would Shouto know? He was terrible at reading people.

Around half-way through the movie he realized he was slow-broiling himself. He’d thought maybe it was just nerves, but no, when he pressed his hands together he could tell that his left side was acting up. He was sweating, and he felt dizzy. Even though they had sat at the end of a row, Shouto didn’t dare get up to excuse himself to the bathroom. He imagined the eyes of distracted theater-goers snapping his way as he fumbled to get his crutches underneath him. And there was no way he could get out without Midoriya expressing concern, or even following after him.

Just deal with it. You’re tougher than this. How weak do you have to be to whine about a little heat? Endeavor would be disgusted with how easily-

“Are you okay?” Midoriya whispered, leaning over to him. “Um, I can kind of feel the heat radiating off you.”

His cover was blown, so with a sigh, Shouto replied, “I think I’m going to run to the bathroom. It’s fine, I can go by myself.”

He put a hand on Midoriya’s shoulder to prevent him from rising to assist. With a sigh and a pitying puppy-dog look, Midoriya let him go. Shouto fled the theater as fast as he was able. He made his way to the bathroom, where he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water over his face. Glowering at his reflection, he watched the water quickly turn to steam and leave him dry. He felt moderately better. However, rather than rush back into the theater, he stuck around in the bathroom. It was quiet here, with no other occupants to disturb him. How long could he get away with sulking before the length of his absence aroused suspicion?

“Todoroki?”

Apparently not very long.

Midoriya crept into the bathroom, tiptoeing as if he was afraid of getting caught.

“I thought I told you I didn’t need help,” Shouto said, trying to keep the ice out of his voice.

“Yeah, um, I’m starting to get the feeling that maybe you lie about being fine sometimes, so I figured I’d check.”

It took a moment for Shouto to process the sheer audacity of his words.

“Are you calling me a liar?” he asked with a trace of amusement.

“Oh no, no no, not exactly,” Midoriya backpedaled, rubbing the back of his head. “I just think maybe you’d rather set yourself on fire than admit you need help.”

Well he’s not wrong.

Shouto sighed but didn’t say anything. Midoriya moved forward, until he was close enough Shouto could count his freckles. Slowly, as if Shouto was a wild animal that might spook and retaliate, Midoriya lifted his hand and pressed it against Shouto’s forehead. For someone so baby-faced, his skin was surprisingly callused and rough. It also felt so very, very cool, which probably meant Shouto was still overheating. He didn’t mind, though. The contrasting temperatures felt good, so he closed his eyes and enjoyed the sense of relief radiating from Midoriya’s touch.

“So is this normal for you? Making yourself too warm, I mean,” Midoriya clarified. “This isn’t like, a sickness fever, right?”

“Yeah, it’s not really cause for alarm. It’ll go away after a while,” he reassured.

Midoriya still had his hand on Shouto’s forehead. Shouto wasn’t complaining.

“Do you know what triggered it?” Midoriya asked.

Shouto cracked one eye open to inspect the boy. Sure enough, there was that glimmer in his eye when he was going into science mode. The science glimmer.

“Was the theater too cold? I thought it was a little chilly myself, so maybe it’s your body’s natural instinct to regulate its temperature using your Quirk. Or maybe it was stimulation from the theater lights that induced it. You mentioned not going to a lot of movies-”

“I’m pretty sure it was another emotion-related thing,” Shouto said.

“You mean the negative emotions correlation we talked about?” Midoriya asked, face falling. “What made you upset?”

“It...doesn’t matter.”

Midoriya’s hand fell away from his forehead, instead moving close to his body as the boy hugged himself and looked to the side.

“Was it something I did?” he asked.

Shouto was left a few steps behind, trying to catch up with the mental gymnastics Midoriya had performed to somehow come to the conclusion that it was his fault. In the meantime, Midoriya spoke up again.

“Because you can tell me, you know, if I did something wrong. I know sometimes I don’t pick up on social cues like when I’m being annoying, and I’d rather you let me know than-”

“Slow down,” Shouto said, and Midoriya clamped his mouth shut. “You didn’t do anything. I...I felt bad over snapping at you earlier, okay?”

Midoriya seemed genuinely confused by this. His head tilted to the side, green hair shifting with a soft bounce.

“When? I don’t remember you snapping.”

Sighing in exasperation, Shouto resigned himself to having his nose rubbed in his mistake.

“When you asked about my parents taking me to movies. I’m sorry, okay? It’s...not a subject I’m used to talking about.”

“Oh, yeah, no, I got that. You don’t need to apologize,” Midoriya rushed to assure him. “My feelings weren’t hurt. I totally got that you wanted to change the subject, but I panicked and couldn’t think of another conversation topic and then I was worried the silence was awkward.”

“Oh.”

They shuffled and avoided eye contact with each other for a few moments before Shouto broke the silence.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Shouto asked. “Because...it’s like you said. If I do something wrong you should tell me. I don’t always notice when I’m being an ass.”

Midoriya grinned, playfully punching him on the shoulder.

“All right, I get it. Next time you’re surly I’ll call you out. Happy?”

“Yeah.”

Rather than force Midoriya to miss more of the movie on his account, Shouto herded him back into the theater. Even though Shouto had missed most of the show, he did manage to gleam some enjoyment out of the explosions.

When the film ended and the lights came up, Midoriya turned to him and eagerly asked, “So did you like it?”

“Yes,” Shouto replied honestly, “but I don’t think I have what you would call discriminating taste.”

“I’m sure after I take you to twenty or so more movies you’ll get a feel for it,” Midoriya said. “Now come on, you promised me a meal, too.”

Midoriya had selected a local diner close to the theater. Likely he had taken into account how inconvenient it was for Shouto to navigate busy city blocks, and chosen this place based on proximity. Shouto didn’t mind. They didn’t serve soba, but it had been a while since he’d had a decent rice omelette.

Midoriya chattered away while they waited for the food, telling him different bits of trivia about the movie they’d just seen.

“You are actually kind of a movie buff, aren’t you?” Shouto said, impressed.

“Well I mean, when you spend most of your life holed up in your house and don’t really have anyone to talk to, movies are a great way to pass the time,” he explained, blushing.

“Do you spend a lot of time in your house? Seems to me you get out quite a bit.”

“Um, nowadays I do. Not so much in the past.”

Shouto wanted to ask what exactly that meant, but he was interrupted by a scream and a clatter behind him. Turning around, he saw a frightened waitress backpedalling from an enormous figure lurking by the door. It had to be some sort of mutation Quirk, because the man was approaching ten feet tall with spikes erupting from his back. That in itself wasn’t cause for alarm. They lived in a superhuman society, and most people weren’t so crass as to openly pass judgement on someone just for looking physically different. However, the fact that he was holding someone aloft, speared onto the end of a claw, was cause for concern.

A second man, minuscule in comparison to the first, stepped into view. He had on a ski-mask that did nothing to obscure the horns poking out of the top of his head.

“You damn idiot!” the second man screeched in a too-high voice, smacking the first. “I said take a hostage, not kill the chick!”

“Whoops.”

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, we may have gotten off to a rocky start, but we ask that you remain seated,” the man continued. “This is a hold up.”

Chapter Text

“Everyone stay seated and don’t try anything funny,” the small man in the mask ordered, “because obviously my partner is a little trigger happy.”

Said partner chuckled bashfully, then shook his hand in order to dislodge the body from his claws.  

A child started crying. The man gave more orders. The poor waitress he had singled out rushed to comply. All the while, Shouto gripped the edge of the table. His body was switching between hot and cold so fast it felt like a strobe effect, felt like he was going to shake apart with the effort of containing it.

“Todoroki?” Midoriya asked, voice small and scared.

Shouto wasn’t sure if he was begging for Shouto to take action or trying to prevent him from being reckless. It didn’t matter either way. He couldn’t do anything. He wasn’t a hero anymore.

“Please,” Midoriya begged, inching his hand across the table towards Shouto, “breathe.”

Shouto realized he was breathing too loud and too fast. His body shook. Midoriya’s hand grazed his, then recoiled like he had touched a hot stove. Shouto was that hot stove. One hand was melting the plastic covering on the table, the other iced to his seat. He’d never been more cognizant of his power, throbbing under his skin, begging to be released. At the same time, he’d never been more aware of his own weakness. This double-realization crowded out everything else, until even his perception of the booth fell away. Where was he? How did he get here?

It was the nightmare, the alley and the chasing, but hadn’t he been awake? Why was this happening now? Something was lurking out there in the darkness, something he couldn’t fight and couldn’t escape, and there was only one outcome to this dream.

“Todoroki,” a voice hissed. It was Midoriya’s voice. Midoriya had been here. Or had Shouto been there? He couldn’t remember.

Something grabbed him, snatched his left hand. There was fire on his skin, but they grabbed anyways. A hiss and a yelp and the hand was still there, still resting on top of his. It helped ground Shouto, bring him back to reality.

That was Midoriya’s hand he was burning.

The boy had tears streaming down his face from the pain, but he showed no signs of letting go. His hand was clamped around Shouto’s, and there was a serpentine trail of smoke curling out from underneath.

“We can’t provoke them,” Midoriya bit out through clenched teeth. “Please, if you use your Quirk here, they’ll kill you.”

He was right. Shouto never would have argued with him for a second. It was just that for a moment...he hadn’t been here. Now that he was, he could tell the terrified diners in the booth next to them were casting glances there way, too scared to divert their full attention but still taking notice. Shouto didn’t dare turn around to see what the robbers were doing, but the booth seats were tall enough that he had probably escaped their notice.

Breathe. Turn it off.

He hadn’t activated his power at full blast. Just enough to send a small trickle of flames out his fingertips, which Midoriya had smothered with his flesh. His hand stifled any would-be flames before they had a chance to gain purchase. Even though it was only a fraction of his power, Shouto was sure the pain was severe.

You don’t have time to feel guilty. Do that later. For now, focus on getting yourself under control.

He was calming down. There was the imminent threat of violence behind him, but Shouto concentrated all his attention on Midoriya. His friend managed a shaky smile back at him, mouthing the words “It’ll be fine.”

Shouto believed him.

Then came the explosion. A crescendo of glass bursting inwards, the screams of several patrons. Shouto whipped his head around, craning into the aisle to see. One of the front windows had burst inwards, covering the floor in front of the entrance with a cross-hatching of shards. A black duffel bag lay on the floor, money spilling out of it. The large robber was spread-eagle on the ground, looking as confused and terrified as the patrons. Crouched on his chest, looking as furious as the first day they had met, was one Katsuki Bakugou.

I might set myself on fire again. Intentionally.

The second man was screaming something, raising his gun to shoot, but Bakugou screamed something incoherently feral right back and raised his own palm. He was quicker on the draw. The second man flew back so hard he broke through the counter in a maelstrom of splinters.

Keep property damage to a minimum, idiot.

They hadn’t seen each other in almost a year, hadn’t really spoken in closer to three, but it was obvious that very little had changed about Ground Zero. Rank Number 51 on the Hero Billboard, and he’d be a lot higher if the sheer amount of money he cost taxpayers wasn’t taken into account.

“Is there anyone else’s ass I need to kick?” he screamed, searching for more combatants.

Shouto felt Midoriya flinch at the statement, their hands still intertwined.

“Did you save any for me?”

Jumping through the broken window, not the least bit fazed by the protruding shards of glass, was Bakugou’s better half and partner in fighting crime, Eijirou Kirishima. Seeing him sent a twinge of pain through Shouto. They also had barely spoken or seen each other over the last few years, usually no more than a few texts every couple of months, but in this case that wasn’t cause for celebration. Shouto would have liked to keep in touch with Kirishima, he really would have, it was just-

“You were too fucking slow! You’re lucky I’ll let you help with the cleanup.”

-Kirishima kept bad company.

“Looks like the day is saved,” Shouto muttered bitterly, turning back to Midoriya.

The boy was still staring past him, wide-eyed and vacant. Probably a mixture of hero-worship and shell-shock. Civilians weren’t used to seeing violence like that. Not wanting to interrupt his processing, Shouto wordlessly turned his hand over to inspect the damage.

Bright red, the skin was already starting to swell and form blisters. Painful and slow to heal, but at least it didn’t look like there was nerve damage.

“You need to see a doctor,” Shouto told him. “This is going to swell pretty bad. Hey, are you listening?”

Midoriya was not. He was looking over Shouto’s shoulder, mouth slightly agape.

“Are there any injured?” Kirishima called out, walking down the aisle.

I really didn’t want to do this today, Shouto thought to himself, sighing.

However, Midoriya was still mute, so the task fell on him. Ducking his head, he raised his hand.

“We could use medical assistance over here.”

Just pay attention to him. Don’t notice me.

It was a futile hope. Even ducking his head to hide his scar, he had bi-color hair.

“Shouto? What the heck man, imagine seeing you here!” Kirishima clapped him on the shoulder, looking for all the world like a puppy that had just been set loose in a grassy field. “I haven’t seen you in forever!”

“We need medical assistance,” Shouto cut him off, not making eye contact.

“Oh, yeah, sure, right. There’s an ambulance on the way. Come with me, sir,” Kirishima said, flashing his best heroic smile at Midoriya.

Midoriya finally tore his eyes from the middle distance, snapping them to Kirishima. He blushed and pulled his hand underneath the table.

“It’s fine. It’s really not that bad.”

“Yes it is,” Shouto broke in before Kirishima had a chance to. “You need to get it looked at.”

Cringing, Midoriya practically melted into his seat. He tossed another glance at the door before looking at Shouto and pleading, “Will you come with me?”

That would surely mean Bakugou would get to see him crutching by, which was a horrendous thought. But he had been the one to burn Midoriya’s hand. If this was his karmic punishment, then he had no choice but to steel himself and accept it.

“Of course,” he sighed.

Kirishima chivalrously offered a hand to each of them in turn, but was shrugged off in succession. The man didn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t actively helping others, so he hung close, offering them meaningless advice like “Watch out for the glass on the floor.”

Shouto didn’t miss the way Kirishima’s eyes flickered up and down his crutches, but he did his best not to let his hackles raise. In a way, having Midoriya to worry about was a relief. It gave him something to focus on besides his own unease.

Don’t talk to Bakugou, and maybe he won’t talk to you.

Yeah, because Bakugou is so well-known for minding his own business and not starting fights.

Ever the gentleman, Kirishima slipped ahead to hold open the door for them. Midoriya huddled close to Shouto’s side, practically hiding behind him. It made it harder to navigate with his crutches, but Shouto couldn’t summon any annoyance. He had just burned Midoriya, so it felt like the least he could was suffer a bit of clinginess.  

“Hey, don’t think you can just ignore me, asshole!” a voice snarled.

Shouto rolled his eyes, trying to decide if it was worth provoking Bakugou more by ignoring him. He needn’t have deliberated, though, because Bakugou wasn’t even talking to him. He strode up to Midoriya, who in turn cowered so hard he might as well have been sitting down.

“Huh Deku? Heard you got a fancy degree and now you think you’re hot shit.”

“No no no, I don’t think that, I don’t think anything,” Midoriya pleaded. Bakugou towered over him, looking like he was about to pummel him. Shouto braced to step in, but Kirishima beat him to it.

“Easy there, tiger,” Kirishima said. “He’s a civilian and right now he needs medical treatment. Maybe save whatever this is for later, okay?”

This seemed to deflate Bakugou a little. He took a step back, and Midoriya scrambled to his feet, darting around Shouto and out the door. Shouto knew he should follow him, but instead he turned to stare Bakugou in the eyes.

Baring his teeth, Bakugou said in a voice that was uncharacteristically calm, “You two know each other?”

“Obviously.”

I could ask the same question.

He wanted to, but he’d save it for Midoriya. Rather than get offended by his attitude, Bakugou just snorted.

“You could do better than that pathetic loser.”

Funny, I’ve always wanted to say that exact same thing to Kirishima.

However, Shouto wasn’t in the mood to start a fight. It was never worth it with Bakugou. So instead, he followed Midoriya out the door.

The ambulance had arrived, but since Midoriya’s life wasn’t in danger, the paramedic’s first priority was inspecting the body. A formality to legally declare it dead. As he stood next to Midoriya, he noticed the other man was trembling. Shouto opened his mouth to ask a question, but he was interrupted by Midoriya dropping to his knees and barfing.

“Are you all right?”

Way to ask a dumb question.

Using his good hand, Midoriya wiped away the line of bile from around his mouth. The paramedics were coming back, walking faster when they say Midoriya on the ground.

“I-I’m all right,” Midoriya assured everyone. “Just overwhelmed.”

The paramedics had him sit on the tailgate of the ambulance while they examined him. They bandaged his hand and offered him water to rinse out his mouth. In typical Midoriya fashion, he seemed overwhelmed by the attention but too timid to refuse it. Shouto stood to the side, observing the proceedings but not getting underfoot. A hand clapped him on the shoulder, and he snapped his head around ready to fight, only to see that it was Kirishima.

“You didn’t honestly think you’d get out of here without talking to me, did you?” the red-head asked with a wink.

A fool can hope.

“You look like you’re doing well,” Shouto observed. He meant it, too. Kirishima was as fit as he’d ever been, he was smiling, there were no bags under his eyes. The picture of a young hero just entering his prime.

“Aw shucks, that’s like the Todoroki equivalent of downright flirting. You know I’m taken.”

Shouto ground his teeth, not trusting himself to speak. Even though Kirishima would never intentionally hurt a fly, sometimes he could be insensitive without realizing it.

“So, uh, what have you been up to?” Kirishima prodded when Shouto didn’t respond to his teasing.

“We haven’t spoken in three months. You want me to catch you up on everything?” Shouto asked, letting the edge creep into his voice.

He could see the guilt wash over Kirishima, and it just made him more frustrated. Shouto was as much to blame for the lack of communication as him. More so, as he’d been the one to widen the distance between them over the years, slowly pushing away one of the only people he’d ever considered a friend. However, Kirishima had always been too nice for his own good, too willing to accept responsibility for other people’s faults.

“Yeah, you’re right, I doubt we have time for that,” he said, still managing a smile. “So you’ll just have to fill me in some other time. We should go out for drinks.”

Shouto made a noncommittal grunt. He knew how this worked. For all his good intentions, Kirishima would be so wrapped up in his day-to-day life that he’d never follow-up on the promise. However, his insincere placation did the trick. Kirishima flashed him a shark-tooth grin.

“Okay, well, I’ll let you get back to your friend. Stay in touch, okay?”

Another noncommittal grunt. Kirishima playfully punched him on the shoulder, leaving to follow up with some police officers. The paramedics were finished with Midoriya, who now had one hand covered under a thick layer of gauze. They had encouraged him to go to the hospital for a check-up, but Midoriya had brushed them off, saying he felt fine.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Shouto asked him as they retreated to the other side of the police barricade. “You did just lose all of your dinner.”

“Yeah, I actually felt way better after puking. Guess I just needed to get it off my chest.”

He smiled, but his face was still pale and he looked ready to bolt at the slightest scare. They walked together in silence for a while, heading for the train station. However, Shouto knew he’d have to say it sooner or later, and he didn’t want to wait until the last minute.

“I’m sorry about burning you,” he said. “You...didn’t have to do what you did back there, but I’m thankful for it.”

“Anything to help a friend!” Midoriya replied instantly.

“Even sacrificing a hand?” Shouto asked, raising an eyebrow.

Midoriya just laughed and shrugged like it was no big deal. Like he’d be willing to sacrifice himself at a moment’s notice. Shouto wasn’t going to lecture him over being reckless, though. His actions probably had saved them, so he had no choice but to be grateful.

“If there’s ever any way I can pay you back, let me know,” Shouto told him.

“Oh, your friendship is enough for me,” Midoriya replied again, his face the picture of unassuming innocence. Shouto knew without a doubt that Midoriya meant it, too.

You either seriously overvalue my friendship or undervalue your own well-being. Or both.

However, he knew he couldn’t change Midoriya’s mind, so he decided to move on to the next issue.

“So...you know Katsuki Bakugou?”

Missing a step, Midoriya stumbled, flailing his arms to keep his balance. Even as he regained his footing, the words were pouring out of his mouth.

“Yup, Kacchan and I go way back! Our moms know each other so we’ve been playing together since we were in diapers. We’re childhood friends!”

Midoriya punctuated his claims with near-hysterical laughter.

“He wasn’t acting like your friend back there.”

Midoriya cringed, absently rubbing at the gauze covering one hand.

“Um, well, we aren’t really friends anymore. I’m actually pretty sure he hates my guts,” Midoriya explained, hanging his head.

“Further proof Bakugou is an idiot,” Shouto sniffed.

From Midoriya’s scandalized expression, you would think he had just kicked a puppy.

“He’s not all bad,” Midoriya rationalized. “I mean sure, he’s a little abrasive, but look at him! He’s a hero who saves people. Last year alone he stopped thirty-two robberies, and that’s not including his fight against Syndicate. He’s amazing.”

Midoriya sighed, shoulders sagging. His unspoken words hung heavy in the air.

He’s amazing. Unlike me.

“You really want to be like Bakugou?” Shouto asked.

“If I could switch places with him, then yes. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

It was Shouto’s turn to look scandalized, one corner of his mouth wrinkling in disgust.

“The world doesn’t need another Bakugou,” Shouto reassured him. “But it does need more people like you. Your research has the chance to make a difference, even if it’s not as glamorous as hero work.”

“Yeah, I know, but…”

Midoriya looked up at the sky. There were probably stars shining by now, but the lights of the city drowned them out. Whatever was up there to wish upon in the sky was unknowable.

“There has to be a way to do both, you know?” Midoriya whispered. From his tone and expression, Shouto wasn’t sure if he was supposed to hear, or if that was another thought spoken aloud.

“Was there something you had in mind?” Shouto asked.

Midoriya shifted his gaze to his feet, shrugging.

“Not yet. But I’m getting there.”

Shouto couldn’t begin to puzzle out the meaning of that, but like a lot of things with Midoriya, he didn’t feel it was his place to pry.

They parted ways at the train station, Midoriya thanking him profusely for the time and Shouto reminding him said time included armed robbery. It didn’t even put a dent in Midoriya’s smile, though, and he waved at Shouto through the window until he was out of sight.

Chapter Text

Shouto didn’t tell his parents about the hold-up incident. By the next morning, it felt like a bad dream. The only evidence was a text from Midoriya that read: Hand’s healing nicely! Should be fine in a week.

That still meant an entire week with a burned hand that he didn’t deserve to have. With a sigh, Shouto hauled himself up and got ready for the day. He’d been getting up earlier lately, his body naturally impatient to get moving. In high school he usually felt like he could sleep for an entire day uninterrupted, but that was when he was physically exhausting himself with endless workout routines. Now, it felt like he always had too much energy burning underneath his skin, making him antsy and on edge.

So the end result was him stalking down the halls a little after 7’oclock, not sure where he was going, just knowing he couldn’t stay in bed.

He ended up sitting on the bench by the koi pond, watching the fish swim in slow circles.

As a child, he had enjoyed dipping a finger into the pond and freezing a circle around it. When he was still too young to understand death, he had imagined that if he froze the fish they would look just like the ink paintings hanging up in his mother’s room, perfect and still. Then he’d actually managed to graze the back of a koi with his finger once. With a final spasm, it had frozen solid and dropped like a rock. It stared at him from the bottom of the pond, dead eyes covered in a sheen of ice.

He hadn’t told anyone. Instead, he had fled to his room and avoided the courtyard for the rest of the day. When the fish finally thawed and floated belly up on the surface, the blame had fallen on Natsuo. He was the one with the ice and the surly streak. Gentle Fuyumi and perfect Shouto weren’t even on the suspect list. Shouto wasn’t sure what punishment had befallen him. He spent so little time around his siblings that he hadn’t seen the aftermath. All he remembered was a sense of relief, of avoiding the wrath of an accidental murder.

Every single corner of this house is filled with unpleasant memories.

His musing was cut off by the sound of his parents talking from the dining room. It didn’t sound like they were arguing, exactly, but any time they were alone talking always put Shouto on edge. More unpleasant memories, his mom sequestered in the bathroom, nursing a black eye. It was second nature for him to get up and creep closer, padding softly to avoid his crutches squeaking.

“-police don’t have any solid leads,” Endeavor’s voice rumbled, low and irritated. “We’ll have to hope I beat them to it, is all.”

Police? Is this about last night?

Rei’s voice replied, nervous and strained, “And what then? Find a back-alley asylum? Enji, he needs help. Real help. Not a cover up.”

A shiver ran down Shouto’s spine at the word asylum. He had no context for the conversation, but his brain jumped to all sorts of horrifying conclusions.

This is about last night, isn’t it? They found out about me losing control of my Quirk and burning Midoriya and now they’re trying to label me dangerous and have me institutionalized.

A rational part of his brain tried to hush him, to tell him that was ridiculous. People weren’t institutionalized for minor things like that. Although...he knew there were facilities, places for people who’s Quirks presented a clear and present danger to the public. Not quite prison, just places to hide away the people who couldn’t function in society.

“People like him go to jails, not hospitals,” Endeavor said. “What do you think will happen if he goes to trial, Rei? Do you want him to spend the rest of his life behind bars?”

Okay, maybe this isn’t about me.

Even his high-strung, perfectionist parents wouldn’t overreact this bad to mild immolation. However, he was at a loss for who else they could be referring to.

Shouto was as close as he dared get. If he went any further, he risked his outline being visible through the paper on the door. He stayed where he was, holding his breath. It made him feel four years old again, to be eavesdropping like this, but he had to know.

“You’re not worried about what happens to him. You’re worried about your reputation,” Rei accused. “The only way you’re capable of feeling remorse is realizing something has negative consequences for you.

Instinctively, Shouto flinched, waiting for the sound of a smack. It was a formula he’d overhead as a child: his mother daring to speak up only to be forcefully shoved down. The only thing he could hear was his father’s voice, now too low and hushed for him to make out. Although individual words blurred together, the tone was soft and confident. Whatever the contents, though, they were enough to wring a few gentle sobs from Rei.

“I can’t do this,” she said, voice cracked and high. “How much more does our family have to suffer?”

More indiscernible words from Endeavor, but he didn’t get far before Rei cut him off.

“This is your fault.”

Rei wasn’t yelling, but there was a chill to her words that carried more anger than sheer volume would.

Endeavor’s response was a sullen, “I know.”

More of Rei’s gentle sobs, muffled so that Shouto could barely make them out. He stood there for a few minutes, wanting to reach out to her, afraid to out himself as an eavesdropper, unsure of what he would say even if he did. Finally, he retreated back to the courtyard as silently as he arrived, moving to the far end so he wouldn’t have to hear his mother cry.

 

His father was late leaving for work that day, finally exiting the house closer to noon. All that meant was that he had some sort of stakeout or late-night sting and wouldn’t be back until closer to dawn. Which meant Shouto could breathe easy and relax.

Instead, he spent most of the day finding excuses to check in on his mother. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy when she came to breakfast, and even though that faded, she still looked downcast. It reminded him of the way she looked shortly before the tea kettle incident. She was listless and distracted, and he wanted to ask her what was wrong but he didn’t know how.

Or rather, he did know how, but a small part of him felt five years old and helpless, afraid that even the smallest nudge would send her off the edge.

Come dinner, he was ready to dance around the subject. His mother was silent, staring absently into her bowl of miso. She looked exhausted.

“Do you want to play a round of mahjong after dinner?” he asked.

Rei turned her gaze on him, staring uncomprehending for a few seconds before she registered what he said.

“Sure, sweetie,” she replied, smiling. “It’s rare for you to want to play a game.”

That was because Shouto hated games. He’d never had a chance to play any growing up, and it was one of those things that everyone else seemed to intuitively understand, another social interaction he’d never been given the study guide for. That, and he had once made the mistake of betting chores on a round of Pokemon against Kaminari and had ended up vacuuming the common room for a semester.

His mother resumed her staredown with her food, but the only thing she chewed was her bottom lip.

“It’s going to get cold soon,” Shouto pointed out.

Another lag between Rei hearing and comprehending, this time followed by a demure laugh.

“Are you nagging me?” she teased.

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

At his prodding, she finally began to eat. Shouto watched her take small bites, deliberating a few moments more before finally blurting, “Did dad do something to hurt you earlier today?”

Rei froze with her spoon halfway to her mouth, giving Shouto a shocked look.

“No. Your father knows better than to lay a hand on me these days,” she replied.

The terms of their truce. Whatever it was that kept them barely together, Shouto hadn’t seen his father hurt his mother since her release from the hospital. However, he’d always quietly feared that maybe the old man had just learned how to do it behind closed doors. Even with Rei claiming Endeavor wouldn’t lay a hand on her, Shouto had a hard time believing it.

“It’s just...this morning your eyes were red. It looked like you had been crying,” Shouto explained. All that was true, and he didn’t even need to mention the eavesdropping. He examined Rei with a careful eye, trying to gauge what she was feeling.

“Oh, that,” Rei said, sighing. She stirred her soup a few times, spoon and bowl singing a low note where they rubbed together. “No, that wasn’t because of your father, really. I was just...thinking back on all the things I regret.”

Shouto wasn’t sure how that puzzle piece fit in with the rest of the of the overheard conversation. However, regret was a dangerous topic to navigate around his mother. How to agree with her regret without sounding like he blamed her?

“I...don’t think you can regret decisions you weren’t allowed to make,” he ventured, picking his words carefully.

“I know, it’s just...there were things I should have done for you children that I didn’t. It was my duty as your mother to keep you safe, and I failed.”

She was still looking into her soup, but Shouto couldn’t tell if she was deliberately avoiding eye contact or just lost in thought.

“What could you possibly have done differently?” he asked, trying and failing to keep all of the ice out of his voice.

Rei let out another sigh, setting down her spoon. When she frowned, it magnified her wrinkles, making her look old and fragile.

“I should have left. I thought about it all the time,” she confessed, “but then I would talk myself out of it. I was afraid of either losing custody and not seeing my children again, or of not being able to support four children on my own. But if I’m honest, that wasn’t what kept me around.”

Rei blinked rapidly, her hand clenching into a fist on the table. Just like he had earlier in the morning, Shouto got the distinct feeling that he was intruding on something private. Except unlike eavesdropping, he actually had to be here, had to see his mother holding back tears.

However, Rei was at her core a woman made of metal, and she contained her emotions as she spoke.

“I was worried about what my parents would think. I was worried about how disappointed they would be if I backed out. They were the ones who wanted the marriage in the first place, and I was afraid that if I left they’d never forgive me.”

As much as he wanted to offer comfort, Shouto couldn’t refute what she said. His grandparents had been around often when he was younger. They were prim, high society people that didn’t seem to enjoy or understand children. Most of his memories of them involved being scolded for running indoors or shouting too loudly. After his mother was hospitalized, they came around far less often. Even once she was released, he only saw them once or twice a year. If he walked on eggshells around his mother, they walked on glass, their discomfort and dissatisfaction with a fallible daughter all too evident.

“Shouto, I…”

Hesitantly, his mother reached across the table and laid her hand over his. Shouto resisted the urge to yank away, but he couldn’t stop himself from tensing up. His Quirk coiled in his stomach, threatening to flush through his body.

“I want you to know that I would never stop supporting you or loving you, no matter what decisions you make.”

Shouto sucked in a breath, daring to hold her touch a few moments more before pulling his hand away. He was heating up, and memories of last night and Midoriya’s burned skin came to mind. Fortunately, his mother didn’t look hurt. Her soft smile never left her face. Somehow, even after having so much taken from her, she had managed to reclaim some happiness for herself. A small piece. Less than what she deserved.

“It’s not too late to leave,” Shouto said.

Rei shook her head in immediate dismissal, but that didn’t deter Shouto from continuing.

“What’s keeping you here? You don’t need to stay. You could go anywhere, be happy-”

“I’m an old woman, sweetie. It’s too late for me to-”

“No it’s not!” Shouto yelled, slamming his hand on the table.

The force scattered a flurry of sparks from his sizzling fingertips. Swearing, he hurried to beat them out, making sure none caught light. Rei jumped up from her seat to pat out a few errant sparks that were beyond his reach. Humiliated, Shouto put his hands in his lap and concentrated on turning off his Quirk.

After making sure the threat of house fire was abated, Rei turned to him and asked, “Are you okay?”

Shouto nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

Edging close to him, Rei sat back on her knees. She observed him for a few seconds, making a half-motion as if to touch him, then thought better of it. There was still a thin line of smoke curling off his fingers.

“Your father and I actually did talk about divorce a few years ago, after you moved out. In fact, the subject still comes up once in a while,” she said, tracing her nails over the grain in the table.

“Why didn’t you go through with it?”

Rei shrugged, explaining, “If this was ten years ago, it would be the right decision. Now, though… I suppose I’m content. Your father minds his own business, so I’m basically independent. But it’s preferable to being completely alone, I suppose.”

“Is that all you want from life?” Shouto asked. “You’re not happy.”

“No, but I’m not completely miserable, either,” Rei rationalized. “For a long time, I didn’t dare to hope for even this. I consider myself lucky.”

Shouto didn’t, but he knew he couldn’t change her mind. Somewhere in her life, Rei had given up on fighting for a happy ending, and had settled for mediocrity.

Is that what happens when you get older? You tell yourself you were delusional for wanting more? You decide fighting for what you want isn’t worth the effort? Is that what’s happening to me?

He didn’t press his mother further the rest of the evening, but his mood was so sour that he excused himself to bed after only one round of mahjong.

He had known since he was a child that he didn’t want to be like his father when he grew up. Now, however, he was pretty certain he didn’t want to be like his mother, either. Who did he want to be?

I’m twenty-two. I’m already grown up. Shouldn’t I have figured this out by now?

But he hadn’t, and the more he thought about it, the more lost and confused he felt.

Chapter Text

Today was another scheduled session with Midoriya. Since it had only been three days since the burning incident, Shouto had asked if he wanted to delay it. Midoriya had responded with his usual fervor insisting it was okay. Shouto was pretty sure the man could get decapitated and he’d still try and show up for work. However, Shouto was just as eager to get started.

Today was when they actually started testing proposed cures.

Nothing works on the first try, he reminded himself as he gathered his things to leave the house. Science takes time, and it’s not magic.

But it was nice to think it could be.

He met Midoriya at the lab again, returning his brilliant smile with a grin of his own. Against his better judgement, he was excited. Giddy, even.

“So what exactly are we doing today?” he asked as Midoriya led him further into the lab than he had ever been before.

“Nothing too exciting. We’re going to start you on sessions of UV. Have you ever heard of photodynamic therapy?”

“Can’t say I have,” Shouto admitted. Once again he was reminded of how little he actually knew about science.

“The basic rundown is: we give you medicine that adheres to specific parts of your molecular structure, in this case your Quirk Factor, and then use ultraviolet light to activate it.”

Fishing his keys out of his pocket, Midoriya opened the door to a room that looked like it belonged in a hospital. In fact, Shouto was pretty certain that was a CT scanner lined against the wall. He’d suffered enough injuries during his tenure at UA to be familiar with them, not to mention his professional hero work.

While Shouto settled onto the padded bench at one end of the room, Midoriya went to one of the cabinets and pulled out what looked like a pill bottle.

“All right, this is one of the possible treatments we discussed during the initial consultation, but I’ll go over it again,” Midoriya explained, sinking onto the bench next to him.

Good, because I had so much stuff explained to me I don’t remember most of it.

“You’ll take these, and then we’ll wait around 30 minutes for them to work through your system, and then you’ll spend about 10 minutes sitting in the lightbox. You’ll need to bring the pills home and take regular doses for the duration of the treatment, and we’ll do lightbox sessions twice a week for a month, and then test results, then vary the treatment slightly, and then test results again.”

With a shake of his hand, Midoriya rattled out two pills. They were white and unmarked, looking more like tic-tacs than medicine.

“What’s in them?” Shouto asked skeptically, cupping his palm so Midoriya could hand them over.

“Uh...chromatin and protein, mostly, although it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Midoriya said, flipping through his folder. He pulled out a sheet of paper and handed it to Shouto. “This is the ingredient list. It shouldn’t contain anything your body doesn’t produce naturally, but feel free to look it over and ask questions.”

Shouto did look it over. There was a long list of chemical names he wasn’t sure he could pronounce.

“So what exactly is it supposed to...do?” he asked, looking the paper over like he had a chance of comprehending it.

“That,” Midoriya proclaimed, pumping his fist excitedly, “is the really cool part. Okay, so basically what we are trying to do is isolate and turn off your Quirk Factor, and then over time restart parts of it. There’s a chance that restarting it may fix what’s wrong, although more likely it will just help us isolate the problem so we can hone in specifically on that.”

Eyeing the pills, Shouto tried to piece together that information.

“So basically what you’re telling me is that you’re going to turn my Quirk off and on again. Like restarting a computer to see if it fixes the problem.”

This was apparently a hilarious observation, because Midoriya laughed so hard his shoulders shook.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m not too hopeful about the prospects of this working. It’s more like troubleshooting to see what’s throwing the error code.”

“But if you turn my Quirk off, does that mean…”

I won’t accidentally set myself on fire anymore?

The idea was a mixed bag for him. On one hand, the obvious benefit of no longer worrying about his Quirk spiraling out of control at any moment. On the other hand, being without his Quirk, even broken and useless as it was, stirred a fear in him. Shouto Todoroki was defined by his Quirk. Without it, who was he?

Interpreting his hesitation as fear, Midoriya raised his non-burned hand. He waited a couple seconds, as if debating, then gently placed it on Shouto’s shoulder.

“I know it sounds scary,” Midoriya reassured, “but this part isn’t untested science. It’s one of the methods they currently use on inmates to keep them from using their Quirk in prison. And the thing about it is, it’s temporary. If you stop taking the medication or go too long without a UV session, then the effects will fade and you’ll have your Quirk back.”

Temporary. Not a permanent change.

“Okay,” he replied. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Before he could reconsider, he popped the pills in his mouth and swallowed. There was a dragging sensation as they worked their way down his throat.

“I brought a bottle of water!” Midoriya exclaimed, looking horrified. “You didn’t have to dry swallow them.”

Shouto shrugged, but Midoriya looked at him like he was a monster. Taking a water bottle out of his bag, he handed it to Shouto.

“Will it be immediate?” Shouto asked, taking both the offered water and bottle of pills from Midoriya and slipping it into his bag. All of a sudden it felt like his body had too much energy. He couldn’t keep his good leg from bouncing up and down slightly.

“Your Quirk turning off? No. After today you’ll find it’s a bit less responsive, but since you aren’t actively using it, you probably won’t notice. It’s after the second session that it should be off. We’ll be doing that Friday, if that schedule works for you.”

Friday. Three days and then it will be gone.

“Being Quirkless isn’t so bad,” Midoriya said, as if he could read Shouto’s mind. However, the pained look on Midoriya’s face undermined his words. It made Shouto feel guilty. Here he was fretting over a temporary shutdown of his Quirk, while Midoriya had none.

“Have you ever thought about...if there was a way to turn your Quirk Factor on?” Shouto asked.

Deflating, Midoriya ran a hand through his voluminous hair.

“Oh, I’ve thought about it,” he admitted, hand still tangled in his locks. “It’s just...there’s nothing to turn on. All humans have a Quirk Factor. It’s part of our DNA. It’s just my DNA contains the genetic equivalent of lorem ipsum. It’s just gibberish that doesn’t encode for anything.”

“Ah. I see.”

Shouto knew he should probably reassure Midoriya, but anything that came out of his mouth right now would be hollow. How could he sit here and tell the other man that being Quirkless was no big deal when the shadowy prospect of it gave him such anxiety?

“The genetic lottery isn’t fair,” he said. “If it was, we’d get to choose our Quirk.”

He thought of those couple of years before his mother was released from the hospital when he’d refused to use the fire half of his powers. How much his own genetics had felt like a curse. If he could choose to give up just half of his Quirk, to rid himself completely of his father’s genes, he would.

To his side, Midoriya rested his chin on steepled hands. He stared into the distance, his mind working on some problem. When he spoke, his voice had a conspiratorial edge.

“You know, there was a cult that used to hold that philosophy, or so the rumors go. They believed that people should be able to choose their Quirks, and that anyone who proved themselves unworthy didn’t deserve theirs. They worshiped a man called All For One.”

The way Midoriya whispered the name, Shouto thought he either had a great deal of reverence or fear for this man. He couldn’t be certain which, though.

“He had the power to transfer and absorb Quirks. At least, if you believe what his followers say. His existence is kind of an urban legend, and he hasn’t really made an appearance in over a decade.”

“How do you know about this cult?” Shouto asked. He didn’t take Midoriya for the fanatical type. Well, for a religious fanatic, anyways. He was certainly fanatical about some things.

Midoriya cringed and looked at his shoes. A tad embarrassed, he said, “It was something I stumbled across early in my research, back when I was hoping to uncover a cure.”

“Hoping you could convert and join a Quirk-bestowing cult?” Shouto teased, voice dead-pan. It prompted Midoriya to smile, lightening the atmosphere.

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that. It was more like...well, if I could find this person and study their Quirk, maybe I’d be able to figure out how to replicate it. How to transfer Quirks from one person to another.”

“But then you’d have to find someone to take the Quirk from,” Shouto pointed out. “Although you could probably find volunteers, they’d be the kind of Quirks people had a reason to want to give away.”

“Yeah. So anyways, that was my little pet project through most of college.”

“Did anything come of it?” Shouto asked, genuinely curious.

Giving a short, nervous laugh, Midoriya ducked his head.

“Yeah, actually, I had some theories. It’s what got me accepted into this program and given a fellowship,” he replied. “I called it Quirk Grafting. Some day, when I have my own lab and funding, I hope to look into it more. Right now, though…”

He shrugged, motioning to the room where they were in.

“My time and funding is not my own.”

“That must be torture,” Shouto said, “to know the possibility exists, but you can’t act on it.”

Midoriya thumped his head on the wall behind him in exasperation.

“You have no idea. I’m always thinking about how by the time I get a Quirk, I’ll be an old man.”

The harsh fluorescent lights heightened the shadows on his face, his eyes almost completely lost in black. He looked exhausted. Shouto had the sudden urge to cover him with a blanket and let him rest. However, Midoriya’s phone started beeping, and he bolted up.

“That’s the signal. It’s time to start booting up the machine and get you ready.”

‘Get you ready’ meant that Shouto had to change into a hospital gown. He had thought the grey jumpsuit was bad, but at least that covered his legs.

“I’ll leave so you can get changed,” Midoriya explained, switching on the machine. “Just crack open the door when you’re ready. Oh, and please don’t mess with anything in here.”

With that, he scurried out the door. Sighing, Shouto shuffled out of his clothes and slipped the thin garment over his head. He really couldn’t afford to let his powers activate now, because it looked like a single spark was all it would take to disintegrate this thing into dust. Also he suspected it wasn’t the right size, because it rested a solid two inches above his knees.

Good thing I’m still wearing underwear, he thought, otherwise Midoriya would probably get an eyeful once I lay down in that thing.

Cracking the door open, Shouto called out to Midoriya. The sooner this was over the sooner he could get back in actual clothes. It was freezing cold in this room.

As he fiddled with the machine, Midoriya instructed Shouto to lay down on the table attached to it. Shouto slung himself up, handing his crutches off to Midoriya.

“This thing isn’t going to give me a tan, right?” Shouto asked, reclining back.

“Not at the duration you’ll be in there. Although you will want these,” Midoriya said, handing him a pair of cheap sunglasses.

With a sigh, he slid the glasses over his face. The surface beneath him inched forward, sliding him into the cavernous tube. It was a little claustrophobic, but fortunately that didn’t bother him. He remembered a couple of classmates who used to freak out when getting MRIs. To him, it reminded him of when he was little, and the rare occasions he dared hide in the kitchen cabinets to avoid training. Sort of nostalgic.

Slowly, the lights came on, turning the space from a cave to a disco. Shouto was grateful for the glasses.

“You doing okay in there?” Midoriya called.

“Fine.”

“Let me know if that changes,” he explained. “Some people have a tendency to panic.”

Shouto wasn’t panicking, but he did quickly get bored. There was no way to tell how much time had passed.

I’m only going to be in here for ten minutes, so less than that, he reasoned.

He opened his mouth to ask about the time, but what came out was, “If this Quirk Grafting was your pet project, that meant you were doing it before getting into a lab, right? So what’s stopping you now?”

Silence from outside. Shouto thought maybe being in this tube, the low drone of the lights, had drowned out his question. After a long pause, though, Midoriya responded.

“I guess it’s...more complicated than I let on,” he said. “I’ve reached a point in the research where borrowing the lab microscope and running some tests isn’t enough.”

“What point is that?”

More silence from Midoriya’s end. It occured to Shouto that this probably wasn’t the best place to have this conversation, when he was stuck in a tube and couldn’t see the other man’s expressions. He didn’t know if Midoriya was annoyed or upset or just distracted, trying to write down notes or something. Shouto had never realized how much he appreciated Midoriya wearing his emotions so openly in his body language. Normally it made talking to him easy. Now he was left in the dark. Figuratively, not literally. Literally he was very much in the light.

Midoriya let out a long sigh, the sound distant and muted.

“I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to try practical application,” he explained, tone indecipherable to Shouto, “but it’s not something I can do as an individual. I would need a lab and approval.”

“Why?”

“Because it would involve human testing, which isn’t something you do in your basement. Not legally, anyways.”

Human testing.

“What exactly would these tests involve?” Shouto asked. He wasn’t sure why he was following his curiosity down this rabbit hole, just some vague notion that it was important to understanding Midoriya.

“Like I said, practical application. I have all the theory in place, I would just need to start trials grafting a Quirk from subject A on to subject B.”

So a person with a Quirk and someone who was Quirkless.

“Why not try it with us?”

What am I saying? That’s a crazy proposal.

Midoriya didn’t reply. With a jerk, the machine slid forward, slowly ejecting him from the tube. Now he could see Midoriya’s face. His eyes were wide, mouth slightly ajar.

Making eye contact with Shouto, though, he clenched his jaw shut and said, “You’re joking, right?”

“No. I mean, I’m assuming this process wouldn’t take away my Quirk, right? You’d just need a sample of my DNA? Is that how the science works?”

For a second, Midoriya looked dazed. He physically shook his head a little, as if trying to wake up from a dream.

“I mean yeah in theory all I would need is a sample of your DNA and there’s really no risk to you but that still doesn’t change the fact that human testing is illegal and we’d be in big trouble if we got caught and I’m just not sure if it’s worth the risk to my career-”

He was in full ramble mode, one hand cupping his chin as he muttered to himself. Shouto let him go, not interrupting. It was obviously a big decision, and if he needed to think about it out loud, Shouto could wait. Except he’d prefer to wait in actual clothes.

While Midoriya continued to rattle on, listing the pros and cons of every possible scenario, Shouto leaned over and grabbed his crutches back. Midoriya remained completely oblivious. Rather than disturb him, Shouto just sat back down on the bench and shrugged off the hospital gown. He was halfway into his shirt when Midoriya snapped out of it.

There was a strangled cry and the sound of something falling to the floor. He pulled the shirt over his head to see Midoriya had dropped his clipboard and was staring at him with wide eyes. He was also very, very red.

“I- oh my gosh- I’m so sorry!” he apologized, covering his eyes.

“For what?” Shouto asked. He began slipping into his pants, which was significantly more difficult sitting down.

“I should have left the room,” he replied, still hiding behind his hands.

“It’s fine,” Shouto said, shrugging. “I didn’t even think you’d notice. It’s not a big deal.”

You act like you’ve never been in a locker room.

Midoriya didn’t reply, but his shoulders were one stiff line of tension. Propping himself up with one hand and his good leg, Shouto slipped the rest of the way into his pants.

“I’m done dressing,” he said. “Sorry, I didn’t realize it would make you uncomfortable. I should have asked.”

“No, it’s fine, it just took me by surprise, is all,” Midoriya mumbled, peeking between his fingers before pulling his hands away. However, he still refused to look directly at Shouto.

I’ve made things weird. Now he’ll never want to talk to me again.

With a sigh, Shouto hauled himself up. He studied Midoriya for a moment, trying to think of a way to adequately apologize. Reaching up, he plucked a hair off his head.

“Here,” he said, holding it out. “Take this.”

“W-what for?” Midoriya asked, holding out his hand reflexively.

“What you use it for is up to you, but if you need some of my DNA, there you go.”

Midoriya was speechless. Rather than linger in the awkward atmosphere he’d created, Shouto turned to go.

When he reached the door, he paused for a second before calling back, “If you do use it, and things work out...let me know. I’d be willing to show you the ropes.”

Midoriya was still staring dumbstruck at the hair when he left.

Chapter Text

If Shouto was worried that Midoriya would avoid him after the incident, that was quickly abated by the stream of texts he woke up to the next morning.

(I_M 11:54pm) Todoroki are you awake?

(I_M 12:12am) Okay you’re probably asleep and I should leave you alone.

(I_M 12:15am) It’s just I’m kind of freaking out about this

(I_M 12:17am) You can’t just hand someone your genetic material and tell them to do whatever

(I_M 12:20am) That sounded mean. I didn’t mean it like that

(I_M 12:21am) I just...are you sure? Are you REALLY sure?????

(I_M 12:21am) I know I’m overthinking this but maybe I misread something

(I_M 12:22am) You just...told me to take your powers

(I_M 12:23am) And it’s like a dream come true because your Quirk is AMAZING and way cooler than someone like me ever deserves and I feel like a petty thief

(I_M 12:24am) I feel like I’m doing something wrong but I’m doing it anyways

(I_M 12:26am) I’ve started the DNA Replication process. It will take a few hours before I have a large enough sample to work with

(I_M 12:28am) If this is wrong promise you’ll stop me

(I_M 12:47am) I’m sorry I know this isn’t your problem I just…

(I_M 12:48am) I can’t stand the thought that maybe I pressured you into this and you’re not really cool with it

(I_M 12:49am) I’m sorry I know I’m really persistent and annoying and it’s okay to tell me to shut up

(I_M 12:49am) You don’t have to give in just because I’m needy.

(I_M 1:07am) Oh god. Why can’t I shut up?

(I_M 1:07am) How do I unsend texts?

(I_M 7:23am) I’m so sorry about last night.

(I_M 7:24am) Do yourself a favor and don’t read any of that.

(I_M 7:30am) But...please call me when you get the chance.

 

The time was currently 9:30am, which meant Midoriya had managed to hold off on anxiously texting him for a whole two hours. Shouto thought it would be cruel to keep him waiting any longer, so he dialed Midoriya’s number before even crawling out of bed. Midoriya picked up on the second ring.

“Yes, hello, I am so sorry about spamming your phone,” he blurted, sounding breathless. “Please tell me you didn’t read all of that.”

“I did,” Shouto replied, and was cut off by a panicked squeaking on the other end before he could continue.

“No! Oh no, you really read all of that, didn’t you? Great. I’m just going to find a hole to crawl into so I can-”

“Midoriya,” Shouto cut in, “calm down. It’s okay.”

“It is?” Midoriya asked, sounding like perhaps he was holding back tears.

“Yes. I didn’t respond because I was sleeping, not because I was mad. I do that a lot. Sleeping, I mean. Also not responding to texts.”

On the other end, Midoriya let out a huge sigh of relief.

“Okay, you’re right. I totally overreacted. I’m sor-”

“Stop apologizing,” Shouto told him. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Another deep breath on the other end.

“Okay,” Midoriya replied. “I’ll stop. I just...um, I’m at work right now, so I can’t talk for long, but...I have the experiment ready to fire tonight, but I don’t know if I’ll actually have the guts to do it.”

“You should,” Shouto reassured him. “And since you need my explicit permission, here it is: you can replicate my Quirk for science. Don’t do anything reckless with it.”

Midoriya laughed nervously and replied, “I mean even if it did work it would take a while to kick in. It’s not like I’m gonna spontaneously burst into flames right after the injection. But it probably won’t work. I’m just getting my hopes up.”

There was a pause, and Shouto wasn’t sure if he was done talking or not. He hated not being able to read Midoriya’s body language.

“Would you feel better if I was there when you did it?” Shouto guessed.

Another pause, and then Midoriya said, “I don’t think it would be right to do it without you. I understand you not wanting to get involved, though.”

“No, you’re right,” Shouto replied. “If you’re going to borrow my Quirk, then I should take responsibility and make sure you don’t accidently hurt yourself with it.”

“I mean, like I said, it won’t be instantaneous.”

“I’ll be there,” Shouto answered, voice indicating that it wasn’t an option. “Just tell me when and where.”

“Oh geez. I was planning on just doing it at my house, but it’s a total mess so I can’t invite you over,” Midoriya mumbled.

A voice called in the distance, filtering through Midoriya’s end.

“Hey Deku, you gonna start working some time today?”

“Ack, I have to go. Kakudai is waiting on me. Um, I’ll figure something out,” Midoriya rushed.

“Just send me your home address. It will be fine,” Shouto told him.

Midoriya let out an unsure whine, too frazzled to reply coherently, before hanging up the phone.

In the end, Midoriya must have been unable to think of any other place to go, because he sent Shouto a residential address and told him to come over at 5pm.

It was only as he got ready to leave that he realized this was the first time he was going over to Midoriya’s house and he didn’t have a gift to bring. Shouto had never been very good with formalities like that, and they usually slipped his mind.

Midoriya won’t be offended. This was kind of last minute.

However, his opinion sharply reversed when he rang the doorbell to the house and was greeted by an older woman with familiar green tresses.

Shit. This woman must be his mother. I’m going to look like a jerk.

However, if the woman even noticed his absence of omiyage, she didn’t bat an eye. Instead, she welcomed him in with a vigorous enthusiasm that was also shockingly familiar.

“Oh come on inside. Izuku told me you would be coming. We are so happy to have you. We don’t get company all that often, so please forgive us if our hospitality is a little rusty. I’m just so excited that Izuku has a friend.”

Seems the nervous talking is also an inherited trait.

Before Shouto had even removed his shoes, Midoriya dashed into view, sliding on the wooden floor in his socks.

“I can take it from here, Mom!” he said all too eagerly.

Shouto recognized the signs of Being Afraid Your Parent Will Embarrass You. The ushering away, the attempts to cut off conversation. It was the way he felt any time Endeavor interacted with anyone in front of him. However, Endeavor was an overbearing, delusional sociopath, and Midoriya’s mother seemed fine. He had no idea why the young man was in such a hurry to herd him to his room and close the door behind them.

“Sorry about that. I love my mother, but I think she keeps forgetting I’m a grown adult and I don’t need her chaperoning me,” he explained bashfully. “I’m sure at some point she will step in to offer us fruit snacks and orange slices.”

Shouto wasn’t paying attention to what Midoriya said. He was too overwhelmed by what he saw.

All Might. Everywhere. A shelf over the bed contained countless All Might figurines, crammed together so tight that the hair spikes looked like a strange blonde field. All Might prints plastered the wall in a sea of endless smiles. All Might bedsheets. All Might plushies. All Might decorative pillows.

“You like All Might,” Shouto observed. His senses were too overstimulated to say anything else.

Beside him, Midoriya blushed the same brilliant red as a sunset.

“I told you my room was a mess.”

It really wasn’t. Everything was put away neatly. Sure, the room was crowded, but that wasn’t the same as being disheveled.

“Do you mind if I take a look?” Shouto asked, moving over to one of the shelves.

He had never seen this much All Might memorabilia in one place. He actually couldn’t remember when was the last time he’d even seen stuff like this for sale in a store. Oh, he was sure some stuff still got made, but it would be intended for hardcore fans, sold only at specialty hero shops or conventions. Even someone as influential as All Might dropped from the public conscious after being MIA for…

“How long has it been since All Might was last seen?” Shouto asked, since he apparently stood in the presence of an All Might expert.

“Twelve years,” Midoriya whispered, face still flush. “Last confirmed sighting was during fall of my 5th grade year. It took awhile for it to sink in, though. He’d had some previous gaps in his activity, when he was off doing secret missions in remote parts of the world. I think it took a few months until people really started to worry. ”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Shouto breathed, delicately picking up one of the figures and turning it over. “They weren’t sure what to do with the Hero Billboard, since they couldn’t confirm what happened to him. My father came home and set fire to the courtyard when he found out they were still going to name All Might as number one even though he hadn’t been seen in over three months. Losing to a man who wasn’t even there was a huge blow to his ego. It took another cycle before they officially announced All Might was missing and Endeavor was promoted.”

“Oh wow,” Midoriya muttered, coming to look over his shoulder at the figure he was holding. “I forgot that...that it must have personally impacted your life.”

“You could say that,” Shouto mused, thinking back.

Back to that time of the nation in a panic, nervous over the unexplained disappearance of its guardian. His father’s sudden promotion, Endeavor becoming even more irritable and short-tempered under the sudden weight of the world on his shoulders. A weight he’d always felt he deserved but, it turned out, had been woefully unequipped to handle. Shouto’s trainings had become less frequent yet simultaneously more brutal as his father was taxed with more and more duty. The cameras and the reporters in his face whenever he left the house, candids of him on his way to school posted in the paper, people asking so many questions. What’s it like being the son of the #1 Hero? Where’s your mother? How’d you get that scar?

It had been cathartic to see his father squirm under the laser focus of the media. Shouto remembered taking glee in how exhausted his father looked every night, how the bags under Endeavor’s eyes had multiplied and he paced the halls, unable to sleep. Remembered secretly hoping he’d crack under the pressure. Disappointed when he rose to the challenge, adapted, eventually got things under control.

“I miss him,” Shouto said, staring at the figure in his hands. He had never even met All Might, at least not personally. But the world had seemed a safer, warmer place when the #1 was an unreachable idol, and not the fallible bully of a man who had raised him.

“Me too,” Midoriya agreed. His eyes looked so far away, like he was remembering something bittersweet. “I know he was everyone’s beacon of hope, but he was also my personal...my very own light at the end of the tunnel. He was everything I aspired to be. And after he left, it felt like those goals became even more distant. Like I no longer had a star to chase after.”

The both stared at the All Might figure, its plastic muscles carved in sharp lines, its face aglow in a confidant smile.

Didn’t I want to be like that once?

It was a far cry from the hero he had actually become, constantly lost in his own maze of anger and resentment. Midoriya wasn’t the only one who had lost a guiding light, it seemed.

“A-anyways, I have the experiment all set up, if you want to check it out,” Midoriya said, pulling him back to reality.

One corner of the room was oddly All Might-free. Instead, there was a desk with some very sciencey-looking equipment on it. At least, that’s what Shouto assumed it was. A microscope, some eye droppers, several volumes of text books, a few flasks. There was a row of vials with tiny, unreadable labels on them.

“So I’ve isolated your Quirk Factor and amplified the DNA,” Midoriya explained, as if the process were something simple he did over tea. Maybe to him it was that simple. “Next I had to bind the loose DNA with a modified retrovirus agent designed to target my Quirk Factor. So it’s really a simple matter of injecting the stuff, giving it time to work through my system and bond, and then turning the Quirk on.”

“That simple, huh?” Shouto echoed. It didn’t sound simple to him. “So you just...have stuff that can edit your DNA? Just lying around?”

“Oh sure. Crispr kits have been on the market for decades now. Of course, what I’m using is a little more advanced than that, but the theory is the same,” Midoriya rattled off. “The real question is how do I successfully integrate the Quirk Factor in a way that my body won’t reject or cause me harm.”

“Is this dangerous?” Shouto asked, suddenly realizing he hadn’t really thought through the implications.

Midoriya shrugged, picking up one of his notebooks to flip through.

“There’s definitely risk, but I feel it’s manageable.”

Shouto didn’t have enough context to know if Midoriya was being realistic or not. He didn’t know how any of this worked. What if Midoriya was blinded so much by his desire for a Quirk that he was ignoring all the red flags, the possibility that his body might tear itself apart or that Shouto’s Quirk would be incompatible and burn him alive?

I have to trust Midoriya. He’s an adult, and...and I think he’s reckless, but I know he’s not stupid.

“All right. If you feel like you’re ready for this.”

Midoriya nodded. Opening a drawer, he pulled out a syringe. He unstoppered one of the vials and drew the liquid into the needle.

“All right, this is it. Round one, strain one.”

Midoriya was pale, and when he made eye contact with Shouto, the other man could see his teeth were clenched tightly. Shouto gave him a slow nod, the best reassurance he knew how to give.

The actual injection was anticlimactic. Midoriya pricked himself in the forearm, administering the shot without flinching. After he was done, he wiped the beads of blood away with a cottonball and applied a Band-Aid. Not any Band-Aid. An All Might Band-Aid.

“Feel any different?” Shouto asked.

“It doesn’t work that fast,” Midoriya replied. “It will take probably about a week. But for what it’s worth, I already think I’m getting a placebo effect of feeling more heroic.”

They shared a smile, conspiratorial.

“You’ll keep me updated, right?” Shouto asked.

“Absolutely. When I’m ready to actually try any effects out, I want you to be there.”

“Good,” Shouto said, relieved at the promise.

“Well, since you came all this way, do you want to eat dinner with my mother and I?” Midoriya offered. “She’s a pretty good cook, and I’d be willing to bet she made enough for you on the off chance you decided to stay.”

“Are you sure I wouldn’t be intruding?” Shouto asked. Being around normal, functioning families always put him on edge. Another social script he’d never had the chance to rehearse.

“I mean, if you’re willing to put up with my mom absolutely embarrassing me, it’s totally fine.”

“You know what? That sounds like fun.”

Chapter Text

Midoriya’s mother was a lot like her son, in the respect that she was surreal levels of sweet coupled with nervous chatter.

“So how did you two meet, exactly?” she asked Shouto.

“He worked at the same place I interned,” Midoriya replied, beating him to it.

Midoriya seemed genuinely fond of his mother, but he also seemed incredibly uncomfortable with her talking to Shouto. Like he was afraid she was going to embarrass him. It was a situation Shouto found bemusing, although he tried not to show it.

“Oh, were you an intern too?” she asked.

That was when it dawned on Shouto that she didn’t know who he was. He had introduced himself, given his full name. However, most people knew his father by his hero name, not his family one. It was always his appearance that gave him away. He had been famous by association since he was ten. Everyone knew who he was when he walked into a room.

Apparently Inko Midoriya didn’t watch a lot of hero news.

“No ma’am,” he replied. “I was a regular employee. I’ve never actually been to college.”

“Oh, but you seem so smart!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to praise him. They had talked for all of five minutes, and yet somehow this woman was convinced he was some sort of high-caliber person. He was flattered, even though it felt like a lie.

It was sort of hard to eat when there was so much conversation going on. A shame, because the food was delicious, but also a strange and welcome change of pace. Bit by bit, Midoriya stopped tensing up every time his mother aimed a question at Shouto. Even when they weren’t talking to him, Midoriya and his mother talked back and forth amicably, about everything from his science to how the washing machine had spirited away another sock. They just seemed so happy in each other’s company.

He was jealous.

Dinner took a long time when you talked so much. Towards the end, Midoriya had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom. That left Inko and Shouto at the table together.

With a most maternal glimmer in her eye, she said to Shouto, “I just wanted to thank you for being Izuku’s friend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happier than the day you two went to the movies together.”

“Uh...yeah. No problem,” Shouto replied, unsure what else to say. He wondered what the woman’s reaction was when Midoriya came home burned, how the man had explained that little incident away.

“He’s had it so rough, you know. No mother wants to see their child suffer,” Inko mused to herself, and the sentiment was so familiar it sent a shiver down Shouto’s spine. It sounded like something his mother had said to him.

“I don’t think Midoriya is suffering right now,” he reassured her. “He really seems to be thriving.”

Down the hall, the toilet flushed and a faucet ran. Shouto was secretly grateful for Midoriya’s return. Not that he didn’t like Mama Midoriya, but he didn’t want to be tempted to talk behind his friend’s back.

“Do you have a ride home, sweetie?” Inko asked him.

“I took the train here.”

“Oh, but it’s getting late,” she said, eyes filling with concern. “It can get dangerous this time of night. Izuku, you should escort him home.”

“But then who’s going to take him home?” Shouto asked, raising an eyebrow. He could smell the sympathy coming off her. She didn’t think poor crutch-bound Shouto could navigate an evening train by himself.

“It’s okay,” Midoriya cut in, “it’s really no trouble at all. Come on.”

His eyes met Shouto’s, and his face communicated a very strong message of ‘it’s not worth the fight.’

With a sigh, Shouto gave in. Midoriya escorted him out the door, reassuring his mother he’d be back soon.

When they were outside, he told Shouto, “Sorry about that, I know you hate being babied. My mom’s kind of a perpetual worrier, though.”

So that’s where you get it from.

“It’s fine,” Shouto replied. “Your mom really is nice. You and her are a lot alike.”

This made Midoriya chuckle and rub the back of his head, hair ruffling with the wind. Summer was still a few months away, and the breeze that blew against them was cold and fragrant with the scent of blooming things. The sun hadn’t set yet, so they walked towards the train station in half-light.

Contemplatively, Midoriya said, “I guess you could say she’s my best friend.”

That made sense. From what he’d gathered of Midoriya’s past, he’d gone long stretches of time without proper friends.

“Do you ever get frustrated with her...treating you like a child?” Shouto asked, thinking of his mother’s more smothering impulses.

Midoriya just shrugged, saying, “I do keep a lot of stuff from her, because I know it will just make her worry. Makes me feel guilty sometimes. Like, for example, this experiment thing we’re doing? She probably shouldn’t know about that.”

He gave Shouto a serious look, and Shouto grunted in agreement. They were at the train station now, but it was late enough in the evening that no one else was really around, so they had privacy. Shouto settled onto a bench, Midoriya dropping down beside him. Since they were sitting side-by-side, it gave Shouto a chance to subtly inspect Midoriya’s bandaged hand. It would still be a few days before he could go without medical tape wrapped around it.

“Do you think it will scar?” Shouto asked, nodding to the hand.

“This? Yeah, the paramedics said I’d probably have some permanent discoloration on my palm, but nothing serious. Honestly, a little scarring will probably make me cooler.”

“I have not found that to be the case,” Shouto dead-panned, which evoked a good-natured chuckle from Midoriya.

They sat in silence, enjoying the cool night air together. However, Shouto couldn’t take his eyes off Midoriya’s hand.

“Does it still hurt?”

Midoriya opened his mouth to reassure him, but then thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, yeah, it throbs from time to time. It’s not unbearable, though. I’ve had worse burns.”

“I find that hard to believe, unless you make a habit of sticking your hand in open flames.”

Another laugh from Midoriya, but he cast his eyes down, fidgeting uncomfortably.

“I think I’ve told you before, about how I was kind of a bully target,” he explained.

Yes, Shouto remembered him making allusions to that.

“So someone with a fire Quirk used to bully you?” Shouto asked, raising an eyebrow. Even for children, purposely burning someone with your Quirk was a pretty serious offense. It was the kind of thing you got sent to child psychologists for, had marks put on your permanent record.

“It wasn’t always intentional. You know how little kids are, sometimes they can’t control it.”

“Not always intentional implies that sometimes it was intentional,” Shouto pointed out. Midoriya winced under his astute observations. It didn’t take much detective work for Shouto to slide the rest of the pieces into place and complete the picture. “It was Bakugou, wasn’t it? He used his Quirk to burn you as a kid.”

Midoriya let out a long sigh, running a hand through his hair.

“Like I said, it wasn’t always intentional. And even when it was, we were like five or six. He didn’t really understand the consequences. I don’t think Kacchan realized that other people feel pain and stuff the same way he does until he was a little older. I guess he was a late bloomer in that regard.”

That sounded like the Bakugou Shouto knew. The one that had lead several teams to fiery self-destruction during training exercises, had failed the provisional license exam so bad their instructor had forced him to go to anger management, had been the explosive center of the worst of their class’ drama.

“Is that why you’re terrified of him?”

This got a genuine chuckle from Midoriya, who waved his hand dismissively.

“No. Like I said, this was when we were really little kids. He got better over time. His mom was usually pretty good at reining him in. But...you know what early childhood aggression looks like on your record, right?”

“Yeah,” Shouto said, nodding. “How the hell did he get into UA?”

In the distance, he heard the rattle of an oncoming train. Probably his. He’d have to get up soon, leave the conversation, but he couldn’t make himself move.

“The incidents didn’t go on record. They all happened when we were playing together, outside of school. My mom and Kacchan’s mom are good friends, so nothing was ever reported.”

“It should have been,” Shouto muttered. “You could have kept that psychopath out of the hero business altogether.”

Midoriya scowled. It was the first time he had directed a negative emotion specifically at Shouto, and Shouto could tell Midoriya was a little mad at him.

“Kacchan does good things. I don’t know why you dislike him so much, although since you went to highschool together, I assume your reasons are perfectly valid. That’s fine. But he is not a psychopath,” Midoriya declared. It was the most assertive Shouto had ever seen him. All to defend his childhood bully.

The train was pulling into the station, and Shouto knew he needed to get up. However, it felt like a bad way to end the conversation, finally pushing Midoriya enough he actually got mad at him and then leaving. Midoriya must have felt the same way, because he rose, offering Shouto a hand.

“Come on. I told my mom I’d take you home, so I might was well stick to my word.”

Shouto breathed a sigh of relief, taking the proffered hand so he could quickly get to his feet. They boarded the train together, quickly finding a seat so the sudden lurch of takeoff wouldn’t send them sprawling.

The many assorted sounds of a train in motion overwrote conversation for a few minutes. Shouto wasn’t sure if he should apologize or not. What would that even sound like?

Sorry you still think Bakugou is a good person, all evidence to the contrary.

No, he couldn’t give a sincere apology, so he said nothing. Midoriya was the one to break the silence, saying, “I think the real reason Bakugou is so mad at me, nowadays at least, is because he’s afraid of what I could do to his reputation if I came forward and told people about the things he did as a kid. He feels like I have something over him, and he can’t stand it.”

That did check out with what Shouto knew about Bakugou. Once, he had made the mistake of covering the boy’s tab when they went out to eat and Bakugou had realized he left his wallet at home. The next day, Bakugou had paid him back the total plus interest and had threatened to “punch his smug face in” if Shouto told anyone about the small act of charity.

“That might explain his actions, but it doesn’t excuse them,” Shouto huffed.

Midoriya gave a strained smile, suddenly looking like an exhausted parent trying to be patient with their child.

“You really do have some sort of grudge against him, don’t you?” he asked, still smiling.

The question hit an exposed vulnerability he hadn’t been aware he had. A more emotive person might have blushed, but Shouto just sighed and looked out the window. Telephone poles whizzed by outside, stark outlines against the last of the sun.

“I guess you could say that,” Shouto admitted. “It’s kind of personal, though.”

Midoriya nodded, ever the understanding and patient ear.

“I won’t pry. Just, you know, I’m probably not the best person to talk to if you want to say mean things about Bakugou.”

Amazed at his unwarranted loyalty, Shouto could only shake his head in disbelief.  

“You really are too kind for your own good,” he muttered, but even as he said it he could feel his mouth tugging up in fondness. Midoriya was surprisingly stubborn when it came to backing down from some of his convictions.

“I just ask myself what All Might would do,” Midoriya replied, “and then I try and do it.”

Shouto had a vivid picture in his mind of a younger Midoriya, conflicted over some problem, staring down the myriad visages of All Might in his room and asking them for advice.

“He really was better than this world deserved,” Shouto agreed.

Midoriya nodded, looking forlornly out the window, staring up at the sky. He stayed like that for a few minutes, lost in thought. The passing streetlights played light across his face in brief stripes as the train raced by. Finally, he turned back to Shouto, looking him over seriously. Trying to evaluate something, do those little calculations in his brain he was so fond of.

The math must have come out in Shouto’s favor, because he told him, “My ultimate goal is to become a great hero like him. Someone who can save people.”

“You mean...you still haven’t given up on being a pro?” Shouto asked.

It wasn’t technically impossible. They had certification tests for adults to get a hero license. Some colleges offered hero courses, or you could do a correspondence course online, although the government made sure the qualifying exams were hard enough that not just any quack could pass them. Even after all that, the few people who got their hero license later in life were at a severe disadvantage. Most Hero Agencies preferred to recruit right out of high school, which meant finding any representation was next to impossible for an adult entering the field later in life.

“I don’t know if I want to be bound by the bureaucracy of the Pro Hero System,” Midoriya explained. “I just want to help people. I want to fill the gap All Might left behind, make the world a better place.”

That is...ambitious.

“So what you’re saying is, you’d be willing to use vigilantism to meet your goals, if that’s what it took. And you intend to use my Quirk to do it?”

Midoriya’s face crinkled in guilt, and he stared down at his lap.

“No. I won’t use you like that, if it makes you uncomfortable. I’ll just use the process to refine my research and perfect the Quirk Grafting science, and then I’ll find someone who is willing to lend me their Quirk.”

He would. This boy was reckless and determined enough to do it. This selfless, kind-hearted, stupid fool was going to change the world or die trying. Probably the latter.

I still disagree with you about Bakugou being a good person. The world doesn’t need more people like Bakugou. It needs more people like you.

But without guidance and training, he didn’t stand a chance. He’d end up in an early grave.

“Do you even know how to fight?” Shouto asked, thinking of the way Midoriya had cowered when confronted by an angry Bakugou.

Blushing, Midoriya responded, “I work out. I’m not as fragile as I look.”

“Working out isn’t the same as being able to hold your own in a fight.”

That took some of the wind out of his sails. Midoriya slumped, but he didn’t break eye contact.

“I could learn,” he replied. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

You’re starting around twenty years too late, Shouto thought to himself, thinking of how early he started training. However, even if it was impossible, it was a nice fantasy. Someone considerate and pure like Midoriya being a hero, not caring about ranking or pay or status, just wanting to help people. Someone like him deserved to be a hero.

Closing his eyes, Shouto let out a long breath. This was stupid, but even as he chided himself for being unrealistic, his mouth opened and he said, “I can show you how to fight.”

The glee that took over Midoriya’s face was instantaneous. Reaching out, he grabbed Shouto’s hands in his. One hand was rough and calloused, the other wrapped in gauze, but both were warm.

“Do you mean it?! That would be like a dream come true!” he said. He even jostled their hands up and down in excitement.

“Wait until after we’ve trained together to thank me,” Shouto told him. “I only know one way to train, and it is not forgiving.”

“When? Where?”

“Uh...my house has a sparring room set up. I’d have to make arrangements so we could do it when my parents are gone, but it’s probably possible…”

Midoriya wasn’t actually paying attention to him figuring out logistics. His eyes were bright and full of possibilities, a million miles away in dreamland.

They spent the rest of the train ride discussing possible times. Midoriya looked so ecstatic that Shouto didn’t have room for regrets. Even if nothing came of this, even if it was a mistake, it was worth it to be the reason Midoriya was so happy.

As they left the train, Midoriya threw back his head, his green hair falling back in a curly mane. Shouto lived away from the city proper, where the streets were a little wider and the buildings blocked less of the skyline.

“Would you look at that,” Midoriya mused, face still thrown skyward, “I can actually see a star out here.”

Shouto followed his gaze, looking up at the night sky. Sure enough, there was a single star, visible even through the light pollution. Its twinkle was weak and distant, but beautiful nonetheless.

If he was waiting for some sort of cosmic blessing on their venture, this was the best he was going to get.

Chapter Text

Over the next week, Shouto went in for two more light therapy treatments. He had woken from a nightmare covered in frost the other night, so his powers weren’t completely gone. However, they were definitely weaker. He could feel his Quirk slipping farther and farther away. It was terrifying, but also liberating. He didn’t have to constantly hold back.

Which was the only reason he didn’t set himself on fire when his mother informed him that Aizawa-sensei was waiting in the sitting room and wanted to talk to him.

Aizawa-sensei. The Number One person on Shouto’s personal list of people he did not want to interact with.

Maybe I can pretend to be sick, he thought. However, he was sure the man would see through that flimsy excuse in an instant, and possibly demand to see him anyways under the guise of checking up on him. Nothing deterred a determined Aizawa. So with a heavy sigh, he hauled himself up and followed his mother into the room.

“Long time no see,” Aizawa drawled. The years had been kind to the man, in the sense that someone already so ragged had little more wearing out to do. Still the same deep circles under his eyes, five o’clock shadow gracing his chin, clothing tidy but well-worn. He looked out of place sitting on the plush sofa of the sitting room.

“Yeah,” Shouto replied, at a loss for words. He sunk down into the chair across from him, face unconsciously slipping into a deep scowl.

“I’ll make you two some tea,” his mother said, hospitality kicking in.

Rei had impeccable manners, and if she had been a larger part of Shouto’s life, some of them may have rubbed off on him. As it was, he was always lost in situations like these, unsure of what was expected and terrified at the prospect of screwing up. How did one greet a former teacher they had been snubbing for the better part of half a year?

“I didn’t know you had moved back in with your parents until Iida told me,” Aizawa said, lifting an eyebrow at him.

Damn it, Iida.

“I wasn’t aware I had to keep you updated on every aspect of my life,” Shouto shot back. Rudeness was his default mode, even when he didn’t really mean it. He had no real venom for Aizawa. The man was as close to a positive father figure as he had. It’s just...that made it all the harder to face him, now that he was officially a failure.

“You don’t,” Aizawa agreed, “but you should know I keep tabs on all my pupils. I consider you all my perpetual responsibility.”

He had such high hopes for me. I must be such a disappointment.

“How are you adjusting to civilian life?” his former teacher asked.

“Fine, I guess,” Shouto replied, shrugging. As far as he was concerned, he was doing a pretty swell job coping with the loss of anything that had once held value to him.

Aizawa let out a low huff and looked like he was about to challenge that, but Rei returned with a tray full of tea. Even though Shouto was pretty sure the man functioned almost exclusively on black coffee, he took the offered beverage graciously. Shouto did the same, silently begging his mother to leave with his eyes. He couldn’t stand the thought of her sitting in on what was sure to be a painful conversation. Thankfully, she took the hint and excused herself.

“Your mother is a lovely person,” Aizawa noted, blowing absently on his tea.

There was a few painful minutes of silence while they stared each other down over their cups. Shouto had no idea what to say. He wasn’t afraid of silence, but he felt like he owed the man something. An apology, an explanation, something to make sense of his recent behavior. He could think of nothing.

“It must be frustrating, huh?” Shouto said. “Putting all this time and effort into a star student, only to have them go nowhere.”

“You’re twenty-two,” Aizawa scoffed. “Your life is just beginning.”  

“My career is over. I’m going to spend the rest of my life limping.”

Aizawa’s expression darkened, and when he spoke, his voice carried the authoritative tone Shouto remembered from when he had misbehaved as a student.

“I’m not trying to dismiss the gravity of your injury. You have a disability that is not going to magically get better. But that does not mean your life is over,” Aizawa scolded him. “You’re a different person now then you were before, but you are still a smart, capable man. I find it hard to believe you’ve changed so much that you’re content to spend the rest of your life wasting away behind closed doors.”

Of course I’m not content! Shouto thought, letting frustration pull at his face until he was glaring. Of course I don’t want to sit around and let my parents take care of me like a pet for the rest of my life! But I don’t know what else to do!

Inside he was raging. He let himself feel the anger, instead of trying to stuff it down and contain it, his Quirk no longer in danger of spiralling out of control. The worst he felt was a few flecks of ice budding along his skin. It was the first time his emotions had felt real and present in recent memory.

If Aizawa could read the fury on his face, he gave no sign. Instead, he took a long swig of his tea. Setting the cup down with an audible clack, he said, “Do you know why I came here, Shouto?”

Shouto shrugged, clueless.

“I came because I heard you were isolating yourself. It’s one thing to brush me off,” Aizawa said, giving him a pointed look, “but it’s another to completely ignore your former classmates. They’re your friends and they’re concerned. I had more than one person ask me if I knew what was going on, if you were all right.”

Shouto felt a hot pit form in his stomach, the familiar sting of shame. Again, his very existence harmed the people around him. He was a human bomb, causing collateral damage to everyone who got close.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Aizawa warned, even though Shouto hadn’t said anything. “This isn’t about making you feel guilty. That’s a waste of time and unproductive. Remember what I told you after you failed the provisional license exam?”

Shouto remembered. That had been one of the worst days in his life, the first of many times he had failed. The first time the cracks in his facade as a perfect hero had shown. He’d spent several days after that in a daze, shaken to his core. Unsure who he was, if he wasn’t perfect. Aizawa-sensei had seen it and pulled him aside. Gave him advice that was rational and to the point.

“If you aren’t satisfied with who you are now, then become someone better. Don’t waste time regretting. Move forward.”

He’d tried. He’d taken the advice to heart, throwing himself back into his training so he could be the flawless pinnacle everyone had expected, had kept surging forward. Eventually, though, he’d reached a dead end.

“I’m not sure that advice applies right now,” Shouto mumbled. Even as he said it, he knew it was the wrong answer. Knew it wasn’t what Aizawa-sensei wanted to hear from him. He didn’t know what to say, though, so he had no choice but to prove himself an idiot.

“Quit dwelling on the past, Todoroki. You can’t go back there. The only place left to go is forward.”

Aizawa ran a hand through his hair, looking exhausted and worn out. Shouto wondered just how many sleepless nights the man had spent worrying about his students.

“It’s easy to say that,” Shouto shot back, feeling the bitterness well up, “but there’s really no place I want to go. Where would forward even look like for me?”

“The great thing about life is you’re the one who gets to decide that,” Aizawa replied. “I’m just here to shoot down any ideas that are egregiously stupid. I assume your ideal vision of the future includes moving out at some point, right?”

Cringing, Shouto thought of all the times he’d fantasized about that exact scenario the past few weeks. Where through some miracle, he got to leave his parents behind and be independant again. However, it had remained a fantasy beyond his grasp.

“I don’t have any way to earn money,” he admitted. “I don’t see that changing any time soon, either.”

“Not immediately, but you could go back to school and get training.”

“You mean like...college?” Shouto asked. He had honestly never in his life considered the idea. He wasn’t even sure how college worked. Like how people applied to one or how classes worked or any of that stuff. He had two siblings who had graduated, but he had been so preoccupied with his hero training when they were attending that he couldn’t recall anything they had said about the process.

“If you would like, I can write you letters of recommendation,” Aizawa offered.

“Do they even let you go to college when you’re as old as me?” Shouto asked.

Aizawa let out a low snort, replying, “If you started now you’d still be younger than some students I’ve known when you finally graduated.”

“But I...haven’t been to a class in years. And even if I went, I wouldn’t know what to major in. And college costs money, which I don’t have, because if I did, I wouldn’t be living with my parents.”

The more words exited his mouth, the more impossible the whole idea seemed. College was something you spent your life preparing for, studying to get into the right university. He couldn’t start now.

“Well, I can see it’s an overwhelming idea at the moment,” Aizawa observed, “but it’s not a decision you have to rush into. Just one you should consider rationally. And if you ever have any questions or want to talk about it with someone, you have my contact information. Assuming you haven’t deleted it.”

Shouto grunted, refusing to rise to the bait. Of course he still had Aizawa’s number. He’d never dare use it, but he had it.

Aizawa shifted the conversation to lighter subjects, asking Shouto about his life and what he’d been up to. Rather than dance around the whole “lending his Quirk to another man who probably intended to be reckless with it” situation, he avoided mentioning Midoriya specifically, instead only alluding to his involvement in research. Aizawa listened, nodding his head occasionally or asking a question. He seemed genuinely interested. It felt weird, getting this much attention from an authority figure. He was actually a little sad when Aizawa eventually excused himself, saying he had to go. Checking his phone, Shouto realized they had been talking for over an hour.

In a rare show of manners, he saw Aizawa to the door. As the man slipped his shoes on, Shouto said, “Thanks for coming, by the way. I’m sure you have more important things to do.”

“More self pity?” Aizawa asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No, just...I know how busy you are. I appreciate you making time. It was...nice.”

This prompted a smile from Aizawa, which was strange on his grim face. Shouto was sure he looked just as unnatural smiling, though, so he couldn’t judge.

“Don’t be a stranger,” he said, casting a stern look at Shouto. “If you need someone to talk to, reach out. It doesn’t have to be me, but no more isolating yourself, understand?”

Now it was Shouto’s turn to practice an unfamiliar smile. A few weeks ago, that would have been much needed, if difficult, advice. Now, he had Midoriya. Isolating himself seemed like a distant worry.

After Aizawa’s departure, Shouto tracked down his mother to tell her their guest had left.

“Oh good. I was actually planning on going out for a bit. Interested in joining me?” she asked.

“Pass,” Shouto replied, brain immediately jumping into action. With Endeavor committed to some sort of stakeout, that meant he would have the house to himself. He wasted no time in pulling out his phone and sending a text.

(S_T 11:23am) Are you free any time soon? We can do that sparring match we talked about.

(I_M 11:25am) I’m at work, but they’re pretty flexible. I could take an extended lunch break and then make up the time later.

(S_T 11:25am) Whatever works for you. I just figure the sooner we start training the better. I’ll send you my address.

He felt guilty, inviting someone over behind his mother’s back like that. She would be ecstatic if she knew he was having a friend over. The thought of her hovering around, being overbearing and constantly present...Shouto suddenly understood why Midoriya had been so nervous about his own mother.

After Rei left, Shouto waited an agonizing half hour before there was a hesitant knock on the gate. He scrambled to open it, revealing a very nervous Midoriya.

“Thank goodness this is the right place,” the man sighed, shoulders slumping in relief. “You know that anxiety you get when you go somewhere new and you have to check the address a million times even though it’s right in front of you because you’re afraid you’re gonna knock on the wrong door and have to bother someone who has no idea why you’re there?”

“Not really,” Shouto admitted.

“Oh. Well maybe that’s just me, then.”

Midoriya ducked inside and slipped his shoes off.

“Sparring room’s this way,” Shouto said, leading him down the hall.

Midoriya’s mouth fell open as he walked along, taking in the sight of Shouto’s admittedly massive home. Since he had grown up here, Shouto sometimes forgot how ostentatious this place was. A massive courtyard, imposing wooden beams, antique decor at every turn. Compared to Midoriya’s humble house, this place was extravagant. None of it belonged to him, but that didn’t stop him from feeling self-conscious.

I guess this makes it obvious I’m a spoiled brat, he thought to himself, throwing open the door to the sparring room.

“Do you know anything about self-defense?” he asked Midoriya.

“Only what tutorials I’ve followed online,” the boy admitted, ducking his head sheepishly. “I’ve always been too self-conscious to sign up for lessons or anything.”

“We’ve got a lot to cover, then,” Shouto said, sighing. “All right, show me a defensive stance.”

Eagerly, Midoriya fell into a comically exaggerated low-stance. He at least had the general idea, even if he was missing some of the finer points. Shouto went about correcting him, nudging his feet into place with a crutch, explaining the proper form. Midoriya was a quick learner and desperate to impress, so he didn’t need to be told things twice. They went over basics: how to stand, where to place feet, how to hold his hands up to block. However, theory was only so useful. What he really needed was practice.

“Do you feel up for some sparing?” Shouto asked.

“Um...with whom?”

Midoriya cast around the room, like perhaps there was someone in the shadows he had overlooked.

Rolling his eyes, Shouto said, “Me.”

He didn’t miss the way Midoriya’s eyes flickered over his crutches as the man started fidgeting self-consciously.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he murmured.

“I have more combat experience than you. Look at it this way,” Shouto explained, holding back the irritation in his voice, “if you can’t even win against someone you have a clear physical advantage over, you probably aren’t ready to entertain ideas of being a hero.”

Shouto knew it was a cruel thing to say, but nothing angered him more than being treated like he was made of glass. Besides, he was curious. Could he still hold his own? He’d kept his body in good condition, worked out regularly. But like he’d told Midoriya, working out alone wasn’t enough. He needed a sparring partner.

“You may have a point,” Midoriya mused, twiddling his fingers, “but I’d hate to accidentally hurt you.”

“I can take a punch. And a fall. And third-degree burns,” Shouto said, thinking back to all the training sessions with his father. Yeah. Midoriya couldn’t do any worse than that.

“Okay. If you’re absolutely sure...then here I go, I guess,” Midoriya shot back, falling into a defensive stance.  

He circled Shouto warily, movements hesitant.

We’ll definitely need to work on that.

When he did lunge, he telegraphed his movements so much that it was a simple matter for Shouto to hop to the side and sweep his crutch, knocking the boy over. Midoriya tumbled to the mat with a crash.

“Ow,” he said, hauling himself up and rubbing one elbow. “I probably should have seen that one coming.”

“Yeah,” Shouto agreed, smirking. “All the more reason we need to practice. Get up. We’re going again.”

Not the least bit deterred, Midoriya sprang back to his feet, grinning. They went a few more rounds, Shouto parrying his timid blows and sweeping his feet out from under him each time. However, Midoriya did become a bit bolder, stopped acting like the slightest touch was going to break Shouto apart. It was the first time since his accident anyone had been willing to spar with him. It felt nice for someone to take him seriously.

When Midoriya’s alarm rang, signalling he had to go back to work, they were both breathing hard. They had both worked up quite a sweat.

“Well sensei, thank you for the lesson,” Midoriya said, bowing to him with mock seriousness. His face was flushed deep enough to hide his freckles.

“You’re thanking me now. Wait until I really start putting you through the paces.”

Midoriya just smiled.

“I can’t wait.”

Chapter Text

Everything was normal for a week or so, until one day Shouto woke up to a text from Midoriya.

(I_M 4:45am) I woke up to one half of my body feeling really tingly today.

(I_M 4:45am) Like not sleep tingly. Stood out too long in the cold tingly.

Shouto’s heart skipped a beat in excitement. He was quick to respond.

(S_T 7:33am) Which side?

(I_M 7:36am) The right side.

This was it, then. Midoriya was starting to manifest his Quirk. Either that or having a stroke. No, there were still a lot of possibilities, and a lot of ways things could go wrong. This could be a placebo effect, or some other weird sciencey term Midoriya had mentioned to him that he half remembered. Still, he was sure Midoriya was just as excited as him.

(S_T 7:38am) So I’m coming in today for a UV session, right?

It wasn’t his regular day for one, but he needed to check this out for himself.

(I_M 7:39am) We don’t have one scheduled...but I think it’s about time we ran some tests to confirm your Quirk is properly deactivated, so we can begin the process of reactivating it.

(S_T 7:42am) Works for me.

(S_T 7:42am) Midoriya. Don’t try anything until I’m there, okay? You could hurt yourself.

(I_M 7:42am) Do I look like the type of person to put myself in danger just to try out a new superpower? ;P

That was exactly the kind of person he was. Already anxious, Shouto hurried to get ready. He was planning on meeting Midoriya at 9am sharp, as soon as he started work. That was still plenty of time to get ready, but nerves pushed Shouto to move faster.

At the breakfast table, he shovelled down his food, holding out his hand demandingly for his medicine.

“You're in a hurry today,” his father observed, face creased in a deep scowl. Shouto felt his own mood immediately darken to match. “Some place you have to be?”

He was sure his father was being snide, pointing out the fact that Shouto never had any plans. That made it all the more satisfying to turn to him and say with a blank expression, “As a matter of fact, I do.”

“Oh, are you meeting up with that friend of yours?” his mother asked.

“That’s the one,” Shouto said, desperately hoping it didn’t lead to more questioning. His father raised an eyebrow, but didn’t press. Honestly, he probably didn’t care what Shouto did with his time, as long as he stayed out of the way. It was sort of a relief after all those years of being constantly monitored.

Shouto escaped his house without further inquisition, and made his way to the campus. Midoriya was waiting in the usual spot, practically bouncing in place in anticipation.

“Good morn-” he started, but was interrupted by Shouto pressing the back of his hand against Midoriya’s face.

Specifically the right side of his face. Was it cold to the touch? Maybe a little, but that could just be his imagination. Maybe his hands were cold, too. He shifted over to the other side of Midoriya’s face, trying to compare the halves. Oh, yeah, that was definitely warmer, but it was probably because a bright blush was breaking out on the boy’s face.

“Um, Todoroki, we’re in public,” Midoriya squeaked, ducking his head.

Coming to his senses, Shouto let his hand fall back to his crutch. What would it look like to strangers, him putting his hands all over Midoriya? The thought didn’t embarrass him, but he could see someone shy like Midoriya being bothered by it.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “I was a little too excited.”

“Me too!” Midoriya... squeed. Hands clenched into little fists beneath his chin, eyes shining bright as headlights. “I haven’t been able to think about anything else all morning. Come on, hurry up!”

Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Midoriya led him inside. They descended to the basement again, back to the room that smelled faintly of chimp. Everything was still set up the same way it had been last time.

“As excited as I am, I still have a job to do,” Midoriya explained. “Let’s get your testing out of the way first, as a formality.”

Shouto let out an exasperated sigh, but didn’t argue. A formality was really all it was. For the past week, he hadn’t been able to feel the familiar thrum of power under his skin. It had been both a relief and terrifying, but now it just felt like a footnote compared to everything else that was going on.

Testing didn’t take long. He did as Midoriya instructed, standing under the showerheads, taking the necessary precautions. When Midoriya gave him the signal, he made his best effort to summon his Quirk. Nothing. They repeated the process a few times to satiate the demands of science before Midoriya finally conceded it was enough. They convened in the room next door, at the little folding table that was still set up, so Midoriya could jot down his notes.

“The next step is to let your Quirk turn back on naturally and see if that makes any difference. We’ll be taking regular bloodsamples during this time to so we can observe-”

“Midoriya,” Shouto cut in. “Not that I’m not deeply invested in getting my Quirk back, but you know I don’t understand most of that science stuff anyways. Let’s get on with it.”

“Ah, yeah, that makes sense,” Midoriya agreed, but he hugged his clipboard to his chest and tapped his fingers against it. “The only problem is, um, I’m not actually sure how to use a Quirk. Like even if this did work and I am starting to manifest it, I have no idea how to turn it on.”

“It’s not too hard. You just think about it, and...switch it on in your mind…” Shouto realized as he spoke that he wasn’t entirely sure how he summoned his Quirk. He just did. It was there when he needed it, like breathing or walking or blinking. He’d been using his power since he was a child, had grown up with it. How to explain that to someone who had never experienced it before?

They stared at each other for a few moments. Finally, Shouto shrugged and suggested, “Have you tried cooling anything down? Maybe just stick your finger in a glass of water and see if you can freeze it by visualizing hard enough.”

“That’s as good an idea as anything I’ve come up with,” Midoriya agreed. “Stay here. I’ll go get supplies.”

Midoriya dashed off, returning a few minutes later with a glass of water and a thermometer.

“Um, this isn’t the most well set-up experiment, but I figure this way we can tell if I’m actually doing anything to the water. Here, you can record the results.”

He handed the clipboard off, then settled into the seat next to him.

“All right, starting temperature is 20 degrees Celsius. We’ll give it five minutes and see if there’s any change.”

Midoriya set a timer on his phone, then very carefully, as if he was afraid of causing an explosion, dipped his finger in the water. His eyebrows bunched tight in concentration. Too tight. It was like he was in physical pain, he was focusing so hard.

“Relax a little,” Shouto instructed, placing his hands on Midoriya’s shoulders and forcing them to unbunch. “Breathe. You need to concentrate, but also, your Quirk is an extension of your body. At least, it is normally. If you force it, it might come out too fast or hard. It’s more of...relaxing and letting go. You just direct where it goes.”

Midoriya closed his eyes and squirmed for a second, before breaking down in chuckles.

“I’m sorry, but that analogy just makes it sound like peeing,” he snickered, biting his lower lip.

“That...was not the comparison I was going for, but sure, if it helps,” Shouto said.

“It doesn’t,” Midoriya laughed. “It makes it way harder to focus.”

“Then stop thinking about peeing.”

“I’ll try,” Midoriya promised. However, only a few moments after closing his eyes he was holding back more laughter.

“Focus,” Shouto snapped, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze. The chuckles cut off immediately, and he felt Midoriya stiffen under his grasp. Silence permeated the room.

Great, I lost my temper again.

Shouto could have predicted that he would make a short-tempered trainer. After all, his go-to role model for this kind of situation was his father. When it came to Quirk training, his experiences had been intense and violent. It was the only template he had to follow.

With a sigh, Shouto released Midoriya’s shoulders, his hands retreating to his lap. Midoriya kept his eyes closed, the picture of absolute focus. However, for all he knew, the other man just didn’t want to look at him.

They remained quiet until Midoriya’s phone went off, the timer informing them five minutes had passed. Opening his eyes, Midoriya checked the thermometer.

“Um...19.5 degrees. Woah, a whole half a degree! Of course, it could just be because it’s cold down here in the basement, so to be extra sure we should leave the glass alone for a few minutes and repeat the experiment. What is the temperature of this room?”

Midoriya was in full science mode, muttering to himself about all the possible variables. Shouto did his duty to record the temperature, but he didn’t have any helpful input beyond that.

“Oh man, I know this probably seems like child’s play to you, but the idea of actually being able to alter the temperature of something seems pretty amazing to me!” Midoriya said, beaming.

“It is a pretty amazing,” Shouto reassured. “And this is only after a couple weeks of the Quirk Grafting treatment.”

If everything went as anticipated, in a few more weeks Midoriya would be able to shoot fire from his hands and lower the temperature of a room with just a few exhaled breaths. That was provided he had someone to teach him how.

I don’t know if I should be that person. I don’t know if I should be allowed to be in that position.

But he’d promised Midoriya he’d show him the ropes. He was the only one who could. This was still his Quirk, and thus his responsibility, and he couldn’t risk Midoriya accidentally injuring himself or others because he didn’t know how to properly control it.

Midoriya was so caught up in the excitement of the experiment that he didn’t notice Shouto’s brooding. That was probably for the best. He didn’t want to burden the boy with his emotional baggage. Not now, when he was so ecstatic.

They repeated the experiment a few more times, confirming that Midoriya could consistently bring the temperature down from around 20 degrees to a cool 19.5. Not exactly enough raw power to rank on the hero billboard, but still exciting.

Midoriya stared at his fingers like they were some priceless artifact in a museum he longed to touch but didn’t dare.

“I’ve actually done it,” he whispered. “My theory works. I’ve come up with a cure for Quirklessness.”

“This is huge,” Shouto agreed. “I hope you’re prepared to change the world with this.”

Blushing, Midoriya looked down and mumbled, “Well, there’s still a lot of stuff that needs testing. For all we know, this is as powerful as the Quirk is ever going to manifest. My body may not be able to house the power very well, or I’m missing secondary characteristics that allow me to control it.”

“The only way to find that out is to keep going.”

Midoriya met his gaze. His pupils were blown wide with excitement, with all the thoughts and potential swirling around in his brain.

“You’re right,” he said. “There’s no way I’m gonna quit. I’m going to keep pressing forward until I reach the finish line.”

“And I’ll be right beside you,” Shouto promised. “As long as you need my assistance, it’s yours.”

I just have to make sure I don’t hurt you in the process.

 

Shouto left the campus that day with a bad taste in his mouth. The bad taste continued all the way to the next day, when he had another scheduled appointment with his therapist.  

He’d seen Dr. Takanashi four times since that initial visit. It wasn’t getting any easier, and after every session he always left with a profound sense that he was wasting his time. However, one thing he was quickly learning to appreciate was being able to ask her things he’d be too embarrassed to ask anyone else.

“I don’t think I’m a very good friend,” he admitted at the start of the session.

“And why is that?” she asked, crossing her short legs.

“I was recently told that I’ve been making everyone worry about me because I’ve been ignoring and blowing them off,” Shouto said, thinking back to his conversation with Aizawa. “I don’t mean to, but when people get too close, even if they mean well, I push them away.”

He thought back to the many valiant attempts of his classmates during high school. He had been invited on endless outings, movies, shopping trips, game nights, and he had refused most of them. Really, he was amazed that people had persisted. A few had given up, taking the hint that Shouto Todoroki thought he was too good to hang out, but a few like Iida and Asui had never quite gotten the memo.

And now there was Midoriya. He had been so persistent, so eager for friendship, and Shouto had just decided to go along with it rather than constantly struggle to keep him at arm’s length. He was beginning to feel like that was the wrong decision.

“Do you like to be around people?” Dr. Takanashi asked.

Shouto shrugged. Most people were annoying, sure, but he didn’t exactly hate them. And there were others that he did enjoy being around. He thought of Midoriya’s bright smile, of his unashamed enthusiasm towards life.

“I like some people,” Shouto said, “but I’m not very good with them.”

“You don’t like not being good at things, do you?” she observed, giving him a sympathetic smile. “It’s okay to not be perfect, Shouto. Just because you feel like you are bad at interacting with people doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to do it.”

“It’s more than that,” he mused. “It’s not just that I’m bad at it...I’m bad for other people.”

“How so?”

Shouto thought back to snapping at Midoriya. The man hadn’t even done anything, and he’d found a surge of annoyance taking over. It reminded him of the way his father used to snap during training, when he was distracted or childish or anything Endeavor didn’t want him to be.

“A friend of mine needs my help,” he began carefully, “and it’s the kind of help I think only I can give. But I...is the only reason he puts up with me because he needs me? What if he secretly despises me, and is only putting up with me because he wants something from me?”

“What makes you think he’s using you?”

“Because people always use me.”

Because no one sees me as a person. They see me as a tool, a vessel, an heir.

Dr. Takanashi was still giving him that sympathetic smile. He didn’t love the therapy thing, but he appreciated that sometimes she seemed to know how he was feeling even when he was still untangling it.

“Would you say your family uses you?” she asked.  

Like that right there.

“My father. At least he wanted to use me, but that kind of backfired,” Shouto related, feeling the same grim sense of satisfaction at that. His one solace out of his career ending was that he was sure it hurt Endeavor more than it hurt him. And it had hurt him a lot.

“Is it possible that maybe your experiences as a child color how you see the world now?” she prodded. “I think you’re right that most relationships are built off wanting something from the other person. But sometimes the things you want are their companionship, their personality, their perspective.”

With a sigh of exasperation, Shouto let his head fall against the back of his seat and said, “I objectively know you’re right. But...I don’t know, what if you aren’t? What if that’s the way it works for other people, but not for me?”

Is it arrogant to think the laws of the universe apply to everyone else but me?

Not when the rules never applied to him. Shouto had always been special, different. Nothing worked the same for him as it did for his siblings, his classmates.

“We can never really be sure what other people are feeling about us,” Dr. Takanashi reminded him. She said the same thing every week, trying futilely to talk him out of his paranoia. When Shouto glowered, she continued, “However, it might help put some of your worries to rest if you tried asking people how they felt. This week, I want you to choose someone you trust, and ask them if they still care about you even though you’re no longer a pro hero.”

“What?” Shouto asked, blood running cold. “I...I don’t know if I can ask that.”

“Because you’re afraid the answer will be no?” she asked, mouth quirking up. This, too, had become a weekly conversation between them. “Shouto, I think the answer will surprise you. And if it doesn’t, you can rub it in my face that I was wrong. I’m confident I won’t be.”

More knowing smiles from her end. Shouto grit his teeth, contemplating. It’s not that he held any animosity towards the doctor, but...he hated feeling like a coward, and he hated coming here each week looking like a bigger and bigger baby for not doing something so simple. If this is what it took to wipe that smug grin off her face…

“Okay,” Shouto agreed. “I think I know who to ask.”

“Good,” Dr. Takanashi replied. “I can’t wait to hear your results.”

Chapter Text

It was Friday night, and Shouto was helping his mother prepare dinner. Really, all he was doing was slicing up a few carrots and potatoes for nikujaga . It was the easiest job in the world. A five-year-old could have done it. But Shouto wanted to feel useful, so he’d asked his mom if she needed any help. She’d responded by placing the cutting board and knife at the table and telling him what to slice.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had company over,” Rei mused from the kitchen, voice almost drowned out by the sound of beef against a hot skillet. “I always worry my cooking skills are rusty.”

“They aren’t,” Shouto reassured.

Besides, it’s Fuyumi and her family. It’s not like you need to worry about impressing them.

He didn’t say that part out loud, because he knew it would fall on deaf ears. For whatever reason, even her own children coming home made Rei fret and overcompensate. Shouto suspected it was because her children didn’t come home often. Her and Fuyumi had a good relationship, meeting up for lunch almost weekly and going on shopping trips and the like, but as far as actually coming home...it was a rare occurrence. Shouto was pretty sure Fuyumi was the only one who still bothered. As far as he knew, Natsuo hadn’t set foot in this house in almost five years. It wasn’t hard to guess why.

Endeavor. The man’s presence was a physical repellant driving away any semblance of familial unity. Fuyumi was the only child who could stand him. Even Shouto was dreading having to sit through a whole dinner with the man, the resignation dimming even his excitement over spending time with his sister.

He’d always wanted to be close to Fuyumi, the same way he wanted to be close to Natsuo. Life hadn’t worked out like that. By the time he was free to make his own decisions and use his time how he wanted, his siblings were adults and trying to connect to them was awkward. The result was a sister he was fond of but didn’t know very well.

No time like the present to change that, he thought to himself, resolved.

“I’m done with the vegetables,” he told his mother. “Do you need my help with anything else?”

“Oh, you’re such a sweetheart. No, it’s quite alright, I got this.”

It was a small miracle Rei let him do even this much. She was very self-sufficient in the kitchen, to the point that when Shouto had moved out he hadn’t even known how to boil pasta.

With nothing else to do, Shouto spent some time aimlessly playing on his phone. He saw he had an email from Iida, and a twinge of guilt told him he should read it. Not just yet, though. He needed to save his social reserves for the upcoming meal.

When the knocking at the gate sounded, Rei scrambled off to open the door. Shouto was left to nervously play with his chopsticks, tracing the edge of his plate. He heard people approaching, and the sound of Setsukai making unhappy pre-crying noises.

It always surprised him how adult Fuyumi looked. She was a woman approaching thirty, professional and prim. Her hair was cut short to just below her ears, her glasses were sensible and just on this side of unfashionable, she almost always was wearing a cardigan no matter the season. Ringo, her wife, was definitely the trendy one, with her deep violet hair almost always in a complicated updo. She even managed to make the baby carrier look fashionable, the criss-crossing straps contrasting sharply and purposely with her outfit.

“Take a seat, make yourselves comfortable,” Rei said. “I’ll go get your father.”

You really don’t have to, Shouto thought bitterly.

Fuyumi settled into the seat next to Shouto, Ringo sitting on the corner next to her. With no preamble, Fuyumi threw her arms around Shouto and drew him into a hug.

“Little brother! How have you been?” she asked, yanking him down so she could rub her nose in his hair.

“Fine,” he responded, giving a half-hearted hug back. He wasn’t sure where to place his arms.

“I bet that’s a lie,” she said, pulling out of the hug and giving him a half-smile. “I know living in this place is probably driving you crazy. How are you and dad getting along?”

Shouto shrugged, casting a glance at Ringo. It always felt weird talking about family issues in front of outsiders. Granted, Ringo wasn’t really an outsider anymore, but...Shouto couldn’t imagine ever feeling comfortable talking about his dysfunctional family, even with someone he was dating.

“It’s fine,” he muttered. “Mostly we stay out of each other’s way.”

Fuyumi ruffled his hair, and Shouto resisted the urge to bat her away. Fortunately his Quirk was still turned off, or he probably would have started to heat up.

Setsukai whined unhappily from his perch on Ringo’s knee, and she cooed back, “Aw, is someone grumpy because you don’t know where you are? Who’s a grumpy little baby, huh?”

She made a funny face and Setsukai gave a hesitant giggle.

“He’s gotten pretty big,” Shouto noted. The boy was around nine months old, if Shouto had his dates right. He’d only seen the kid three or four times, and it still felt surreal to think he had a nephew.

“Would you like to hold him?” Ringo asked.

Absolutely not.

In the scant handful of times he had been around the boy, he had always managed to get out of holding him. Shouto had never held a baby in his life, and he wasn’t about to start now. He didn’t want to risk dropping him or something equally terrible.

“I think I’ll pass. He seems kind of upset, and I’ll just make him cry.”

“Oh, come on, Shouto,” Fuyumi nagged, elbowing him. “He doesn’t bite! Not yet, anyways. Give him another six months.”

Before he knew what was happening, Fuyumi took the baby from Ringo and was pressing it into his lap. Like a rabbit under the shadow of an eagle, Shouto froze as his heart started racing.

“You really just need to help him balance,” she explained, bringing his hands up to Setsukai’s sides. “He can mostly sit on his own. See, like that.”

Shouto held very still, feeling Setsukai squirm under his hands. For a baby, he was surprisingly solid, with ribs that felt like stone ridges rubbing against his onesie. That was probably the result of whatever Pro Hero Endeavor had talked them into using for a sperm donor. Setsukai tilted his head back, looking up at Shouto with grey eyes. A few moments later he began to bawl.

“Take him back. He doesn’t like me.”

“He doesn’t know you!” Fuyumi justified.

“Why is my grandson crying?”

And just like that Endeavor was there, taking up too much room and being loud and demanding. As his mother brought the food to the table, his father gave Fuyumi a brief interrogation about the status of his lone grandchild. Asking how big he was now, if he’d been healthy, any signs of a Quirk yet? Fuyumi seemed flattered by the attention. It was like she was vicariously getting the paternal affection she’d always craved as a child. Shouto knew better. The real and only reason Endeavor took an interest in that child was because he was hoping it could be Shouto 2.0, the new torchbearer for his overbearing legacy. It was lucky for the kid that he would never live under the same roof as this man.

With everyone gathered around the table, they dug into their meal. Unlike the family meals from his memories, conversation was frequent and pleasant. Shouto didn’t participate much, preferring to focus on his food.

“So I heard Natsuo is changing jobs again,” Endeavor said, voice too loud.

“He got a better offer with this new company, so he went with them,” Fuyumi explained. “Don’t roll your eyes! Changing jobs isn’t so unheard of nowadays. Not everyone wants to stay in one place their whole career.”

Fuyumi was the official family information broker. Even though they had never been close, she somehow always knew what Shouto was up to, and made sure the rest of the family was informed. Whether he wanted that information distributed or not. He had resented her a little after he had first moved out, the way she reported back aspects of his life to their parents. However, it was preferable to having to put up with Endeavor’s prying firsthand, and the man would use whatever means necessary to keep tabs on his family. Fuyumi’s way of doing things was nicer.

“By the way,” Fuyumi said, placing her chopsticks down so she could tap her fingers together nervously, “I’ve got all the paperwork in order to...um, I’ve got everything we need to declare Touya legally dead. I was going to submit it to the proper authorities later this week.”

Silence. Rei looked down at her lap, and Endeavor took a purposeful and long swig from his drink. The only voice was Setsukai’s babbling.

“I know it’s not something anyone wants to talk about, but…” Fuyumi sighed and threaded her fingers through her hair before continuing. “I think we should hold a funeral for him. A proper one.”

A funeral for Touya. Shouto wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He didn’t like funerals in the first place, and going through the process for someone he barely knew and had been out of his life for so long...it seemed wrong. Like it wasn’t his place. But he was the man’s brother. If Shouto didn’t feel right attending his funeral, who would?

“I know you guys don’t...you want to believe he’s out there somewhere,” Fuyumi said, voice trembling slightly, “but it’s been so long. I would like the closure. Otherwise, I feel like I’ll always be waiting for him to walk back into our lives.”

His mother and father exchanged a look, both their expressions grim.

“We’ll need some time to think about it,” Endeavor rumbled.

“Of course,” Fuyumi replied. “Just...let me know.”

It took a long time after that for the conversation to revitalize itself, slowly turning to lighter things. However, a pall hung over the table. Touya’s ghost, present but invisible.

Since he was done eating, Shouto excused himself from the table. The atmosphere was suffocating, and he needed a break. He went and sat by the koi pond, looking up at the section of night sky he could see through the courtyard. It was a warm evening, and he closed his eyes and thought about taking a nap right there on the stone bench.

“Hey little brother, is this seat taken?”

He cracked an eye open to see Fuyumi, smiling in that gentle Fuyumi way. Absently, he shook his head, and she settled into the seat next to him. They sat in silence for several minutes. Shouto thought about closing his eyes and resuming his plan of napping, but he knew he couldn’t miss an opportunity like this. He’d made a promise to his therapist, and he needed to get it out of the way.

“Hey,” he started, unsure where he was going, “can I ask you kind of a weird question?”

“Sure,” Fuyumi said, tilting her head back so her hair drooped down almost to her shoulders.

He sighed, gathering enough air in his lungs so he could force the question all out in one breath.

“Are you disappointed that I can’t be a Pro Hero anymore?”

Fuyumi laughed. Shouto was glad for the darkness to hide the way his shoulders immediately tensed up.

“Shouto, did you actually enjoy being a hero? Or was it just something dad forced on you?” she asked, turning towards him. He couldn’t read her expression in the dark.

“I...of course it’s what I wanted. Dad can’t force me to do anything,” he explained.

Surely Fuyumi of all people would understand how little Shouto cared about his father’s approval. She had been here for most of his teenage rebellion.

She shrugged, an action he could barely see in the light.

“I don’t know, it always seemed like maybe he wanted it more than you. You...always looked so miserable. At all the UA events, whenever you had a press interview, pictures of you on the job. You just never looked like you were enjoying yourself.”

She had a point. Being in the media spotlight wasn’t something he had ever felt comfortable with. Especially since he hated the way people tended to place him on a pedestal, make him out as a tragic survivor. Sexy despite (or because of) his scar. So mysterious, so untouchable. People wanted to pry into his business, peer into the corners of his private life. Yeah, that part had made him miserable.

“I liked helping people,” he said, a weak defense.

“Well then, if I’m being honest, I’m kind of glad you aren’t a Pro Hero anymore,” she admitted, reaching out and pulling him into a one-armed hug. “I think this could be a new start for you. You finally have a chance to do what you want with your life, find a way to both help people and...be happy. Because you deserve to be happy, Shouto.”

She pulled him down so she could kiss the top of his head. Not knowing how to respond, Shouto sat there like a wooden statue until she finally pulled away.

“Now come on. I want to get a picture of you holding Setsukai before I go. For posterity.”

She hauled him up and handed him his crutches before dragging him back inside.

 

Later that evening, after Fuyumi and her family had left, Shouto lay in bed browsing through his phone. Remembering he still hadn’t read Iida’s email, he opened it up.

Greetings! It read, Iida’s enthusiasm evident even in script. It went on:

I hope you’re doing well! I haven’t heard from you in a while, and I wanted to catch up. My agency is hosting a charity gala, and you’re invited to attend. There will be some old classmates there! Not Bakugou or Kirishima, though, as they had other obligations, so you needn’t worry about that. (It was very...Iida-ish to both know Shouto would avoid being around them and to drop that fact so casually in his pitch.) I know you don’t really enjoy these sorts of events, but I promise I won’t put you in the spotlight or draw attention to your presence. I’ve got a corner table that needs filling. Let me know if you can come. I’d love the chance to talk.

It was signed with the contact info for his agency. Shouto’s first impulse was to turn him down, but he thought of Aizawa’s recent visit. With a sigh, he sent a response.

Hey Iida,

I might be interested in going. What’s your stance on bringing a plus one?

Chapter Text

Midoriya was worried he didn’t have anything appropriate for the occasion. Shouto tried to reassure him that if he had a tie and a collared shirt, it would be good enough, but the boy had never been to an event like this. He was, in the most Midoriya way possible, freaking out. Snapping pictures of dozens of outfit combinations, he asked for Shouto’s feedback. The response was almost uniformly “That looks fine.” Midoriya remained unconvinced. In the end, Shouto agree to come over before the event and make sure Midoriya didn’t panic and chicken out.

So that was why he was again at the Midoriya residence, greeted by an excitable Mrs. Midoriya.

“It’s so good to see you,” she exclaimed. “I’m surprised we didn’t scare you off!”

She laughed nervously, and Shouto couldn’t help but smile. The family resemblance was strong.

“You might scare him off if you keep saying things like that,” Midoriya muttered, pulling Shouto out of the genkan and hustling him down the hall.

“Do you boys want anything to eat before you go?” she called after them.

“I love you mom,” Midoriya called back, “but we are literally going to a dinner. We do not need food.”

“Let me know if that changes!”

That was enough to get a chuckle from Shouto and an exasperated sigh from Midoriya. Shutting the door, Midoriya offered him a seat. On his bed he had at least three different outfits spread out.

“I thought you decided which one you were going to wear,” Shouto said.

“I- I kind of started to have second thoughts. What if it’s tacky to wear a shirt that matches my hair? What if I just look like a giant piece of broccoli?”

“Midoriya,” Shouto reasoned, “you will look fine. Even if you do look like a piece of broccoli, it will be a cute piece of broccoli.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“Just hurry up and put the outfit on,” Shouto ordered. His job here was to make sure Midoriya didn’t second-guess himself into oblivion, and if he had to be a little bossy to accomplish that, so be it.

“Well, okay, if you’re sure,” Midoriya replied, picking up the shirt. “But which pair of pants do you think goes with it?”

Painstakingly, Shouto talked him through his fashion choices until they had assembled and outfit he was confident in. Midoriya excused himself to the bathroom to go change, coming back looking neater than Shouto had ever seen him. Except for the tie.

“Do you always wear your tie like that?” he asked, nodding to the uneven knot.

“Um, yeah, usually. I, uh, I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I learned on the internet. Is it not okay?”

“Come here,” Shouto beckoned. “Kneel down so I can reach.”

He pried apart the messy knot Midoriya had cobbled together.

It looks like he just square-knotted the thing. Whatever tutorial he looked up online wasn’t very good.

“Like this,” Shouto explained, carefully and deliberately winding the fabric around so Midoriya could see. “The end should be about belt level. This tie is a little short for you, so we have to compensate by making the thin end shorter.”

“Yeah, um, I think the last time I bought a tie was in middle school.”

That explained a lot.

“All right, you’re good now,” Shouto said, leaning back to examine his handiwork.

He’d never say it out loud, but Midoriya did indeed look like a cute piece of broccoli. It was a good look for him.

“So are we ready to head out?” he asked.

“Oh, um, there’s actually one more thing,” Midoriya said, twiddling his fingers nervously.

It had better not involve anymore hemming and hawing over clothes.

“I wanted to show you something,” Midoriya said, grabbing a water bottle off the nightstand by his bed. “Here, watch this.”

Biting his lip, Midoriya stared intently at the bottle. After a second, Shouto heard the familiar crackle of ice forming, molecules rearranging from liquid to solid.

“Pretty impressive, huh?” Midoriya asked, handing him the bottle.

Turning it over in his hands, Shouto could see that it was indeed frozen solid.

“That’s...incredible,” he breathed.

“I just figured out how to do it this morning. I haven’t tried out the left side yet, because, um…”

“You didn’t want to set yourself on fire,” Shouto guessed.

Midoriya nodded.

“Yeah, you should probably hold off on that for right now,” Shouto agreed. “But this is pretty amazing. We need to test it, to see how much you’re capable of.”

Smiling, Midoriya said, “Yeah, I figured that would be your reaction. We’ll definitely try it out later. For now, though, we should probably get going.”

I can’t believe you wanted to spend all that time making sure your outfit looked okay when we could have spent it playing with your Quirk.

Rather than argue, Shouto graciously took Midoriya’s extended hand and got to his feet. They managed to get out the door with Mrs. Midoriya only offering them food once.

The dinner took place at the Team Idaten agency. Shouto had been several times, usually on business involving team-ups with Iida. However, it was a new experience for Midoriya, who was predictably starstruck. He had a thousand questions about everything, from the portraits hanging on the wall to the choice of decor. Shouto wasn’t much help, since he was pretty sure Midoriya was a bigger expert on the subject than him. They lingered in the lobby fawning over Idaten memorabilia, until Shouto finally herded Midoriya to their table.

True to Iida’s promise, they were in the far corner, away from any prying eyes. He had anticipated Midoriya would be disappointed at not being able to interact with any heros, but instead he used the relative privacy to play with his Quirk the same way a child would play with a new toy.

“I’m still having trouble making ice out of nothing,” he explained, dipping one finger into his glass of water. “For now I need a source.”

He pulled it out and let a single drop fall from his finger, cooling it so that it froze on impact. Drop by drop, he started forming a stalagmite of ice. Mesmerized, Shouto watched him work. He had done similar things when he was a child, pushing the boundaries of his Quirk and slowly learning how to use it effectively.

He wasn’t so entranced as to not notice Iida approaching. In one motion, he snatched Midoriya’s hand and put it over the growing ice lump on the table. As far as anyone else was concerned, Midoriya was still Quirkless.  

“Shouto! So glad you actually came,” Iida said, his usual exuberance filling the room. “And who’s your friend? I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

Iida extended an arm. Midoriya wiggled his right hand out from under Shouto’s, who was still focused on covering up the ice patch.

“Um, I’m Midoriya. I’m, uh, I’m flattered to make your acquaintance, sir, I really admire your work.”

“No need to be so formal. Any friend of Shouto’s is a friend of mine,” Iida said, as intent and sincere as ever. “Likewise, I think there’s a few people who would love to meet something as novel as the man Shouto willingly associates with outside of work.”

“Iida, you promised I wouldn’t have to socialize,” Shouto reminded him.

“I did, but I never made the same promise to your companion,” he replied. Craning his head back, he called out, “Uraraka, come introduce yourself! Shouto brought a friend.”

Uraraka, who was sitting only a table away and had apparently been waiting for her cue, rushed over. After escaping the ravages of adolescence, Uraraka had come out the other side with long, thin legs that did not match the curvaceous proportions of the rest of her body. The result was a woman who looked a little too top-heavy for her own good. It didn’t help that sometimes she just...tilted forward, lifting her legs off the ground and gliding forward on inertia alone. This is what she did now, floating to the table with her dress swirling around her like the plumage of some fabulous bird of paradise.

“Nice to meet you,” she said, taking Midoriya’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “My name is Ochako Uraraka. And who might you be?”

Midoriya’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Shouto thought that was a blush starting on his face.

“U-Uravity! I mean, that’s not my name, obviously, that’s yours. I just didn’t know you’d be here tonight, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you, and um-”

“His name is Midoriya,” Shouto interrupted. “And sometimes he gets a little starstruck around heroes.”

This made Uraraka giggle and Midoriya blush more. He still hadn’t let go of her hand.

“Then I bet you’re just loving this party!” she chimed. “Have you had the chance to meet everyone?”

“Oh, no, uh, we just got here, and, um…”

“And Todoroki isn’t much for socializing,” Iida finished, giving Shouto a knowing look. “I bet if you had your way, you’d sit at this table all night and not talk to another person.”

“That was the plan,” Shouto agreed through clenched teeth.

Uraraka shot him a look that said You’re being an inconsiderate doofus. It was a look she had given him quite frequently in school. Her and Midoriya were still clasping hands.

“Well, why don’t I show you around?” Uraraka said, eyes lighting up. “I can introduce you to everyone here, and Shouto can avoid socializing. It’s a win-win!”

“Really?” Midoriya asked, sounding like someone had just told him he had won the lottery. He was now holding Uraraka’s hand with both of his and shaking it slightly in excitement. “Oh, well, I don’t want to be any trouble, and I don’t want to just leave Todoroki alone-”

“Go enjoy yourself!” Iida said, slapping him on the back. “I need to do some catching up with Todoroki anyways.”

Midoriya looked at Shouto, uncertainty in his eyes. A grumpy, selfish part of Shouto wanted to give him a hard time, make his friend feel bad for wanting to leave his side. Shouto realized how awful that was. He didn’t own Midoriya. He had no claim to how he spent his evening.

Maybe it was the fact that he and Uraraka had still not let go of each other’s hands.

Squashing down his possessive impulse, he waved Midoriya away.

“Go ahead. Have fun.”

Midoriya shot him a grateful smile as Uraraka hauled him away, talking in her bubbly, adorable manner. They were still holding hands.

“You’re shooting a death glare right now,” Iida observed, sliding into the seat next to him. “What’s wrong? I thought you liked Uraraka.”

“I do,” Shouto said. “I just…”

Why am I acting like this?

In true Iida fashion, he was quick to connect dots, drawing a picture that might not be there in the first place.

“You don’t like it when she puts her hands all over your date?” he guessed.

“What?”

“He is your date, right?” Iida asked.

“No. We came as friends.”

“Is that so?”

Iida was suppressing a smirk, but he wasn’t very good at it. Grabbing a glass from one of the empty seats, he tried to hide his stifled chuckle under the guise of drinking water.

“What’s so funny?” Shouto asked.

“Oh nothing, just reminiscing about how little has changed in all these years. Particularly your courting strategy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that rather than deal with something complicated like confessing your feelings,” Iida explained, “you start spending a lot of time with someone and expect a relationship to happen without talking about it.”

“I do not.”

“I can think of one notable example that says you do.”

Shouto’s gut twisted, and he considered getting up and walking away. However, that would leave Midoriya behind, and he didn’t want to abandon him. Before he could process how best to show his disdain, Iida was talking again.

“I actually have some business to discuss with you,” he said, pulling out his phone. “I’ve been investigating a series of murders involving immolation, and I wanted an expert’s input.”

Iida pushed the phone across the table, and Shouto picked it up. It was a picture of a person, the upper half of their body burned beyond recognition.

“Definitely a Quirk,” Shouto said, flipping through the gallery. “There’s too little burn damage to the surroundings, meaning it was highly controlled.”

“We’re trying to narrow the search from the list of registered fire users in the city. Any suggestions?”

“See if you can narrow down the temperature range. Check if metal fillings were melted, how deep the burns go, et. cetera. Best case scenario, that might help you filter out some suspects who’s Quirks don’t burn hot enough.”

“Noted. Anything else?”

“It looks like most of these fires were started from a close range. See, look here,” Shouto said, pointing out a picture where a victim had a hole burned through their chest. “You’d need to be very close to get that kind of precision. That could be more psychological than anything else, though. The killer may enjoy terrorizing his victims.”

Iida nodded, as if that made sense.

“That does give me a couple of ideas. I appreciate your input.”

“Any time,” Shouto said, handing the phone back.

Their conversation took a turn for the lighter after that, Iida asking more questions about his life, Shouto answering while still remaining vague. After a while, they were rejoined by Uraraka and a very overstimulated Midoriya.

“I met more Heroes here than I ever have at any meet-and-greet or hero convention,” he said, slumping into the seat next to Shouto.

“Your friend’s absolutely adorable. You know that, right?” Uraraka teased, elbowing Shouto.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he responded.

This evoked more giggles from her and another knowing smirk from Iida. Shouto hated them both.

“Well, I’d love to stay, but I’d hate to neglect my own friends,” she said. “I’ll see you guys around. Bye, Midoriya!”

She kicked lightly off the table leg, floating backwards and waving all the while. Midoriya waved back.

“I have to make the rounds, as well,” Iida said. “I’ll leave you two to converse.”

After Iida was out of earshot, Shouto turned to Midoriya and asked, “So was it everything you ever hoped for? Mingling with hero society?”

“Um...I mean it was great, and Uraraka was really nice-”

So I noticed.

“-but, well...I don’t know, I guess it was sort of underwhelming,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these people do wonderful things, but I got the sense that it was just a job to them. Like whatever got them the biggest paycheck, you know?”

It wasn’t an unheard of critique of hero culture. Coming from hero-worshipper Midoriya, though, it was particularly damning.

“You think you would do better?” Shouto asked, arching an eyebrow.

Blushing, Midoriya mumbled, “I’d at least like the chance to try.”

Shouto thought he deserved a chance, too. That thought wasn’t new. What was new was the sudden rush of affection, the feeling that he would sacrifice anything to help Midoriya. Iida was right. He liked this boy.

And Shouto had no idea how to tell him that.

Chapter Text

The night was still young, so after the dinner ended, Shouto suggested they walk around a local park. He hated parks, and he hated being in public, but he couldn’t stand the idea of parting ways so soon. Not when he was dealing with a sudden and massive influx of feelings he didn’t know how to deal with. Of course Midoriya agreed. The boy seemed to agree with whatever Shouto suggested, eager to spend time with him. Or was that just him projecting?

God don’t let me be projecting .

This was a nice part of town, all the buildings clean and welcoming. Even the local park was friendly at night, with several street lamps lighting up the path.

“It’s nice weather,” Shouto commented.

Damn it, say something more interesting.

He couldn’t think of anything. His palms were sweaty. He was hyper aware of the sound of his crutches padding against the pavement, of the wind blowing through the leaves, of Midoriya breathing beside him.

“I can’t wait for summer,” Midoriya said. “We should go to a festival or something.”

“I’ve never been to a festival.”

“Really?” Midoriya asked, sounding surprised. “I mean, I haven’t been since I was really small and my mom took me. They’re a lot of fun, though. I bet it will be even more fun with a friend.”

Shouto didn’t like the implication of a young Midoriya going to a local festival with no friends. The more he learned of Midoriya’s past, the more he realized just how tragic it had been. Granted, Shouto won any crappy childhood contests, but that didn’t mean he had the monopoly on trauma.

“Your friends are really nice, by the way,” Midoriya said, and Shouto could imagine from his blush that he was thinking of Uraraka. Probably still thinking about holding her hand.

“Yeah, they’re good people. We’re not really that close, though.”

“Really? Iida seemed like he knew you.”

“Iida thinks he knows me,” Shouto scoffed, “but he’s got a few critical details wrong. For instance, he thought you were my date tonight.”

He heard a surprised noise escape Midoriya, followed by nervous laughter.

“Wow, uh, I mean I guess we do look kind of like a couple when we go places together.”

“Yeah.”

Silence hung between them for a few moments, awkward and palpable. Shouto immediately regretted bringing it up. He had been trying to test the waters, and the result was apparently Midoriya didn’t feel like swimming.

“You know, my mom asked if we were dating, after I brought you over,” Midoriya admitted, voice small.

“Really?”

“Yeah, which is funny, because she of all people should know that I don’t really date.”

“Me either,” Shouto agreed. “At least not in a long time. It’s been awhile since I made the effort.”

Should I just come out and say it?

But he had just realized his feelings himself. He would have to do weeks more mulling and thinking and second-guessing before he could articulate them.

“Well, I guess I’ve never made the effort,” Midoriya mumbled.

Shouto assumed that was probably because of Midoriya’s shy personality.

“Do you ever feel like you’re broken?” Midoriya asked. He was giving Shouto the most pitiable puppy-dog look, and Shouto was confused as to what had caused such a serious turn. He hadn’t meant to make the conversation heavy.

“Do you mean…me specifically?” Shouto clarified.

Realizing the implications, Midoriya startled and rushed to reassure, “No, sorry, I didn’t mean like, your leg and stuff! Sorry, that wasn’t phrased very well. Um, I just meant…I was actually thinking about myself, I didn’t mean you. I’m the broken one.”

“You’re not broken,” Shouto said, more confident in that assessment than he felt about a lot of things.

“You don’t know that,” Midoriya replied, giving him a serious stare. “What if it’s sort of how like Iida thinks he knows you, and he’s way off? What if you only think I’m not broken, but I am?”

I am a little confused on how we landed on this topic of conversation.

“Look, we haven’t known each other that long, but I have a pretty good grasp of who you are. I think we’ve...both been very open with each other. Way more than I usually am with people,” Shouto admitted. “I don’t know everything about you, but I know enough to say confidently that you aren’t any more broken than anyone else.”

This elicited a half-hearted smile from Midoriya. Taking a step in, he gave Shouto a playful nudge with his shoulder.

The moment was ruined by a thunderous crack, like stone colliding with steel, echoing across the park.

Why does this happen every time I take this boy any place? Shouto thought bitterly.

Next was a tumultuous cascade of booms, the sound of several things falling to earth.

“Um, should we go check that out?”

“We should probably call the police and leave it to them,” Shouto said, already knowing in his gut that wasn’t what would happen.

True to his suspicions, Midoriya was already dashing away, yelling over his shoulder, “Wait here!”

“Like hell,” Shouto growled. With a heavy sigh, he followed after. Midoriya was already out of sight beyond a curve in the trail. He knew he didn’t stand a chance at keeping up, but he also wasn’t about to abandon Midoriya.

The park was eerily quiet, even the crickets startled into silence after the unexpected burst of sound. Shouto’s arms hurt with the strain of pushing himself so hard. His leg was throbbing too, from where he occasionally put weight on it in the rush.

He heard people arguing in the distance, their voices too muffled for him to make out anything besides the undercurrent of anger. Not just two people arguing back and forth, but what sounded like a group.

You’re going to get in over your head and you’re going to get yourself killed.

In the center of the park was an outdoor amphitheater, the kind used for music performances during summer. Taking the stage now was a group of teenagers, five by his count, surrounding Midoriya in a half-circle. Midoriya looked thoroughly intimidated, but he held his ground. His hands moved in gentle placating motions, voice too soft for Shouto to make out.

There were several sculptures lining the highest tier of the amphitheater. Well, there was one less now than there used to be. It had been smashed to smithereens, nothing but a dais and a pile of rubble. Inhaling, Shouto smelled a distinctly sulfuric smell. Definitely the result of a Quirk, although he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what kind.

In the span of a few moments, Shouto profiled the group. Four boys, one girl. No mutation Quirks, which meant they could be housing anything. Their clothing was fashionably distressed, the kind of pre-shredded jeans that cost too much. Well-to-do brats that liked to play at being punk. Most likely, this was some sort of Quirk Fight Club, organized by a bunch of rebellious children who wanted to play at violence. Obviously dangerous, stupid, and criminal, but something most people would turn a blind eye to. It helped if their parents were wealthy.

However, property damage was different. That would cost somebody, one way or another.

Shouto debated whether or not it was worth the effort of descending the several layers of steps to get to the center.  It would strain his leg. However, he had experience talking people down from fighting. From the looks of it, that was what Midoriya was attempting to do. Inwardly groaning, he began to navigate the stairs.

“It was an accident! Get off my case!” one kid whined.  

Midoriya said something, voice a soft squeak. He was trying so hard to be authoritative, but the way his shoulders bunched in and his knees crooked reeked of vulnerability.

We’ll have to work on that, Shouto thought to himself.

“No one asked you!” one of the kids shouted, stepping forward angrily. They raised their hand parallel to the ground, an obvious tell for activating a Quirk.

“Midoriya!” Shouto yelled, voice reverberating through the empty space. “Shoulder throw him!”

Responding instinctively to Shouto’s voice, Midoriya leapt forward and grabbed hold of the outstretched arm. The kid had set himself up perfectly to be tossed head over heels.

Two of the kids immediately squealed and scattered. Obviously they weren’t interested in a real fight. Not all of them were so easily cowed. Behind Midoriya, the girl raised her hands, fingers arcing into long, curving blades. Another boy lowered into a crouch, both hands pressed flat against the ground.

So much for talking them down.

Shouto had dealt with hot-tempered teens looking to scrap. These kids didn’t look older than fourteen, meaning there was a good chance that a decent show of power would scare them into compliance. Unfortunately, Midoriya’s cringing and cowering wasn’t going to fit the bill. Shouto gave the most useful advice he could think of.

“Run!”

If Midoriya heard him, he did not listen. The self-destructive idiot instead launched himself at the girl, dodging a swipe from her knife-like hands.

Don’t do that don’t do that don’t do that you are going to get yourself killed!

Midoriya kept dodging. All things considered, he had sharp reflexes.

Shouto was only one level away from the fray. So close. He had no idea what he intended to do when he got there. Some use he’d be in a fight.

There was a booming sound, one Shouto recognized as the same sound that dragged them into this shitstorm in the first place. The stone beneath Midoriya cracked and splintered, radiating out from the kneeling boy.

Some sort of advanced erosion or stone control Quirk.

Fortunately, these kids were far from trained fighters. Both Midoriya and the girl lost their footing on the now loose gravel. Midoriya caught himself, turning the dive into a roll. The girl landed with a painful looking crack, and Shouto anticipated a concussion.

The third boy, who pulled himself up from the shoulder throw looking dazed, timidly brought his hands into a fighting stance as Midoriya came to his feet.

Trusting Midoriya could take care of one panicked teen, Shouto turned his attention to the Erosion Quirk user. He and the boy locked eyes, and the boy smirked.

“All right Limpy-Legs, hurting you is the last thing I want to do, but it's still on the list.”

“You're funny,” Shouto said. “Where did you hear that one, the sarcastic t-shirt section of Hot Topic?”

Still crouched, the boy placed his hands to the ground.

So he needs to make physical contact to use his Quirk. Easy enough.

Likely the boy thought Shouto couldn't close the gap between them because of the crutches. Well, Shouto was delighted to prove him wrong.

Transferring all his weight to his good leg, he let go of the crutches. With a coiling and a leap, Shouto tackled the boy. They fell to the ground in a painful heap. Before the teenager could regain his senses, Shouto wound his arms under the boy's armpits and back behind his head. This kind of hold was better with two functioning legs to wrap around the waist, but he had to make do with one. However, since he had at least 25 kilos on the teen, it was effective enough.

“Let me go!” the boy snarled, flailing. “Your breath stinks, you creep.”

“Yeah, well, you reek like adolescence and angst, so maybe cool it with the melodrama.”

Ignoring the child's continued tantrum, he turned his attention to Midoriya facing off against the final perpetrator. They still didn't know what this one's Quirk was, which meant the situation was incredibly risky. He'd seen plenty of rookie heroes end their career early by charging headfirst into something they weren’t prepared for. Fortunately, Midoriya displayed uncharacteristic caution, circling slowly, stance light and ready to spring away at the first sign of danger.

“Remember not to cross your legs when taking steps!” Shouto called.

“What are you, his coach?” sneered the boy he was currently wrapped around anaconda-like.

“No one asked you,” Shouto shot back.

Their banter had the unintended side effect of making the final fighter glance their way. Midoriya seized the opening, lunging forward. However, the movement made the other boy whip around and shoot out his hands.

Shouto's gut seized. He had a sudden, vivid image of his friend dying right in front of him.

Water gushed out of the kid’s hands, forceful enough to knock back even a braced Midoriya. Of all the Quirks in the cosmos, though, that was the least deadly one the boy could have unleashed. With a crackle, ice traced its way upstream, encasing the young man’s hands and sending him toppling over. It also left behind a frost-covered and shaking Midoriya.

“U-um, stop right there before I have to freeze you more,” he said, doing his best to look heroic and certain.

He failed at both. However, that didn’t change the fact that the boy couldn’t lift his hands, immobilizing him.

Turning to Shouto, Midoriya hesitantly asked, “Now what?”

“Call the police. Tell them to send an ambulance. At the very least, that girl should get checked out.”

Midoriya did as he was told. After he got off the phone, he took over restraining duty on Shouto’s captive. Shouto was grateful, because the pain in his leg was starting to become unbearable.

“We really need to stop getting into trouble whenever we go out,” Shouto remarked, stretching his leg. “Your mom is going to think I’m a bad influence on you.”

“Haha, maybe I’m the one who’s a bad influence on you, ” Midoriya joked.

“Get a room,” muttered the angry teen currently in an armlock.

The police arrived, followed by an ambulance. The two conscious teens were escorted into a squad car while the paramedics looked the girl over. She was coming to, looking dazed and confused.

For a normal civilian, things could have gotten dicey. There would have been a review on whether any Quirk usage had counted as self-defense, if it had been overly aggressive, etc. However, all Shouto had to do was flash his Hero License and the police left them alone. This baby was good for another three months, before it would expire and he wouldn’t be able to renew it. Might as well get some mileage out of it.

After they were cleared to leave, Shouto hustled Midoriya away as swiftly as possible.

“I hope you realize just how close you came to joining those idiots in the back of the cop car,” he told Midoriya. “You can’t just go around using your Quirk like that. You’ll get in trouble.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to consider a secret identity or something,” Midoriya mused, one hand to his chin.

“What? No. Midoriya, listen, this can’t become a regular thing,” he pleaded, surprised at the begging in his own voice. “You need months of training, you need to be licensed, you need more practice controlling that Quirk, you can’t just run around the streets looking for trouble, because you will find it and it will kill you.”

Midoriya gave him a long look, obviously thinking it over.

“I intend to get as much training as possible,” he replied, “but if I wait until I’m ‘ready’ I’ll be waiting forever.”

Shouto stopped so he could turn to face Midoriya fully. Right now more than anything, he wanted to take the other man by the shoulders and shake him, but his damn crutches were getting in the way. Taking a deep breath, he took a moment to collect himself before speaking.

“Midoriya, please don’t do this to me. Don’t make me stand by and watch you hurt yourself.”

It occurred to him what a hypocrite he was for saying this. Maybe this was karma, getting back at him for all the pain he’d put his family through in the recent past.

The firm resolve on Midoriya’s face softened into a gentle frown. He took a step closer, placing a hand on Shouto’s shoulder.

“I...I don’t want to cause you any pain. I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said gently, “but this isn’t about you or me. It’s about something bigger. I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way. But I...do agree that you’re right. It’s too soon.”

Shouto let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He knew he couldn’t reign in Midoriya’s wild impulses forever. His mind was already whirling with plans and strategies, ways he could optimize the situation if he couldn’t outright prevent it. For now, though, there was nothing else he could do but gently headbutt Midoriya, letting their foreheads press together for a few moments.

“Next time you get the urge to do something stupid,” he whispered, “I want you to picture your mother and I mourning over your grave. Got it?”

Midoriya was silent for a few moments, before he pushed Shouto away enough that they could lock eyes.

With a small twist of his mouth, he promised, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Chapter Text

It was another day where both Shouto’s parents were gone from the house for a guaranteed few hours. He’d already arranged with Midoriya to come over for sparring practice, advising him to come ready to work himself to the bone. If the idiot was going to insist on putting himself in danger, than Shouto would make his training intense enough that he could handle it.

This time, when Shouto threw open the door, Midoriya was much less nervous looking. Instead, he eagerly kicked his shoes off and practically ran circles around Shouto all the way to the sparring room.

“Okay, so after the last incident, I really think I could use more training on tackles and holds. The way you took that one kid down without him so much as getting a hit in was amazing!”

“The biggest flaw in your fighting is the way you project nervousness,” Shouto critiqued. “You aren’t confident enough in your stances, your swings, anything. It makes you hesitate, and it makes your opponent bolder.”

“That’s fair,” Midoriya agreed. “Maybe I could use that to my advantage, though? If an opponent underestimates me, I could throw them off guard.”

“Only if your hesitation is deliberate misdirection and not actual fear. We’ll work on that.”

Together, they stretched out as a warm-up. Shouto couldn’t do a lot of the stances and moves anymore, but he was willing to try.

“You know, I bet there’s a fighting style out there designed for crutches,” Midoriya speculated, falling into a deep hamstring stretch.

“Never considered it. I know there’s bartitsu, which is meant to be used with a cane,” Shouto said. “My physical therapist said I could probably ditch the crutches for a cane in a couple months, once I can put some weight back on my foot.”

“That’s exciting,” Midoriya said.

His definition of exciting was probably more lenient than Shouto’s.

“All right, enough chatter. Are you ready to come at me like you mean it?” he asked, straightening himself up. “Because if not, I’m willing to take the offensive.”

“You take offense. I feel like I need to work on my blocks,” Midoriya replied, falling into a defensive stance.

He had good form here, where there was no pressure. That wasn’t the same as being able to keep his cool under fire. After a lifetime of being a human punching bag, his instincts were still to flinch and huddle down. The best way to train him out of that was exposure therapy.

Shouto was at a severe disadvantage when taking the offense. The crutches slowed him down, made circling around his opponent harder. However, all it took was a few feints to get Midoriya riled up enough to start making mistakes. His arms were too high, nervously shielding his head, and it left his stomach exposed. Balancing on his crutches, Shouto sent a quick snap kick to his middle, and he folded in half faster than a graham cracker snapping between the fingers of a hungry toddler. Shouto barely managed to avoid joining him.

Okay, kicking on crutches is kind of like balancing on stilts. Should probably avoid it.

“Get up and do it over,” Shouto instructed as Midoriya hauled himself to his feet, one hand rubbing the spot the kick had landed.

They repeated the process several times, Shouto picking apart the weak points in Midoriya’s defense. It was good practice for him as well, helping him adapt to fighting on crutches. He hadn’t gone all out in sparring in a long time, and he had missed it.

“Can we take a short break?” Midoriya wheezed after being sent to the ground for the seventh time.

“Done already?” Shouto asked.

“No, I just- you’re a really tough match. And I sort of imagined your advice to be more, uh, showing me how to use this Quirk.”

“Yeah, well, if you want to be in the big leagues, you need to be prepared for this level of skill. And  you need to master your basic fighting before you start incorporating a Quirk into it.”

“Okay. But I need, like, a five minute breather before I get back to mastering the basics.”

“Fine,” Shouto conceded, settling down onto a weight lifting bench. “There’s a bathroom at the end of the hallway. You can freshen up in there.”

I never got five minute breaks when I was training, he thought bitterly, watching Midoriya stagger out. He knew that was unrealistic, that he could never wish his childhood hell on anyone else. At the same time, Midoriya had so much to catch up on. He couldn’t afford to take it easy.

“All right,” Midoriya said, reentering the room, “I have sufficiently emptied my bowels before you literally punched the piss out of me. Let’s get back to work.”

“Good. You’re taking offense this time. See if you can knock me off my feet.”

Gulping, Midoriya raised his hands and began to circle Shouto. This was much easier to deal with. All Shouto had to do was pivot in place, watch for Midoriya to telegraph an attack.

“Stepped forward too early,” he critiqued, deflecting a punch with a crutch.

“Tensed up before swinging,” he noted, stepping back to dodge a haymaker.

“Overextending yourself,” he growled, dropping a crutch to grab an incoming kick. With a yank, he pulled Midoriya off his feet. He threw his hand out to soften his fall, and Shouto could see from the way he landed on his his elbow that it was painful.

“Are you okay?” Shouto asked.

Midoriya’s bunched up face broadcast that he was not.

“Did you break anything?” Shouto asked, stomach dropping.

“No, but I think I might have sprained my elbow.”

Gingerly, Midoriya flexed his left arm, wincing when he stretched it out.

“At the very least, I’m going to have some bruising,” he said, but even through the pain he was already smiling again.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you that hard.”

I shouldn’t be allowed within twenty feet of anyone. I’m a walking hazard. This is why I can’t have feelings for someone else.

“It was an accident,” Midoriya reassured him. “And on the bright side, I am a walking ice pack now.”

He brought his right hand up to his elbow, pressing it against his skin. Shouto heard the familiar crackle of tiny ice crystals forming.

“Here, we should wrap it,” Shouto said.

Even after all these years, the first aid kit was still in the same place in the sparring room. When you racked up injuries as often as Shouto had, even going to the bathroom to get bandages had seemed like too far a trek. Opening it, he noted that they were low on burn cream. He’d have to get more before he let Midoriya train with his fire.

Assuming he still wants to train with me after this.

“Catch,” he said, tossing the box holding gauze over to Midoriya, who caught it in his good hand. By the time Shouto made his way back over, Midoriya was already wrestling with the bandages, trying to one-handed wrap them around his arm. “Here, let me do it.”

Taking the bandages from him, Shouto began to wind them around Midoriya’s arm. His elbow was looking a little red, but it hadn’t started swelling yet. That was a good sign.

“This is the second time you’ve injured a hand because of me. I really am sorry,” Shouto apologized again, not looking up from where he was wrapping the bandage.

“Didn’t you get on my case not too long ago for apologizing too much?” Midoriya teased. “Besides, I injured myself. It really was an amateur way to break a fall.”

Shouto was silent, gritting his teeth to stop himself from saying anything else stupid. As usual, Midoriya was right.

“You’re still gonna beat yourself up over this, aren’t you?” Midoriya asked after the silence had stretched long enough. “Why is this such a big deal to you?”

“I just hate being reminded how much I’m like my dad,” Shouto said.

He tied off the bandage and sat back. Midoriya returned to icing his elbow. He had gotten pretty good at controlling his ice, at least in small amounts like this.

“Is your dad...as bad as the forums make him out to be?”

“Worse.”

Midoriya grimaced, saying, “I’ve heard rumors. But, um, for what it’s worth, you are nothing like what I would picture a son of Endeavor to be like. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Shouto shrugged, not knowing what else to say. Taking his hand off his elbow, Midoriya reached out and touched his shoulder. Even through his clothes, Shouto could feel how icy his hand was. Was that what he felt like to people? Or used to feel like, when his Quirk was on?

“You know, I have kind of a crazy idea,” Midoriya said. “Even if the endgame is for me to walk the streets at night striking down injustice, I still see myself needing a partner. What would you say to us combining our talents?”

“My talents don’t include moving fast or stealthy as of this moment,” Shouto pointed out.

“No, but I bet there’s a pretty simple way around that. We’d need a body cam and streaming equipment,” Midoriya mused, slipping into plotting mode. “I bet it wouldn’t be impossible to set it up so you can monitor my movements and provide me with feedback. With your experience and operational knowledge, it would make up for a lot of the things I lack.”

“You mean as a sort of mission control?” Shouto asked.

He imagined himself sitting in a room surrounded by screens, typing away at a keyboard, processing a stream of data coming in from Midoriya. It wasn’t unheard of for heroes to use a third party to send them info. At the agency he’d worked at, he’d always had a communication device on him connected to their information center, ready to send out live crisis updates, requests for aid, even info on current traffic conditions to help him get to his destination quickly. For a newbie like Midoriya, something like that could be a literal lifesaver.

“One problem. I’m not actually very good with computers,” he admitted. “We never really had a computer around the house growing up, or game systems or anything like that.”

“Wait, really?” Midoriya asked, looking genuinely shocked. “I mean, you can learn pretty easy, and I can teach you, but wow. I can’t fathom how my life would be different if I hadn’t had a computer growing up. It was my only friend most of the time.”

“That is…”

“Kind of pathetic, I know,” Midoriya rushed to agree, sighing. “Anyways, I definitely think it’s worth trying out.”

“What would we need to get?” Shouto asked.

Midoriya’s face lit up, and he pulled out his phone and started to rattle of a bunch of equipment that Shouto didn’t recognized. Together, Midoriya explained the different parts they would need for a functional setup.

“This stuff isn’t illegal to possess, but it does make it sort of obvious that you’re up to vigilantism,” Midoriya explained. “Or even possibly providing illegal support to shady groups. To avoid leaving an obvious buying history, we should split the purchase up and each buy separate parts. I’ll buy a few things in person with cash to obfusticate credit card records, but a lot of this stuff is fairly specialty and needs to be bought online.”

Shouto cringed, thinking of his nonexistent funds. His parents had been generous with him, giving him pocket money for basically whatever he asked, but that meant he had to ask, which was humiliating. Plus, he was pretty sure some of these items were expensive, and they might raise some eyebrows.

“I...think I can help out, but it will involve my parents knowing about some of this stuff,” Shouto said.

“In that case, we should come up with a cover story,” Midoriya mused. “Here, I’ll give you a list that makes it look like you’re getting into streaming.”

I cannot imagine my parents falling for that. But then again, they have literally no idea what my hobbies are, so who knows?

 “All right. I’ll have to space the purchases out, so it will take a few weeks,” Shouto said.

“Once we get everything, we’ll have to set up a field test of some sort,” Midoriya mused.

Always in such a rush to break your neck, Shouto thought.

“Well, since you’re so open to team-ups...I might know some people you could work with. Ones who could watch your back in the field,” Shouto proposed.

“Wait, you mean like...vigilantes? You know some?”

Shrugging, he admitted, “Occasionally, it’s convenient to have a contact who can work outside the law. They can get things done that you legally can’t. A few heroes are willing to look the other way in order to solve cases.”

Granted, Shouto didn’t consider himself one of those heroes. He was normally straight-laced, not willing to risk tarnishing his reputation by associating with lawbreakers. However, he knew someone with several extra-legal connections. Another person he had been snubbing.

“What do you say?” he asked Midoriya. “Are you up for some illegal networking?”

When Midoriya grinned like that, he looked like a puppy with a new bone. All energy and eagerness, no idea where to direct it.

“That sounds like an excellent idea. Oh, what if I get to be on an actual team? I’ve heard rumors of teams of vigilantes, but most of the time sightings get chalked up to underground heroes or newbies without good enough representation to have their name out there.”

“Yeah, the lines tend to get blurred,” Shouto admitted. “Anyways, I’ll make some calls. Don’t get too excited, as they might refuse. They’re pretty secretive about their little club. Trying to protect their privacy, after all.”

“Oh yeah, that reminds me! I’ll need to get some sort of costume to protect my identity. I’ll have to design something, and probably make it myself.”

“You need any help with the designing?” Shouto asked, giving Midoriya’s wardrobe a skeptical eye. His workout shirt currently read “leisure suit.” Shouto didn’t think it was a good idea to let this literal fashion disaster create his own costume.

“No offense, but I don’t know how much help you’d be. Didn’t your original costume have, like, an iceberg theme?”

“W-what? How do you know about that?” Shouto sputtered. “I stopped wearing it before the Sports Festival even aired. I designed it when I was fourteen. Cut me some slack!”

“Kacchan took some candid photos back in the day. Posted them on Instagram,” Midoriya explained. He was smiling far too wide, enjoying mocking Shouto’s teenage sense of fashion. “Anyways, this was before you had any sort of fanbase or anything, so I don’t think the first costume design is common knowledge. I consider it insider information.”

“That’s just like Bakugou to post pictures without asking me,” Shouto muttered.

“Don’t worry, he had like 20 Instagram followers back then,” Midoriya reassured. “I’m sure I was the only person who saved those photos.”

“You what?”

“I mean...you were the son of the number one hero? I thought you were super cool?” Midoriya squeaked. “Like I saved pictures of most of your classmates b-because I thought you were all so amazing and I used to scroll through Kacchan’s feed and be so jealous of all the awesome stuff he was doing and I used to like to make predictions about everyone’s careers and imagine what everyone’s friendships were like and I know this sounds really bad and creepy but in my defense it was when I was fifteen and that’s a long time ago.”

Shouto thought back to himself scrolling through everyone’s social media feeds not even three months ago, jealous of everyone else’s wonderful life and feeling like a left-out loser. Was that what it had been like for Midoriya, seeing his childhood friend get to live his dream? Seeing all these people who could have been his peers in a different lifetime, a different universe, living precious little lives without him?

“Social media doesn’t show everything,” Shouto said. “I’m sure everything looked perfect at the time, but we had our share of class drama. Friendships splitting up. People being petty. Bad first-draft costumes.”

“You can say that again,” Midoriya agreed, and Shouto shot him a look that only made him smile.

“Since when did you get so sassy?” Shouto asked.

Shrugging, he replied, “Since I felt like we were good enough friends I could get away with it.”

It was a sincere moment, and Shouto smiled back. However, part of him stung at the word ‘friends.’ Because that’s what Midoriya saw them as. That’s what they were.

That was fine.

“Come on,” Shouto said, heading towards the door, “my mom will be home soon. And we can’t really do more training today. You need to let that elbow rest.”

“It’s barely even hurting anymore. I’m sure it will be good as new tomorrow,” Midoriya reassured, but Shouto shot him a warning look that said don’t you dare push yourself.

Midoriya left with promises to take it easy until the next time they trained. After he was gone, Shouto pulled out his phone and scrolled through his contacts. If he wanted to get in touch with vigilantes, he had some phone calls to make.

Chapter Text

Shouto woke up to an unfamiliar sensation. He was cold. As in icy cold, even under the blankets.

The past month had been so peaceful with his Quirk turned off. However, Midoriya had instructed him to stop taking the pills and they had concluded UV treatments a week ago. That meant that his power would be coming back. According to Midoriya, it would take around a month to be back to full strength under normal conditions. In the meantime, they were taking blood samples twice a week, trying to pinpoint exactly when his Quirk shifted from manageable to uncontrollable.

He had the urge to test his Quirk right away. Even though he only felt a fraction of the power, maybe that was better. It meant that he was less likely to burn stuff down.

Bad idea, though. A loose cannon half the size of a normal cannon is still a weapon.

It was another day without any scheduled appointments. No physical therapy, no psychologist, no meeting with Midoriya. It was Midoriya he missed the most.

They’d seen each other earlier in the week at the lab, where they had taken blood samples and then done training down in the basement. It was the most convenient space where they could have privacy, and Midoriya was improving his control rapidly. Shouto wanted to call him now and ask him to come over for another round of Quirk practice. However, his mother was home. Besides, he knew how busy Midoriya was. He couldn’t afford to be clingy. Couldn’t overstep his boundary as friends.

So he occupied his time with working out, reading, surfing the internet. Days like this made him feel like a caged animal in a zoo, restless and hoping someone would fall into his pit.

It really wasn’t a good day for Endeavor to get off work early.

His father had a supernatural ability to always choose the option that was most inconvenient for Shouto. Days when he was feeling irritable? Those would be the days Enji Todoroki was most irritating.

Shouto could tell the man was home just from his heavy footsteps. There was a reason Endeavor was rarely recruited for stealth missions. The man walked like an elephant, and Shouto could hear the thudding from his room, where he was busy researching body cameras. Glancing at the time, he saw it was only 5:30pm.

Why the hell is he home so early? He never gets home before 7.

When dinnertime rolled around, Shouto contemplated staying in his room until later. He didn’t mind eating cold food if it meant he didn’t have to sit across from his father. However, that also meant that his mother would have to put up with the man by herself.

With a sigh, he hauled himself to his feet and got his crutches underneath him. Endeavor was already at the table and talking about something. Loudly. It was the only volume setting he had, and Shouto could hear it all down the hall. Complaining about some new law that placed more red tape around Heroes. Shouto wasn’t sure why he even bothered. He was certain his mother cared as little as he did for anything his father had to say, giving minimal to no response when he spoke. Endeavor also had the supernatural ability to ignore when he was unwanted. He’d made a career of confidently presenting himself as the Number One Hero even when he’d never taken first in terms of public approval.

Seriously, how is someone so universally despised and still so confident?

The plus side of his father being mid-rant was that Shouto’s presence went unacknowledged. He sat at the end of his table as his mother finished bringing food over.

Eventually, Endeavor had to quit running his mouth so he could put food into it. That caused the whole table to fall silent. They ate without speaking, each member of the family in their own isolated bubble.

When Shouto was close to finishing, Rei cleared her throat and spoke up.

“Shouto, before you run off, your father and I wanted to speak with you.”

Shouto’s blood ran cold. Yes, his Quirk was definitely starting to come back, because he felt the distinct tingle of his right side cooling him down.

“What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice level.

“Wait here,” she said, rising from the table.

She grabbed a folder off the kitchen counter, handing it to him. Flipping through it, he saw brochures picturing sprawling grassy lawns, old buildings, people pouring over books. University advertisements.

“Your father and I have been talking,” Rei said, using her most motherly tone, “and we think it’s time you seriously start thinking about where you want to go next.”

“It’s been how long since the incident?” his father asked, voice more accusatory than strictly necessary.

“Which one?” Shouto replied. He was flipping through the pages in a disembodied daze. “Eight months since I lost my Quirk.”

“Not that one. The other one. Where you...had to move back in with us,” Endeavor clarified. The rare show of hesitance meant the topic must really make him uncomfortable. Shouto might have leaned into that, except he hated talking about it as much as his father.

“Four months,” he said, placing the folder back on the table. He’d seen everything he’d needed to.

“That’s a long time to piss around,” his father sneered.

“I think what your father is trying to say,” Rei interrupted, ever eager to be the peacekeeper, “is that you’re starting to recuperate. Didn’t the doctor say you might get rid of the crutches in a few weeks?”

“They want to start weaning me onto a cane, once the ligament is healed,” Shouto said. It wasn’t the same as getting better, though. His ligament would heal, but the damage done to his cartilage...cartilage didn’t regenerate. The doctors had suggested bone marrow transplants, stem cell therapy, things he could try in six months. From what they’d told him, he could hope to recover by 25%, 50% maybe. Things would be so much better in a year, the doctors had reassured.

They’d be better, but they’d never be back to 100%.

“Entrance exams aren’t until January. That gives you the better part of a year to study,” his father pointed out.

True. It was the tail end of April, so he did have all the time in the world to prepare. It wouldn’t do him any good, though.

“I can’t afford college,” he replied.

“Oh, we’d pay for it,” his mother reassured.

“It’ll be cheaper in the long run that letting you live here rent-free the rest of your life.”

Rei shot her husband a look that said something along the lines of ‘would it kill you to stop being an unbearable sack of shit for like ten minutes?’ Or maybe that was Shouto projecting.

“Okay, but even if I do study, I’ll never pass,” Shouto said, gritting his teeth. “I haven’t been in a math class in four years, and honestly, U.A. wasn’t college prep.”

He’d studied how to calculate trajectories, how to correct for resistance when defenestrating, how to estimate blood loss. Practical skills for a hero. Not things like quadratic equations or...or he didn’t even know what the math terms were, because he was so far out of the loop.

“We can get you tutors,” Rei chimed in, cutting through his frenzied thoughts. “In fact, I already called a few, just in case you were interested.”

Of course you did.

It was just like his mother to be overly prepared, ready to jump in to help before he realized he needed it.

“And if you don’t pass, you try again the next year,” his father said. It sounded less like encouragement and more like an order.

“But I...I don’t even know what I want to go to college for,” Shouto replied.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re doing something with your life,” Endeavor growled.

At that, Rei dared to actually lean over and elbow him. His parents may be ganging up on him, but they still weren’t exactly on the same page.

“I’m just saying,” Enji Todoroki continued, to the strained patience of his wife and son, “you can’t sit around the house and mope forever. It’s not healthy.”

“Thank you for your concern over my well being. I’m touched,” Shouto sneered back.

“Don’t give me sarcasm,” Endeavor said, placing both hands on the table and leaning forward in his seat.

I think I actually struck a nerve.

It had been a long time since he had made his father genuinely angry. Shouto had chalked it up to old age, the same way a once vicious dog might just growl from his bed when it once might have lunged.

“All you’ve done for the past few months is feel sorry for yourself,” his father scolded. He was smoking faintly around the collar, but in a great show of restraint, he hadn’t actually burst into flames yet. “At some point you need to get over it and move on with your life.”

Shouto felt his own anger rising to match Endeavor’s. It was the part of himself he hated, the part that roared back like an animal when challenged, the part he tried to keep caged and contained. He was better than Endeavor. He wouldn’t act like him.

So instead, Shouto did his best to freeze over his emotions. React with ice instead of fire.

“I apologize for being inconsiderate,” he said, keeping his voice cool. “I didn’t realize this was so hard on you.”

His mother was the one to speak up, obviously trying to cut in before things devolved further.

“These past few months have been hard on all of us,” she said, placing a hand on her husband’s shoulder to restrain him. “It’s no one’s fault. We don’t need to go around blaming each other. Everyone has been stressed and doing their best to adapt.”

A decade ago, Rei’s reward for such direct handling would have been at best a dismissal and at worst a slap. Now, Enji Todoroki allowed himself to be pushed back down into his seat, eyes never leaving Shouto.

“We want what’s best for you,” Rei continued softly. “We both think that means you finding some sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that you aren’t currently getting.”

“No child of mine is spending the rest of his life as a hikikomori,” Endeavor interrupted.

“I’m sure the second-hand shame would kill you.”

“You might find this hard to believe,” Endeavor growled, “but I am concerned for your well-being.”

I do find that hard to believe.

He and his father stared each other down for a few moments before Endeavor sighed and shrugged Rei’s hand off his shoulder.

“I’ve said my piece. You two can work out the details,” he grumbled, getting up and stalking away from the table.

You’re so sure I’ll just go along with whatever you want for me.

If it had been just Endeavor telling him what to do, he would have rebelled out of principle. However, this was obviously important to his mother, too.

Rei let out a deep sigh, watching her husband’s retreating back, before she turned to Shouto and said, “I don’t want you to feel like we’re pressuring you into anything. It’s just...well I overheard a bit of your conversation with your teacher, and it got me thinking. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life feeling like you’re trapped here with nowhere to go.”

“I know,” Shouto replied. “It...hasn’t been good for me...emotionally...to be back here.”

Rei smiled, but her eyes held hurt. Even if Shouto didn’t mean it, the implication was that being around his parents made him miserable.

“I understand,” she said. “You’re a grown man, and it’s frustrating that you can’t be independent. I think going to college might be the best route for you to take, if you want to get that independance back.”

Shouto wished he lived in a more touchy-feely family. Right now, he wanted to reach across the table and take his mother’s hand, reassure her that it wasn’t her that made him miserable, that it wasn’t personal.

“I’ll think about it,” he promised. That elicited a genuine smile from his mother. She rose from the table, starting to clear away the dishes.

“If you do want any tutors, let me know. I can arrange one for any subject you need,” she said.

While she cleaned up the kitchen, Shouto made a show of looking through the brochures. He didn’t know most of these colleges existed, much less where they were located or how hard they were to get into. He was still pouring over them blankly after Rei left. It felt like he was trying to read something in a foreign language.

Absently, Shouto picked up a leaflet and contemplated setting it on fire. Could he? Was his Quirk recovered enough to do it?

I have like a million flyers here. I can do without one.

It was a stupid idea that could end up setting the house ablaze, but he was frustrated enough to try it. Narrowing his eyes, Shouto clutched the paper in his left hand and pictured its edges curling black with flame. He felt his power stir sluggishly, like a cat dozing in sunlight: slow to respond, fickle. A puff of smoke came out of his hand, followed by a period of nothing, then another puff. He concentrated harder, narrowing his eyes. Finally, a small flame flickered around his fingertips, small enough to be snuffed out by his own breath.

I don’t even have enough firepower to burn paper right now.

Disappointed, he set the flyer back down. At least his curiosity was satisfied, if nothing else. His hand was too hot, so it looked like his Quirk was still having trouble shutting off, even if the power output was practically nonexistent. That was a detail he was sure Midoriya would eat up. He’d have to tell him about it later.

In the meantime, he had nothing better to do but read through the pile of papers, turning over the prospect of having a future in his mind.

Chapter Text

(S_T 9:49pm) I got a message from my contact. He says his network of vigilantes is willing to meet with you in regards to joining their ranks.

(S_T 9:49pm) Think of it as an interview of sorts.

(I_M 9:55pm) Oh no! I’m terrible at interviews! -.-’

(S_T 9:57pm) Relax. It will be fine.

(S_T 9:58pm) Although actually as I say that, you probably aren’t ready to pass any sort of qualifications-based test yet.

(I_M 10:00pm) What do I do? How soon do they want to meet?

(S_T 10:01pm) In a couple of days.

(S_T 10:02pm) If you aren’t ready we can put it off, though. Now that we know they are willing to consider the possibility, there’s no rush.

(I_M 10:04pm) No way! We’re at least making an attempt.

(I_M 10:05pm) I have you scheduled for a blood sample tomorrow. Come in and help me get ready for this interview.

(S_T 10:05pm) I think you’re rushing things again, but you know I can’t say no to you.

(I_M 10:05pm) Yes you can!!! It is very important for the health of this relationship that you say no to me if you feel like it needs to be said.

(S_T 10:06pm) Relationship?

(I_M 10:07pm) Yes! Every healthy relationship is based on being able to communicate with the other party, and a friendship is no different.

(S_T 10:10pm) Oh. Yeah, I understand.

(S_T 10:10pm) Fine, it’s less I can’t say no and more I don’t want to say no to you.

(I_M 10:11pm) Todoroki! You are supposed to be the voice of reason in this relationship!

(S_T 10:12pm) You’re using the word relationship again.

(I_M 10:12pm) ? Sorry, does that bother you?

(I_M 10:13pm) I guess I just think of all my interpersonal interactions as different relationships. It does sort or have romantic connotations, though. I’ll stop.

(S_T 10:16pm) No, it’s fine.

(S_T 10:17pm) Everything’s going to be fine, Midoriya. I’ll prep you for the interview. Worst case scenario, you fail and it shows us exactly how far we need to go.

(I_M 10:18pm) That’s the spirit! o(^◇^)o

(I_M 10:18pm) Thanks for the help. I’ll see you tomorrow, buddy!

(S_T 10:19pm) Yeah. See you tomorrow.

(S_T 10:19pm) Buddy.

 

Taking blood samples felt a lot less invasive than the UV sessions. At least he could keep all his clothes on. The blood sample was just a small amount, too, a finger prick closer to measuring blood sugar than donating plasma. According to Midoriya, this was so he could administer the test rather than tap the lab’s trained phlebotomist every time, since they only needed a small sample.

“Did I tell you my powers have been turning back on?” Shouto said.

“That’s to be expected,” Midoriya reassured. “Do they feel any more in your control?”

“No. They aren’t powerful enough to do damage yet, but I tried using my fire last night and my hand was hot for like half an hour afterwards.”

“Yikes. Definitely don’t set yourself on fire.”

Midoriya swabbed the side of his finger with a dab of alcohol to sterilize it, then lined up the lancet. Shouto didn’t even flinch at the prick. More than anything, it tickled. With easy precision, Midoriya placed the thin vial against the blood drop to collect the sample.

“And just like that, we’re done. Here, press this against your finger until the bleeding stops,” Midoriya told him, handing him a cotton ball.

Obediently, Shouto did as he requested while Midoriya filed everything away. The little vial was labelled and placed in the fridge, where it would be compared to previous samples to see if anything had changed.

“All right, you up for some actual Quirk tests?” Midoriya asked with a conspicuous wink.

They honestly did test Shouto’s Quirk from time to time, for the whole five minutes it took to confirm it wasn’t working. However, it was mostly their front for using the basement space to train. It turned out that unused room was a great space for Midoriya to practice his budding powers.

“Yeah, let’s do this,” Shouto said.

Once they were downstairs and safely away from any curious ears, Midoriya nervously asked him, “So what sort of things are they gonna ask in this...interview?”

“Honestly, they probably aren’t going to ask much. They’ll be more interested in seeing your practical skills,” he explained. “Someone will probably volunteer to spar with you, and they’ll judge you based off of that.”

Midoriya gulped.

In the empty room, Shouto put him through the paces, calling out different stances and moves while he provided feedback.

“Ice barrier to your left. Good. Now show me how you’d incapacitate someone’s feet. No. They could slip out of their shoes and still get away like that. The ice needs to be higher, at least up to their shins.”

Shouto wished he could give a practical demonstration. Maybe one day. For now, the best he could do was critique Midoriya’s form. It had been around six weeks since they had started the Quirk Grafting process, only three weeks since Midoriya had been able to use the powers in any significant way. By that metric, his progress was startling. However, his raw power output left a lot to be desired.

When pressed, Shouto could fill an entire football field with ice 3 meters tall in a matter of moments. Midoriya still struggled in providing a consistent stream, and his range was limited to around 6 meters away. He wasn’t going to be a long-distance fighter any time soon. However, he had proved creative in using his Quirk in close combat. Last time they had sparred, he had used his ice both as a shield to deflect incoming attacks, and as a makeshift sledgehammer to knock Shouto off his feet. It had been the first time Midoriya had consistently had the upper hand, and Quirkless Shouto hadn’t been able to best him. Shouto didn’t know if he should be proud of Midoriya’s progress or frustrated at himself for not being able to hold his own.

“Are you ready to play with fire?” Shouto asked, once Midoriya had done enough training to reduce himself to a shivering heap on the ground.

“I s-s-still think th-this is a bad pl-place to test it,” Midoriya stuttered. Shouto could see his breath coming out in thick clouds, the air around him hyper-cooled.

“Should be fine if you stay under the showers,” Shouto reasoned. “With as weak as your ice is, no offense, and with you actually being able to turn your fire off, unlike me, it isn’t that risky.”

Midoriya still didn’t look convinced.

“You have to use it eventually,” Shouto reasoned, “even if it’s just a quick burst here or there. It will help regulate your temperature so this doesn’t happen.”

He gestured to Midoriya huddled on the floor in early-stage hypothermia. It felt odd to be trying to get someone else to use his fire Quirk, considering he had hated using it so much himself at one point. However, just like his mother had once pointed out, it wasn’t doing him any favors to limit his power.

“Th-the thing about fire, though,” Midoriya said, “is that i-it’s so final. L-like what if I mess up and h-hurt someone?”

“You think you can’t hurt someone with ice?” Shouto asked, raising an eyebrow. “You freeze someone’s entire body, and chances are that within minutes they are either going to go into shock from the cold or you’re going to do it wrong and the ice will collapse in on itself and crush them. If nothing else, you need to learn how to thaw people out in case you accidentally freeze them.”

Midoriya didn’t have an argument for that. Knees still trembling, he pushed himself to his feet.

“Okay, how do I do this?” he asked.

“Mostly the same as with the ice,” Shouto replied, shrugging. “Have you never even tried to use fire before?”

“Once,” Midoriya admitted. “I tried using it in the shower, because I thought that would be the safest place for it, and…”

“And you burned yourself with steam,” Shouto guessed, wincing. “Yeah, you have to be careful with that. You’re fairly immune to fire, but scalding water is...something else.”

He didn’t miss the way Midoriya’s eyes flicked towards his scar. Yeah, the man had definitely read the tabloids on that particular story.

“But like, how do I even know I have the same fire resistance as you do?” Midoriya asked. “For all we know, that’s a secondary trait that I didn’t successfully graft, and the second I use the fire I’m going to flash-fry myself.”

“Fair point. Then how about this: try creating some sparks off your fingertip. If it hurts, stop.”

Exhaling, Midoriya raised his left hand, poking out one finger. He stared at it dubiously for a second, before bunching up his eyes in concentration. He chewed at his bottom lip slightly, one canine peeking out. It was absolutely adorable.

Focus. You’re teaching, not flirting.

After a few moments a small flame, the same size as a cigarette lighter, radiated out of Midoriya’s finger. With a yelp, he shook his hand, and the flame immediately dissipated.

“Did that hurt?” Shouto asked.

“No, no, I was just startled,” Midoriya clarified. “Oh wow, it didn’t hurt.”

Emboldened, Midoriya raised his hand again. This time, when his fingertip lit up with flame, he didn’t jump back. Instead, he let the fire dance along his hand.

“Wow, that isn’t so bad,” he said.

“Yeah. Now try heating up your hand, not hot enough to produce fire, but enough to melt ice,” Shouto instructed.

Midoriya did as he was told, testing it out against one of the mounds of ice he had created in the room. There was a slight sizzle as he softly pressed down, his hand sinking through like the ice was no more solid than seafoam.

There was still a long ways to go, but it was a start. Now Midoriya could at least prevent himself from freezing to death if he overused his powers.

“You need to practice your control before you try using it in battle,” Shouto told him. “Try summoning your flames every once in a while, see if you can tell exactly when your hand goes from hot to on fire. See how long you can hold it just under the point of fire a few times a day. Once you have that down, we can do more.”

Midoriya nodded in agreement. After a moment of reflection, he asked Shouto, “How are your own powers right now? I mean, we’re down here, we might as well run some tests.”

With a sigh, Shouto pushed himself off his slouched position on the wall. There wasn’t going to be much to see, since he still couldn’t summon anything of note. Ironically, they ended up doing the same test Midoriya had done when first manifesting his Quirk: trying to cool down a glass of water. Midoriya figured that would be more measurable at this stage.

So here he was, gripping a glass of water in his hand, watching the temperature on the thermometer drop. His goal was to get to ten degrees Celsius and then stop cooling the water down. The closer he could get to the target temperature without going overboard, the better control he had of his Quirk. The thermometer slowly ticked down, finally hitting the target.

“All right, now see if you can turn it off,” Midoriya instructed.

Letting out a long breath, Shouto closed his eyes and concentrated. It was like trying to slow down a car by opening the door and dragging his foot along the ground. Not very effective, but as long as he wasn’t going too fast in the first place, not hopeless. He could feel the tingling in his fingers slowly ease away.

“Okay, it’s stopped,” he said, opening his eyes. The glass of water was at two degrees.

“That took...twenty-eight seconds. Hey! That’s actually way better than what it was before,” Midoriya said encouragingly.

“Might just be that I’m not using as much power. Less to turn off,” Shouto pointed out.

“True. Let me get you a new glass of water and let’s try again.”

They repeated the experiment four more times for good measure. Shouto hovered around thirty seconds to deactivate his Quirk once turning it on. While that was a definite improvement, he wasn’t optimistic about it staying that way once it was fully back.

“So are you any closer to finding a cure?” he asked, mostly joking.

Midoriya sighed and shook his head, still furiously scribbling data down.

“We’re still trying to identify what is going wrong. Sorry.”

Shouto had figured as much, but it still hurt to hear it out loud. A cure evaded him, leaving him a broken mess.

“Well, I suppose there’s no rush. It’s not like I’m going anywhere,” he mused. “My current life plans include studying for college entrance exams for most of a year and then disappointing my parents when I don’t score well.”

“You’re studying for the entrance exams?” Midoriya asked, looking up from his notepad. “That’s awesome, Todoroki! Where do you want to go? What do you want to major in?”

“I’m not planning for success,” he replied. “My parents are making me. Apparently my father can’t bare the shame of his son being hikikomori.”

Rather than his usual nervous laughter, Midoriya froze faster than a deer on the interstate during rush hour. He slowly raised his notepad until it was blocking his face.

“I see,” he muttered. “Yeah, that would be bad.”

“I don’t know,” Shouto sighed. “On one hand, I don’t want to be NEET the rest of my life. At the same time, I don’t like my parents deciding what I should want. I kind of grew out of that...ten years ago.”

Midoriya, normally so attentive and engaged in conversation, was preoccupied with studying his notes and not even looking Shouto’s way.

“I guess...what do you think? About the idea of me going to college?” Shouto prodded. “You don’t think it’s too late for me, do you?”

“Anything’s better than being hikikomori, right?” Midoriya said. Shouto couldn’t see his face past the notebook, but his grip was white-knuckled.

“I guess.”

It was true that he had been isolating himself. Now that he was getting out more, Shouto could see in retrospect how damaging that had been to his mental state. Maybe going to college would be the same way. Maybe it was just something that seemed insurmountable, and once he actually tried it he would realize-

“Are you okay?” he asked Midoriya, who was shaking slightly.

Midoriya nodded his head, but didn’t respond verbally. Concern flooding through him, Shouto gently took Midoriya’s wrists and lowered the notepad from in front of his face. While he wasn’t exactly on the verge of tears, Shouto could tell from the way he was chewing his lip that Midoriya was upset.

“Was it something I said?” Shouto guessed. It was the most obvious conclusion to draw.

“Not exactly,” Midoriya replied, pulling out of his grip. He placed his hands in his lap, looking down.

Shouto didn’t believe it for a second. Midoriya had been fine a moment ago, but then he had opened his mouth and-

What the hell did I even say? I don’t understand what I did wrong.

“If I tell you something embarrassing,” Midoriya whispered, “do you promise not to think less of me?”

“Sure?” Shouto said, confused. When Midoriya was still silent, he continued, “Midoriya, I don’t think there’s anything you could say that would make me not like you.”

But if there was, it would be convenient to get rid of this one-sided crush.

“I told you before about how bad high school was for me, yeah?” Midoriya said.

“Uh, yeah, briefly,” Shouto confirmed. “You didn’t go into too much detail, but I got the general idea.”

“Well, it was a lot worse than you could probably ever imagine,” Midoriya explained. “It got so bad, that I, um...I stopped going.”

“You mean you dropped out of school?” Shouto asked. That didn’t fit with what he knew about Midoriya graduating early.

“Not really. I just...I still did all the work, but I… I couldn’t stand going to classes. Everyone knew I had applied to UA but couldn’t get in, and it always felt like everyone was staring at me and laughing behind my back. I know now that most of it was in my head, but...back then it felt like everyone around me hated my guts. So I stopped leaving the house. I locked myself in my room and refused to leave.”

“Oh,” Shouto said, things finally clicking into place. “So you were…”

“Hikikomori, yeah,” Midoriya said.

He was blushing, but it wasn’t the usual nervous color on his cheeks accompanied by fidgeting and shy glances. This was the deep red of mortification.

“How did you graduate, then?”

“My mom convinced the school board to make an exception for me. I think everyone felt sorry for me. You know, nervous, socially awkward, Quirkless kid who couldn’t hack it in a classroom. So I did my classes online and through correspondence courses. I didn’t have anything else to occupy my time, so I worked non-stop on the classes, and we worked it out with the school so I could graduate early.”

Even as a social recluse you were more driven and determined than anyone I’ve ever known.

Midoriya was quiet now, and Shouto deduced that he was supposed to say something. He didn’t know how to respond.

“That’s...still pretty impressive,” Shouto said. “You should be proud of yourself.”

“I’m not,” Midoriya replied. Then, nervously, he looked up at Shouto and asked, “So now that you know what a loser I was in high school, are you embarrassed to associate with me?”

“What? Of course not,” Shouto scoffed. “Midoriya, everyone is embarrassed by who they were in high school. You literally have photos saved of some of my worst high school-era fashion decisions.”

“That’s just it, though!” Midoriya shouted, throwing up his hands. “ Your lowest point was wearing an ill-conceived costume. Mine is eating lunch in the bathroom for a semester straight before giving up completely and not going back.”

Midoriya was crying. Just a little, just a few droplets pooling at the corners of his eyes like condensation on a cold glass. Shouto wanted to pull him into a hug, to wipe his tears away and pet his head and tell him everything was okay. He couldn’t, though. He didn’t have the courage.

Instead, he settled for a single hand, placed gently on Midoriya’s knee. There was a sharp intake of breath from his friend, but he didn’t flinch or shrug it off.

“Midoriya,” he began gently, “do you remember what I told you about social media not showing everything? I promise you, those photos may be embarrassing, but they were not my lowest point. It was much, much worse.”

Midoriya looked at him with questioning eyes, and Shouto felt his guts wriggle like unearthed worms. Midoriya had just bared his soul, shared his deepest, darkest secret. Even still, Shouto couldn’t share his. Not completely.

He settled for saying, “I fucked up real bad, okay? I was stupid and immature, and I lost my best friend because of it.”

Apparently that was enough of a confession, because Midoriya nodded slowly. With a sniffle, he wiped away his tears.

“Sorry for losing it like that,” he said.

“Don’t be,” Shouto replied, giving his knee a squeeze before forcing himself to let go. “I...want to be a person you feel comfortable crying around.”

I want to be the shoulder you cry on.

Midoriya gave him a smile, small but sincere.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he promised. “For now, though, I think we call it a day. But, um...I guess I’ll see you tomorrow for the interview, right?”

“Yeah,” Shouto said. “Make sure to get a good night’s sleep. It’s going to be an adventure.”

Chapter Text

The designated meeting place was not what Shouto would classify as “a good part of town.” It made sense. For a group dedicated to chipping away at the crime rate, being close to the action just cut down on commute time.

Such was not the case for Midoriya and Shouto. They had to switch trains three times to get there, and it took the better part of an hour. The entire time, he could feel nervous energy radiating off of Midoriya. The man was in frantic thinking mode, eyebrows scrunched together and mouth moving wordlessly as he went over data in his head.

Rather than disturb his focus, Shouto let him be. He was probably going over combat drills. Instead, Shouto took the time to appreciate how nice Midoriya looked with the bulletproof vest underneath his shirt, padding out his shoulders slightly. Shouto had insisted against wearing any sort of homemade costume, but had agreed it was wise to wear some sort of protective gear. After all, it helped to give off the impression that he was well-equipped and professional.

Their destination was only a short walk from the final station. Shouto sincerely doubted this was where the actual headquarters were, so likely they had chosen something close to accommodate him. Former classmates could be considerate like that.

They arrived at a vacant storefront. From the looks of the empty racks, it was a former video rental store. The windows had been boarded over in an attempt to keep out squatters. Just like his information had said, the employee entrance around the side was slightly ajar, and they slipped through it.

It looked like the boards on the windows hadn’t done a whole lot of good, because the inside was littered with newspaper and beer cans. It also smelled like fresh piss. Shouto wrinkled his nose in disgust, taking extra care to place his crutches carefully. He did not want to slip and fall in whatever slightly sticky substance coated the floor.

He felt a slight breeze of something moving swiftly, and the door slammed behind him. Immediately, Midoriya fell into a fighting stance, his body a taut line of fight or flight.

“Calm down,” Shouto whispered. “I know these people. They just want to get a rise out of you.”

“If I can’t be dramatic once in a while,” a voice boomed from the shadows, “then what is even the point of doing all of this?”

With the door closed, the only light was from a few haggard rays coming through the boarded up windows. One click later, though, and a small camping lantern flicked on across the room. Its yellowish light outlined two figures standing against the opposite wall.

“Well Todoroki, what have you dragged before us today?” another voice asked, sounding bored and unimpressed.

“That’s your cue,” Shouto told Midoriya. “You should probably speak for yourself.”

With a nervous nod, Midoriya turned and said, “Um, hi there. I’m, uh, I was told you guys were looking for recruits?”

If Shouto wasn’t holding crutches, he would have face-palmed. Forget Quirk practice. He should have drilled Midoriya on public speaking.

“This isn’t a talent agency, sweetheart,” the first voice sneered. Shouto couldn’t place who that was, since he only had one contact within the organization, but he could tell it was not someone he would get along with. They possessed a self-important flare for the theatrical that would quickly give way to annoying.

“What my associate is trying to say,” the second man said, “is that we don’t actively recruit. Organizations like ours tend to fall apart if you throw too many people into the mix, especially if you don’t weed out the volatile ones.”

“Oh, um, I’m not volatile,” Midoriya reassured. Now that the obvious threat had passed, he had fallen out of combat pose and into ‘nervous chihuahua afraid it was going to get kicked’ pose.

We’ll work on the confidence thing. And not dropping your guard just because you think you might be safe.

“We’ll be the judge of that,” came the tired drawl. “You have Todoroki vouching for you, which is what got you an audience. But let’s be honest, Todoroki isn’t much of a people person. I don’t trust his ability to judge someone’s character.”

Shouto couldn’t be offended by the assessment. It was true, after all.

The first figure took a few steps forward, letting the light go from harshly outlining their figure to illuminating a few key details. Waist-length hair cascaded from behind a metal mask that covered the top half of their head. They were long-limbed and angular, a frame built for speed over power. Shouto could almost place the name. He’d worked with this man once or twice before, when they’d needed someone to scope out a location before a proper search warrant was issued. Some sort of magnetism Quirk, if he recalled correctly. He had a sheathed sword hanging from each hip, spreading behind him like the tail of a bird.

“First question,” the man said, “is your name.”

“Real name or…” Midoriya shot Shouto a terrified look.

“Real name,” the second man clarified, still leaning against the wall. “We’ll need to run a background check. We don’t work with anyone who has a criminal history. Don’t worry about us using the information against you. Todoroki knows both of our real identities, so this just puts us on equal ground.”

Crap. That means I definitely worked with the first guy at some point and he introduced himself and I forgot. People really shouldn’t expect me to remember them.

However, rather than make the situation awkward, he played along and gave an encouraging nod to Midoriya.

“All right,” Midoriya said with a sigh. “My name is Izuku Midoriya. No, I don’t have any sort of criminal record.”

“We’ll need to confirm that, of course,” the second man said. He pulled out a cellphone, the screen just bright enough to cast a ghoulish light over him. As if to complement his partner, the bottom half of his face was masked. The design resembled a horrifying set of fanged teeth, giving him an almost Cheshire-cat grin. “Give me a second and I can cross-check that against the police databanks.”

“You have access to police files?” Midoriya asked, suspicious.

“He’s a licensed hero,” Shouto supplied.

“Wait, really? Then why are you operating as a vigilante?” Midoriya directed the question at the man across the room, cocking his head.

“Some things are best accomplished outside the law. Besides, I never really fit in with hero society.”

Midoriya leaned forward, and Shouto could almost see the wheels turning in his head. If this man was a Pro Hero, then Midroiya expected to recognize him.

Good luck with that. A career of avoiding the spotlight means he doesn’t exactly have a fan page.

“Wait, did you go to U.A.?” Midoriya asked. “Yeah, I recognize you! You were the transfer student!”

I forgot that Midoriya was basically stalking everyone in my class.

“It was, um, Shinsou, right?” Midoriya said hesitantly.

Shinsou looked up from his phone, a deep scowl overtaking his eyes.

“Did you tell him about me before coming here?” he accused Shouto.

“You know I wouldn’t break an agreement like that,” Shouto replied. “Kid’s just that good. Has a knack for remembering people and their Quirks.”

Eager to prove it, Midoriya rattled off, “Hitoshi Shinsou. Quirk is Brainwashing, which means I should probably be cautious when speaking to you, but um, I mean I guess I trust you? You trust him, right Todoroki?”

“Yeah,” Shouto affirmed. “Shinsou can be kind of an ass, but I trust him with my life.”

“Right back at you,” Shinsou replied. “Well, nothing in the police database, not even a parking ticket. So congratulations, Midoriya, you aren’t too obvious a psychopath to pass that portion of the interview.”

“Hurray?” Midoriya said.

“You’re encyclopedic Quirk knowledge is also impressive, but I’m not convinced it’s useful. Unfortunately, in the real world your opponents are often unknown and unpredictable. Let’s see how well you do against a Quirk you don’t know about in advance.”

He nodded at his associate, who stepped forward and unsheathed his swords.

“I’d introduce myself, but I don’t want to risk you recognizing the name from some internet board. I’m kind of a big deal, you know,” he said, mouth tilting into a smile.

“Ground rules: no killing, no destroying this building, try not to send anyone to the hospital,” Shinsou instructed. It was times like these, when he was at his most tired and strict, that he reminded Shouto of Aizawa. “We just want to see that you aren’t a huge liability on the field and that there’s merit working with you.”

Things I’d very much like to see myself, Shouto thought. Midoriya still had so little combat experience. If this didn’t end in complete disaster he’d consider it a success.

Shouto took a few steps back, edging out of the ring formed by shelving. He definitely didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.

Midoriya shifted into a defensive stance, and immediately Shouto wanted to start yelling out advice, correcting the way his footing was a little too broad, elbows too close to his body. However, this was Midoriya’s fight. All he could do was stand and watch.

“All right, go for it,” Shinsou called.

“It seems a little unfair that you have weapons,” Midoriya muttered, circling his opponent slowly.

“Not my fault you came unprepared. Use your Quirk to compensate.”

Midoriya did just that. Forming his right hand into a fist, he created a long blade of ice. Really, it was more of an icicle than an actual sword, since he didn’t have the control to make anything precise, but it would do the job of allowing him to parry a blade where bare fists could not.

Stepping in close, his opponent took a cursory swipe with one sword. Midoriya blocked, and Shouto heard the crack of straining ice. His makeshift weapon wouldn’t hold up under any sort of serious barrage. Fortunately, the man seemed content to just toy with him for now, sending an occasional blow to test Midoriya’s reactions and defenses.

Fight back, Shouto thought in frustration. A lifetime of bullying had ingrained strong defensive instincts in his friend. They had been working on training him out of it, getting him to be proactive in sparring, but it was obvious that under pressure his first impulse was to dodge and duck.

“You’re doing decent,” his opponent complimented, “but I can see you’re shaking with nerves, and I haven’t even broken out my Quirk yet. Is the anticipation killing you?”

Sure wish I remembered what this guy was capable of. Not that it would do Midoriya any good.

Finally, Midoriya took a swing with his left hand, attempting to catch his foe off guard. In response, the man knocked his hand away with the dull side of his blade. With a flourish, he tossed one sword into the air. Shifting to a two-handed grip on the other weapon, he shattered Midoriya’s ice with enough force to send him stumbling backwards. As Midoriya tried to recover, his opponent raised one foot to kick him to the ground. Midoriya was faster, grabbing the incoming foot and weighing it down with ice. It was enough to throw him off balance and send him crashing to the ground. Midoriya followed after, trying to pin him.

However, Midoriya was too wrapped up in the exchange to notice that the second sword still hadn’t come back down. Instead, it hovered near the ceiling, watching over the fight like a judgemental bird.

I knew his Quirk had something to do with magnetism.

Even as its wielder grappled with Midoriya, the sword turned over and came down hilt-first onto Midoriya’s head. He yelped and lost his grip on the other man, who was quick to redirect both swords so they pointed at Midoriya’s throat, one in hand and one held aloft with the power of his Quirk.

A normal person would have given up at this point. Not Midoriya. Instead, he reached out with his bare hands and grabbed both blades. Shouto resisted the urge to shout at him for his stupidity. The suspended blade he grabbed with his right hand, coating it in a layer of ice to block the sharp edge from his skin. The other sword he grasped in his left hand by the dull edge, and immediately his hand started fuming. His foe struggled briefly to yank the sword out of his grip before he yelped and let go, shaking his hand furiously. Shouto guessed the heat had reached the hilt.

Unfortunately, he didn’t need a grasp on the blades to control them. With just a gesture of his hands, they started to buck wildly in Midoriya’s grasp, struggling to get away. Midoriya coated one blade with so much ice that it started sinking, movements sluggish.

He might actually win this, Shouto thought with surprise.

The frostbitten-blade fell, and Midoriya removed his right hand to clench onto the wildly flailing remaining one, where he switched off his fire and started to ice that one over, too. With two hands wrapped around it, he was much better at keeping it in check. It looked like all he had to do was weigh this one down, and then his opponent would be defenseless-

His opponent was not waiting around for that to happen. For the second time that fight, he used Midoriya’s distraction to his advantage, charging forward. Midoriya noticed too late, and could only cringe as the man shot out a snap kick aimed directly at his face. Shouto cringed, imagining the heavy boot colliding with Midoriya.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the man stopped himself an inch away.

“And that’s a wrap,” he said, bringing his foot down. “I don’t really see the point in breaking your nose.”

“Yeah, that would be excessive,” Shinsou agreed, walking forward. “Well Midoriya, you’re a creative fighter, I’ll give you that. But you focused too much on the small details that you got tunnel vision, lost your situational awareness.”

“Also you fight like you don’t care about your fingers getting cut off,” the other man chimed in, extending a hand to help Midoriya up. “The name is Amalgaknight, by the way. Knight with a kay en, because that’s my aesthetic.”

Oh right. The guy who’s way too into Arthurian mythology. I do remember working with him.

“Pleased to meet you,” Midoriya replied, taking the offered hand and standing up. His shoulders were slumped and his head hung low. “I, uh, I guess I didn’t pass, did I?”

“You lost,” Shinsou replied, raising one hand to scratch the back of his head. Somewhere over the course of his career, he’d taken to wearing two capture weapons, one wound around each forearm. He’d told Shouto it was easier than worrying about neck strain.

“Yeah, I guess I did.”

Midoriya looked so defeated that Shouto had to walk over and bump against him gently. It was the closest to a hug he could give, and the most affectionate he dared to be in front of other people.

“Do you know why I started working with vigilantes?” Shinsou asked. When Midoriya shook his head, he explained, “I saw a lot of dumb, reckless kids get themselves killed trying to play hero. Nothing I said or did discouraged them. So instead of fighting a losing battle, I decided to do what I could to keep them alive, make them into a semi-functional network.”

Shouto had never bothered to ask Shinsou why he preferred to operate on the fringes of the law, risking his license and career by associating with vigilantes. He had always assumed it was because Shinsou didn’t feel at home around the rest of the Pro Heroes. Even after transferring from General Ed, he’d never integrated with the rest of Shouto’s class. He’d always been an outsider, keeping to himself, pushing people away. Shouto understood wanting distance. However, it looked like he had misjudged his classmate. Shinsou wasn’t a loner, he just needed the right motivation to get close to people. And it seemed that motivation was guilt over leaving them without guidance.

“So...does that mean you’ll take me in?” Midoriya asked, voice hopeful.

“We have to pick our battles,” Amalgaknight interrupted. “If we took in every delusional wannabe, the entire system would collapse. That’s why we vet people, try to weed out the ones that could compromise their teammates or lead people into disaster.”

“So the question is,” Shinsou said, “are you a liability? Do I dare incorporate you into a team when your reckless behavior could get the people around you killed?”

“I’d never do anything to risk another person’s safety,” Midoriya promised. “My own safety not so much, and I’ll be the first to admit that, but the only life I’ll ever gamble is my own.”

Shinsou looked him up and down, the mask hiding his mouth and making his expression unreadable. There was a long pause, before he sighed and said, “We lost some people last week. Good people, operatives who I’ve been working with for years. It’s hit our group pretty bad.”

He hadn’t mentioned this to Shouto in their brief conversation. However, from the painful twist in Amalgaknight’s mouth, Shouto knew it wasn’t a bluff.

“I’m so sor-” Midoriya began, but he was cut off by Shinsou.

“It’s an occupational hazard. You need to understand that. This isn’t a game, and there is a very real probability you could get hurt. But,” he continued, turning his gaze to Todoroki, “you have come to us at a vulnerable time. We’re short-handed, and we’re working on something potentially big. We need the manpower more than ever, but more than that we need experience to balance our group out.”

“So what you’re really asking,” Shouto guessed, “is if we’re a package set?”

Nodding, Shinsou said, “You mentioned the two of you were working on a monitoring system, so you could provide real-time advice in the field. I know several members of my team that could benefit from a mission control. It’s a position I occasionally occupy myself, but more and more I’m needed out in the field.”

This is so illegal.

By his side, he feltl Midoriya tense up. Shouto knew that if he refused, Midoriya wouldn’t hold it against him. He’d be disappointed, but he’d pretend otherwise for the sake of his friend. However, even more important than making Midoriya happy, Shouto felt a sudden rush. Was this his way to still contribute, still be a hero? Was it stupid, trying to hold onto something he’d lost? Or was it his chance to be a player again, instead of watching from the sidelines?

He wanted to find out.

“All right,” Shouto replied, “you have yourself a deal.”

Chapter Text

The vigilantes had a headquarters. They also had a name. Officially (as official as an unlicensed group of benevolent lawbreakers could get) they called themselves “The Network,” but the groupchat Shouto and Midoriya were added to was called “Shinsou’s Collective Migraine.” A pinned post at the top of the groupchat reminded everyone that “Nothing is private in a police state! Keep it vague, keep it sexy!” Judging from the backlog Shouto scrolled through, they were serious about the vague thing. Everything was written in code, as if they were a book club.

[BigBoss] All right everyone, we have two new members. We’ll need to fill them in on all the reading we’ve done recently.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] So much literature. We love reading here. That’s what we do. Read.

[BigBoss] We’re bringing them by the library later to show them around.

[SkitterCritter] Do I need to be there?

[BigBoss] Yeah, you and Cave_Johnson should both show up. Everyone else should get their reading assignments done.

[SkitterCritter] Fine.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] I’m so glad we could all be reading buddies like this. Just us, and books, and a solid alibi.

[BigBoss] Al.

[BigBoss] Shut up.

 

Shinsou had sent them a location to meet up. It was a coffee shop, as inconspicuous as they came. He and Midoriya sat at a table, sipping their drinks and acting casual.

“I feel like I’m in a spy movie,” Midoriya commented. He was wearing a backpack that he refused to take off even in their seats, so he was perched on the very edge like a bird ready to take flight.

“I feel like I’m a hamster being put through a cardboard maze,” Shouto said.

Shinsou was already fifteen minutes late, and it made Shouto anxious. Granted, it wasn’t like he had any place to be or any commitments to keep the next morning. But Midoriya did, and Shouto was going to consider his schedule since he knew the boy wouldn’t even think about it.

Shinsou finally arrived, slinking directly over to their table without ordering anything.

“You guys ready to move to the real party?” he asked.

“Born ready!” Midoriya replied, leaping to his feet.

They filed out after Shinsou, and followed him for several blocks. Fortunately, he spared them from any doubling back or other tail-avoiding tactics, but it was still a lot farther than Shouto would have liked to walk. That could have been due to the fact that their headquarters wasn’t in the kind of neighborhood where one found cozy hole-in-the-wall coffee shops.

Ten blocks later, they stood in front of an abandoned bodega. Shinsou led them around the back, where a door opened to a very narrow set of stairs.

“We use the apartment above as headquarters,” Shinso explained. “I am renting it out under an alias, which means we aren’t squatting or anything. You still want to be careful about who sees you come and go. Oh, are the stairs going to be a problem?”

He looked back at Shouto as if thinking about it for the first time.

“I’ll manage,” Shouto growled.

Shouto wasn’t sure what he had expected their headquarters to look like. Maybe derelict with trash covering the floor and an old desktop in one corner. However, it was surprisingly homey. The living room was wall-to-wall gymnastic mats, but the rest of it looked like an actual place someone could reside in. There was a small table and a refrigerator in the kitchen. The bathroom they passed looked stocked and functional.

“Do you live here?” Midoriya asked as Shinsou led them into a back room that was set up like an office.

“Not permanently. But there’s a futon in the closet and occasionally someone crashes here instead of going home,” he explained. “Anyways, the purpose of this visit is to bring you up to speed on the major cases we’ve been working lately, as well as test out your bodycam setup. Did you bring the equipment?”

“Sure did!” Midoriya chirped, sliding his backpack off.

Together, they unpacked the components and started to piece them together. Shinsou had some radio equipment he thought would work better than relying on wifi to transmit, especially since some of the areas they worked in weren’t exactly within range of normal wireless data.

As they were in the middle of setting things up, the door to the apartment opened again. Shouto tensed, but Shinsou just leaned out the door and called, “We’re in here. At least introduce yourselves before decimating whatever’s in the fridge.”

They were greeted by two very average looking individuals. Shouto might have even met them before under different circumstances, but that would have been when they were suited up. Standing in civilian clothes, they both looked absolutely harmless.

“This here is Hydrophobe. They’re our newest recruit after you guys, and frankly still on probation as far as I’m concerned,”  Shinsou said, giving the long-limbed, wide-eyed youth a knowing glare. Gesturing to the other, a tall, broad shouldered woman, he said, “And this is Hammerspace. She’s the one who should be setting up the equipment, since she’s the tech junkie.”

“And I am more than glad to take over, since you look like you have no idea what you are doing,” she said, gently taking the tangled-up aux cord from Shinsou’s hands. “You don’t even know what this is for, do you?”

“I was trying to set up the microphone,” Shinsou defended. “Anyways, while we work out how the hell this all connects together, Hydrophobe, I want you to give Green Boy a workout. He needs a ton of combat practice before I’m comfortable dispatching him to deal with a purse snatcher, let alone a genuine threat.”

“Green Boy isn’t going to be my codename, is it?” Midoriya asked, shoulders slumping.

“Until you think of a better one, it will work for now,” Shinsou replied. “Now go see how long it takes for Hydrophobe to hand you your ass. Their Quirk is an interesting match-up against yours.”

Once they left the room, Shinsou turned back and resumed trying to untangle the mess of cords.

“I don’t understand how we can have so many damn wires when so much of this shit transmits wirelessly,” he muttered under his breath.

“It’s because you have twice as many cords here as you actually need,” Hammerspace explained. “Look boss, don’t even bother. Let me handle this. You’re just going to slow me down.”

“Fine. Be my guest,” Shinsoud said, dropping the wad of cables. “I’ll use this time to brief our new operative on the basics. Follow me.”

He led Shouto to the next room, which was filled with all sorts of equipment. First aid gear, replacement capture weapons, night vision goggles, bulletproof vests, etc.

“The first thing you need to know is that we don’t have funding. In the past, we’ve had wealthy patrons. People who like the idea of subverting the government or want to live the hero fantasy without actually putting themselves in harm’s way. I take their money when it’s offered, but when I refuse to let them control the group, they usually get fed up and leave. We are patronless at the moment, which means we won’t be getting more funds any time soon.”

“Noted,” Shouto replied.

“But the real reason I pulled you in here was because I need to ask you: where did you find this Midoriya kid, and why does he have your Quirk?”

I suppose that would raise a few eyebrows.

“It’s...complicated,” Shouto responded.

“That’s a darn shame. I assumed the answer would be straightforward and simple,” Shinsou sassed back. “Don’t insult my intelligence. I need to know what I’m working with. Is he some sort of Quirk siphoner? Like Monoma?”

Sighing, Shouto gathered his thoughts. He didn’t want to treat Shinsou like an idiot, and the man was definitely smart enough to sniff through lies. A truncated version of the truth would have to do.

“He’s working on some science stuff,” Shouto explained. “Don’t ask me for the details, because I don’t understand all of it. But basically, he has figured out how to graft my Quirk onto his DNA.”

“Interesting,” Shinsou mused. “That could come in handy.”

“I can already see the wheels turning in your head, but don’t bother. I don’t think it will work for everyone for every Quirk, and it’s still in the testing stages. That’s kind of what this is. Working out the kinks.”

“Of course it wouldn’t be that simple,” Shinsou said, exasperation tinging his voice. “Still, it’s nice to know that he’s smart. I was ready to write him off as a reckless idiot.”

He’s definitely that, too.

A couple rooms over, he could hear the sounds of two people sparring. It sounded like someone was getting knocked to the floor repeatedly. Shouto had a pretty good idea who that would be.

“I think I got this thing figured out,” Hammerspace called from the next room, “if you two are ready to test it.”

They had attached the camera to the front and back of a bulletproof vest. Hammerspace was wearing it now, doing an experimental lap around the room as the array transmitted to the monitors they had set up.

“Well, it works. Now the real question is how well it transmits in the field, and if it holds up under combat conditions,” Shinsou said.

“Mid- Green Boy picked out those cameras,” Shouto commented. “They weren’t cheap, but he said he specifically wanted them because they are durable.”

“Time to test that, then,” Shinsou replied before leaning out the door and calling, “Hey Greenie! Get in here!”

Midoriya came limping in, rubbing a spot on the back of his head.

“Is it over?” he asked.

“Put on the vest,” Shinsou instructed as Hammerspace wiggled out of the contraption. “We’re going to take this thing for a spin.”

Shinsou also had a helmet for Midoriya. It looked like a cycling helmet, with an earpiece on one side.

“This isn’t exactly the dynamic Hero Costume I always imagined myself wearing,” he mumbled to himself, adjusting the straps.

“We come up with something functional first, and then you can adjust it to suit your aesthetics,” Shinsou said. It was typical of him to have such a pragmatic approach, especially considering his outfit was a charcoal jumpsuit with body armor. Apparently the years of interning under Aizawa had rubbed off on him.

I wonder if Aizawa knows about his favorite student’s escapades? I doubt he would approve.

“All right, now get back in there and show us if you can fight better when you have someone coaching you in your ear,” he instructed, pointing out the door.

“Got it,” Midoriya replied, his enthusiasm rekindled. “I bet I’ll do way better with Todoroki giving me advice.”

He sent Shouto a wink that made his heart beat a little harder. Shouto did his best to shrug it off, instead focusing on the task at hand. They had cobbled together a temporary command station, currently just a computer desk with two monitors and a microphone. It was a little disorienting to watch the cameras, showing both the front and back moving in opposite directions at once.

“We’ll treat this like a combat situation,” Shinsou instructed. “Which means I’m not giving you any insights into Hydrophobe’s Quirk. You’ll have to come up with that yourself.”

Hydrophobe was sitting cross-legged on the training mats, but they sprung back up when Midoriya entered the room.

“Round two?” they said, cocking their head to the side.

“Yeah!” Midoriya replied, and Shouto could see his hands come up in a defensive stance in front of the cameras.

“What’s their Quirk?” Shouto asked through the microphone.

“A variation on water control, I think,” Midoriya explained. “And, uh, it also works on ice.”

That’s what Shinsou meant by an interesting match-up.

“And you aren’t using your fire because?”

“Because I’m afraid of burning the building down,” Midoriya said. He and Hydrophobe were circling, the other’s long legs making it hard for Midoriya to keep pace.

“True, your control isn’t super great at this point in time,” Shouto mused. “Do they generate water, or do they need a source? If they need a source, then just stop giving them one and go for physical attacks.”

Midoriya was by no means a titan, but Shouto had experienced firsthand how surprisingly muscled the boy was. In a head-on fight against someone long-limbed and slender like Hydrophobe, he stood a pretty good chance.

“Roger that,” Midoriya confirmed.

The headset in his helmet was such that Hydrophobe had only heard one half of their conversation, and thus was caught off-guard when Midoriya charged. However, they were fast enough to duck the first blow, falling into a sweeping kick aimed at his feet. Like jumping rope, Midoriya leapt over the attack and turned it into a tackle.

“Do you remember the CPI hold I showed you?” Shouto asked. Before Midoriya could respond, he was catapulted into the air and slammed against the ceiling, pinned by an invisible force.

“Is this their Quirk, too?” Shouto asked.

“P-probably,” Midoriya huffed, sounding out of breath. “But I didn’t even make any ice.”

Standing beneath him looking up, Hydrophobe blinked owlish eyes, arms outstretched above their head.

“Human body is 70% water,” they said simply.

“It feels like...my lungs...getting crushed,” Midoriya wheezed.

“Does that mean you give up?” Hydrophobe asked.

“Listen carefully,” Shouto instructed. “Since they haven’t pushed you through the ceiling yet, there is a limit to the amount of force they can exert. Meaning if you create a pillar of ice directly behind you, you should be able to push yourself back down.”

“Great, but what do I do when-”

“Don’t give away the plan,” Shouto interrupted.

They’d have to work out a system so Midoriya could communicate with him without opponents deciphering their plans. For the time being, it would have to be a one-way conversation.

“When you get down, freeze yourself to the floor so they can’t move you,” Shouto said.

There was the crackle of ice over the speakers, and Shouto watched the ceiling retreat in the rear cam. Midoriya didn’t have the same speed at creating ice that Shouto had, but he was getting better. He zoomed down at a fast enough pace that Hydrophobe didn’t have enough time to get over their surprise, their only reaction to raise their hands and gesture more emphatically. Shouto could hear Midoriya give a sharp grunt as the force on him increased, but the ice behind him held. Reaching out, he grabbed his foe’s hands and covered them in ice. Immediately, Hydrophobe’s pressure disappeared and they both went crashing to the floor.

“Now get up and pin them before they can find a way out of the ice,” Shouto instructed.

Midoriya rushed to do just that. In a matter of moments, he had Hydrophobe in a hold, arms behind their back.

“And just like that, the match is over,” Shinsou said. “I’m impressed. You two make a pretty good team. We’ll definitely make use of your combat experience.”

They joined Midoriya and Hydrophobe out in the living room, where Midoriya was cautiously defrosting his opponent’s hands.

“We need to work on your ability to adapt to changing circumstances,” Shinsou chided, giving Hydrophobe a light prod with his knee.

“Agreed,” Hydrophobe said, sighing.

“But on to more important matters,” Shinsou continued, falling into a cross-legged position on the floor. “We need to bring you two up to speed on our current predicament.”

“It would help if we knew exactly what it was ourselves,” Hammerspace added, sitting down next to him. Shouto took his cue and started to lower himself. Ever eager to help, Midoriya offered his hand, and Shouto held it for balance as he sat down.

“You guys are trying to find the people who killed your teammates?” Shouto asked. A more delicate person might have danced around the subject, but he wasn’t that person.

“We were on the trail already, and our colleagues got caught in the crossfire,” Shinsou explained. “Something’s been happening in the underworld lately. You’ve heard of the falling crime rates, I assume?”

“Yeah,” Shouto agreed. “For the past year and a half. Everyone wants to chalk it up to Heroes doing their job, but they’re doing the same thing they always have. It doesn’t explain the change.”

“My theory, and the reason we’re in this mess, is that crime is as bad as its always been, it’s just becoming more consolidated. Someone is making a power grab, either absorbing or knocking out the smaller gangs and gathering them under one banner.”

“Like how it used to be before All Might,” Midoriya mused. “People were afraid after he disappeared that the reemergence of proper supervillains was inevitable, but it never happened.”

“You have my dear old dad to thank for that,” Shouto muttered. “Much as I think he’s a sack of dogshit, he hammered down crime syndicates as fast as they popped up, before any could gain significant power.”

“Well it looks like some of them got smart,” Shinsou said. “Whoever is doing this is keeping to the shadows. They aren’t making a move until they’re big enough to be a threat.”

“But if you try telling any pros about the growing legion in the shadows,” Hammerspace added, “they write you off as a crazy conspiracy theorist. They’d rather congratulate themselves on a job well done then think about the possibility of something gathering out there, too large for them to handle.”

“So what are we supposed to do about it?” Shouto asked.

“Easy. We find evidence that this is actually happening,” Shinsou explained. “And if the opportunity arises, we take them down.”

Chapter Text

Shouto was having trouble sleeping. This was a rare occurrence, because of all his abilities, being able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat was his personal favorite. It had been a little harder since the accident and the nightmares, but this was even worse than that. He was so restless he couldn’t even stay in bed.

He was worried about Midoriya. About the whole Network, if he was being honest. They hadn’t done anything dangerous yet, just a few benign field tests to make sure the equipment had a decent range. But soon, there would be people relying on him for split-second decisions, and if he couldn’t do his job well enough, someone could die.

Midoriya could die. Because of him.

So he was having a sleepless night. He dragged himself out to the dining room so he could sit at the table and look over schematics of the city, trying to memorize the network of roads around where they would be operating. He’d be the one directing an escape, if necessary, or sending in backup.

There’s so much information I need to learn. I’ll never be able to cram it all in.

He studied undisturbed for a few hours. When a distant door opening and closing knocked him out of his trance, it was two in the morning. He heard footsteps coming down the hall. Inwardly groaning, Shouto resigned himself to an inevitable encounter. It wasn’t like he could scramble away in time.

Enji Todoroki looked haggard. Whatever had kept him out so late had involved fighting, because he smelled of ash and inferno, the scent hanging around him like a cloak. He saw Shouto at the table and raised an eyebrow, but thankfully didn’t provide any commentary. Instead he went to the fridge and pulled it open, pawing through until he found what he wanted.

Maybe if I leave now I don’t have to talk to him.

However, that would look like running away. Shouto was too proud to admit that a small part of him, the part that was forever six years old, was always on edge around his father. If his dad knew, surely he would use that information as leverage against him at a later date. So he pretended to not even notice his father, continuing to scroll through the city maps with a single-minded focus.

His father sat down at the table, and Shouto had to make a conscious effort not to square his shoulders in hostility. He could feel his power thrumming beneath his skin, rising with his emotions. His right side itched faintly, the tickle of goosebumps covering him.

“Are you up because your leg is bothering you again?” Endeavor asked, popping the lid off whatever container he had pulled out of the fridge. He never bothered using the microwave to heat food, preferring to warm it up with his Quirk.

This wasn’t the first uncomfortable late-night encounter they’d had. When Shouto had first moved back home, his alarm clock had been his painkillers wearing off. He’d spent a few sleepless nights watching television, trying to drown out the throbbing from his leg.  

“No. I’m working on something,” Shouto bit back, cramming as much unwelcoming vibes into his voice as he could muster.

As always, Endeavor couldn’t take a hint even if it was spray painted onto the side of a building in neon pink. He started to shovel food into his mouth, studying Shouto.

Don’t let it get to you. Ignore him. The only way to win his little power games is to not play.

“Have you decided what college you want to apply to?” his father asked in between bites.

“No.”

“Have you talked to your mom about hiring a tutor?”

“No.”

“You need to get on that. You said so yourself that you have a lot of ground to cover if you want to do more than embarrass yourself on the entrance exams.”

“I never agreed to apply for college,” Shouto snapped. Internally, he kicked himself.

He knew better than to rise to his father’s bait. It would have been smarter to stay quiet, say nothing and let the old man simmer over his insolence. All he had done was give Enji fuel.  

“Yeah?” Endeavor shot back, baring his teeth in a sneer. “So what exactly do you plan to do with the rest of your life?”

“I-”

I need to figure out this thing with Midoriya. I need to make sure he doesn’t get killed, and then I can worry about what comes after that.

“Look Shouto,” his father said, slipping into lecture mode, “if you don’t wake up and face reality, you really will be living with us until you’re thirty. You need to stop wallowing in self-pity and move on.”

Shouto clenched his teeth, forcibly biting back any words he wanted to say. He couldn’t win an argument with his father. The man was too stubborn to listen to anyone but himself. The best thing to do was ignore him as obviously as possible. Let him feel what it was like to have his opinions so thoroughly disregarded.

“What do you even do around the house all day?” Endeavor continued. He smelled blood in the water, so he wasn’t going to stop now. “You’re pissing away all of your potential.”

Shouto held his mouth, but he could do nothing to stop the slow crackle of ice that spread out from his fingers, inching along the table. That shut his father up.

After a minute, Endeavor said, “I thought you’d gotten over that. You know, the whole spontaneous Quirk activation.”

He hadn’t told either of his parents about the experiments. From their point of view, his power incontinence had simply tapered off, and now it was back.

“Yeah, well, I guess some things never get better,” Shouto muttered in place of an explanation.

His father sighed, bringing a hand up to rub the bridge of his nose. Shouto forcefully yanked his hand off the table, peeling it away from the ice. He was cold enough to shiver.

“You know Shouto, most things do get better eventually. What’s that old saying? Time heals all wounds?”

Of course you’d like that adage. You want to pretend that if you wait long enough, people will just forget all the horrible things you did.

Shouto wasn’t going to forget anytime soon. However, if it meant the conversation could end, he would gladly keep his mouth shut.

It didn’t mean the end of the conversation.

“Do you want some tea or something for that?” Endeavor asked, nodding towards his right hand.

His fingers were red with the cold, and so numb he couldn’t clench them into a fist. His current plan was to wait until they were responsive again, then grab his crutches and leave. In the meantime, he didn’t think he could hold anything.

“No. I’m fine,” he said, making his voice as frosty as he felt.

“You’re not fooling anyone. Look, I can warm you up if you want,” his dad offered, extending a hand.

Recoiling, Shouto snapped, “Don’t. Touch. Me.”

Endeavor drew back. He looked offended. Typically, that would mean more lectures about how ungrateful he was. This time, his father just sighed.

“I guess I can’t blame you,” Enji said. “Old habits die hard.”

Time doesn’t heal all wounds.

Shouto rubbed his functional left hand over his right, trying to restore feeling as fast as possible. He wanted to make his escape before the old man got sentimental. Nothing was worse than a self-pitying Enji Todoroki.

“You won’t believe me,” his father started, and Shouto instinctively had the urge to roll his eyes, “but this family is important to me. I’ve sacrificed a lot to protect it.”

You’ve sacrificed?” Shouto scoffed. “Last time I checked, you weren’t the one who spent five years locked up in a mental hospital.”

His hand was feeling again, so Shouto pushed himself up as quickly as he could. He tried to look calm, like he wasn’t desperately fleeing the situation. After throwing that in his father’s face, he didn’t want to stick around and deal with the old man’s temper. Fortunately, Endeavor was too tired to fight, and he let Shouto go without trying to stop him.

He felt his phone buzz in his pocket. If he had been too anxious to sleep before, now he was too riled up, so he figured he might as well check it. It was an email from Iida.

What is he doing emailing me at close to 3am?

It wasn’t unheard of for Pros to keep odd hours. After all, his own father had gotten off work not too long ago. It was just weird that Iida had felt the urge to message him this late.

Shouto opened it up and read:

 

Greetings! I hope everything is going well. I have a professional request I would like your help with. We’ve had another murder-by-fire, but this time they burned down a building as well. At least, we think it’s the same person, but there’s no evidence. That’s where you come in! I was hoping you’d be willing to accompany me to the crime scene and see if you can decipher anything from the wreckage that our arson expert couldn’t, stuff specifically related to Quirk usage. I can compensate you for your time. Consider it contract work!

Intrigued, Shouto sent him back a tentative agreement, asking when and where he wanted to meet. He got a response almost instantly.

Wonderful! Can you make it tomorrow? I can send a company car to pick you up.

Shouto agreed. It would be nice to do something for Iida, since the man spent so much time worrying about him. Turning his phone off, Shouto lay on his futon chasing sleep until dawn.

 

When Iida has said the perp had burned down a building, he had meant it. Not just charred, but burnt until even the foundation was cracked with heat. It was (or had been) an auto mechanic shop, one specializing in buses and larger vehicles. Now it was a pile of ash.

“Hey there!” Iida called, waving as Todoroki got out of the car. He was in his Hero Suit, his normal mask replaced with a simple surgical mask to help filter out the dust from sorting through the remains. “Thanks for coming down.”

“Wait to thank me until you see if I can be of use or not,” Shouto replied.

He slipped on the mask Iida handed him and joined him behind the police line. There were a few officers sorting through the rubble, searching for anything that had been left behind. However, even the cars in the shop had taken a hit. Their tires were melted to the floor, windshields following behind. The only thing left intact was the steel skeletons.

“This fire was over a thousand degrees,” Shouto noted. “Closer to two thousand, which is unusually hot for a typical domestic fire.”

“That drastically decreases our search range,” Iida noted. “Not many Quirk users can get that hot.”

“My father can barely burn a thousand degrees. Not without help,” Shouto explained. He looked around at the pattern of burns, tracing the story written in soot and char. Exploring a fire was like peeling back the layers of dirt covering a fossil. Each bit had something to tell, a crystallized moment.

“The temperature might not narrow it down as much as you hoped. They definitely used an accelerant,” Shouto observed. “Here, hold these for a second.”

He handed his crutches to Iida so he could lower himself to his knees. He inspected a mass of plastic, trying to imagine what shape it might have held before melting into a lump.

“These held gasoline,” he observed. “That’s probably not unusual for a place like this, but I think it’s likely they used some of it to make sure the fire would get everywhere. It would be too hot for any human to stay in the building while it burned, so they needed to make sure the job would get done after they left.”

“Interesting,” Iida mused, rubbing his chin. “I suppose that means we can’t rule out as many fire users as we were hoping. If this was even done by a fire Quirk.”

“I would guess so. The damage is too even, so it either had to be a group of around five to six people, all torching different areas at once, or one person who could spread flames fast to make sure everything caught around the same time.”

“I don’t know if I can rule out either possibility,” Iida said.

“Really? So you suspect a group may be behind this?” Shouto asked, curiosity piqued. “Not just one person and a vendetta, or a hired hit, but some organization is targeting people?”

He could see Iida wince, a sure sign that he had said more than he was supposed to. Shouto understood. Sometimes you had to play your cards close to the chest if you wanted to get warrants and make arrests.

But Iida suspects this could have been the work of several people in tandem. Is it the same for the other killings that have happened? To what purpose?

He continued to walk around the site, providing whatever insights he could to Iida. In the back of his mind, he was taking notes to relay to the Network later. He had a feeling that they would be interested in news of this supposed criminal group. It might be the one they were after.

Either way, it was definitely worth investigating further.

Chapter Text

“Hey MC, I’m making contact with the informant. Going radio silent for the next fifteen so I don’t spook him,” Shinsou said over the radio.

MC was Shouto’s new nickname amongst the Network. In typical Shouto fashion, he wasn’t creative when it came to codenames, so he’d just asked to be called ‘mission control.’ That was apparently too long for everyone, though, because it had only taken a couple of field tests before everyone was referring to him as MC.

“Roger that. I’ll try to keep everyone from setting themselves on fire until you get back,” Shouto replied.

This was the third time he’d manned the computers for them. So far, it had just been routine patrols, practices to make sure everything was working. No one had died yet. All things considered it was going well.

As he expected from any organization under Shinsou’s command, they were well organized if not well-trained. He even had a shift schedule for patrols, with different members of his team assigned certain days of the week to work, and everything was done on the buddy system. The only one Shinsou trusted to work alone was Shinsou.

They were still acclimating Midoriya to the field. Personally, Shouto didn’t think he was ready to be outside of a training room at all, but he knew he couldn’t stop Midoriya from being reckless. Or rather, he couldn’t stop Deku.

Shouto had asked him why that name. His response had been to shrug and reply, “I’m already used to responding to it, so it won’t be confusing in the heat of the moment. And besides, all the hero names I thought up as a kid...none really go with my current power set, you know? And anything is better than everyone calling me Green Man.”

So Deku it was.

Shinsou had issued him the basic protection gear all members wore: dark grey body armor over a navy green jumpsuit. He was allowed to modify it, but the cost had to come out of his own pocket.

So far the only customization Midoriya had done was to the helmet meant for streaming his information back to the base: he’d balanced it so that instead of an antenna protruding up from one side, it was symmetrical. Two 6-inch protrusions from the side of his head angled up and back. Shinsou said they looked like bunny ears. Shouto thought they were a liability, likely to get caught on something. However, they did currently need an antenna, since that was the most reliable way to make sure Midoriya could broadcast a signal, and two wasn’t much worse than one.

Also Shinsou was right that they looked like bunny ears, and Shouto secretly thought it was a little cute.

Right now he could see Midoriya’s perspective through the cam as he prowled the shadows. He wasn’t very good at prowling yet, so it was really more like nervous skittering, trying to keep up. They only had one functional camera setup, and it went to Midoriya since he was the most inexperienced. With both normal, night vision, and infrared lenses, the camera had not been cheap, and Shouto wasn’t sure where Midoriya had gotten the money from. He always had a bunch of rare All Might collectibles to fence, but it was hard to imagine him parting with any of those. Then again, maybe for the sake of his ambition he would.

“Have you guys found anything interesting yet?” he asked into the microphone.

“Nothing besides wind-blown ash,” Midoriya replied.

They were searching around the burned-out building Shouto had visited a couple of days ago. As he had predicted, Shinsou had been very interested in that information, and now Deku and Amalgaknight were searching around the ruins for any traces the police might have missed. They didn’t dare disturb the site itself, since it was still under police jurisdiction. However, Shouto had seen everything of interest there. Now the hope was that the person or persons involved had left something leaving the scene they could pick up on. It was a bit like walking the beach and hoping to trip over buried treasure.

“Without an agency, 99% of hero work is wandering around and hoping you get in trouble,” Amalgaknight instructed Deku. “Honestly, the better you are at getting into trouble, the better you’ll be at this line of work.”

He was under the impression that Midoriya could benefit from his ‘sage advice.’ As the currently longest-operating vigilante on Shinsou’s team, he was the de facto second in command. Shouto wasn’t convinced he deserved it. His Quirk was formidable, but the man was an idiot.

“Try to block out everything he says,” Shouto advised. “He had no idea what he’s talking about.”

“You’re still broadcasting to the both of us,” Amalgaknight said indignantly.

“I know.”

“Do you think Shin- um, I mean Echo Chamber is safe going to the meeting all by himself?” Midoriya interrupted.

Shouto was pretty sure he was just trying to prevent bickering, but he answered him anyways.

“He can handle himself. Besides, informants are usually pretty safe,” Shouto reassured. “They’re just harmless rats who want to game the system.”

They were along the edge of the river now, close to the docks. Once upon a time, this had been a thriving place for boats to unload and ship out their wares. However, overseas imports had taken a huge hit after the most recent recession, and the local business had died with it. Now there were more empty warehouses than occupied ones. According to Shinsou, his team regularly inspected the warehouses, as did local police. Everyone knew they were breeding houses for crime, places where unsavory transactions could happen out of sight. However, it wasn’t feasible to monitor all of them at once, and nothing had turned up so far.

Over the speaker, Shouto could just barely make out the white noise of water in the background, sloshing against the embankments. If he was there in person, it would probably smell faintly of rotting wood and brine.

“Do you suppose it’s possible they used a boat for a getaway vehicle?” Midoriya speculated, looking out over the water.

“That’s one way to avoid oncoming emergency vehicles,” Amalgaknight agreed. “You don’t actually see a lot of boats around here anymore, though. They’d stick out.”

With the microphone so close to Midoriya’s mouth, Shouto had a front-row seat to his thinking out loud process.

“I wonder if there’s something at the docks, then. They’re only a couple of blocks from the building that burned down, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they made it to there undetected. Those docks are rotting away, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they are closed to the public, meaning they are fairly private. And they’re originally designed for much larger shipping vessels, so a smaller speedboat could probably hide underneath the support beams at low tide-”

“Nothing to lose by checking them out,” Shouto suggested. “Just step carefully. It really does look like that place is about to fall apart.”

True to Midoriya’s predictions, there was a ‘ No Trespassing- structure condemned ’ notice hanging from a chain spread across the entrance. Not the most high-tech security system. One large step over it and they were onto the docks.

“Congratulations on your first unlawful entry, Deku,” Amalgaknight said. “You’re really running with the big leagues now.”

“Do not encourage him. Deku, what exactly are you looking for?” Shouto asked.

“Some sign a boat was here,” Midoriya said, running his fingers along the cleats lining the docks. They were rusted and covered in algae growth. “Since this place is abandoned, it should be obvious if one was here.”

They moved along the docks, checking the moorings for any sign of use. The boards creaked and splintered with every step, and Shouto winced from his seat. Even though the cameras were waterproof, he still didn’t want to see Midoriya take a spill into the water. It was so polluted, he’d probably mutate a new Quirk all of his own. Or die from mercury poisoning.

Finally, two thirds of the way down, they found a cleat where some of the greenish growth had been scraped off around the base.

“Well lookie here, your super-sleuth instincts paid off,” Amalgaknight said, shining his flashlight around it. “Too bad we have no way of finding out where the boat could have gone.”

“Still, it’s something,” Midoriya mused. “If they left by boat, the place they’re going must also be accessible by boats. They have to have some sort of dock or river access wherever they are-”

Midoriya continued to hunch over the little metal notch and mutter to himself, thinking aloud. Shouto went ahead and took screencaptures so they could analyze the mooring later. He switched to nightvision after a couple, hoping to catch more details in the low light. It probably couldn’t tell them anything, but it made him feel useful.

Something caught his eye on the second monitor, the one showing the rear-view cam. A flicker, like moonlight off of water. However, it quickly went from a pinprick to a blotch. Outlined in stark relief against the shimmering light was the figure of a person.

“Behind you!” Shouto yelled.

However, he hadn’t been quick enough. Even as the duo tensed, a blaze roared to life, so bright that Shouto’s nightvision screen went white. The thermographic lens would probably be just as useless in these conditions. Cursing, he switched over to the regular lens. However, even that couldn’t make out much. The salt-soaked boards of the dock were equivalent to driftwood at this point, meaning they burned fast and they burned blue.

“We’re not getting out that way,” Amalgaknight said. “I give this pile of garbage two minutes before the whole thing collapses.”

“I can just put the flames out,” Midoriya replied.

“No! This was intentionally set,” Shouto explained. “You need to avoid a confrontation if possible. Get in the water and get out. Stay underwater if you can, so you aren’t easy targets.”

Shouto tried to page Shinsou. Nothing. He was still in that damn meeting. Those two were on their own for now.

Fortunately, for once in his life Midoriya decided not to argue with good sense. Or maybe it was that jumping into dark waters off a burning dock met his recklessness quota. In any case, he leapt off, and soon all Shouto could see through the camera was bubbles and darkness. He switched over to nightvision. They were in shallow enough water that he could just barely make out the gravelly bottom. Midoriya wasn’t swimming with his chest facing forward, so he couldn’t see anything useful. However, they were moving fast enough that Shouto assumed he was using his Quirk to aide in propulsion.

Even though Shouto hadn’t instructed him how, he was smart enough to figure out that he could use his left side to heat the water behind him, causing it to expand and push him forward like an underwater rocket. Not as elegant as just skimming over the surface in ice, but Shouto had done it a few times when he needed to move underwater.

The ground sloped up, water getting shallow. In no time at all, the camera changed angles as Midoriya adjusted his body. He scrambled back ashore. The dock was barely 100 meters away, still ablaze.

“Is Amalgaknight with you?” Shouto asked.

Nothing.

“Midoriya? Can you hear me?”

The mic didn’t even hiss in response.

Damn it! We got waterproof cameras, but we didn’t even think about the possibility of submerging the microphones. The headset is probably completely shot.

Midoriya seemed just as confused as him. Shouto watched him take the helmet off briefly to shake it, but that did nothing. For now, Shouto was visual only, with no way to offer input.

“All right MC, what did I miss?” Shinsou’s voice drawled over the line.

“It’s about time. Team A is in trouble. They’re at the docks close to the investigation site. Sending you their location now.”

“Are they not reporting in?” Shinsou asked. Shouto could hear the agitation in his voice, and beneath that, concern. He spent most of his nights trying to prevent his ragtag team from danger.

“I’ve lost audio, but I still have visual. You know what they say about culprits always returning to the scene of a crime?”

“Fuck! Are you serious?”

Shouto copied over Midoriya’s GPS coordinates, but Shinsou was ahead of him. He was already swinging from streetlight to streetlight, aided by his capture weapon.

“That’s my best guess. Someone set fire to the docks while they were inspecting them.”

“Best case scenario they were planning on destroying any evidence anyways. Worst case scenario they are actively keeping tabs on us.”

On his screen, Midoriya and Amalgaknight had reunited and were climbing up to street level. As far as he could tell, they were both unharmed. They were making a rookie mistake by going back up to the road where they were visible. The purpose was to get away, but instead they made themselves bait.

So of course someone took it.

Another flash of flames, and Midoriya jumped and startled. He was losing his composure. Right now, he needed a voice in his ear to coach him through it. That was the one thing Shouto was supposed to be good for.

“They’re engaging the enemy,” Shouto relayed. “Just one figure, as far as I can tell. The fire user we’re after. I’m sending in a tip to the police.”

“One way or another, it will be too late by the time anyone responds, but police will definitely want to inspect the area after this.”

Shouto didn’t like the finality in his voice. Shinsou had never been what someone would call ‘high energy,’ and even sprinting along rooftops he sounded disinterested. Like he had already written off their odds.

“They’re fighting back defensively. Amalgaknight isn’t much use against flames, but- yeah, Deku put an ice wall up. I don’t think it stands a chance- no, they’re melting through. He can’t make ice faster than this opponent can make flames.”

“I’m less than a minute away.”

“Can’t you go faster?” Shouto growled.

Onscreen, he watched as Midoriya used a spire of ice to shove Amalgaknight out of the way of an oncoming attack. Moments later, the very ice he used collapsed into a steaming lump under a barrage of fire. And here Shouto was, able to do nothing but watch. Useless.

If...if Midoriya has any final words, I won’t be able to hear them.

I’ll never get the chance to tell him how I feel. I wasted too much time being a coward.

A blast of fire was aimed in Midoriya’s direction. He fell to his knees, wrapping himself in ice. Shouto imagined the sting as it heated up and evaporated off him. He would have burns.

“About to get in range,” Shinsou said.

“They’re both standing. Amalgaknight is trying to flank the villain, but there’s a huge swatch of fire blocking his line of sight.”

“Perfect,” Shinsou gloated. Then, in Amalgaknight’s voice, he called out, “Hey! What do you have against my friend?”

If the stranger responded, Shinsou’s mic didn’t pick it up. From Midoriya’s perspective he could see the figure, wreathed in flames so bright they were just a silhouette, turn to to face away. Midoriya thought that was his opening to charge forward, and Shouto wanted to scream at him.

Even though Shouto could hear nothing, the villain picked up on the oncoming charge. They whipped back around, hands lighting up as they fired a shot at close range.

The hit missed. Or rather, Midoriya was yanked away.

“Mr. Villain isn’t feeling chatty, and I’m pretty sure he can burn right through these capture weapons, so retreat it is,” Shinsou explained.

Shouto watched as Midoriya was tossed onto a roof, Shinsou following shortly after with Amalgaknight in tow.

“Thanks for saving my ass again, boss,” Amalgaknight said, close enough Shinsou’s mic picked it up.

“I’m going to start charging a fee,” Shinsou growled. “Now come on, before he sets fire to this building. We’re retreating.”

If there were any protests, Shouto couldn’t hear them. The three made their escape while Shouto collapsed in a bundle of nerves, hating himself for being so incredibly impotent.

Chapter Text

Before last night’s escapades, Shouto had told his mother a cover story about going to a movie premiere to explain why he was coming back past midnight. He knew that if he didn’t, his parents would probably send out a search party. Shouto was a grown adult and he was allowed to make his own schedule. In theory. In reality, Rei would probably assume the worst if he went missing with no explanation or didn’t make it home at night. If he was going to do this regularly, he would need a cover story.  

Maybe I could tell them I’m dating Midoriya, and whenever I don’t come home the default would be I was spending time with him.

The idea sent a pang though his chest, but he knew it wasn’t tenable. He hadn’t even told his parents he had made a friend, much less an all-consuming crush. They would be less likely to believe he had a functioning relationship than that he was helping orchestrate vigilante activities.

And they’d be right.

For now, he’d keep using the excuse that he was going to movies or karaoke.

He hauled himself out of bed. Checking his phone, he saw it was past 11am. Even for him, that was pretty late. His mother was long gone from the table, but she had his food and pills set out for him. It was a sign of progress that she didn’t feel the need to monitor him eating, making sure he finished everything and took his medicine properly. It was almost like she was trusting him to be a responsible adult, and for that he was incredibly grateful.

He had physical therapy later in the day, but other than that, there was nothing to do. His cellphone itched in his pocket, begging him to text Midoriya. They had talked last night, after everyone had made it back safely. That felt like a lifetime ago. He still wanted to hold Midoriya in his arms make sure he was whole and safe, but he’d been too embarrassed last night with Shinsou and Amalgaknight there.

If he was being honest with himself, he still would have been too much of a coward even if it had just been Midoriya and him.

I’m not going to hound him. I’ll wait and see if he texts me, Shouto told himself. His resolve was quickly tested by the fact that there was precious little else to occupy his time. Maybe my parents are right. Maybe I should consider college.

The idea made his stomach do uneasy things. His mother hadn’t mentioned tutors since that night when they’d shoved all the brochures at him, and he had tried to push it to the back of his mind. However, that folder still sat in his room, taunting him every time he passed it.

With a sigh, he decided he might as well spend the day looking through it seriously, seeing if anything piqued his interest. If it did, maybe he could summon the resolve to schedule tutoring. If nothing else, it would be something to occupy him in between waiting for Midoriya to have time for him.

I’m really getting pathetic about this crush, aren’t I?

He sat at his writing desk and flipped through the various advertisements for different schools. They kept talking about the size of the campus, the age of their buildings, trying to sell him on the image of a picturesque university life. Distantly, Shouto realized that if he went to college in another town, on the other side of the country, he could get away from his parents. They had said they would pay, so that probably meant they would cover the cost of a dorm. It would be the perfect way to leave them behind.

It would also mean leaving Midoriya behind.

You can’t plan the rest of your life around him, Shouto scolded himself. This stupid crush is never going to amount to anything. And once he’s done with his research, he’ll move on to somewhere else.

That was the danger of depending on anyone. They could leave you, and then you would be even worse off than before. Shouto knew better than to get accustomed to anyone being in his life. It was easier if he didn’t need people.

But...he didn’t know how long this research would take. It would probably be best to plan on staying in the general area for the time being.

He was in the process of sorting the flyers by proximity when he heard the chime signalling someone at the front gate. He never answered the door, not unless it was one of Midoriya’s covert visits when his parents weren’t home, so he didn’t even think about it. However, the distinctive thudding of his father’s footsteps drew his attention. Endeavor had no business being home this time of day. He was supposed to be out, relentlessly fighting crime in his ongoing effort to take the number one spot by sheer volume of resolved incidents.

It was odd enough to spur Shouto to investigate. He cracked open the door to his bedroom so he could peek out. There was his father, leading his guests towards one of the rarely-used rooms for entertaining company.

That is definitely Lemillion’s cape. And his partner...who’s name I can never remember. The awkward kid.

If someone had pressed a gun to his head, Shouto wouldn’t have been able to come up with a list of five people he expected his father to invite over. Endeavor didn’t have friends. He had a few tense working relationships, and more commonly, rivalries and enemies. So there wasn’t a single person on the planet that would make sense for him to entertain over tea.

That didn’t make Lemillion’s presence any less baffling. He was only a few years older than Shouto, but his career had gone nowhere but up after graduation. Currently, he vied for the Number 2 slot with Hawks, with both heroes occasionally ousting the other and spending a few sessions at the second position before the other overtook them again. Unlike the legendary bird-brain, though, Lemillion made it no secret that he disliked Endeavor and what he stood for. For that, he had always had Shouto’s respect.

Now, though, he was just thoroughly confused. There was no logical reason for them to meet. At least, not one Shouto could think of.

The adult response would have been to write it off as none of his business and go back to browsing through leaflets. However, curiosity consumed him. After only a few sparse minutes of trying to talk himself out of it, Shouto decided to snoop.

It was the only way he ever learned anything important lately, especially from his parents. He’d gotten good at moving quietly on his crutches, the slight metal rattle soft enough not to be noticed unless there was a lull in conversation. Fortunately, his father’s obnoxiously loud voice provided excellent cover.

“-personal matter that has kept me busy,” his father was saying. “It’s cost me numbers-wise.”

“Enough to lose the number one position, you think?” Lemillion asked.

Shouto’s blood pulsed loudly in his ears. His father had been at the top of the billboard for over a decade. It had become the status quo of his life, an unchanging fixture. Many of his school-day fantasies had revolved around his father falling from glory, of himself managing to kick him out of the Number One position, but over the past couple of years he had begun to believe that maybe the man would be up there until he died. That was what Endeavor was good at: fighting long past when any rational person would have walked away.

He’s been gone from home as much as ever, working day and night. What the hell does he mean by ‘personal matters kept him busy?’ It sure wasn’t anything here.

“It’s hard to know how the numbers are going to breakdown without seeing the whole picture,” Endeavor said, “but even if I make it another round at the top spot...I intend to step down.”

Hovering outside the door, Shouto was almost knocked off his feet by the news.

“So you’re retiring?” Lemillion asked.

“Not fully. I’m just going to scale back.”

There was a moment of silence, and Shouto held his breath for fear of being found out.

“Why are you telling us?” came a softer voice. That would be Suneater, who’s real name still escaped Shouto. He had only heard his voice a handful of times.

“I didn’t get advance warning when I was thrown into the number one spot,” Endeavor explained, “and even though I’d trained my whole life for it, there were still certain...expectations I wasn’t ready for.”

“You mean like generally being a good person and a beacon of hope and such?”

Damn. Go right for the jugular, Mirio.

In typical Mirio-fashion, he said it without any malice or sarcasm. Just earnest observation of the truth. Rather than get angry, Endeavor just huffed.

“Well, don’t take my advice if you think you’re too good for it. I just wanted to make sure the nation is in capable hands before I step down.”

That was the most altruistic thing Shouto had ever heard his father say. Usually his philosophy was much more Social Darwinist. As if he resented the fact that people needed saving, angry his job even had to exist.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” Lemillion continued in the same chipper tone, “what is so important that you would basically concede the number one spot? Especially considering you’ve made no secret about what it means to you.”

“Or who you’d sacrifice to get it,” Suneater murmured under his breath. He was the closest to the door, and it probably wasn’t intended for his father to hear.

There was a long pause, and Shouto imagined his father glowering at them for daring to ask. He’d always been a very closed-off person, and even though the top spot had chipped away at some of his privacy, he’d guarded what he could with the same violent intensity he fought crime.

“My priorities have shifted as I’ve gotten older,” he finally answered. “Like you said, I’ve been number one for over a decade. All my time and energy has gone into maintaining my position, and as a result other aspects of my life have fallen to the wayside. It’s time I reorganized my priorities.”

Shouto’s left side was starting to sweat, making his grip on his crutch slippery. He had a sinking feeling that he knew exactly where those ‘reorganized priorities’ pointed.

“Let me guess,” Lemillion said, sounding genuinely excited at the chance to make a prediction, “you want to spend more time with your family.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

No no no no no, no one asked for this, no one wants this, Shouto thought to himself in half-panic. Literally no one wants you around more. Mom and I both love that you are gone most of the time.

A vision of a newly-retired Endeavor, hounding him day and night about his life decisions, filled Shouto’s mind. He was sure the man would find a way to turn college prep into a gruelling hellscape. Even if he wasn’t in charge of the training himself, he would make sure Shouto spent every waking moment studying. Anything less than the best would be an embarrassment, intolerable.

He can’t do that to you anymore. You’re a grown man. He can’t control you.

But Shouto was living in his house. Even if he couldn’t physically tie Shouto to a chair and duct tape a textbook to his hands, he would find a way to make his life torture.

They were discussing something else now, possibly something important, but Shouto couldn’t hear anything over the roar in his ears.

He had to get away.

It was a lot harder to move quietly when his legs were shaking and he had a rivulet of sweat snaking down his arm. He was probably a couple degrees away from catching fire. When he finally got to the safety of his room, he threw his crutches to the side and collapsed on his futon. Head buried in his arms, he lay there for a while, letting his thoughts dance around in his head. The calculating part of his brain took over, coming up with strategies to mitigate a worst-case scenario. He really could go to college on the other side of the country. However, depending on how soon Endeavor’s ‘semi-retirement’ started, that might not be soon enough. He didn’t have a lot of options.

As was becoming a habit whenever he was stressed, he reflexively texted Midoriya.

(S_T 1:14pm) My father wants to spend more “quality time” with me in the future.

(S_T 1:14pm) Shoot me.

(I_M 1:21pm) Uh oh. Do you want to talk about it?

(S_T 1:21pm) I’ll be fine.

(S_T 1:22pm) I just

(S_T 1:22pm) I’m feeling trapped again.

(S_T 1:22pm) I don’t want to be his little puppet or his project or whatever. But as long as I live here, I don’t have an escape.

(I_M 1:23pm) That does sound frustrating.

(I_M 1:23pm) I can’t imagine how unhealthy it must be for you to have to be around your dad all the time when he makes you feel that way.

(I_M 1:24pm) But you’re not alone in this, okay?

(I_M 1:25pm) Whatever happens, I’ll be here for you.

(I_M 1:25pm) We’ll get through this together.

(I_M 1:25pm) We’re a team. And we kick ass together c:

Midoriya hadn’t solved any of his problems, but he made them seem so much smaller. More manageable. After spending most of his childhood dealing with everything himself, it was nice to be reminded that he wasn’t alone.

(S_T 1:30pm) Thank you, Midoriya. You really are a good friend.

Then on a whim, Shouto typed out a little heart. His finger hovered over the send button, trying to work up the nerve.

It’s just a heart. He can interpret it any way he wants to. It could just mean one friend expressing their appreciation for another. It doesn’t have to be romantic.

Unless he wants it to be.

However, in the end he was too much of a coward. He deleted the heart and went back to moping.

Chapter Text

Shouto was halfway through lunch the next day when his phone started going crazy. He wasn’t used to getting so many notifications at once. Looking it over, he saw the Network groupchat was responsible.

[BigBoss] We have a very special meeting coming up. I want everyone to be there.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] Yes. Everyone must come. To this book club meeting.

[BeKindRewind] Oh my god shut up and let him talk for once in your damn life sweetie

[BigBoss] As I was saying, we have recently uncovered some books of interest we think everyone should know about.

[BigBoss] We’re talking potentially life-changing works here.

[Cave_Johnson] You’re talking about the incident where you managed to destroy a high-quality mic on its first real outing, huh?

[THISISACLEVERNAME] Remember to speak in code!!!

[Cave_Johnson] My apologies. I meant to say...that you took that really nice book...swimming. Is that stupid enough?

[RatedG] Stupid enough for this group chat? Never.

[BigBoss] Just once I want to get through an announcement without this perpetual clusterfuck.

[RatedG] Sorry, boss. Shutting up now.

[BigBoss] Everyone plan on meeting tomorrow evening at 6pm.

[SkitterCritter] Will there be pizza? Because I will be hungry.

[BigBoss] Yes, fine, I’ll buy everyone pizza.

[BeKindRewind] Yay! You’re my new favorite! Sorry Hammer, you’re demoted.

[Cave_Johnson] Understandable.

[FrostedFlames] So umm...my helmet is still kind of busted. We won’t be doing any patroling or anything, right?

[THISISACLEVERNAME] I think you mean you’re BOOKBAG is busted and you can’t be expected to go shopping at any BOOKSTORES until you get it replaced. Right, Green Boy?

[FrostedFlames] Uh...yes. That is exactly what I meant.

[BigBoss] This is strictly an academic discussion. No practical application to be expected.

[FrostedFlames] Great! See everyone there!! ~-^

Shouto was glad he didn’t have to contribute to the conversation. There were so many new names he didn’t have faces for yet. He was terrible with introductions as it was; online ones just made it worse.

He was about to put his phone back in his pocket when he noticed a different notification, one that had gotten lost amongst the sea of messages. It was a text. He opened it to see that it was from Kirishima.

I wasn’t actually expecting him to contact me. I thought for sure he’d get busy and forget like he usually does.

The text read:

(E_K 1:02pm) Hey buddy! I haven’t heard from you in a while. I’ve been missing your face. How’s it going?

It was a very Kirishima way of putting things. Casual and endearing and enough to make him feel immediately guilty for snubbing him.

Shouto remembered when Kirishima had first set his mind on befriending him. The same upbeat, clueless perseverance, like a dog chasing a stick. He had noticed Shouto sat alone at lunch. It was like Kirishima had a personal vendetta against people being isolated, and was compelled to reach out to anyone left on the sidelines.

“Hey,” he’d said to Shouto one day out of the blue, “We should eat lunch together sometime.”

Shouto had looked him up and down once before replying, “No thanks. I’m not interested in making friends.”

“Aw come on,” he insisted, throwing an arm around Shouto’s shoulders, “I promise I don’t bite!”

Shouto couldn’t remember the last time someone had dared touch him so casually. In middle school, all the other students had been both in awe of and a little terrified of him. Son of the number one hero, born with a perfect Quirk combination, destined for greatness. Shouto didn’t know if that made him holy or vile, but the end result was the same. No one approached him. He was untouchable.

And yet Kirishima acted like that didn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t, here at UA where everyone was the best of the best. But Shouto was still expected to be better than anyone else, and if he couldn’t achieve that then the best he could do was keep his classmates at arm’s distance so they wouldn’t see through the facade.

He shrugged Kirishima’s arm off. Even though it felt nice. Even though he couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched him outside of combat training.

Looking Kirishima dead in the eyes, he said, “I don’t need you.”

Kirishima’s smile had faltered then, lips creasing together to hide pointed teeth. He’d shrugged and muttered something about if Shouto was sure, then retreated to his desk. The rejection had obviously landed a critical hit on some deep-seated insecurity. Shouto expected that to be the last of it.

He was wrong. The next day, Kirishima was at his lunch table. Shouto did his best to be cold and unsociable, but it didn’t work. Kirishima still showed up.

It wasn’t every day. After all, the boy already had one pet misanthropic monster to entertain, and he sat with Bakugou regularly. However, that didn’t stop him from alternating. He sat with Shouto on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as regular as clockwork.

((Shouto could see, even then, that Bakugou would always have the lion’s share of Kirishima’s attention.))

At first, Shouto resisted. But Kirishima was kind and Kirishima was persistent and Kirishima was warm.

((And Shouto was lonely, had been lonely since the first day he started school and his abilities had made him different from everyone else)).

Without meaning to, Shouto became attached. He started to look forward to the days Kirishima sat with him. Started to notice the absence ((the loneliness)) on the days he didn’t.

Eventually, through some miracle of mediation, Kirishima got both Shouto and Bakugou to sit at the same table. He couldn’t begin to guess Bakugou’s motivations, but for his part, Shouto was willing to compromise if it meant he could be around Kirishima five days of the week instead of two. So he was civil and did his best not to provoke the foul-tempered boy.

Besides, having friends had practical benefits. He now had partners for group assignments, people to pair up with in training exercises ((even if he was always always always the third wheel)). He would have to cooperate with other heroes out in the field. Even his father wasn’t immune to team-ups. So Shouto rationalized his friendship as one more aspect of his mission, one more stepping stone to becoming the greatest hero and dethroning his father.

((Even though it was so much more than that.))

In many ways, Kirishima had been his first real friend. Whenever he wasn’t around, Shouto missed him. Even when pushing him away, that feeling had never faded. Shouto had just been too proud to admit it.

Well, Shouto’s life had been very humbling of late. After only a modest amount of deliberation, he shot back a text.

(S_T 1:07pm) I’m fine. How have you been?

(S_T 1:07pm) I’ve missed your face, too.

(E_K 1:09pm) Haha, you know me! I’m always managing to get into trouble.

(E_K 1:10pm) Anyways, if I remember correctly, someone agreed to go out for drinks with me.

(S_T 1:12pm) That was like three months ago. I’m pretty sure there’s a statute of limitations on that kind of thing.

(E_K 1:12pm) Has it really been that long?

(E_K 1:12pm) Crap, man, I’m sorry I’m so bad at keeping in touch.

Communication is a two-way street. I could have initiated something.

It was very Kirishima-like to take responsibility. Usually Shouto was fine with letting him shoulder the guilt for their weakening relationship. Lately, though, he’d been thinking a lot more about his interpersonal skills. He was more open to admitting his flaws.

(S_T 1:14pm) Don’t worry about it. We’re both kind of bad at this, huh?

(S_T 1:15pm) Anyways, even if the old offer is expired, I’m open to new ones.

(E_K 1:16pm) You mean it?!

(E_K 1:17pm) Oh man, when was the last time we actually hung out?

(E_K 1:17pm) I know this place, little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. Sorta artsy vibe. You like that kind of stuff, right?

(S_T 1:17pm) Sure.

(E_K 1:18pm) Wanna meet up tomorrow? I’ve got this publicity thing in the afternoon, but I should be free say around 6?

Shouto would have liked to agree. But he had that vigilante meeting.

(S_T 1:19pm) I can’t. I’m sorry.

(S_T 1:19pm) I’m part of this book club thing, and we have our meetup tomorrow.

That looked so stupid typed out. It sounded like he was lying or making up excuses. If the Network wanted a solid alibi, they should have thought of a better front than something as archaic as a book club.

(E_K 1:20pm) Hey, no worries! That’s awesome that you’re getting out and socializing.

(E_K 1:20pm) I’ll admit I’m a little surprised, though. I didn’t peg you for for a book club person!

(E_K 1:20pm) Anyways, we can just meet later. Ughhhh I’m pretty booked the next couple of weeks. I’m sorry, man.

(S_T 1:22pm) That’s the schedule of a Pro Hero for you.

(S_T 1:22pm) One thing I don’t miss.

(E_K 1:23pm) I’m so sorry, bro.

(S_T 1:24pm) Don’t be. Just tell me when works for you, and we’ll plan around that.

He and Kirishima finally settled on a date nearly a month out, and then Kirishima had to go to some meeting or the other. Shouto couldn’t help but be a little jealous of his busy schedule. However, nowadays Shouto had his own projects to take him mind off things. He was grateful to have more things to occupy his time.

 

Come the next evening, he was less grateful for such things. It was the first time since he had joined that the Network met with all 8 members at once. The headquarters’ little dining room couldn’t fit all of them, so they were scattered around the living room. Midoriya had dragged a chair out for Shouto, but the athletic mats meant it didn’t sit right. He opted to sink down to the floor instead.

True to his word, Shinsou had brought pizza. Shouto jumped at the opportunity to stuff his mouth so he wouldn’t have to make conversation with anyone. Midoriya had abandoned him in favor of fawning over the members he hadn’t met yet, asking them endless questions about their Quirks.

We didn’t come here to mingle. Get on with it already.

Shouto knew he was being a jealous brat. Any time Midoriya paid attention to someone else, he had the uncontrollable urge to pout. He knew it was stupid and immature. But also what if Midoriya liked everyone else more than him? Shouto wasn’t good at being a friend, definitely wasn’t in the top percentile, so it only stood to reason that if Midoriya interacted with enough people he’d find someone better.

It’s your paranoia talking. Midoriya doesn’t secretly hate you behind your back.

But Midoriya was laughing so hard his shoulders shook, responding to something clever the bubbly silver-haired girl had said.

“All right, enough horsing around,” Shinsou called. Mercifully. “My time is valuable, so I’m calling this meeting to order.”

Midoriya took a seat next to Shouto, flashing him a brilliant smile. Any grudge he might have had melted away. He was just glad to be around Midoriya.

“So what we know so far: there is definitely a fire user among this group. My inside source in the police says there has been tampering with their database, certain Quirk records going missing. So either they have a connection there, or someone who is good at hacking.”

“Wait, you mean they’ve messed with the Quirk registry?” Midoriya asked, “But that’s a national database. It has backups for its backups.”

“It’s not impossible. You would have to alter the main registry in such a way that it goes unnoticed for a while,” Hammerspace explained. “All the other registries compare their files against it, and when they refresh their banks, anything in the main registry is assumed by the system to be correct and overrides whatever discrepancies are in the databank. If your changes are subtle enough to slip under the radar, then after a couple of months any old trace of the original data is gone, overwritten with your edits.”

“Our best estimate is that this group started mobilizing six months ago,” Shinsou continued. “That’s when local street crime first started taking a nosedive. They began recruiting, keeping their members in line.”

“The police are looking into yakuza connections,” Amalgaknight chipped in, “but so far that’s been quiet. I mean, as quiet as it usually is. They have no motive to recruit ordinary street toughs into their ranks. It would just introduce liability into their organization.”

“A bunch of new members would do that to any group,” Shinsou said, tossing Midoriya a pointed look. “If you want to grow without collapsing, you have to do it slowly.”

Beside him, Midoriya blushed and squirmed under the accusatory glare. Shouto had to fight down the urge to immediately jump to his defense, lest he come off as a white knight. Instead, he stuck to being professional.

“So maybe they’ve been active for far longer than six months,” Shouto speculated. “They’ve kept hidden to the shadows, though, and kept themselves quiet. Built up the infrastructure to take on this much recruitment.”

“I don’t know of any groups like that,” Shinsou said. “And I find it hard to believe a group the size we’re talking about could go unnoticed for long.”

“It depends,” Midoriya mused. “What if...what if it was a group that had been inactive for a while, and they only recently reorganized? If they could get in touch with old members, then from the outside it would look like exponential growth just popped up out of nowhere, but really they’ve just been hibernating.”

“Again, I don’t know any groups that fit that description,” Shinsou explained.

“Yeah, but you’ve only been an active hero for, what, four years?” Midoriya speculated. “What if they were a much older group?”

“You sound like you have someone in mind.”

Midoriya’s brow crinkled and he chewed his lip, debating on voicing his suspicions out loud. His eyes briefly met Shouto’s, who gave him a reassuring nod.

“Well, there used to be this criminal gang, run by a man called All For One.”

“I’ve heard of them. They went inactive years ago,” Shinsou cut in. “They’re boss was little more than a rumor, and then even the rumors stopped.”

“Yeah, most people think he died or something,” Midoriya agreed. “But...what if he didn’t? What if he was just biding his time? His followers were practically a cult. I’m sure if he resurfaced, they’d jump at the chance to serve him again, no matter how long he was gone.”

“Interesting theory,” Hammerspace piped up. “Not sure how you’d go about testing it, though. Or how it changes our current predicament.”

“It might,” Shinsou mused. “All For One may have been a rumor, but some of his operatives have a definite criminal record. We can start there, and trace those leads to see if we can find out what they’ve been up to lately.”

Beside him, Midoriya was beaming with pride that he had suggested something useful. Shouto was equally proud, but in the back of his mind something didn’t sit right.

Midoriya knows a lot about this All For One organization. Is it just a fanboy thing? Knowing about All Might’s enemies?

“It looks like we have our next steps,” Shinsou said. “Now it’s time to move to phase two: recon.”

 

Chapter Text

“Well the good news is that there isn’t anything wrong with your DNA, as far as we can determine,” Midoriya told him, looking over his notes. “The bad news is that we are no closer to finding a cure.”

It had been a full month since stopping the UV treatments, which meant his Quirk was back on and up to its usual mission of making his life hell. Midoriya had analyzed all of his blood samples from the process, monitoring the way his Quirk Factor reacted as it resurfaced.

“So what do we do next?” Shouto asked. They were down in the usual testing room, which had become their unofficial headquarters. Midoriya had his laptop in front of him, looking at the spreadsheets that tracked all sorts of data Shouto didn’t understand. Apparently whatever the data said, it amounted to the conclusion that Shouto’s life was going to be shit for the foreseeable future.

“If the problem isn’t with how your body is processing the material that keeps your power on, than the malfunction lies elsewhere,” Midoriya explained.

He sounded so smart and authoritative when he talked science. It was one of the few times he was confident in his abilities. Shouto thought it was a massive turn on.

Don’t get distracted, he reminded himself.

“My guess is that there is something in your brain that normally controls the Quirk Factor that is the problem. You said you suffered a head injury, right?”

“Yeah,” Shouto replied. “As well as some unidentified psychic Quirk. It did mess with my memory a little.”

“Then that’s the next area we’ll look. We’ll have to see how your brain reacts while you are using your Quirk, which might be a little tricky, but...I’ll rig something up. We’re going to figure this out, okay?” Midoriya reassured him. His eyes were so damn bright.

“I know you’ll find a way,” Shouto replied.

That made Midoriya smile, and the sight did strange things to Shouto’s stomach.

“And the good news is that we have a perfect control for how your Quirk should react with a brain normally, since I have an exact copy of your Quirk,” Midoriya bragged, creating a few sparks with a snap of his fingers.

The Network had given him plenty of sparring partners and more than a few opportunities to use his Quirk, and he was progressing with it so fast Shouto was almost a little jealous. He made sure to never show the slightest envy, though, for fear that Midoriya would feel guilty about it. He wanted Midoriya to get this chance, even if being relegated to the sidelines stung. Instead he forced a smile.

“Well, that’s all for today,” Midoriya said, snapping his laptop closed. “We should head out before they lock up the building.”

It was Friday evening. For most people, this would be a time to relax and do something fun. Even the Network was taking a night off, so they had no vigilante obligations. That also meant that Shouto had nothing to look forward to besides going home.

As Midoriya got up and headed for the door, he found himself dragging behind. He wanted to make his time with Midoriya last as long as possible.

“It’s right around dinner time. We could go get something to eat,” he suggested.

“I would, but I’m sure my mom’s already made dinner,” Midoriya said, ducking his head in apology. “I know she’ll be mad if I don’t eat it. She’s always complaining about how leftovers are taking over our fridge.”

“Oh.”

Shouto did his best not to pout. However, Midoriya was too good at reading his moods.

Eyeing him, he said gently, “It’s kind of out of your way, but if you want, you could come have dinner with us.”

“I don’t want to invite myself over,” Shouto replied, even though that was exactly what he wanted to do.

“You’re not inviting yourself over. I’m inviting you,” Midoriya teased, elbowing him playfully.

“If you insist,” Shouto said, smiling. He really was fortunate to have a friend like Midoriya, who could somehow read his stoic facial expressions like a book.

Even if it was out of the way, he relished taking the time to get there. Sitting next to Midoriya on the train, they swapped memes on their phones and chattered about nothing in general. There was some space documentary coming out that Midoriya was excited for, and he told Shouto all about it while Shouto soaked up the information. Their legs pressed together, their elbows brushed. Shouto was sitting on Midoriya’s left side, and he could feel how warm he was. It was a pain to finally have to get up.

All remained pleasant until they were walking down the street that led to Midoriya’s house. There was a figure heading towards them in the opposite direction, and Shouto had a sinking feeling that he recognized the silhouette.

Midoriya did say they grew up around each other. It makes sense that he would live nearby.

“Where do you nerds think you’re going?”

Midoriya jumped at the voice. Unlike last time, though, he didn’t cower behind Shouto.

“H-hi there, Kacchan! Were you visiting your parents?” he asked.

He had the nervous twang in his voice where he sounded like he was on the edge of giggling, that meant he was borderline full anxiety meltdown. Instinctively, Shouto’s hackles raised.

“It’s none of your damn business,” Bakugou growled in response. He had come to a stop in front of them, legs spread wide as if he was blocking the path. Out of costume, he was much less intimidating. He just looked like an angry punk, ready to pick a fight with his shadow.

“Well it’s good to see you,” Midoriya replied. How he remained civil in the face of such naked hostility was a mystery to Shouto.

“Yeah, kind of funny what you see when you leave your room once in a while,” Bakugou spat.

Shouto did his best to commit first-degree murder with his eyes. It didn’t work, but it was successful in shifting Bakugou’s attention off Midoriya and onto him.

“I see you and the two-for-one combo are still hanging out,” he said. “How the hell do you two know each other?”

Bakugou was actually asking about another person, showing interest in something besides himself.

It must be killing him not to know, Shouto realized. Otherwise he’d just ignore it.

Before Midoriya could open his mouth and be honest, Shouto cut in.

“Midoriya and I go way back,” he replied, taking a step closer to his friend. If he had an arm free, he would have slung it over Midoriya’s shoulder. “He interned at my agency. We’re very close.”

Midoriya looked very confused. Shouto would have to coach him on keeping a good poker face, in case he needed it when interrogating villains. Or maybe he could wear a full-face helmet. It would be a shame to cover his adorable freckles, though.

Bakugou’s unpleasant voice interrupted his Midoriya-daydreaming.

“If you had a sense of humor I’d think that was a joke,” he replied, “but hey, I guess nerds of a feather have to stick together. Enjoy hanging around in the reject corner with each other.”

His interest sufficiently lost, he moved past them. Shouto didn’t miss the way Midoriya looked down at his feet and fidgeted as Bakugou passed. Remembering what Midoriya had told him about his childhood with Bakugou, about the burns, Shouto had to restrain the urge to step between them. However, apparently it wasn’t fear Midoriya was battling with.

Before Bakugou could get too far away, Midoriya called out, “Would you like to come to dinner?”

He was bright red and still looking at his feet. At his side, his hands nervously played with the fabric of his pants.

Bakugou stopped, but he didn’t turn around. Tilting his head slightly, he said over his shoulder, “I already ate, stupid. Besides, why would I want to hang around you?”

“I just...wanted to catch up, is all. Hear about your life,” Midoriya murmured.

Shouto thought his voice would be too soft for Bakugou to make out. It was enough for Bakugou to take a half-step back, angling his body towards them.

Appraising Midoriya, he finally said, “So this going outside thing...it’s permanent, right? You’re not gonna hole yourself up in your room again?”

Midoriya cringed. Shouto could feel the embarrassment radiating off him.

“I’ve been getting out a lot more recently,” he defended.

Bakugou gave him another long stare. With a shrug, he resumed walking away.

“See you around, Deku.”

Midoriya instantly brightened up, waving after Bakugou who didn’t even look his way.

“For him, that was a downright pleasant encounter,” Shouto observed.

“Yeah,” Midoriya agreed, “that went really well.”

The man was so elated, he practically skipped the rest of the way home. That made it somewhat hard for Shouto to keep up. Shouto wasn’t sure if it was having to interact with Bakugou, or seeing how ecstatic that interaction had made Midoriya, but his mood was fouling fast. Actually, he did know which of those two things made him more upset. The barest scrap of attention from his childhood bully, and Midoriya was walking on sunshine. Shouto could feel the jealousy gnawing at his stomach. Bakugou didn’t deserve that attention.

I’m being petty and insecure and I need to stop.

Normally Midoriya could detect the slightest shift in his mood, but he was so wrapped up in some Bakugou-centric fantasy that he didn’t notice Shouto grumpily following behind. Rather than mope, Shouto did his best to stomp his feelings down before Midoriya returned to earth and noticed. The last thing he wanted was to take this happiness from Midoriya. Even if he couldn’t possibly understand it, this positive interaction with Bakugou was important to him.

So he did what his father always told him to do, and ignored his feelings as hard as he could. By the time they were at Midoriya’s house, they were restrained and he was under control. Not quite cheerful, but ready to at least return a polite nod to Mrs. Midoriya when she greeted him.

As always, she was a perfect host. Midoriya has texted ahead to let her know he was bringing company, and she was gracious enough to not complain at the short notice.

“It’s always so nice to see you, Todoroki,” she said in a way that made him believe it. How unusual, that he should feel less like an unwanted intrusion here than in his own home.

Over the course of dinner, Shouto went from burying his resentment to genuinely forgetting about it. He had Midoriya’s full attention on him as the boy chattered away excitedly about how there was a new All Might biography coming out and how he had preordered his copy and how excited he was for it.

“There’s talk in the forums about how the government might finally release his legal name, which up until now has been classified,” Midoriya said. “I always thought it was funny that in an era where Heroes are in the public eye, he managed to keep a secret identity.”

“Just don’t be disappointed if you don’t like who he really was,” his mother warned. “I always thought it was a little suspicious that he wouldn’t tell people about himself. People like that usually have something they want to hide.”

“Mom, All Might wasn’t secretly a criminal just because he wanted privacy,” Midoriya said, affronted. “It meant he had something he wanted to protect.”

“I know how much you look up to him, sweetie. But our country has rules about how a hero should operate for a reason.”

“You’re right,” Midoriya agreed, even though he shot Shouto a wink. Shouto’s heart skipped a beat.

Mrs. Midoriya had even made castella for dessert, which she insisted Shouto take a serving of.

“I can’t remember the last time I had cake,” Shouto admitted, prodding the spongy confection with his fork.

“Does your family not like to cook?” Inko asked.

“No, my mom cooks all the time. Just never dessert.”

There wouldn’t have been a point. Endeavor’s strict, protein-heavy diet wouldn’t have allowed for it, and Rei had always been very cautious about her own weight. Sweets weren’t something he’d grown up having.

The Midoriyas had a hard time wrapping their heads around that concept.

“So what do you do for birthdays or holidays?” Midoriya asked.

Shrugging, he replied, “My mom would make whatever we wanted. She can also make a really good shabu-shabu for New Years. My favorite is her soba, though.”

“That sounds delicious. I’d love to try it sometime!” Midoriya chirped.

The hesitation must have showed on Shouto’s face, because his friend quickly backpedaled.

“I mean not that I’m inviting myself over or anything! I understand you like your privacy and I’d probably embarrass you and I get it,” he excused, waving his hands.

“I’m not embarrassed by you,” Shouto responded, knowing that was Midoriya’s biggest concern. “It’s just I’ve never brought a friend home before. I don’t know how my parents would react.”

“Oh sweetheart, your parents would love to meet your friends. Trust me,” Inko reassured.

Shouto had a hard time believing her. The thought of inadvertently introducing Midoriya to Endeavor’s scorn was too much to bear. It wasn’t worth the risk. On the other hand, his mother would probably be a mixture of relieved and pleased to find out he had a social life. At first Shouto hadn’t told her about Midoriya because he wanted to keep the experiments a secret. Now, it was because…

She’d see right through me in a second. She’d know how bad I have it for this boy, and she’d probably pressure me to do something about it instead of pining away like a coward.

Sensing an awkward situation, Midoriya quickly changed the topic of conversation. However, Shouto knew his friend would jump to the wrong, self-deprecating conclusions about never inviting him over to his house. He’d have to explain the real reasons later, when they were alone.

He wasn’t sure whose idea it was to watch a movie. Probably Midoriya, since there were so many movies he wanted to show Shouto. And it was a Friday night, and Shouto had nothing better to do, so after dinner he sat an agonizing three inches away from Midoriya on the couch and watched some show featuring a dog that made Midoriya cry. Shouto didn’t pay much attention to the television. He was too busy checking the space between them, fighting the urge to close the gap. It helped a little that Mrs. Midoriya was in the recliner next to them.

He was so wrapped up in the bittersweet frustration that he didn’t notice the movie had ended until Midoriya said, “Oh crap, is it that late already? Um, I think you’d better hurry if you want to catch the last train.”

“Hurrying isn’t really something I’m good at,” Shouto replied, checking his phone.

It was past 11pm, and he had an onslaught of missed calls from his mother. Immediately, his stomach lurched. He knew exactly what his mother assumed had happened to him, and he was a terrible excuse of a son for putting her through it.

“Um, we could call a ride, I guess,” Midoriya said under his breath. “Although that’s kind of expensive and I feel really bad for not watching the time better. I can help you pay.”

“You’re welcome to stay the night if that’s easier,” Inko suggested. “We don’t have an extra room, but I have a spare futon in the closet.”

“M om, ” Midoriya stage-whispered, “we’re too old for sleepovers.”

“Oh nonsense. I used to crash at my friends’ places all the time when I was your age,” she said, waving her hand.

While they continued to debate, Shouto hit the call button on his phone. He brought it to his ear like he expected it to shock him. He deserved some sort of divine punishment for this.

His mother picked up on the first ring.

“Shouto? Are you okay?” she asked, voice strained.

“Yes. I’m fine. I’m sorry. My phone was on silent and I lost track of time.”

On the other end of the line, he heard Rei heave a sigh of relief.

“Thank goodness. I was so worried. I was about to call your father.”

“I’m fine. I promise.”

Alerted by the grave tone of his voice, both Midoriyas stopped talking to listen in. The fact made Shouto self-conscious.

“Where are you?” his mother asked. “Do you need me to come get you? I don’t think the trains run this late.”

“Yeah, I think I missed the last one,” Shouto said. “It’s a long drive from where you are, though. I can get a taxi.”

Behind her son, Mrs. Midoriya was miming something. She pillowed her head on her hands in mock sleep, then pointed emphatically to the floor. The message was obvious.

Sleep here.

It would save him money, and it was late. And he wanted an excuse so, so desperately.

“Just a second, mom,” he said, covering the end of the phone with his hand. Looking into Midoriya’s eyes, he asked, “Is it really okay if I stay the night? That would be easier than working out a ride. Only if that’s okay with you, though.”

“I mean, if you don’t mind staying in my room,” he replied, shrugging.

That was good enough for Shouto. Raising the phone back up, he said, “Actually, mom, there’s been a change of plans. I’ll be staying the night at a friend’s.”

Chapter Text

His mother had been incredulous, yet quick to agree. He was sure she would have questions when he got home. Like where exactly he had pulled this mysterious friend from, and how he impulsively decided to spend the night at their house.

It was still sinking in. He was spending the night at Midoriya’s place.

Don’t make it weird. You’ll scare him off.

“I haven’t had a friend sleep over since I was a little kid,” Midoriya commented, helping his mom retrieve the spare futon from the closet.

“I never had sleepovers as a kid,” Shouto replied.

He’d heard other children in grade-school talk about going over to their friends’ houses, the excitement of sleeping in a unfamiliar place. It had sounded like a strange ritual to him. Granted, he’d had experiences staying the night with someone else as an adult, but it wasn’t the same thing. He was in uncharted territory.

“Try not to stay up too late, you two,” Mrs. Midoriya said, her inner mother-hen raising its head.

“We’re adults, mom, we can figure it out,” Midoriya called back.

Futon slung over his shoulder, he led Shouto to his room. The All Might memorabilia wasn’t as impressive when cast in shadow. It felt less like a shrine and more like a memorial display.

Unrolling the futon, Midoriya told him, “You can go ahead and take my bed tonight. I’m not forcing you to sleep on the floor.”

“I’m not kicking you out of your own bed,” Shouto scoffed. “Besides, I sleep on a futon at home.”

“Really?” Midoriya asked, surprised. “But isn’t that kinda...you know, inconvenient with crutches? Besides, our floors are really too hard for a futon to be comfortable.”

Midoriya was in stubborn mode, and Shouto was pretty sure the only way he was getting the futon was to wrestle it out of Midoriya’s hands. It wasn’t that he minded the idea of sleeping in Midoriya’s bed, just that he would prefer not to kick the owner out.

“You know, we could always just share the bed,” he suggested.

Just some platonic bed sharing. Normal friend stuff. I wouldn’t be horny about it.

“It’s a twin, so it would never fit both of us,” Midoriya explained, giving the laugh Shouto had come to recognize as a sign of nervousness. He didn’t make eye contact with Shouto as he adjusted the blanket on top of the futon. Knowing he was treading dangerously close to crossing a comfort boundary, Shouto didn’t press the issue.

“Do you want to borrow something more comfortable to sleep in? I have stuff that will fit you,” Midoriya offered, opening a dresser drawer and rifling through it. He pulled out some sweatpants and an old All Might shirt. All things considered, it was about as fashionable as could be expected from his friend. Midoriya took his own pajamas to the bathroom to change, leaving Shouto privacy to slip into the borrowed clothes. He gave the shirt a curious sniff as he pulled it over his head.

Not weird. Just normal second-hand smelling my friend.

It smelled less like Midoriya and more like clean laundry, though. The bed, on the other hand...when Shouto got in it he buried his face in the pillows and inhaled. That was what Midoriya smelled like. Fresh rain, slight hint of musk, complex and filling.

Maybe it’s a good thing Midoriya didn’t want to share the bed. I’m definitely being a little bit horny about this.

He did his best to reign it in, promising he wouldn’t make things weird for Midoriya, who seemed completely oblivious to any sort of sexual subtext of lending his bed out. By the time his friend returned, Shouto had himself under control and acted as if he hadn’t just been huffing Midoriya’s scent off the bed like it was high-grade cocaine.

“So since you’re the sleepover expert,” Shouto began, “I expect you to show me the ropes. Are we going to stay up all night sharing secrets?”

“We could!” Midoriya said, completely oblivious to the sarcasm in Shouto’s words. He plopped down on the futon and hugged a pillow to his chest. “You already know most of my secrets, though. Uh, I guess I’ll have to think of something to say.”

“You don’t actually have to tell me anything,” Shouto replied. “I was mostly joking.”

“I don’t want to waste this opportunity,” Midoriya said. “Maybe I can ask you for your secrets.”

Shouto’s gut twisted, and he was sure the cringe was visible on his face. Immediately, Midoriya chuckled.

“It’s fine, I won’t harass you. I know you like your privacy.”

“I’m like you, though,” Shouto explained. “You already know most of my secrets. And it’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s just that I don’t like to talk about some topics.”

Midoriya leaned forward until his chin rested on the edge of the bed. He looked up at Shouto with sympathetic eyes.

“Sometimes talking about stuff helps, you know?”

“You’ve given me that advice before. That’s how I wound up going to a therapist, remember?” Shouto shot back.

Midoriya giggled as if he were proud of that accomplishment. He reclined back on the futon, and immediately Shouto missed his closeness. In response, Shouto leaned over the edge of the bed so that he could look over it. If he reached down, he could probably run his fingers through Midoriya’s fluffy hair. He resisted the urge.

“I guess now that I think about it, I do have a question for you,” Shouto said. “Why did you invite Bakugou to dinner tonight? Especially when you’re still obviously scared of him.”

“I’m not scared of him,” Midoriya defended.

That’s not the way it looked to me, Shouto thought, thinking back on how nervous Midoriya had been. However, he didn’t contest the point, just kept silently staring in wait for an answer.

Unable to bear the silence, Midoriya sighed and said, “I knew he would say no. But I just wanted to reach out to him. I want him to know...that I’m better now.”

Bakugou had mentioned knowing about Midoriya being a shut-in. More correctly, he had mocked him for it.

“Why is it any of his business?” Shouto asked. As much as he would like to pretend otherwise, it bothered him that Bakugou knew more about Midoriya’s history than he did.

“Because I think he blames himself a little,” Midoriya answered. He was looking past Shouto, not really seeing anything. “And before you say anything, no, it wasn’t Kacchan’s fault.”

Midoriya had read his mind, because Shouto was about to ask exactly that. From what he knew of Midoriya and Bakugou’s past, it wouldn’t have surprised him to find out that some traumatic event between the two had spurred Midoriya into isolation. Even if his friend adamantly denied it, Shouto didn’t think a childhood of bullying was without consequence. Even if Bakugou hadn’t been the final straw, he had played some part in Midoriya’s social struggles.

“He came to see me once,” Midoriya continued unprompted. “After I had stopped leaving my room. I hadn’t seen him for months, since he started going to U.A. I mean, I still followed all his social media, but I hadn’t actually seen him in person.”

“He came to visit you? That doesn’t sound like Bakugou.”

This got a laugh from Midoriya, but it was strained and sad.

“Yeah, well, he only came to yell at me. His mother had told him about how I wasn’t going outside. At this point, I hadn’t seen anyone besides my mom in weeks. And then he banged on my door and demanded to talk to me,” Midoriya recalled with a grimace. “He called me a loser, pathetic, the usual. Nothing I hadn’t heard before. But that time it really hurt.”

“Why?” Shouto asked.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but I guess I was hoping someone would come save me. Like I was waiting for someone to knock on my door and pull me outside. I just wanted someone to notice I was gone and miss me.”

“Well Bakugou did notice,” Shouto pointed out. “He just had a terrible way of showing it.”

“Yeah,” Midoriya agreed. “I think in his own way, that was him trying to motivate me. He was always pushing me to be tougher.”

Shouto thought back to one of the disastrous drills where he had been teamed with Bakugou and Aoyama. The entire time Bakugou had made an effort to abandon the blond boy on the course for “being dead weight.” That was in the brief period where he and Shouto were tolerating each other, and he had claimed that a “one-trick horse with glitter for brains” didn’t deserve to run in the same league as the two top students in class. Aoyama had done his best to prove him wrong, wearing the same unmoving smile and acting, as he always did, as if he wasn’t completely aware of reality around him. Afterwards, the boy had excused himself to the bathroom and not returned for the rest of class, and rumor had it he had been violently ill from pushing himself to keep up. That had been Bakugou’s version of sympathetic and motivating. Shouto hadn’t stood up to him because it hadn’t seemed worth the effort. He still felt guilty over that.

“It’s funny, though,” Midoriya mused, smiling to himself. “I never would have considered calling out to him before. I knew the answer was no. But now, it doesn’t bother me as much. It doesn’t feel like I lost my best friend because he rose too high for me to reach. It’s more...we’re on equal ground now, we just happen to be going in opposite directions.”

Privately, Shouto thought that Midoriya was more than Bakugou’s equal, but he wasn’t about to start a fight. He just grunted in agreement.

“Now it’s my turn to ask a question,” Midoriya said. Shouto didn’t like the mischievous gleam in his eye. “I kinda get the feeling that your dislike for Kacchan isn’t your usual hatred of people in general-”

“I don’t hate people,” Shouto interrupted, defensive. Midoriya gave a disbelieving chuckle.

“Well, okay, maybe hate is a strong word. But you aren’t very outgoing. Except with Kacchan, it’s not just that you don’t want to make an effort. You really hate his guts, don’t you?”

Shouto sighed and let his head fall back to the bed. Here he was with Midoriya, alone, late at night, and somehow they had ended up talking about Bakugou. Shouto was the one who had brought him up, but still. He did not enjoy being cockblocked by a boy who wasn’t even present.

“He’s so loud,” Shouto replied. That didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the problems he had with Katsuki Bakugou, but it was a start. “It’s like someone broke the volume controls on his voice box. No matter what he does, he has to make sure everyone in a ten mile radius knows it.”

For a moment, Midoriya mulled over that information. Rising to his knees, he propped his elbows on the bed and looked into Shouto’s eyes.

“Maybe I’m extrapolating here, but do you not like loud people because you feel like they’re yelling at you?”

“Bakugou yells at everyone all the time.”

“True,” Midoriya agreed, “but specifically, um, I know I tend to panic a little when people shout at me. And sometimes they don’t have to be shouting at me, or even shouting at all. If they talk too loud I feel attacked.”

Given Midoriya’s timid disposition, that made sense. Shouto wasn’t so sure it applied to him.

“I’m pretty immune to being shouted at,” he said. “I grew up around it.”

Midoriya’s mouth twisted into a frown. Shouto felt himself tensing in response, getting ready to tell his friend that he didn’t need pity and he was tough and he could take it, and all the things he grew up repeating to himself as a mantra. Before he could, Midoriya reached out and took his hand. Every rational brain cell Shouto had left on vacation immediately.

He wanted to take ten hours to appreciate the sensation of Midoriya’s fingers intertwined with his own. Not a hand offered to help him stand up or steady him as he walked. One offered just for the sensation of skin against skin. He was so wrapped up in it that he almost missed Midoriya’s words when he spoke.

“Do you think one of the reasons you dislike Kacchan so much is because he reminds you of your father?”

Shouto felt a wave of heat wash over him. Of course his Quirk would choose now to activate and cut his hand-holding short. As his body spiked in temperature, he tried to withdraw his left hand from Midoriya’s grip. In response, he felt a wave of cool as the boy used his own Quirk to balance out Shouto’s touch. He had forgotten that Midoriya could insulate himself from Shouto’s erratic power surges.

“I know it’s none of my business, so I won’t pry,” Midoriya reassured.

Looking into his eyes, Shouto thought, Maybe I want you to pry. Maybe you wouldn’t look at me differently after I told you everything.

He’d never wanted to share his traumatic childhood with anyone before. Bits and pieces had come out over the years to his classmates. Usually by accident, always regretted later. Once people knew he had been a helpless victim, it was harder for them to see him as a hero. However, keeping up that facade wasn’t as important to him as it used to be.

“I never made the connection,” Shouto responded quietly, “but maybe you’re right. Bakugou’s loud and violent. He does remind me a lot of my dad. Always looking for something to kick around so he can feel more powerful than everyone else.”

Midoriya didn’t let go of his hand. Shouto was still putting off heat like an oven, but Midoriya countered it with his own power, cool and immovable. There was silence, but it wasn’t the sort of prickly quiet that came with being uncomfortable. Midoriya wasn’t mute from shock. He was just listening. So Shouto continued.

“I can’t stand people like my dad. Ones obsessed with being the best, even if it means tearing down everyone around them. Bakugou always rubbed me the wrong way; I just never put two and two together,” he explained, shrugging.

Nodding, Midoriya ran his thumb in slow circles against Shouto’s hand.

“That makes sense,” he said. “I guess I can’t blame you for not liking him, then.”

“Don’t get me wrong, that’s not the only reason I hate Bakugou,” Shouto clarified. “I have a whole list of everything about him that rubs me the wrong way.”

This pulled a laugh from Midoriya, who buried his face in the side of the mattress.

“You know, I spent a long time miserable over losing my friendship with Kacchan,” Midoriya confided. “I was always afraid that I’d never make another friend like him. That I’d go the rest of my life feeling a little bit empty, because there was a spot no one else could fill. But lately, it hasn’t worried me as much. I think I’ve found someone I can call a best friend.”

Midoriya’s cheeks were flushed. Shouto didn’t know if it was the heat he was putting off finally getting to the boy, or if it was nerves. This was a confession. Maybe not the confession Shouto wanted, but...Midoriya was admitting how important Shouto was to him. Right now occupying that slot, being that number one person, was all he ever wanted.

“You’re my best friend, too,” Shouto replied. It wasn’t like Midoriya had much competition, but that didn’t diminish how sincerely Shouto meant it.

“Um, if you’re interested, you could call me by my first name,” Midoriya squeaked. “I mean only if you want to.”

Shouto’s Quirk went from a steady smoulder to a flash of inferno. Midoriya winced around his grip.

Misinterpreting Shouto’s flare up, Midoriya said, “Sorry, I guess that was too direct. I didn’t mean-”

“You can call me by my first name too,” Shouto rushed.

His heart was beating 100 miles an hour. Part of it was nerves, but the other part was elation. Had he already gone to sleep? When he woke up tomorrow, would this closeness fade like a dream?

Midoriya’s hand in his felt very, very real.

He wanted to stay like that forever, but all too soon Midoriya was pulling away to lay back down on the futon.

“Okay, well we shouldn’t stay up all night,” Midoriya said. “I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight, Shouto.”

“Goodnight, Izuku.”

Chapter Text

It had been a week since spending the night at Midoriya’s. Or rather, at Izuku’s. He was still trying to adjust to the change, testing the name out in his free time.

Now was not free time. It was another night of playing mission control for the Network while they investigated leads. Last night, Shinsou had informed him they had a possible match on one of All For One’s known associates in the area, and they were tracking him down. Normally Shouto only worked when Midoriya( Izuku ) was on patrol, since he was the newbie in need of the most help and they only had one functional bodycam setup. Also because he was frankly more invested in his friend’s well-being than anyone else’s. However, Shinsou had told him this was important, so he was manning the station in case there was an emergency.

Instead of looking through Izuku’s perspective, Hydrophobe wore the camera-synced vest and helmet, since they were the closest to Izuku’s size and the second greenest in terms of experience.

“So like are we gonna stand here all night or what, bossman?” Flashback whined into her mic.

Shouto had never worked with her before, and he was quickly hoping to never work with her again. For someone so small, she produced a prodigious amount of complaining.

“The target is currently walking with a group of three other men,” came Shinsou’s tired reply. “I’ll let you know when it’s safe to close in.”

Shouto wished Shinsou was the one touting around the camera gear, since his view was likely the most interesting, perched atop a nearby roof. However, Shinsou had been adamant about Shouto watching over the newest and most vulnerable members.

“Ugh, can’t you just tie them all up?” she whined.

“Not a good idea to start a fight with a bunch of people when you don’t know what their Quirks are,” Shouto explained, trying to hide the irritation in his voice.

Hydrophobe’s cameras were angled at her, allowing Shouto to get a good view of her throwing her head back and groaning in exasperation. Like most of the Network, her costume was mostly no-frills body armor. Apparently Amalgaknight was the only one who bothered spending large amounts of money ordering custom gear. Everyone else settled for a few touches of personalization over the standard uniform, such as Flashback’s oversized nightvision goggles that gave her an owlish appearance.

“Looks like he’s splitting off from his party,” Shinsou said. “I’ll approach him casually and see if I can get him to engage in conversation. Head to my coordinates.”

“Finally,” Flashback groused, breaking into a sprint. “Come on, Hyd, I’ll race you.”

“Seems unnecessary,” Hydrophobe replied, following after in a light jog. It was the first thing they had said all evening. Shouto had been concerned their microphone wasn’t on.

Through Shinsou’s communication system, Shouto heard a gruff, “Hey, watch it.”

“You watch it!” a voice shouted back.

Got him.

It was the old ‘accidentally bumping shoulders with someone and then acting offended’ trick Shinsou liked to pull on unsuspecting victims. Normally, Shinsou’s powers weren’t good for interrogation or tracking. People couldn’t use their higher brain functions when they were under his thrall, meaning he couldn’t ask them any questions or find out where they were going. He was built for subduing and controlling perpetrators. However, when paired up with his crew, he was much more effective.

By the time Hydrophobe arrived on the scene, Flashback was in position, staring straight into the man’s eyes. Shinsou’s Quirk made it so he stood still and unresisting. The lens of her goggles popped up so that she could make direct eye contact.

“Be ready for when she breaks it off,” Shinsou instructed Hydrophobe as they pulled up to the group. “He’ll probably be too on guard to talk to me again. We’ll need you to make sure we make a clean getaway.”

“Glad I can be useful,” Hydrophobe replied.

Flashback’s eyes sparked, and the stray bits of silver hair not pulled back into her bun frizzed out with static electricity. In response, the man she stared at shuddered then went rigid. As long as they were like this, all of Flashback’s other senses would be cut off. She was helpless for as long as she played around in the man’s memory, meaning her teammates had to keep watch.

“Mission Control, I slipped a GPS tracker into his pocket when we bumped,” Shinsou said. “If he’s smart, he’ll find it and destroy it. On the off chance he’s an idiot, which isn’t too unlikely, can you make sure the computer is recording his movements?”

“Can do,” Shouto replied, flipping through his applications.

He still didn’t feel like the most qualified person in the world to be running tech support like this. However, he was picking up on things quickly. It was pretty standard for Shinsou to slip a tracer onto his targets, and they had several active GPS signals to keep track of. Most went offline after a few hours when the targets found and destroyed them or washed their clothes, etc. Even when they survived, they usually just ended up languishing in a laundry pile, showing no interesting movement for weeks on end.

“How long do you think she’ll be in there?” Hydrophobe asked, their camera turning to look at Flashback as they spoke.

“Could take a while,” Shinsou replied. “We’re looking for any contact with criminal organizations, but since we don’t have a specific timeframe we’re searching for, she’ll just have to go back through his memories one by-”

His explanation was cut short by a crashing from the street corner. Both of them whipped around to see a large man with a mutation-type rhino Quirk marching towards them.

“Shit,” Shinsou muttered under his breath. “That’s one of the people he was with earlier. Don’t know what tipped them off, but we have to jump ship. I’ll stall, you get Flashback out of here.”

Hydrophobe rushed to comply. Shouto was already drafting an escape route and sending the coordinates to them.

“Be on guard,” he warned. “His other friends could be circling around, too, trying to box us in. I’m sending you out the backway.”

“Thanks,” Hydrophobe replied. “I would prefer not to die tonight. I’ve got a dentist appointment tomorrow.”

Shouto legitimately didn’t know the hero well enough to tell if they were joking or not.

Through the camera, he saw Hydrophobe take hold of Flashback’s shoulder and give her a rough shake.

“Come on, friend, time to wake up.”

As Flashback regained her senses, so did her target. It didn’t do him any good, though. Before he could blink his eyes, Hydrophobe held up both hands and sent him catapulting back into the wall with a crack.

“Whoops. That was more forceful than I meant it to be,” Hydrophobe said. “You don’t think I seriously hurt him, do you? Should I check?”

“He has a concussion at worst. Don’t waste time,” Shouto ordered.

Flashback shook her head and glanced around, taking in the situation.

“So I guess we’re hightailing it?” she said.

“Yes. Now,” Shouto answered.

In Hydrophobe’s rear camera, he could see Shinsou struggling to avoid the man with the rhino Quirk. Apparently he wasn’t much of a talker, since Shinsou hadn’t been able to brainwash him. However, Shinsou was seasoned enough to be able to dodge around the man’s wild swings.

“I was just getting to the good stuff, too,” Flashback whined as she broke into a run. She was fast, but now that Hydrophobe was actually serious, they were able to outpace her on their long legs.

“Don’t get too far apart from each other,” Shouto warned. “Flashback doesn’t have the offensive capabilities to take on a group.”

“I have my natural charm!” Flashback said, affronted. Shouto rolled his eyes, even though she wouldn’t be able to see it.

Once they were safely down a couple of streets, Shouto switched over to Shinsou’s radio.

“They’re out of range. You can disengage now,” he said over the radio.

“Good,” came the response, “I was starting to work up a sweat.”

Even if he didn’t have visuals on Shinsou, he had a GPS display on the man’s current location. He watched the blip begin to move as Shinsou made his escape, tracking across rooftops where his opponent couldn’t follow. His other charges had also avoided detection, and Shouto routed them to rendezvous with their boss.

“Well, we failed the stealth part,” Shinsou reflected when they were all safely back together and heading for the safehouse. “They won’t know exactly what we did, but they’ll know something’s up. That means they’ll be on guard.”

“I’m not so sure about the ‘we failed’ part, since I didn’t screw up,” Flashback preened. “I didn’t get enough time to get in deep, but I went back about two weeks. As far as I could tell, tonight he was just hanging out with some old drinking buddies. People with shady backgrounds, sure, but they weren’t doing anything illegal.”

“So this was a total wash?” Hydrophobe asked.

“Umm,” Flashback mused, chewing on one nail, “there was definitely some stuff. I don’t get sound in the memories, so I can’t tell you the conversations word for word, but I get echoes of his feelings. And there was one person he met up with a couple of weeks ago that put him on edge. Judging from context, it felt like someone he owed money to, but that could be something, I guess?”

As they walked back to the safehouse, Flashback discussed what she had experienced though the man’s memories. Her Quirk only let her see and feel what the other person recalled, which meant it was often hazy or missing pieces, and was definitely influenced by the subject’s biases. However, it was a useful enough ability to make her the Network’s primary interrogator and information collector. She told them how the man had met someone at a bar, a place that was ordinary enough it hadn’t left a strong impression on him. Not much in the way of concrete memories about the actual building. However, the man had remembered it was next to a bookstore and approximately how far away it was from his home. They could triangulate its location later based on that information.

“So like, this wasn’t a regular meeting,” she explained, “because he didn’t know where the place was. He was using his phone for directions to get there.”

“Which means they could be smart and change the location of their meetings every time,” Shinsou mused. “In that case, tracking down this bar wouldn’t be useful. We’ll have to chase the lead anyways to be safe. Can you give us a description of the person he met with?”

“I can do you one better,” Flashback said. “Get me some paper, and I can give you a sketch.”

When they got back to the safehouse, she did just that. Grabbing a spare sheet of paper, she did her best to recreate what she had seen in the man’s memory.

“You have to understand that people’s memories aren’t accurate, per se,” she explained as she sketched. “That’s why my Quirk isn’t admissible in court. Kinda ruined my dreams of being a forensics expert. Anyways, certain features are exaggerated or distorted if they left a strong impression. The stuff that sticks out is sometimes all I see. Like just a floating pair of violet eyes in an otherwise featureless face, if that’s all the person remembers.”

“So this isn’t going to be very useful in actually tracking anyone down?” Shouto guessed.

It was hard not to be disappointed that they were running into another dead end.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Flashback reassured. “We sort of struck gold. Turns out the person our boy was talking to is pretty distinctive. I just want to give you a heads up that I can’t be sure this is exactly what they look like. It’s probably taken to some extremes.”

On the paper, she was slowly sketching out a form. Long and angular, more bone than actual person. A face with piercing eyes and stringy hair.

“This ballpoint pen isn’t exactly great for detail work,” she complained, “but they had what looked like a rash on the top half of their head. At least, the dude thought it was a rash.”

She scratched over the top half of the face, thin lines carving through the skin around the eyes. She also drew one slash across the lips.

As she added more details to the sketch, she continued, “All they did was sit and talk. I didn’t hear what they said, of course, but our target was scared. This man didn’t do anything threatening, just sat there and nursed his drink and barely looked at the dude while he talked. But the whole time, our boy was freaking out. He was almost claustrophobic, you know? Like he felt too close to this other man.”

She was scribbling in the clothes now, filling them with black ink.

“Okay, don’t make fun of me for how bad I am at drawing this, cause like I said, not an artist.”

Her audience of three leaned over to watch as she drew. Over the clothing, she sketched jagged shapes stretching over the man’s arms, shoulders, neck.

“Is that...some kind of body armor?” Hydrophobe asked, tilting their head inquisitively.

“I fucking said I wasn’t an artist!” Flashback snarled. “No, it’s not armor.”

She held up the finished sketch so everyone could get a better view of it.

“See?” she said defensively, gesturing to the drawing. “It’s not armor. It’s hands.”

The thin figure glared at them from the paper, covered in several sets of disembodied hands.

“That’s our guy then,” Shinsou replied. “Now we just need to put a name to the face.”

“Should be easy enough if he has a criminal history,” Shouto said. “That’s a distinctive getup.”

“Hopefully it’s the same outfit he wears when commiting crime, and not just his casual bar hopping suit,” Hydrophobe pointed out, then when everyone gave them a look defended, “You never know. Sometimes fashion is weird like that.”

“Either way, can I take this sketch to Mid- I mean Iz- Deku ?” Shouto asked.

Damn it I have too many names for that boy.

“You think he’s more reliable than a police database?” Flashback said.

“If the police database can’t give us anything, he might have some internet friends who can help us,” Shouto replied, thinking of Izuku’s extensive history of lurking on chatrooms. Honestly, he wouldn’t be surprised if the man was more reliable than a police search.

“Good to know tonight wasn’t a complete waste,” Shinsou said. “Let’s hope this new lead takes us somewhere interesting.”

Looking at the spectral figure on the paper, Shouto was pretty sure “interesting” was exactly where they were heading.

Chapter Text

[BigBoss] Bad news, crew. I couldn’t find the book we were looking for in the library. Which means if we want to track this particular book down, we’re gonna have to go a little off road with our digging.

[BeKindRewind] Boooooooo

[Houston] That’s fine. I’m meeting up with Deku today. I’ll give him the...book summary? And then see if he can track anything down.

[FrostedFlames] Yeah! I know a ton of villain junkies online who can help.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] It sure is great. That you have friends. With knowledge relevant to the current book we are reading. For our bookclub.

[RatedG] I respect your commitment to the bit, but Jesus Christ Al, lighten up once in a while.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] What bit? We are all just friends who looooove to read.

[BeKindRewind] No but seriously, your paranoia is pretty extreme, and coming from me that’s saying something.

[Cave_Johnson] Come on guys. Don’t make fun of Al just because he’s an enormous nerd.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] Hammer I trusted you to have my back.

[Cave_Johnson] I do have your back. I’m just going to make fun of you while I do it.

[SkitterCritter] I still think you’re cool Al

[BeKindRewind] Sweetie your standards are too low.

[THISISACLEVERNAME] @BigBoss everyone is being mean to me!

[BigBoss] Good.

[BigBoss] You deserve it.

 

Shouto decided he’d had enough of the groupchat for the time being, so he tucked his phone away. It was disappointing that they didn’t have an immediate hit on their suspect. Not only did that mean more leg work, it also meant that whoever they were chasing wasn’t already linked to several crimes. If this figure was associated with some sort of shadowy underground villain cult, they would have to prove crimes before turning them over to the police.

Most likely this person is just some sort of middleman. A nobody messenger.

Shouto pulled out the sketch to look it over again. Shinsou had taken a picture of it so he could run it against the police database, but it wasn’t surprising nothing had turned up. It wasn’t exactly the most photorealistic rendition in the world.

He was on his way to the university for another testing session with Izuku. As excited as he was to see his friend, he was also dreading today’s experiment. According to the mad scientist himself, today they were hooking him up to some sort of brainwave-reading machine and seeing what happened when he used his Quirk. More specifically, Izuku wanted to see how his emotions affected his control. That was not something Shouto was especially enthusiastic about pursuing: being emotional. In front of Izuku. On command.

“These helmets are pretty expensive,” Izuku explained as they set up the experiment, handing him the heavy half-sphere, “so we won’t be testing the fire half of your Quirk. Like really, try not to break these, because we had to borrow them from another lab, and they will not be happy if we return them broken.”

Shouto turned the object over in his hands. It looked like the torture device of the future. On the outside it was mostly featureless, but the inside contained several sensors that were supposed to press directly against his skin.

“This thing isn’t going to shock me, is it?” he asked.

“No,” Izuku reassured him. “It’s for receiving input, not giving output. It just monitors your brain and tells me what parts are active when.”

Grimacing, Shouto held it up to eye level. He didn’t like the idea of anyone getting a look inside his head. They might not like what they saw. He didn’t like what he saw, most of the time.

“I promise it won’t hurt.”

He looked at Izuku’s sincere, kind face. Physical pain wasn’t what Shouto was really worried about, but he couldn’t accurately express just why this device put him on edge.

Time to stop being such a baby and bite the bullet, he said to himself.

With a reluctant sigh, he slipped the helmet on. Izuku had one to match, and he put his on as well. His hair puffed out from the bottom like fur trim on a fancy jacket. He looked more than a little ridiculous. Also adorable. Always adorable.

“The helmets will transmit the data back to my computer,” Izuku explained. “It’s actually a lot of raw figures to work with, so I’ll have to go through and decipher what everything means later. For now, we’ll just worry about giving me something interesting to look at. I’ll be the control, and we’ll compare my results against yours.”

“Great,” Shouto muttered, “you get a chance to show me up.”

He knew he was being pissy, but it was like he was watching himself in third person. He was merely an observer to his own infantile insecurities.

Rather than be taken aback, Izuku just placed a reassuring hand on his arm.

“Hey, we’re here to find a way to make you better, okay? I promise I won’t let it go to my head if I happen to be able to use my Quirk better than you when you are literally suffering from a debilitating case of Quirk Degeneration,” he said, giving Shouto a reassuring squeeze. “Especially since it’s the only time I’d even stand a chance.”

“I’m not entirely convinced that’s true,” Shouto replied, forcing a smile. “You’ve improved your Quirk so much lately, you could probably give me a decent fight.”

He wasn’t a reassuring person by nature, but it felt right to build Izuku up rather than tear him down.

“Okay, I’ll go first,” Izuku volunteered, “since I’m less likely to destroy the room than you.”

Shouto rolled his eyes at the jab, and Izuku shot him a grin. Standing in the middle of the room, the man went through the paces of his usual warm-ups. They had developed a makeshift kata for him to run through, basic punches and kicks accompanied by ice. Watching Izuku move was hypnotic. He’d shed his hesitance, motions now fluid and powerful. The effect was only mildly ruined by the ugly testing jumpsuit they were both wearing.

“Your turn!” he chirped when he was done, clearing away the built up ice with a wave of his left hand. Even his fire half he had so much control over now. Maybe it was because he had started learning as an adult, but he was learning so much faster than Shouto had back when he first began training. At age five. Yeah, being an adult probably gave him significant advantage.

With a sigh, Shouto positioned himself in the middle of the room.

“This time, use your power normally,” Izuku instructed from the sidelines. “Then we’ll do another take and compare how emotions impact your control.”

“Great,” Shouto replied.

Like Izuku had done before him, he started with several deep breaths to focus. He could feel the cold gather, especially in his right knee where the joint ached with the sudden temperature change. Raising his hand, he let the power flow out. And out. And out. As always, once it was on it was like trying to redirect and avalanche with a paper fan. All he could do was stop feeding it and wait for it to peter out.

“Hey, that only took 21 seconds to turn off,” Izuku said when the final flakes of frost fell from his fingertips. “That’s actually really good!”

It’s pathetic, but thanks for pretending otherwise.

“Okay, we’re gonna do it again, but this time, I want you to think about something that evokes an emotional response before you start using your Quirk.”

They had discussed this beforehand, but now that it came time to do it, Shouto was at a loss for what exactly he should think of. Izuku had told him not to think of anything too upsetting, just something that would get his heart beating a little faster. A five on a ten point scale. Did his emotions have gradients like that? For him, it was a lot like his Quirk. They were either gone completely or all there and uncontrollable.

Think of something older. Not recent. Emotions have expiration dates.

The idea was to think of something traumatic that had happened a while ago, so it wasn’t as fresh.

Shouto thought of the day he got the eviction notice in the mail. Of when he had come face-to-face with the fact that he no longer had the funds or the means to continue living on his own. Of the realization that he either had to move back in with his parents, or be homeless, or create a third option.

The emotions came fast. Time had done nothing to dull that sense of panic, of helplessness. His Quirk responded, but once again the reigns were wrested from his hands. He felt the temperature in his body shift, going from cold to hot in an instant.

No, not that one, he thought to himself violently. Don’t do this.

But it wasn’t up to him anymore. His body was determined to lash out, and he was just a spectator.

Rather than risk melting his crutch, he released the handhold as flames ignited on his fingertips.

“Shouto?” he heard Izuku ask behind him, concern in his voice.

As he fell to his knees, Shouto balled his left hand into a fist, trying to smother the fire. It wasn’t just his hand, though. He felt fire licking along his body, sprouting like weeds.

Izuku yanked the cord on the emergency shower above, and frigid water poured out and doused him. It was less like getting caught in a romantic rain and more like getting assaulted with a firehose. He felt a sting along his body as his flames met water and burst into steam.

As quickly as it began, it was over. The shower was off, his fire was extinguished, and he was a drenched, half-shirtless, shaking mess on the floor. He just wanted to stay that way, melt into a puddle and lay there until everything was gone. But of course Izuku was already hovering over him, assessing the damage and being so damn supportive.

“Oh gosh, it looks like you have burns from the steam. They don’t look bad, but we should probably put burn cream on them. Are you okay? Can you stand?”

“Is this helmet waterproof?” Shouto asked instead, because he currently couldn’t deal with his friend’s concern. “If not, then so much for returning it intact.”

“Uh, I mean there aren’t any sensors on the outside, so it’s a matter of how wet the inside got,” Izuku replied, gently taking the helmet from him and setting it aside. “That’s not really important right now. Let’s get you up and I’ll find you some burn cream while you change into dry clothes, okay?”

Shouto allowed himself to be helped up. He really didn’t feel like moving around, since he was still shivering from the water, but he forced himself to cooperate. When Izuku scampered off to grab a first aid kit, he peeled off the soggy jumpsuit and slipped back into his street clothes. He assumed after this they were done with testing for the day.

By the time Izuku came back, he was in dry clothing and had stopped shaking.

“I’m not that worried about the burns,” he insisted as his friend inspected the red streak along his arm. “It isn’t even blistering.”

I guess I’m more resistant to boiling water now than when I was a kid.

“Well I think I’m ready to make my next hypothesis about your Quirk Degeneration,” Izuku said, applying the cream regardless. “I predict there is a fair chance that the problem stems from your brain’s ability to turn your power on and off. There’s not a lot of solid data on how exactly the human brain interacts with and influences Quirks, but the fact that your emotions appear to strongly affect your ability to control them suggests something in the amygdala, which is weird because motor skills are in the cortex and most people assume Quirk control is located there, but-”

He was in science mode now, rambling away. Shouto let him, since he didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. After Izuku had taken care of his injuries and continued to speculate about what exactly was wrong with his brain, Shouto fished through his backpack until he found the drawing of the villain.

“Here,” he interjected, forcing it into Izuku’s hands. “This is the guy we are looking for. Ring any bells?”

Chewing his lip, Izuku looked over the picture for a solid minute.

“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. At least, nothing exact. But I’ll ask around.”

“Good,” Shouto replied, reaching for his crutches. “If there’s anyone I trust to find an obscure villain on the internet, it’s you.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had enough failure for one day.

He knew it was stupid to be so self-conscious about one slip-up in front of Izuku. However, his friend’s opinion had come to mean a lot to him. He wasn’t used to caring about what someone else thought about him, and that made the pain of embarrassment all the more acute. So while the other boy was already wrapped up in theories and muttering under his breath, Shouto slipped out to go home and nurse his wounded pride.

Chapter Text

It didn't take Izuku long to dig up information. A couple of days later, the Network gathered for another meeting so he could share his findings.

“So the good news is that I got positive hits,” Izuku said, spreading several files across the padded mats lining the floor. “The bad news is I got several positive hits, not all of them consistent. We’re gonna need to narrow it down.”

“You mean there’s multiple people out there who accessorize with severed hands?” Amalgaknight asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“It’s kind of hard to be sure,” Izuku explained. “It could be multiple people. Or just differing accounts of the same person. However, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is this.”

Flipping open one of the folders, he took out several pictures. Some of them looked like official mug shots, while others had the clarity of blurry Bigfoot photos. Shinsou crouched over the assortment, shuffling them around with one finger.

“There’s this rumor about a gang. An offshoot of one of All For One’s more organized circles, that was active around six to seven years ago. It’s been pretty quiet since then, with most of the members dropping off the map. However, apparently their symbol was a bloody handprint.”

“Do any of these look familiar to you?” Shinsou asked, handing Shouto the pictures.

He flipped through them. It was an eclectic group of people for sure. Most criminal groups were like that, made of the stray bits of society that didn’t fit in anywhere else. People with extreme mutant-type bodies or dangerous Quirks, scars that spoke of a troubled past, the like. Unfortunately, none of the faces were ones he recognized from his career.

“If they ceased activity six years ago, that’s before I was active in the field,” he said, and Shinsou nodded in agreement. Their careers were too young to remember these faces.

“And we can’t ask the database, because someone has been sneaky enough to purge their files,” Hammerspace mused. “That means our only real chance is to ask a Hero who was active around that time who might have had first-hand encounters with them.”

“I have several contacts I can try,” Shinsou said. “Although since these were never high-profile criminals to begin with, we might have to cast a broad net.”

“What do you mean ‘we’?” Amalgaknight asked. “The only ones who have legitimate Hero connections are you and climate control over there.”

“Then we’ll be the ones to lead the charge on this,” Shinsou replied, scooping the pictures back into the file.

I haven’t kept in contact with many of my old colleagues. I’m not sure who I can ask out of the blue. Really, the only Pro I talk to on a regular basis that was active that long ago is my dad. And I talk to him out of necessity, not enjoyment.

He doubted he could approach his father without arousing suspicion. The very idea of willingly initiating a conversation with him was in and of itself suspicious. No, he would have to look elsewhere.

As always, Izuku had come prepared, and he had an extra copy of the files for Shouto to take with him. Meeting adjourned, Shouto returned home. He spent a fair amount of the evening perusing through the pictures, hoping something would jog his memory. A clip he had seen on the news, or read about in a case file. Nothing.

There was no other recourse for him than to reach out to the tenuous connection he had to an older hero.

(S_T 8:11pm) Hey Iida

(S_T 8:11pm) Your brother still does consulting work for your firm, right?

(S_T 8:12pm) Do you think he would talk to me about this project I’m working on?

(T_I 8:20pm) Of course! I’m sure he’d love to talk to you. Swing by the agency tomorrow and I can set up a meeting.

It was a relief that Iida asked no questions, just jumped at the chance to help Shouto out. However, that did nothing to ease Shouto’s guilt at having to ask for assistance. It felt like he was always asking Iida for things, and never having anything to offer in return.

I did have that close encounter with his arsonist. Well, a second-hand close encounter. Not sure that counts. Maybe it’s information he could use.

It was a paltry offering, but Shouto felt better knowing he could give something. It helped him walk into the office with his head held high the next day, not feeling like a complete freeloader.

“Todoroki, you’re looking well,” Iida greeted him, clapping him on the shoulder.

Iida was probably busy, running an operation with more than fifty sidekicks. He had one of the largest Hero Agencies in the nation, and yet he still found time to personally greet and chaperone around an old friend. Of course, Shouto couldn’t help but feel that there might be some slight ulterior motives at play, as Iida’s small talk felt more like a sales pitch.

“We’re getting ready to expand our information department,” Iida said, gesturing to the rows of desks with a bunch of reedy, decidedly unheroic people typing away at computers. “Our office is built around teamwork and collaboration, and we believe that the assistance a Hero receives is just as crucial as any decisions they make on the field.”

For the most part, Shouto just observed and made the occasional grunt as Iida led him upstairs to one of the many conference rooms. Iida the elder was waiting for them, rubbing his chin in thought as he stared at his computer. When they entered the room, he looked up and broke into a grin.

“Todoroki! Last time I saw you, you were graduating UA,” he said, pivoting his wheelchair away from the table so they could shake hands.

“Yeah,” Shouto returned. “It’s been a while.”

He didn’t know what else to say to the man. Tensei Iida was practically a stranger to him, and obviously different enough from his little brother that he wasn’t sure how to interact with him. He figured that if he got this over with quickly enough, he wouldn’t have to worry about the awkwardness. He settled across the table from Tensei, and Iida sat down next to him as well. Shouto hadn’t known his friend would sit in, but he felt slightly better at having someone he knew how to talk to in the room.

“So what brings you here today?” Tensei asked

Shouto had no idea how he was going to frame his request without sounding suspicious. Technically he still had his license, so it’s not like he was doing anything illegal by poking around in old case files. However, why he would do it was another matter.

“I’ve sort of developed a hobby of...freelance consultation,” he replied, straight-faced. “I’ve been doing odd jobs for old classmates here and there, helping out with research they don’t have time for.”

That sounded plausible. After all, he had even done something similar for Iida, and he saw a spark of recognition in his friend’s face as he nodded.

“Anyways,” Shouto continued, “I’m in over my head with this most recent project. We’re trying to track down the current whereabouts of some former villains, to see if they can give us a lead on a case we’re working on, but the National Database is out of date and doesn’t have reliable information.”

“Really?” Iida asked to his side. “Usually the bureau is pretty good at keeping tabs on former perps, just in case this kind of thing happens.”

“Yeah, well, we suspect some sabotage is at work,” Shouto explained. “Anyways, I wanted to know if you recognize any of our persons of interest, since they were operating back when you were on active duty, and you might remember something that the records don’t have on file.”

Shouto pushed the folder across the table to Tensei, who picked it up and flipped through it. As he did, his face grew more serious, brow furrowing as if recalling something half-remembered.

“Is this who I think it is?” he asked, holding up the sketch of the hand-covered man.

“Who do you think it is?” Shouto replied.

“He was the leader of a group that called themselves ‘The League of Villains.’ Real kitschy name, I know,” Tensei said. “There were believed to be a splinter group of a larger organization, one run by All For One.”

“I’ve heard that name,” Iida mused out loud. “I think I remember it from Hero Studies. But I think he was older than a couple of generations ago, correct?”

Shrugging, Tensei replied, “Popular theory is that All For One was a title passed down from leader to leader of this organization, since their Quirk was never consistently pinned down and seemed to change all the time. Anyways, yeah, the first guy calling themselves All For One was almost two hundred years ago.”

I don’t remember this at all from Hero Studies.

History hadn’t been his strong suit, and he had forgotten most of the non-practical parts of his education. He made a mental note to go do some research of his own when he got home about this “All For One.”

“So this guy right here,” Tensei said, waving the paper, “was believed to be next in line to take the role of All For One. Except at that point, there hadn’t been a confirmed All For One in awhile, and the organization was falling into chaos. This one was considered a splinter group, and it survived a while after the main cell collapsed, but then the League fell off the radar, too.”

“Pulled apart by internal power struggles?” Iida guessed. “That’s pretty typical of a villain organization, especially when it comes to succession.”

“Seems like kind of a big thing to just drop off the map,” Shouto said. “Especially to have their criminal records erased.”

“There’s no way they’re wiped completely,” Tensei agreed. “I bet if you searched the physical archive for the League of Villains, you’d turn up plenty of stuff. That’s one of the benefits of old paper trails. You can’t destroy the evidence quite as cleanly.”

Unless you set them on fire, Shouto mused

That reminded him of his resolution to give Iida a tip in return.

“About that mysterious arsonist you’re searching for,” he said, turning to Iida, “the client I’m working for got an anonymous tip that there was a fire Quirk user involved in the collapse of the old docks near that warehouse that burned down.”

Iida quirked an eyebrow and responded, “Interesting. I had heard the docks nearby collapsed, but we wrote it off as disrepair. They were condemned anyways.”

“Yeah, well, it was an anonymous tip,” Shouto replied, shrugging. It was up to Iida whether he pursued it or not. Turning to Tensei, he said, “Thanks for your time. You were really helpful.”

“Hey, anything for a friend of little bro,” Tensei smiled back. “Especially since he is apparently trying pretty hard to recruit you.”

“An endeavor I have not given up on yet,” Iida admitted, clapping Shouto on the shoulder as he rose to his feet.

Grimacing, Shouto followed suit. Now that Iida knew he was supposedly actively pursuing consultation, it made him dodging Iida’s various job offers more awkward. Indeed, as Iida walked him back towards the entrance, he could tell his friend was dying to say something.

“Don’t take it personally,” Shouto started, “that I didn’t accept your offer. I’m not ready to work at any one place exclusively right now.”

“Oh?” Iida asked. “And why’s that?”

“I-” Shouto began, then didn’t know how to continue.

Why didn’t he accept the offer? It would be decent money, although since he would be starting at the bottom he wouldn’t make enough to move out. Consultation work didn’t pay as well as being in the limelight as a hero. More than that, though, Shouto didn’t think he could juggle being the Network’s mission control, Izuku’s research subject, possible college candidate, and full-time employee.

“I have a lot going on right now,” Shouto explained as vaguely as possible. “I don’t think I’m ready to commit to a new career. Not until I pursue some other options.”

“Do these other options involve that boy you aren’t dating but are still bringing as your plus one to places?” Iida joked.

“That was one time.”

“I have it on good authority that is not the case,” Iida replied, emanating smugness. “Apparently you two were seen dining together a few months back during a robbery gone wrong.”

How does he know?

The answer was obvious. Kirishima, or Bakugou, or even some bystander with a camera and an Instagram account, had told someone, and word had made its way up the grapevine to the president of class gossip.

“Look, you’re right, okay?” Shouto admitted. “Yes, I have...feelings for him. But we aren’t dating, and I would really prefer if that didn’t become a widespread rumor.”

Instead of gloating, Iida’s face fell. He gave Shouto a long, pity-filled look.

“You haven’t told him you like him, have you?” Iida guessed. “Why?”

“Because I don’t want to ruin our friendship,” Shouto growled. “I know I’m being a coward, okay? But Izuku is the best friend I’ve had in a long time, and I don’t want to risk losing that.”

They were at the door, and Shouto knew the wise thing would be to duck out and end this conversation immediately. It would hurt Iida’s feelings, but he wouldn’t embarrass himself any more. However, Iida reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze.

“You can’t let one bad experience turn you off from relationships forever,” he cautioned.

“They haven’t,” Shouto defended. “I’ve been in relationships, okay?”

It was true, technically speaking. He’d had plenty of admirers, and occasionally a hookup would become a regular thing for a few months. Once the hero worship wore off, though, his partners inevitably left for greener pastures.

“I’ve just learned that sometimes it’s not worth tainting a perfectly good friendship with one-way romance,” Shouto continued.

“What I’m about to say is going to sound harsh,” Iida warned, “but because you’re my friend I’m going to tell you anyways, because you need to hear it.”

Iida closed his eyes and inhaled, like he was preparing to deliver a rousing speech in front of an army. With his signature hand-gesture, he pointed at Shouto and said, “Your unrequited crush wasn’t what destroyed your friendship with Kirishima. It was you. You were the one who wasn’t willing to move past it.”

“I know, okay?” Shouto growled. “I am aware that 100% of the awkwardness was my fault, and I should have sucked it up and been happy for him but I wasn’t a good enough friend.”

To this day, Shouto still wasn’t sure if Kirishima knew how hard Shouto had been crushing on him. Everyone else in the class had known. It had been painfully, blisteringly obvious, and yet Kirishima had given no sign that he noticed, continued to treat Shouto with the same camaraderie and candor as always. Had ignored every extended silence and lingering gaze Shouto had to offer, and in the midst of it all had started dating Bakugou anyways. That had really been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since he had been too awkward and unfamiliar with his emotions to manage a confession, Shouto didn’t mind Kirishima’s obliviousness. However, when he started dating Bakugou, Shouto took to being the third wheel about as well as a stone took to swimming.

Being ignored was fine. Taking second place to Bakugou when it came to his best friend’s affections? That was unbearable.

“I was sixteen,” Shouto justified. “I wasn’t very good at dealing with rejection then, okay?”

“I know,” Iida said. “Relationships aren’t something they teach in school. Everyone’s allowed to mess up when they’re still learning.”

Iida gave his shoulder a squeeze, giving his best ‘paternal concern’ face.

“I’m not telling you this so you can beat yourself up about the past,” he continued. “I’m telling you this so you don’t make the same mistake twice. Don’t hold onto this crush forever and let it eat you up inside. We’ve all matured since high school. If he doesn’t return your feelings, you can move past it and retain the friendship. I believe in you.”

Shouto wished he had as much faith in himself. Deep down, he was afraid he was the same petty, self-centered brat as back then. Afraid that either Izuku wouldn’t be interested and it would break him, or even more terrifying, that he would be interested and it would be as brief and unsatisfying as all Shouto’s other relationships.

However, Iida was so earnest that Shouto couldn’t argue. He kept his anxieties hidden, outwardly forcing a smile and nod before wishing his friend farewell.

Chapter Text

“Did you ever in your wildest dreams think this is what hero life would be like, kid?” Hammerspace asked.

She and Deku were squatting on a fire escape. From their vantage point, they had a view of the bar across the street. It was the same bar Flashback had seen when interrogating their suspect, the one where he had met with many-handed man. At least, they suspected it was the same one. Flashback had only seen the briefest glimpse of the outside, and it had taken a lot of trial and error before they had decided to stake their bets on this one.

That had been two weeks ago. Every night, they had staked it out, monitoring who came and went from the entrance. The bar wasn’t exactly a hotspot, but it had its fair share of patrons. None of them matched the short list of suspects they had assembled.

“Are you kidding? This is way better than just sitting in my room and browsing the internet,” Deku replied.

“Yeah,” Shouto noted sarcastically in his ear, “now you get to sit on a metal stairwell and browse the internet on your phone.”

Through the helmet, Shouto had an unobstructed view of Izuku browsing reddit. He was on all the hero forums, of course.

“It’s okay,” Hammerspace reassured. “As long as we take turns and one person is actually watching the door, we’re good. That’s why we do this in teams.”

“You could probably play solitaire on your computer or something,” Izuku volunteered, trying to be helpful. “I know this must be super boring for you. Having to watch people watch a door.”

Yes, it was mind-numbingly painful. Shouto had done his best to suck it up and not complain, but this was the eighth stakeout session and he was starting to lose his mind. Even so, he didn’t dare slack on his responsibilities.

From the main room of the apartment came the solid whump of a body colliding with the practice mats. Shinsou was running a couple of his members through combat drills. Not only was he the leader of this operation, he played the part of coach, secretary, and counsellor. Shouto didn’t envy him. Judging from the aggravated tone of his voice, things were not going well.

“You’re a sitting target, G-Force. What have I told you about standing still to use your Quirk?”

Shouto did his best not to be distracted by the sounds. As far as he was concerned, the universe was just waiting for him to drop its guard to throw something terrible at Izuku. He had to stay vigilant, had to be there to protect him.

Another crash from the living room. That tended to happen to anyone sparring against Hydrophobe. Despite being a relative newbie, their power made them pretty good at throwing people around.

“We could play a word game to pass the time,” Hammerspace offered.

“Absolutely not,” Shouto scolded. “Stay on task.”

“Look, stakeouts are a marathon, not a sprint,” Hammer chided. “If you do nothing but stare blankly ahead for three hours you’re going to go crazy.”

Another thud.

“And you’ve done this more than anyone, Mission Control,” Deku pointed out. “I think Echo Chamber expected you to be on standby, not actually tuned in every moment. We can let you know if anything suspicious happens.”

Rationally, it would only take a moment to snap back to attention if they did need him. However, Shouto was too tense to consider it. So he sat glowering at the computer, listening to Deku and Hammerspace banter back and forth while he glared at the screen.

“So what happens if you try to transport something biological with your power?” Deku asked.

In many ways, being part of a vigilante team was perfect for his friend. Izuku got to question everyone about their Quirks, and he kept a notebook on all the interesting things he found.

“I can grab onto it through the portal, but then it’s like trying to pull it through a brick wall. It just won’t go,” Hammerspace explained.

“What if there’s something biological on whatever you’re trying to pull through? Like bloodstains on a gun?”

Whatever riveting (and non-mission critical) response she had was lost as another person approached the entrance. Deku scrambled to pull out his notebook and jot down observations while she snapped a picture. They had been meticulous about keeping track of who came and went, compiling a list of regulars for possible interrogation. This person was new, however.

“Can you get a view of their face?” Deku asked, switching the helmet lens to nightvision. Since the person was wearing a jacket with a tall collar and a hat, though, there wasn’t much to discern.

“I’ve got nothing,” Shouto replied.

“Same here,” Hammer noted. “Although that jacket looks nice. Expensive nice.”

“They could be some sort of underground patron, or a rich thrillseeker,” Izuku mused.

“Or they could just like nice jackets,” Hammerspace countered. “There’s no way to know for sure just from looking. All right, what designation are we giving Patron number 46?”

“Let’s call him Threads,” Deku said, writing the name above the brief description he had jotted down.

“That’s the first non-regular tonight,” Shouto noted. “It’s a Tuesday, so I guess you can’t expect a lot of people to randomly decide to pick up a new bar.”

Additionally, this wasn’t a high-class joint. The people who frequented it were looking for someplace cheap that wouldn’t hassle them about staying a long time nursing one drink. If someone had money, there were plenty of other places they could spend their evening. It wasn’t enough to immediately flag the newcomer as a suspect, but it was definitely noteworthy.

“How’s progress?” Shinsou called from the doorway of the office.

Looking up from his computer, Shouto shrugged noncommittally.

“We’re not ready to arrest anyone, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Striding over, Shinsou hovered over his shoulder, looking at the screen. Leaning close so the mic would pick up his voice, he asked, “How many people of interest do we have so far?”

“Depends on what you think is interesting,” Hammerspace called back. “We have absolutely nothing concrete on anyone, and we don’t have the manpower to monitor everyone who walks through those doors.”

“I was afraid of that,” Shinsou muttered. “Too many leads, not enough evidence.”

That left them with no way to confirm any suspicions. They could watch the door for literally forever and wind up with nothing to show for it.

“We need to get inside,” Deku said. “We need to get in there and hear what’s going on. Maybe even try and infiltrate the group.”

“Easier said than done,” remarked Hammerspace, her voice carrying a layer of ice. “For an organization as large as we suspect this one to be, they must be using measures to prevent people from running their mouths. The screening process is probably rigorous.”

“Yeah,” Shinsou agreed. “Believe me, we’ve considered infiltration. It’s too risky.”

“That’s how we lost Bullet and Rebound. They got too close.”

Shouto looked up to see the voice speaking from the doorway. G-Force was standing there, holding an icepack against a rapidly swelling black eye. That would explain why training had stopped.

“You never told me how you lost your other members,” Shouto said. “At least, not the details.”

“None of us really wanted to talk about it,” Hammerspace explained. “It’s kind of bad for morale.”

While Shouto understood the emotions on an intellectual level, as a professional he was used to putting aside his feelings for the sake of a mission. The idea that Shinsou would avoid talking about something just to spare others pain didn’t make sense.

“There’s actually not that much to tell,” Shinsou replied, reading the look on his face. “We don’t know the details. I was off duty that day, dealing with some other stuff. They weren’t supposed to be patrolling without backup, but they did. We only know because their gear was missing from the safehouse, but we couldn’t find them anywhere.”

“We had been getting close to a possible lead,” G-Force continued, stepping into the room and slumping against the wall. “They were worried about the person getting spooked and ghosting on us, so they didn’t want to wait.”

Behind him, Hydrophobe slid into the room. They held another icepack out to G-Force, who took it with a grateful nod and swapped out the one he was currently pressing to his face.

“I guess that explains why you were so worried about loose cannons,” Deku said.

“Yeah,” Shinsou agreed. “In this line of work, the early bird gets used as target practice if they don’t have a Plan B.”

Silence. Shouto was used to seeing comrades injured or killed in the line of duty, at least enough to be desensitized to it. However, he was pretty sure this was a new experience for Izuku, even if he hadn’t known these people personally. The grim reality might be enough to scare the boy into being careful.

“We still need to work on infiltrating them.”

Or not.

“Hear me out,” Deku rushed before someone could attempt to talk sense into him. “Instead of fishing for information around the edges and stirring up suspicion, we go all the way, get deep undercover. Whoever infiltrates doesn’t so much as look at the rest of the team, does nothing to cause alarm. For as long as it takes to get the info they need, they ingrain themselves in this organization. The loss of your comrades is...I’m sorry. But I think it was the way they went about it that backfired, not the idea itself. This isn’t the kind of thing you do on the buddy system.”

“You are not volunteering yourself,” Shouto interrupted, injecting venom into his voice. He could see his friend’s line of thinking, predict his self-sacrificing behavior two steps ahead.

“It doesn’t have to be me,” Deku denied.

“You’re right,” Shinsou agreed. “If anyone is putting their life on the line like that, it’s me.”

“Boss, you can’t be serious,” Hammerspace exclaimed. Through the camera lens, Shouto could see her crossing her arms and scowling. “You’re not a nobody like us. You’re a pro. They would spot you a mile away.”

“Exactly. We play that angle,” Shinsou explained. “I’m a second-string hero, tired of surviving off scraps and ready to pursue a new line of work. We don’t try to hide who I am. Instead, we use what they know about me against them.”

Shouto stared at Shinsou, his mind working over the possibility. It was definitely reckless, but it wasn’t outright insane. After all, the percentage of disillusioned pros who turned to crime when their career didn’t take off was greater than zero. And Shinsou had never made a secret about the fact that he was an outsider amongst hero society, shunning the bigger events and larger agencies.

“But boss,” G-Force said, pushing himself up, “what do you expect us to do while you’re undercover? You think we can go two seconds without burning this place to the ground?”

The bruise blossoming around his eye turned his skin into a mottled patch of purple on brown. It had the effect of making him look like an abandoned puppy. Unfortunately for him, Shinsou was a cat person.

“I’ll have to weigh the options,” Shinsou replied. “If I don’t think the group is competent enough to function without me, you’ll just go on hiatus for a few weeks. Consider it a vacation.”

There was a collective groan from his cohorts. Except Shouto, who was honestly relieved at this turn of events. Not only would it further their mission, Shinsou was making the best choice. It was nice to be reminded that there was a responsible adult in charge once in a while.

Before anyone could get enough energy to start round two of arguing, movement at the door of the bar snapped their attention away. It was Threads, exiting the place less than fifteen minutes after entering.

“You think he didn’t like what was on tap?” Hammerspace asked. “Or you think he accomplished whatever mission he set out to do and is leaving?”

“I don’t know,” Deku replied. “But as long as we’re on this side of the door, there’s no way to find out.”

“That settles it,” Shinsou ordered. “You two come back for now. It’s time we changed our approach.”

Chapter Text

Rei, in her infinite compassion and meddlesomeness, had left a college prep workbook on his writing desk a few days ago. Shouto had pointedly ignored it, given it a wide berth like it was a poisonous viper. However, he could feel it taunting him any time he was in the room. Eventually, his mother was going to ask if he had used it, and he knew that if he said no she would be disappointed. She’d hide it like a champion, but he’d still be able to tell.

So with some trepidation, he cracked open the book. It was mostly math, which was the subject he was afraid he was most behind on. UA hadn’t had normal math classes, at least not for the Heroics department, so Shouto wasn’t sure how high his education went. Was being able to calculate the trajectory of a falling building an Algebra 1 or Algebra 2 thing?

Starting at the beginning, he flipped through the book, watching the formulas get slowly more ridiculous and complex.

Shouto wasn’t bad at math. He’d always done well, been quick to calculate on his feet and recall formulas. But there was so much information here, and he didn’t know if he could teach himself.

His mother still had a list of tutors waiting for him. However, so far he had refused to even look over the numbers. His current plan was to struggle by his own for a few months until he could get to a point where he wasn’t embarrassingly bad.

So he worked through the first few pages, trying to distantly recall the math he had learned in middle school. Every time he checked his answers against the back of the book, they were wrong.

That’s it, I don’t think this is going anywhere.

Reluctantly, he pulled out his phone and shot off a text to Izuku.

(S_T 2:13 pm) Are you any good at math?

(I_M 2:19pm) I guess that’s all relative. Like it’s not my major, but I have to do calculations and stuff.

(I_M 2:19pm) Why?

(S_T 2:19pm) So you probably understand, like, high school level algebra and stuff, right?

(I_M 2:21pm) Yeah?

(I_M 2:21pm) Do you need help with something?

Shouto grit his teeth. He didn’t understand why it was so hard for him to come out and ask for help. Especially considering the person he was asking was Izuku, who was the most helpful, least judgemental person he knew. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that since childhood, it had literally been beat into him that asking for help meant admitting weakness. Fortunately, Izuku had enough mathematics expertise to put two and two together.

(I_M 2:22pm) Are you studying for college entrance exams?

(S_T 2:25pm) Yeah.

(I_M 2:25pm) Do you need any help?

(S_T 2:27pm)...maybe

(S_T 2:28pm) If that’s not too much trouble.

Izuku’s response was enthusiastically supportive. He told Shouto to bring his book with him next time they were together, and proceeded to walk him through the part he was currently struggling with. Shouto still didn’t really get it, but with his friend’s help he was able to get one answer correct when he compared it against the back of the book.

(S_T 2:37pm) Thanks. Nothing makes me feel stupider than not being able to follow an illustrated diagram.

(S_T 2:37pm) How am I this bad?

(I_M 2:37pm) You’re being too hard on yourself!

(I_M 2:38pm) Remember, it’s been years since you’ve done this. It will take some time to get back into the swing of things.

(I_M 2:38pm) But you aren’t stupid. You’re brilliant with combat strategies and keeping your head cool under pressure.

(S_T 2:40pm) Some help that is right now.

(I_M 2:40pm) -_- It’s a help to me.

(I_M 2:41pm) Don’t let this get you down, Shouto. I believe in you!

(S_T 2:43pm)...thanks.

(S_T 2:43pm) Sorry for being a whiny bitch.

(I_M 2:43pm) I said no being hard on yourself!

(S_T 2:45pm) Okay. I’ll stop.

(I_M 2:46pm) Not to change the subject, but what do you think about the whole Shinsou infiltrating this organization thing?

I think it’s better him than you, Shouto thought to himself. He knew this was Izuku’s natural self-sacrificing instinct kicking in. It must kill the man to know that someone who wasn’t him was risking their well-being. However, not only was Shinsou more experienced, Shouto knew he’d personally have an easier time acting objectively when the man was in danger. If Izuku was in the line of fire...he had lost all pretense of remaining an impassive onlooker.

(S_T 2:47pm) Shinsou can take care of himself. And I’ll be by his side the whole time. If he gets into trouble, I’ll call in backup.

(I_M 2:48pm) Yeah, I know. I just…

(I_M 2:48pm) There are so many things that could go wrong.

(S_T 2:48pm) I know. But they won’t. Don’t lose sleep over this.

In many ways, Shouto felt like his attempts to comfort Izuku were about as effective as Izuku’s attempts to assuage his fears about being bad at math. Both were white lies that hid the unpleasant truth. Things could go very wrong for Shinsou out in the field. He and Shouto were already brainstorming backup plans and contingencies, and even that was making Shouto lose sleep. It was a dangerous situation all around, and he was not excited to be in the backseat during this. That meant that if things went wrong, he’d have no choice but to watch. Izuku didn’t need to waste energy worrying, though. One way or another, he wouldn’t be able to change any outcomes.

In that way, it was a lot like Shouto’s struggling with math. Things were probably going to end badly, but worrying about them wasn’t going to do a whole lot of good.

However, he took some solace in having one area of his life where things were improving. Today was the first day his physical therapist had cleared him to switch from crutches to a cane. He was looking forward to having a free hand. He wasn’t looking forward to everyone mistaking him for an old man, limping around with the aid of a stick. Life was full of compromises.

His mother had ordered the cane for him, since if left to himself Shouto probably would have avoided it for months. It was an offset cane, the handle crooked sharply like one half of a triangle, metallic blue in color. He’d practiced using it in physical therapy, having his walking corrected so he didn’t accidentally injure himself.

It wasn’t an enormous improvement. He had to walk slow and stairs were still going to be an enormous bitch to navigate. But it was something. A small, tangible piece of self-sufficiency he had wrestled back under his control.

Eager to test his newfound mobility, he took his cane with him to meet up with Shinsou. It was more prep work for his infiltration.

“They may have erased their files in the database, but they couldn’t get every newspaper archive in Japan,” Shinsou said, spreading printouts across the table. “Unfortunately, the police did a pretty good job of keeping a gag order on all information relating to this League of Villains back in the day, which means there are no clear pictures.”

“Hey, you can sort of see the outline of a hairstyle in this one,” Shouto said, holding up a blurry picture that had gotten published in a tabloid. “So long as they haven’t changed styles in the last decade, maybe we can ID them using this.”

“Yeah, we don’t have much to go on,” Shinsou agreed. “I won’t be able to pour over these in middle of conversation, though, so your job is to do that for me and point out any possible matches.”

Probably should have chosen someone who was less shitty with faces, Shouto thought to himself.

“And exactly how long are we going to do this before we give up?” he asked. “There’s a very real possibility that no one approaches you because they know who you are, and we do nothing but spin our wheels.”

Groaning, Shinsou scrubbed one hand over his face. He tried to hide his exhaustion from his underlings, but in front of Shouto he was much more open with his frustration.

“Yeah, this could be a dead end. But honestly, until something better rears its head, we have no alternatives.”

On one hand, that meant for the time being Izuku and the others were out of the line of fire. On the other hand, Shouto doubted they would stay there for long, even if ordered. Eventually they would get impatient and do something stupid. Likely Shinsou feared this too, since he had lost teammates to the same sort of short-sightedness. With that in mind, Shouto was eager to jump in and get started.

“So we’re starting tomorrow, yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Shinsou replied. “It should be easy. I’m just going to go to the bar and test the waters, makes sure no one attacks me outright.”

If they do, you’ll be out of luck.

“All right,” Shouto agreed. “I’ll be there. Or, you know, I’ll be here, on the computer. Same difference.”

***

In many ways, supervising for Shinsou was even more boring that doing it for the rest of the team. Shinsou knew what he was doing, and he didn’t have questions for Shouto beyond the occasional asking for directions navigating to the bar.

They had no idea what was waiting for them inside. Shouto had managed to find some pictures of the interior on the internet, along with a couple of very negative google reviews calling the place a dump. From that and what they had gathered from the exterior, there was only one other egress from the building besides the main entrance, and it was located through the staff area. Other than that, what the bar actually looked like, the layout of tables and the places hostiles might take cover or ambush, was anyone’s guess.

“Remember, if I die in here, my cat goes to Aizawa-sensei,” Shinsou joked. Or rather, Shouto assumed he was joking.

With that, he crossed the street and entered the bar.

For this mission, they had to make the observation camera as discreet as possible. That meant Shouto was down to one small lense disguised as support gear around Shinsou’s neck. It was meant to look like a vocal altering collar, which anyone who knew him wouldn’t think twice about, and those who didn’t would assume he had Quirk-related voice deterioration. This camera didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the others, which meant Shouto’s view was grainy. The low light of the bar wasn’t helping.

I doubt I’ll be able to ID anyone like this, he thought bitterly.

Still, if nothing else he was here to call backup if things went south.

There were a handful of people, maybe eight all told, scattered across various tables. Only a couple of people were drinking together, and for the most part there was a strong vibe of people wanting to be left alone. Shinsou slid into a barstool and ordered a drink. The bartender was a lean looking man with a well-groomed and ridiculous patch of facial hair, a goatee spiked so sharply Shouto might have believed it was a mutation Quirk.

“Don’t recognize your face,” the man said in such a way Shouto couldn’t tell if it was an attempt to be friendly or an accusation.

“I needed a cheaper place to drink,” Shinsou responded gruffly. “I’ve got bills to pay and more reason to drink than ever.”

The other man grunted in something that might have been agreement. Choosing not to press his luck, Shinsou nursed his drink for a while. As inconspicuous as he could manage, he fidgeted with the collar around his neck, turning it so that Shouto could get a better view of the other patrons.

Furiously, Shouto flipped through the database they had built. Everyone here matched as a regular. One was flagged as suspicious, a woman who came infrequently and usually carried a briefcase. She was sitting in the corner.

Rather than risk the earpiece making noise and giving them away, he and Shinsou had set up to communicate via text unless absolutely necessary. Shouto sent him one now, alerting him to the presence of a possible target. No one would think twice over a man flipping through his phone at the bar. Like a professional, Shinsou gave no indication that he was watching the woman, focusing intently on his drink.

The plan was to stay an hour. Long enough to make it believable that he’d become a regular without causing suspicion. It wasn’t worth going after a target this soon, not when they were new and standing out. At least, that was what they had agreed on. But at the forty-five minute mark, another patron came in and headed directly to the back corner to sit with the woman. Shinsou angled the camera back, and Shouto did his best to ID the man. The bar’s list of regulars was capped at around 40, so there weren’t that many to look through. Mid-thirties, tall, dark hair, tattoos covering most of his body- this man didn’t fit any of the profiles. Searching through, Shouto couldn’t find him matched up against any of the one-off customers they had tracked, either.

(S_T 9:17pm) He’s a newbie. I’ll see if I can get any hits against the League of Villain profiles we have, but those are much less organized so it will take a while.

(H_S 9:21pm) A semi-regular customer comes in with a briefcase, and a newbie comes in a while later and sits with them. Possibly to hand off information?

While they so far hadn’t been able to track who was sitting with who inside the bar, Shinsou was right about the briefcase-newbie combo. There were three semi-regular patrons that showed up seemingly at random, always carrying briefcases. On those nights, a new patron had always shown up, stayed a short while, then left never to come back again. They had never been able to prove anything concrete from the pattern until now.

(H_S 9:24pm) I’m gonna go to the bathroom and see if I can use it as an opportunity to eavesdrop.

(S_T 9:24pm) No.

(S_T 9:24pm) Not a good idea.

(S_T 9:24pm) We talked about this. We don’t want to do anything to arouse suspicion right off the bat.

Aaaand he’s already going.

Shouto could do nothing but facepalm from the other side of the screen. This was the downside of working with an actual hero. They thought they knew what they were doing and were more likely to ignore your advice.

Shouto silently hoped that everything would go smoothly. Hoping was the only thing he could do, trapped on this side of the screen. So he watched Shinsou head towards the bathroom, fingers crossed that nothing would go amiss, sinking feeling in his stomach saying it probably would.

Chapter Text

Shinsou strutted confidently towards the bathroom. From the other side of the screen, Shouto had no way to tell if the confidence was feigned or genuine, but he sure as hell knew it was undeserved. Already he was out of place, and now he had to go and stir up trouble. 

As we walked, Shinsou fiddled with the collar again, angling it towards the conspiring couple. With a sigh, Shouto decided that even if this was going to end in absolute disaster, he was going to do his job. So he enhanced the resolution as much as he could and made sure the feed was recording so they could analyze it later.

The woman and the man definitely noticed Shinsou. While they weren’t making a big deal of it, they leaned closer to one another and their voices dropped. It was less ‘we’ve spotted an intruder’ and more ‘we’re in a public space having a private conversation and some jackass is coming in hot on my periph.’ 

The woman had long, curvy blonde hair that almost reached the hem of her shirt. She was thin and dressed a cut too nice for a dive like this. As Shinsou got closer on his arc towards the bathroom, Shouto got a better look at the man. What he had initially mistaken for tattoos were actually scars. Deep, rugged ones marring large patches of his body. Shouto was no stranger to scars. Looking at these made his body empathetically ache with phantom pain. Whatever had happened had been pretty severe. They would also be a significant tell, meaning it would be easier to describe and spot the man later.

The couple sat in the table in the far corner, only a short space away from the entrance to the sole bathroom. Theoretically, there was nothing weird about a fellow patron coming close. If it wasn’t for the cramped layout of the bar, providing no other secluded tables besides the one right next to the entrance, Shouto would think they were amateurs.

This place obviously isn’t the most well set-up for clandestine meetings. Which means either they are using it because they are desperate for options, or they feel like they have some sort of insurance that their rendezvous will be safe. Maybe they have a deal worked out with the owners.

It was also possible that all the regular patrons were members of this gang, and the bar was only a front. That was an unpleasant idea. It meant that Shinsou would be completely surrounded by enemies.

Shouto couldn’t make out anything they were talking about. Their conversation lapsed when Shinsou got too close, both parties pretending to be invested in their mugs. Rather than dawdle, Shinsou pushed open the bathroom door.

As soon as the door closed and provided enough of an auditory barrier, Shouto growled into the mic, “What next, jackass? Clearly they noticed you, which by the way, was like the one thing we wanted to avoid in the initial scouting.”

“Just testing the waters,” Shinsou replied softly. He didn’t dare speak too loud, in case anyone could hear through the thin door. A man talking to himself in the bathroom wasn’t unheard of, but it was concerning. “You never know what sort of information you’re going to get unless you try.”

Shouto let out a long, angry breath. He realized he’d been holding it the last couple of minutes.

“Okay, well actually take a piss so it doesn’t look like you came to the bathroom for the company.”

“Way ahead of you,” Shinsou murmured, angling the collar away. 

Shouto got a lovely view of the tiled back wall while Shinsou did his business. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, belatedly realizing that he still had to hear the audio.

“Did you see what she’d taken out of her briefcase?” Shinsou continued, not pausing his plotting for a second.

“No. I was too busy scoping out our other target.”

Indeed, Shouto was currently sorting through the pile of newspaper articles in front of him, the ones detailing the exploits of the League. He was searching for any mention of a scarred member. They hadn’t digitized the files into a database yet, meaning his work was entirely analogue. No Control F for him. 

“It was a manilla folder with papers in it,” Shinsou clarified. “Could be mission orders, or directions to the next meeting place, or basically anything.”

So we’re not the only ones currently working with hard copies, Shouto thought to himself.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea. Some organizations preferred to do all their correspondence through paper, since it was harder to hack and monitor than digital messaging. Unless you were an enormous, well-funded operation like the yakuza, setting up secure lines of communication for all your members was unrealistic. Sometimes old-fashioned methods left the least evidence. 

Especially if you just burned the papers when you were done.

Amidst the myriad articles spread before him, Shouto found one titled ‘Hero Killer Copycat Prefers Flames to Steel.’ He remembered skimming over it when first receiving the stack of papers. After all, with all the arson cases popping up lately, the fire method had caught his eye. However, the suspect outlined in this article had been some sort of fanboy of the then-popular Hero Killer Stain, and had targeted Pro Heroes. So far all the arson cases they had come across had been against civilians, so he had dismissed it as two unrelated fire Quirks. Something was tickling the back of his mind, though. 

Rereading it, his eyes were drawn to the description. A bystander had seen a suspicious man leaving the scene, but hadn’t gotten a good look at him. All they remembered was a dark jacket, and the man was wearing some sort of mask that covered the lower part of his face and the eye area. That had seemed like a strange description to Shouto, and even the reporter writing the article had seemed unsure of how to explain it. How did a mask cover the lower face and eye area, but not the stuff in between?

What if they bystander mistook the scars for a mask from a distance. The same way I thought they were tattoos. 

Shinsou was still talking in his ear, low speculation about what they could be talking about. He was washing his hands now, and they couldn’t stall much longer.

“I’m pretty sure I have a positive match for our guy,” Shouto interrupted. “I’d need to dig into it more, and even then it’s not a clear link to the League of Villains, but-”

“But this situation is every bit a rotten as it looks,” Shinsou whispered back. “I’m going to pass by the table one more time. See if you can grab a shot of that paper they’re handing off.”

It was a pretty futile effort, since the camera lens wasn’t high-definition enough to pick up readable print from more than a few feet away. However, like Shinsou said, every straw they could grasp at was something. 

Steadying himself with an inhaled breath, Shinsou adjusted the collar one last time then pushed open the door. He left abruptly enough to catch a snippet of conversation. The scarred man was leaning over the table and growling in the woman’s ear.

“-already did my part. I’m not going to carry this damn-”

He locked eyes with Shinsou and settled back down into his seat. Rather than look guilty, he flashed a smile, as if daring Shinsou to remark on the situation. For her part, the woman looked like she had just stepped in an unexpected clump of manure. It was an excuse for Shinsou to pause a half step, caught in the awkwardness. Shouto did his best to focus the camera on the bit of paper that was now protruding from the man’s jacket. It was folded in half, meaning they weren’t going to be able to see anything useful. Damn shame.

With a nod of his head, Shinsou siddled to the side back towards the bar, acting like this was just another unanticipated social misstep. There, he called the bartender over and paid his tab. As soon as he was out the door, Shouto was back in the earpiece giving him directions.

“Turn the collar around so I can watch your six,” he instructed.

Shinsou did as he suggested. After all the risks he had taken, Shouto wouldn’t be surprised if one of their targets decided to tail them. Sure enough, once Shinsou was a couple of blocks down the street, the woman left the bar, briefcase in hand. Maybe she had done what she set out to do and was coincidentally heading back home at the same time as them. Shouto doubted it.

“You’ve got a shadow,” Shouto informed him. “It’s the woman. Do you want me to call for backup?”

“Nah. Nice night out. Might as well go for a walk and see where this takes us.”

Shouto groaned and bumped his head against the desk. If this became a regular thing, he was going to have to attach some cushioning there to protect him from the frequent head-to-desk impacts. He had thought Izuku was reckless, but Shinsou was way too willing to take risks with his life.

“What exactly are you hoping happens?” Shouto growled. “That she sticks a knife in your back and you can dust the handle for fingerprints later?”

The woman was walking purposefully, but keeping a fair distance behind them. Shinsou made it easy for her, ambling in a straight line and not taking any turns. 

“She still has her briefcase, right?” Shinsou asked by way of response.

“You’re after what’s inside?”

It would be an easy enough affair. All he’d have to do is lead her somewhere secluded, get her to respond to a question, and then the briefcase was his for the taking. It would be a lot more reliable than trying to enhance the blurry, folded in half snapshot Shouto had taken.

“That gives us away,” Shouto pointed out. “We sacrifice the long game for immediate answers. So unless that briefcase is carrying a detailed list of every operative and their mailing address, than it won’t help us much.”

Shinsou sighed, but didn’t respond. Maybe because he didn’t want to risk being overheard. The woman was walking a little bit more briskly now, and even though he gave no indication that he noticed her, Shouto could tell Shinsou’s shoulders were hunched a bit tighter.

“I guess bolting also gives away the game, huh?” Shouto asked. “Can’t let them know you know they’re onto you. Either way, you’re gonna have to think of a solution quick. Run or confront.”

The woman was close now. Close enough that Shouto could overhear her crisp footsteps off the sidewalk. With a sigh, Shinsou turned around. Before he could open his mouth, though, the woman beat him to it.

“Before you say anything, my informants have told me exactly who you are and what your Quirk is, and I’m not carrying anything valuable,” she said, voice bright and cheerful. She sounded more like a door-to-door salesman than a criminal.

“Is that so?” Shinsou asked. “Then what’s in the briefcase?”

With a smile, the woman clicked it open and showed him it was empty. Whatever she had been carrying, she had either handed off or disposed of.

“Now, I assume a man of your talents,” she said, sounding completely unafraid for someone who knew Shinsou’s Quirk, “is probably already collecting a wonderful paycheck from the government for your heroic efforts, correct?”

Shinsou grunted noncommittally. The woman’s smile brightened.

“That’s what I thought. No hero would be so sloppy at undercover work. You aren’t even wearing a disguise. So the only reason you’re hanging around a bar like that is because you’re looking for a way to make some extra bank, correct? Hoping to sell out some information to interested parties?”

“Are you an interested party?” Shinsou asked.

“Oh no,” the woman laughed, waving her hand. “I merely represent my client’s interests. Here, take my card.”

Reaching into her breast pocket, she pulled out a pack of matches. On the back was a phone number. Shouto had heard of people using matchbooks as advertisements long ago, but he’d never actually seen one in person.

“I have a lot of clients that smoke,” she explained before Shinsou could question it. “Anyways, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Such as how much your cooperation is worth, and if you have to claim it on your taxes. I can help you work through all the nitty-gritty details. Give me a ring and we’ll set up a meeting.”

“Just like that?” Shinsou asked.

“Oh, no, there’s quite a few hoops you have to jump through. But if you’re done getting paid peanuts for putting your life on the line, they’re hoops you’ll jump through gladly. Ta!”

And with that she turned on her heel and walked away. 

Shinsou stared down at the book of matches, turning it over.

“So...did she just try and recruit you?” Shouto asked into the microphone. “This has to be a trap, right?”

“Well, either way, it beats hanging around a shitty bar for weeks on end,” Shinsou mused. “Expedites the process, if nothing else.”

“Yeah,” Shouto replied, thinking of the million ways this could all go horribly wrong. “I suppose it does.

Chapter Text

True to his word, the next time they were together Izuku walked him through the first lesson in his math workbook. They were at the lab, and Izuku was sacrificing his lunch break to tutor Shouto. 

“It sounds so easy when you explain it,” Shouto grumbled, flipping through the pages. “I don’t know why I couldn’t figure it out on my own.”

“Maybe you just need things explained to you out loud to understand them,” Izuku proposed. He was always quick to come up with excuses on Shouto’s behalf, rationalizing away his shortcomings. Shouto wished he could wholeheartedly believe him. 

All it had taken was for Izuku to help him through the first couple of problems, and just like that everything had fallen into place. He was completing the rest of the lesson now, only occasionally asking his friend to double-check his work.

“My mom wanted to hire a tutor for me,” Shouto admitted, “but I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of a complete stranger. I’ll probably have to swallow my pride and get one, though. I shouldn’t expect you to always drop everything to help me.”

“I mean, I can’t guarantee I’ll be a good tutor, so maybe you should look into a professional one, but you know I don’t mind helping you, right?” Izuku asked, giving him That Look. It was a look that meant Izuku would take offense if he thought his friend was purposefully refusing aid.

They were sitting across from each other in the small study Izuku had set up in the basement, next door to the Quirk-testing room. The more they used this place, the more things the room acquired. The uncomfortable folding chairs had been replaced with sturdier ones, and there was a desktop set up in one corner. Books and files littered the available surfaces, most of them Izuku’s, but Shouto had left around a book or two he had brought to read while Izuku compiled test results.

“I’d feel bad using you all the time,” Shouto explained. “After all, this is your lunch break.”

“I’m still eating lunch,” Izuku defended, gesturing to the thermos of soup he was taking swigs out of. “I just happen to be doing it with a friend.”

“I could probably talk my mom into paying you for your time,” Shouto proposed.

“Shouto,” his friend responded, rolling his eyes, “it really isn’t that big of a deal. I promise if it gets to be too much I’ll let you know, okay?”

“Okay,” Shouto responded with a sigh.

Izuku really was too willing to help people. Their lives had both gone from fairly obligation-free to loaded with duty between vigilante activities, experiments, and respective academic work. However, Izuku acted like he had all the time in the world to sit around and talk Shouto through math he probably grew out of five years ago.

 “Hey,” his friend said, scratching idly at the wood, “have you thought about what universities you want to apply to?”

Shouto had. He had poured over brochure after brochure. The problem was that he had too many options, and no idea how to really distinguish them. He had no idea how to choose a college, and the result was that every time he thought about it he was overcome with a resounding wave of apathy.

“I think I’ll just apply to several,” he explained. “Application fees aren’t an issue, so I might as well see what ones will take me.”

Izuku nodded, chewing his bottom lip. That was his tell for having something more to say but not being sure how to put it. Shouto had learned that the best thing to do was to wait patiently for him to gather his words and not interrupt his train of thought. 

“So this is a little selfish and probably silly,” he started, “but I kind of have this daydream where you start going here. I just...it would be so cool if we could go to the same school, you know? They have a good undergrad program.”

Shouto immediately winced. Of course the thought had crossed his mind. This university was fairly close, and it would guarantee he could be around Midoriya for the next couple of years. However, he had automatically assumed that whatever school Midoriya was smart enough to get into would be out of his league.

“Honestly, if I get accepted to one school I’ll consider myself lucky,” Shouto said. “I don’t think I stand a chance of getting into this place.”

“Oh, it’s not that hard. As long as you aren’t aiming for a super competitive program like their engineering or nursing, I think you stand a chance,” Izuku reassured him. 

“You really think so?” Shouto asked, daring to let a little hope creep into his voice.

“Yeah, I do,” Izuku reassured. “And like you said, application fees aren’t a problem, so it doesn’t hurt to apply.”

They were both quiet for a moment, thinking about a utopian future in which they could attend the same university. Granted, they wouldn’t have any courses together. But they could see each other in passing, meet up for lunch, maybe even share a morning commute.

“You’d get tired of me after a while,” Shouto said. “We already spend so much time together, you know, between the Network and this.”

“I don’t think I could get tired of you.”

“Oh.”

Shouto’s stomach had plummeted so low it was kissing the base of his spine. All of a sudden his mouth was very, very dry.

“In fact, in this little daydream of mine,” Izuku continued, “we are roommates. We get an apartment close to campus, and you have your undergrad friends you bring over for study sessions and we go out to movies on the weekends and stuff.”

“Oh,” Shouto replied, then scrambled to follow up with, “That sounds nice.”

Is this his way of asking me out? Shouto wondered frantically. Izuku wasn’t making eye contact with him, instead running one nail along the edge of the table. Shouto didn’t dare trust his own wishful interpretation of his friend’s motives, though. So much could go wrong so fast. He needed to find out if this was platonic propositioning or otherwise.

“So have you...ever roomed with someone before?” he asked, fishing for information.

“Oh, no,” Izuku said, laughing uncomfortably. “I’ve always lived at home. You know, being a shut-in and all.”

“Right, that,” Shouto replied. “I’ve roomed with a couple of people here and there. It turns out I’m not easy to live with.”

“I picture you as a person who likes their space,” Izuku chuckled. 

“Yeah. Usually rooming with people was an accident,” he said. “They’d stay over one night, and then one night turned into two, and then they’d hang around for a few months until things didn’t work out and then they were gone.”

“Oh,” Izuku replied. It was his turn to look a little lost for what to say. 

Realizing he’d killed the mood, Shouto tried to backtrack by explaining, “I hate to kill your dreams, but yeah, most people who stayed with me ended up not liking me very quickly.”

“Why?” his friend asked. 

There was disbelief in his eyes, like he couldn’t fathom someone not liking Shouto. It was flattering, but so untrue. Shouto had been there to see the various breakups first hand, and he couldn’t doubt his own experience.

“Usually they say it’s because I’m not expressive enough,” Shouto replied. “I don’t know, people expect me to be dark and mysterious but then they find out that I’m mostly just a person who smiles less and they’re disappointed.”

‘I never know what you’re thinking, Shou-chan.’

‘I always feel like I’m boring you.’

‘You’re never excited for me.’

“So these were all just people dropping in for a while?” Izuku guessed. “You’ve never, like, signed a lease with someone or made a commitment?”

“No,” Shouto said. “I’ve never needed to. Like you guessed, I kinda like privacy, and aside from the very start of my career, I made enough to live alone.”

Right up until the very end. Maybe that was why the eviction notice had come as such a shock. He had been so unprepared for the idea of not being able to live by himself, it had felt like the end of the world. 

“Hey, I’m sure once you get through college, you’ll be able to move out,” Izuku said. “Then you can have your own space again, and you’ll have all the privacy you could want.”

The thought of moving out from his parents was certainly a pleasant pipedream. However, returning to his old life was not only impossible, but now it felt like it belonged to a stranger. He didn’t want to go back to that.

“Honestly, I think living on your own gets old after a while,” he admitted. “It gets lonely. When I move out this time, I don’t want to just move to someplace. I want to move with someone.”

Izuku was looking at him with the biggest, roundest eyes. Even though they were sitting in a drafty basement on hard chairs, it might as well have been a candlelit dinner for the atmosphere that was in the air. His Quirk was definitely acting up, sending little strobes of heat and then cold through him, but even without that Shouto was sure he’d be a sweaty, nervous mess right now.

This is it, he thought to himself. Quit torturing yourself. Don’t trap yourself in this god damn flirtation limbo forever. Admit it.

But another part of him, the part that kept a running tally of all the many ways he constantly fucked up, said Izuku would never want to be with you if he knew all the baggage you were hauling around. You’d only drag him down. He’s your friend. You can’t deceive him like that.

He’d been working with his therapist to not let that voice rule his life, but it was always there. And sometimes, it made good points. Like now.

Izuku had no idea what he was getting into. And after everything his friend had shared about his own history, it didn’t feel right to try and wrestle a commitment out of him while leaving him in the dark.  

“It would be so nice to move out of my parents’ place,” he started. “When I first learned that I was going to get evicted because I couldn’t make rent, I...I considered a lot of other possibilities. I thought about being homeless, rather than having to move back in with them.”

“That bad, huh?” Izuku replied .

You have no idea.

“Yeah. The thought of having to live with my dad again, of him being in my life and controlling me the same way he did when I was a kid...it was too much for me.”

Shouto tried to swallow, but there was a lump in his throat. Just thinking about this was enough to put him back in that emotional state, desperate and helpless. Sensing his unease, Izuku shifted closer, reaching a hand out and placing it on his knee. Shouto was sure he would be unpleasantly icy to the touch, but fortunately Izuku was a pro at regulating his temperature now. He could withstand Shouto’s fluctuations. 

“I thought that anything would be better than having to go back there,” Shouto said. “But I didn’t have any options. I mean, in hindsight I totally did, but at the time…”

At the time it felt like he was trapped underground with his air supply running out. He felt like he had no choice. He’d been an idiot. He’d thought losing his Quirk was the end of everything. Didn’t think it could get any worse.

“I decided I would rather die than live with my father again,” Shouto whispered. It felt weird to say it out loud. 

“...oh,” Izuku replied as realization dawned on him. “Shouto, hey, you don’t need to talk about this if it makes you upset.”

“I think you deserve to know,” Shouto said. “I guess...I don’t know. I want you to know everything about me. Even the parts I’m ashamed of.”

Izuku’s scooted his chair closer, their legs awkwardly entangling as he pulled Shouto into a hug. Shouto had spent more than a few minutes of his life fantasizing about being in Izuku’s arms. Right now, he was too shaken up to appreciate it. It did help, though, to have his face pressed to his friend’s neck so he didn’t have to look him in the eye as he talked.

“I jumped,” he said. “I was stupid. It wasn’t tall enough. There was a landing a few stories down. I hit that instead. Fucked up my legs. Woke up in the hospital.”

Funny, my Quirk isn’t bothering me as much as it should.

His power was definitely going out of control, spiking and flaring. However, pressed against Izuku, it wasn’t affecting him. Here in the other man’s arms, he couldn’t hurt himself any more.  

Izuku wasn’t saying anything. However, where he was pressed against Shouto shook slightly.

“In the end, not only did I have to move back in with my parents,” Shouto continued, “but I made everything worse for everyone. They couldn’t find a healing Quirk that could repair the damage I’d done to my ligament. That stuff doesn’t regrow and repair itself like bone or muscle. And my parents...I wasn’t just moving in with them because I lost my job and hit a rough patch. They didn’t trust me on my own. No one did. The doctors told them to consider institutionalizing me, but my mom refused. She, uh, had strong opinions on that one.”

Even in this situation, the memory of his mom stomping that idea out put a smile on his face. Rei had been adamant that he be kept out of any sort of mental hospital. 

He felt something wet on his neck. Pulling back, he saw that Izuku was crying.

Why are you crying? I’m the one who just unloaded a bunch of emotional baggage.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Izuku said through tears. “I’m glad we got the chance to meet, and… and I’m glad you didn’t kill yourself.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s one screw-up that actually worked in my favor.”

Izuku’s hands were on him again, pulling him into another hug. This time, Shouto could appreciate it more. He smelled like the disinfectant they used in the lab and shampoo, and it was so good.

“Please,” Izuku begged, voice small, “don’t ever hurt yourself again.”

“I won’t,” Shouto promised. “Trust me, it was...not something I want to repeat. I regretted it immediately and every day since.”

Izuku squeezed him tighter.

“I’m serious,” he whispered. “If you even think about it...I’m there for you, okay? And you can come to me, and I’ll help you, and I promise we can work through things together.”

“Yeah, I know,” Shouto said.

Izuku was still trembling around him like a vibrating blanket, and it was starting to worry him.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Sorry. I guess that was a little much I dumped on you.”

“No, it’s fine,” Izuku reassured, pulling back so he could wipe at this eyes. “It just… it hits pretty close to home, you know?”

It was Shouto’s turn to be surprised.

“You mean,” he said, piecing it together, “you too?”

“I never actually tried anything,” Izuku explained, “but I used to think about it all the time. I guess I just felt so lonely, and I thought nothing would ever get better. But it did, you know? And now I think back to what would have happened if I had actually tried it, and...and I’m so glad I never tried.”

“Yeah,” Shouto agreed. “Me too.”

This made Izuku give a little laugh, hiccuping through his tears.

“We’re both kind of disasters, aren’t we?” he said.

“I think we deserve each other,” Shouto replied.

Izuku let out a giggle that was just shy of a sob and nodded his agreement. And if that didn’t signal romantic interest, Shouto didn’t know what did. They were so obviously perfect for each other, two halves of a broken whole. And they were alone and they’d just had this moment of incredible intimacy and Izuku was still so close, so…

So Shouto leaned forward and aimed for Izuku’s mouth.

This was it. He was done pretending he and Izuku were just friends. They were obviously so, so much more than that. He knew Izuku felt it, too. So he came in for a kiss

 

.

 

.

 

.

 

and Izuku turned away.

Shouto couldn’t even process what was happening. One minute he was a hair’s breadth from the other man’s lips, and then the next his mouth was brushing Izuku’s cheek. The boy had turned his head to avoid the kiss. And before Shouto could make sense of it, he was gently pulling away. 

Blushing red, Izuku wouldn’t look him in the eyes. Instead, he rushed to gather his things, stammering, “Wow, uh, I forgot that I h-have a lab meeting. I have to go or I’ll be late. Don’t want to make everyone wait for me. Haha! Okay, well, good talk, guess I’ll see you later.”

And like that he was out the door. His frantic mutturing had succeeded in preventing Shouto from asking what the fuck had just happened. 

Instead, he was left sitting in the room alone, wondering how he could have ever misinterpreted things so drastically and feeling like a broken asshole.

Chapter Text

Even on the best of days, Shouto wouldn’t have been eager to sit by himself in a coffee shop. He glowered over the top of a chai latte and trying not to check the clock every five seconds. This was why he hated meeting in public locations. What was he supposed to do if he finished his latte before his friend showed up? Order another one?

I’m not made of money, and there’s only so many of these I can cram down before I have to pee.

The worst part, though, was that while he had nothing better to do than wait, he couldn’t keep his mind from wandering. Like a wagon falling into well-worn ruts in the road, he kept coming back to Izuku. It was all he could think about and all he didn’t want to think about.

I totally fucked things up.

He and Izuku hadn’t spoken since the kissing incident two days ago. Not even a text. However, they had vigilante business later tonight, and more science scheduled later that week. Sooner rather than later, they would have to come face-to-face with each other. Shouto had no idea what to expect when they did. Was Izuku furious with him? Were they no longer friends? Did he need to apologize, or would it be better if he acted like nothing had ever happened?

I never should have tried to kiss him, Shouto scolded himself. What the hell was I thinking?

He was thinking that he and Izuku had shared a moment so electric and raw that there could be no doubt that his friend felt the same way he did. He had been so consumed by his emotions, had projected them onto Izuku, and now he was paying the price. Even if his friend wasn’t mad, surely he was weirded out. Shouto had taken something wonderful and stained it irreparably. 

“Hey buddy! Why the long face?”

Shouto looked up from his introspection to see Kirishima, waving his hand and coming towards his table.

You’re late, Shouto thought bitterly. 

However, out loud he just grunted, nodding his head in acknowledgement as Kirishima pulled out a chair and sat down. They had been trying to meet up for three weeks, so it didn’t seem right to start of this long-awaited reunion with cattiness. 

“Glad you could make it,” he replied instead.

“Hey, I wouldn’t miss this for the world!” Kirishima said, even though they’d had to reschedule multiple times. So obviously he would miss it for some things. “Anyways, when was the last time we actually hung out?”

It had been a while, so long that Shouto couldn’t place a date on it. The thought made him feel guilty, since as much as Kirishima’s busy schedule had been hard to coordinate, he hadn’t exactly made much effort the past few years to reach out.

“You look well,” Shouto observed in place of providing an answer to his question. “How’s life?”

As always, Kirishima seemed larger than life. He was vibrant and radiated positive energy, and Shouto felt drawn to him like a moth to flame. Right now, he needed that light.

“You wouldn’t believe how busy my agency’s been the past couple of months,” Kirishima groaned, throwing his head back. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the exhaustion is starting to show.”

“Oh? I thought crime rates were falling?” Shouto said.

“Yeah, but that just means you have to work harder to get your captures in, since there are fewer to go around,” Kirishima explained. “You can’t pass up any opportunity to bust a villain.”

More like Bakugou’s ego can’t take the idea of slipping in rank, Shouto thought to himself, so he’s pushing everyone around him harder than they need to go.

Even if the current prosperity was a smokescreen created by a group operating from the shadows, most heroes were relishing in the unprecedented peace. However, if there was one thing Shouto knew about Bakugou from the bottom of his heart, it was that he was not built for peace. If there wasn’t conflict, he would stir some up. 

“Do you ever regret working with your boyfriend?” Shouto asked. He’d never had the chance to date a coworker. Izuku might have counted, if things had worked out and they had been vigilante boyfriends with the Network. That ship had sailed, though. 

Don’t dwell on it, he scolded himself. 

“No way, man! We get to see each other all the time. I don’t know how else I would have time for a boyfriend, with the way my schedule is,” Kirishima remarked. 

“You two never get sick of each other?” Shouto asked. He couldn’t imagine spending 24/7 with Bakugou and not needing an occasional break. 

Kirishima shrugged, replying, “That’s kinda why we still have our own places. You know, since once in awhile you need time to yourself.”

To Shouto, it seemed backwards to spend your working hours with a significant other and then live in separate houses. He’d always imagined that the best parts of a relationship were the domestic stuff. Like cooking together or arguing what to watch on Netflix or curling up in the same bed. Then again, those brief periods when he’d had relationships, he’d usually spent so much time at work his significant other got frustrated.

“Enough about me and Bakugou,” Kirishima said. “I know you actually hate talking about him, and you don’t have to pretend to care for my sake.”

Rather than deny it, Shouto just shrugged. It was true that on his happy days he liked to pretend Bakugou didn’t exist, but Anger Incarnate and Kirishima were so intertwined that it was hard to get any facts about one’s life without hearing about the other. It didn’t leave them with a lot of safe topics of conversation. 

“So I’ve heard a rumor floating around that you’re seeing someone,” Kirishima started, shooting him a wink. 

“That...isn’t even remotely true,” Shouto replied. He felt his body temperature pitch wildly, his Quirk bucking to be let out.

“That’s not what I heard,” he teased. “Uraraka told me you brought this guy to some charity ball and flirted with him the entire evening.”

That’s not fair. Uraraka did more flirting that evening then I did. 

“And according to the description she gave me, he looks just like a certain someone I saw you hanging around that diner with.”

Kirishima waggled his eyebrows in a particularly lascivious manner. Shouto’s chai had gone from reasonably warm to frozen slurry in his grip.

“I’d rather not talk about this,” he snapped. 

“Look bro, I totally respect your boundaries,” Kirishima said, splaying his hands across the table. “It’s just, if you start dating someone I want to know. I feel like that’s my right as a friend.”

“Fine,” Shouto growled back. “Next time I start dating someone, you’ll be the first to know. But I wouldn’t count on it any time soon.”

Obviously he was broadcasting hurt loud enough for Kirishima to pick up on it. His friend’s face wrinkled in concern. There were a few beats of awkward silence, and Shouto knew more uncomfortable questions were coming. He figured he might as well get it over with.

“He doesn’t feel the same way,” he explained. “Yeah, I like him, but it’s not mutual.”

Saying it out loud felt a bit like puking. It burned coming up, and tasted terrible in his mouth, but he felt a strange relief once it was past his lips. At least now he was no longer in denial. He knew where he stood.

“I’m sorry about that,” Kirishima replied earnestly. “That’s got to suck. So did you confess to him and he turned you down?”

“More or less,” Shouto answered. “I tried to kiss him and he ducked out. He’s been avoiding me ever since.”

“Oh wow. So this was, like, a recent development?”

“Yeah.”

Kirishima was staring at him, making him self-conscious. For lack of anything better to do with his mouth, he tried taking a drink. He got a mouthful of ice.

“So you two haven’t talked about it at all?” Kirishima guessed. “So what, you’re waiting until he reaches out to you?”

“I figured I’d give him some space.”

That was a lie. Shouto had no idea if Izuku needed time to process the event, but he sure did. It felt like the wound was still fresh, his heart an open sore. 

“I thought I was better than this,” Shouto said angrily. “I told myself that no matter what happened, I wasn’t going to let my feelings get in the way of our friendship. But I guess I’m...I’m really bad with rejection, and I can’t pretend not to be hurt. So I’m staying away until I can get myself under control.”

If he interacted with Izuku now, he was sure he wouldn’t be able to keep his emotions in check. Most likely he’d lash out or be bitter, and that would just drive a wedge further between them.

“I mean...do you still want to be friends with him after this?” Kirishima asked. “And like, real friends, not just fake ‘hoping he changes his mind’ friends.”

“Yes,” Shouto replied without hesitation.

Izuku’s friendship had made him better. While he’d done a lot of work these last few months to improve himself, if it hadn’t been for Izuku’s encouragement, he probably wouldn’t have bothered.

“Then don’t let this come between you,” Kirishima advised. “Like, yeah it’s going to be awkward, but it will be so much worse if you just expect him to read your mind and guess how you’re feeling. Let him know you still want to be friends, and you might need some time to work through the hurt, but that it doesn’t change how much you value him as a friend.”

As he talked, Kirishima’s tone was nothing but helpful and friendly, but Shouto couldn’t help but wince and feel guilty. His advice was the exact opposite of how Shouto had handled things between them.

“I always assumed it was blatantly obvious, but...you knew I had a crush on you, right? Back in high school?” Shouto asked. 

“Oh. Uh, yeah, I kinda figured,” Kirishima winced, shoulders sinking in. “I never said anything because...because you never said anything, man! I didn’t want to force you, and I figured you’d tell me when you were ready, but you never did.”

“Yeah,” Shouto replied. “I let our friendship go to shit instead.”

“Hey,” Kirishima said, reaching across the table and taking Shouto’s hand. “That’s not true. We’re still friends.”

Shouto had to smile at that. It was true. As difficult as he had made it, constantly trying to ghost him and being evasive, Kirishima had never let him go entirely. He had held on, and Shouto was just now understanding how unfair that had been, forcing Kirishima to carry the weight of their friendship because he had been too emotionally constipated to get over things.

“I’m sorry I let it get between us,” Shouto said.

“Water under the bridge,” Kirishima reassured him with a smile.

But even if they could completely forget about it and leave it in the past, that didn’t change the fact that they had been estranged for years.

What if the same thing happens to Izuku and I? What if it takes me forever to get over this crush?

“The world would be a better place if I stopped having feelings for people,” he observed. “I just make things harder for everyone.”

“Now you’re just wallowing.”

“It’s true, though. I always catch feelings for the wrong person, or I end up with someone just because it’s convenient and I can’t make myself like them back, or whatever. I’m bad for people. And I’ll probably just hurt Izuku more if I hang around him.”

Leaning back in his chair, Kirishima glowered at Shouto over his drink.

“It’s weird to see you give up so easily on something,” he remarked. “Not very manly to just throw in the towel like that.”

Shouto shrugged. He knew Kirishima was trying to goad him into saying the right thing, to show the right amount of resolve, but Shouto didn’t think he could fake it. This wasn’t like learning a new combat move or practicing a new math formula until he got it down. This was relationships, and he was terrible at those. He had the tragically embarrassing track record to prove it.

“Why did you bother staying friends with me all these years?” Shouto asked. “Especially when I made it so hard for you.”

Shouto had his suspicions. Most of them revolved around Kirishima pitying him. The man couldn’t repress his heroic urge to reach out to the people on the fringes.

“I guess I was just too stubborn,” Kirishima responded. “And here’s the answer you won’t believe, because you’re too busy feeling sorry for yourself: I actually like you. I enjoy your company, especially your catty commentary.”

That didn’t seem like a good enough reason to be friends with him for the better part of a decade. 

“Look, I don’t know why this dude is your friend,” Kirishima continued, “but if he’s anything like me, and he has any sense at all, he can tell what an upstanding guy you are. You actually care about doing the right thing, even if you can’t always pull your head out of your ass long enough to tell what that is. Anyways, he probably cares enough about you to still want to be your friend. So don’t worry about whether or not you’ve made things awkward, because trust me, there are so many more ways to make things awkward besides a little crush.”

Shouto sighed. He knew that was true. He just needed the motivation to act on it. He switched the hand holding his cup, since now his left side was acting up, and maybe if nothing else he could reheat his drink since his skin was starting to prickle.

“So, uh, you are over your crush on me, right?” Kirishima asked.

Shouto opened his mouth to say that of course he was, it was a silly high school phase and he’d grown out of it years ago. But that wasn’t necessarily true. Even after years of trying to stuff it down, he had still felt that wave of longing every time their eyes had met. It had been a major motivating factor in Shouto’s continued avoidance, since it wasn’t going away. Except that it had. Shouto wasn’t sure when, but the last couple of times he’d interacted with Kirishima, it hadn’t happened. It was like finally being free of a curse.

“Yeah,” Shouto replied. “I guess I am.”

“Good,” came the response, “because I want us to be friends again. Real friends. Ones that talk to each other and help each other and stuff.”

“I’d like that,” Shouto said.

“Awesome. So step one of that: you’re gonna text that boy tonight or I’m going to steal your phone and do it for you.”

“What?” Shouto asked, bewildered. 

“Yup. Damn serious. I am not letting you stew on this and do the Todoroki trademark overthinking,” Kirishima explained. “You’re gonna text him and apologize for making things weird and explain how cute you think his face is but you’re willing to put that behind you for the sake of your beautiful bromance.”

“I-”

Shouto wanted to say he couldn’t do that, but then he remembered that he had a Network meeting tonight anyways. One way or another, he was going to have to face Izuku. He might as well make it productive when he did.

“Okay,” Shouto replied. “I’ll tell him that.”

“Good,” Kirishima responded, tipping his drink back so he could finish the rest of it in one fell swoop. Then he crushed the cup over his head, despite the fact that it was a paper cup and not an aluminum can, and then he tossed it towards the trash can. When it missed, he gave an embarrassed swear and rushed to pick it up off the ground. 

Shouto chuckled. He really had missed his friend.

Chapter Text

“I hereby call this meeting to order,” Shinsou commanded from where he sat slumped against the wall. His eyes were closed, and if Shouto had to guess he would say the man was fighting back the early stages of a migraine. If he had a job as stressful and thankless as Shinsou’s, he’d probably be fighting migraines, too. 

“What’s this so-called breakthrough you’ve been bragging about?” Hammerspace asked.

Shinsou had adamantly refused to cave for pizza this time, claiming it wasn’t in their operating budget, so the Network was a little bit grumpy. Even Shouto would have been in a better mood if he had been fed. However, with as much as his nerves were acting up, it was probably in his own best-interest that he didn’t fill his stomach. Izuku was here. He had arrived, taken one nervous look at Shouto, and then gone out of his way to avoid him during the mingling that inevitably occurred before the meeting was called to session.

Don’t panic, Shouto instructed himself. He’s probably just confused and doesn’t know how to approach you. You can fix this.

It felt like a lie, but he was clinging to it anyways. 

“Long story short, I have been accepted as a double-agent,” Shinsou informed them. “However, before I earn enough trust to meet their leader, I have to actually sell them something valuable.”

“Are you sure they aren’t on to you?” Hydrophobe asked. “What if they are just stringing you along?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Shinsou replied with a shrug. “I know how to deal with someone double-crossing me during a double-crossing. It’s why we’re going to prepare a back-up double-crossing, in case the first one doesn’t take.”

“Sounds like you just want an excuse to play bull-shitty mind games,” Amalgaknight muttered. 

“I’ll keep it as simple as you,” Shinsou promised. “Basically, I’m going to sell out you guys, but you’ll know I’m selling you out, so we can avoid anything too damaging.”

Shouto did not like the sound of that. He and Shinsou had briefly discussed strategy after the encounter with the villain recruiter. Basically, Shouto thought it was a terrible idea doomed to failure, but as long as Shinsou was the one risking his neck, it was fine. He was a trained Pro. He knew how to deal with a bad situation. However, putting everyone else in the line of fire had not been part of the deal.

“The plan is to go deep undercover, and then reveal that I know you guys are on to them,” Shinsou explained. “Then when the time is right, I claim to know where you regularly patrol and help them set up an ambush. Of course, we use that information against them.”

“This isn’t safe,” Shouto spoke up. “We have no guarantee they won’t just kill everyone on sight.”

A hush fell over the room. While Shouto hadn’t made much of an effort to socialize and make friends with the other vigilantes, he knew they respected his opinion. And were possibly a little afraid of him. His silent intensity had that effect on people. Anyways, as a resident licensed hero, his opinion carried weight and authority, and if he was voicing doubt, it wouldn’t take much for everyone else to get cold feet, too. 

“You’re not wrong,” Shinsou agreed. “However, isn’t that always the risk when confronting villains? It’s the same with any encounter on the streets. Except if we know it’s coming, we can mitigate the damage.”

“And then what?” Amalgaknight asked. “We dodge a bad situation, but to what end? If this doesn’t help us smoke out their boss, then what’s the point?”

At this, Shinsou cracked a smile. It looked out of place on his face, like a picturesque sunrise over a swamp.

“Because I’ll make sure they send their heavy-hitters to try and finish you guys off. In the meantime, that will leave their base defenseless,” he explained.

“So we can sneak in then,” Izuku finished. His hand came up to his chin, slipping into thinking mode. As usual, he followed the logic trail perfectly, coming to the same conclusion as someone else.

I love that about him, Shouto thought with a twinge of pain. 

However, now was not the time for hopeless pining. 

“We don’t know where their base is,” Shouto pointed out. “We need that information first.”

“Yes,” Shinsou agreed. “We won’t be able to put the plan into action immediately. I’ll have to do some ground work to earn their trust more, maybe sell them some choice tidbits here and there. However, the reason I’m telling you this now is I may not be able to stay in regular contact with you.”

“While they’re vetting you, you can basically guarantee they’ll be keeping tabs on your movement,” Izuku speculated. “After all, if they’re careful about normal recruitment, imagine how paranoid they’ll be about letting a hero into their ranks.”

“Exactly,” Shinsou said. “I can’t risk leading them back here. I’ll need to keep up the facade of still being involved, so I can convince them I have useful information to sell, while at the same time making sure not to give away anything for free.”

“So, like, what are we supposed to do if you can’t be around?” Flashback asked. She was perched on the edge of the table, idly kicking her feet back and forth. Shouto had yet to see her stand still longer than a minute at a time.

“You’ll still need to keep up the appearance of operation in my absence,” Shinsou explained. “However, operations will be cut way back. Todoroki will be in charge of logistics and Amalgaknight can manage command in the field.”

Immediately, Shouto felt like he had picked up a box full of bricks, the weight heavy enough to make him buckle. He had discovered early in his career that he was not suited to being in command. While he could make tough decisions, he also had a tendency to stomp on feelings and make enemies quickly. 

“Hey boss, are you like, 100% sure that’s a good idea?” Amalgaknight asked. “Like not that I doubt my ability to be useful and a great leader and whatever but...that’s a lot of responsibility.”

“Yeah,” Flashback chipped in. “I think everyone here would be more comfortable with Al not in the driver’s seat.”

Amalgaknight shot her a dark look, but didn’t argue. 

“I’m also not sure we’re up to it,” Shouto chipped in. “I can handle mission control duties just fine, but if someone gets in actual danger, there’s not much I can do to help them.”

“You won’t be doing anything dangerous,” Shinsou reassured. “Just a few routine patrols to keep up appearances.”

Shouto still wasn’t convinced. Judging from the way Amalgaknight shifted his weight from foot to foot, as if the ground was suddenly too hot to stand on, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea, either. But they had nothing better to propose in its place. 

“So boss,” Hammerspace asked, “how exactly are you going to communicate information about the ambush to us if you’ve been compromised?”

“We’ll work out a code, same as with our bookclub chat. I’ll tell you something that looks like I’m talking about something else, but you’ll know what it means.”

Shouto had done a few operations like this before. Of course, usually it was a team-up with a plainclothes cop for a drug bust or the like, but he was familiar with cover missions and setting up info drops. Normally, the idea wouldn’t phase him. But knowing both that he was with a team of amateurs, and that he would be in some part responsible for their safety, made him sick to his stomach. Everyone else in the Network looked like they were warming to the idea, though. He sawDeku chewing his lip, already churning out a dozen different possibilities and contingency plans. G-Force and Hammerspace were pressing Shinsou for details on the operation. Flashback was engaged in some good natured ribbing of Amalgaknight. 

Shouto did not have a good feeling about this. However, he was in the minority, so there was really nothing he could do besides hold his tongue and watch everyone else finalize the plan. When Shinsou ended the meeting, he felt like he needed to take a ten year nap. That wasn’t an option. He had promised both himself and Kirishima that he wouldn’t let the awkwardness between him and Izuku ferment. They needed to talk, and the longer he waited, the harder it was going to be. 

“Hey,” he said, approaching Izuku. The boy startled at his voice, glancing at him before becoming suddenly very preoccupied with picking at a hangnail. “Could we talk?”

“Uh, sure,” Izuku said, but the way he hunched his shoulders screamed that he wasn’t sure, that he didn’t want to do this.

Too bad. Shouto didn’t want to do this, either, but he also was tired of running away.

“Would you mind if we went somewhere more private?” he asked. 

While he didn’t think the others in the Network were exactly gossips, he also respected their intelligence and curiosity enough to assume they could tell something was amiss. On a regular day, he and Izuku both would have arrived together and sat next to each other at the meeting. The change in routine wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. If things were going to get ugly, Shouto didn’t want to feel like the whole world was watching.

“Well, I kind of have to get home before it gets too late,” Izuku mumbled, “and I have to get up early tomorrow for work.”

That had never been a deterrent before. From what he’d picked up from his time around Izuku, the man slept maybe six hours on a good night, and he always had time for Shouto.

“Look, if you don’t want to just tell me no,” Shouto grumbled, more acidic than he meant. From nearby, Shinsou tossed them a curious look, and Shouto felt himself heating up. He really needed to get out of here.

“I’m not making excuses,” Izuku reaffirmed. “I really do have a lab meeting early tomorrow. But...we could talk on the train ride home if you want.”

They took the same train most of the way home, with Izuku getting off several stops earlier than Shouto. Not exactly the most private of conditions, but probably the best he was going to get.

“Fine,” he agreed. “Let’s get going.”

The walk from headquarters to the train station was nothing but awkward silence. Now that he was using a cane, it was easier for Shouto to keep up with Izuku. It also meant he didn’t have to stare at his feet so much, trying to navigate with his crutches. Instead, he could watch Izuku, who was staring dead ahead and wouldn’t so much as glance at him. 

“I guess I owe you an apology, huh?” Shouto finally said. They were nearing the train station, and it was the first thing he could think to vocalize.

“For what?” Izuku responded.

Oh, so now we’re playing dumb.

It was ludicrous that Izuku would try and act like he didn’t know what the problem was, especially since he had been avoiding eye contact the entire evening. However, that was exactly what was happening, and it left Shouto with no recourse but to spell it out. 

“I’m sorry I tried to kiss you, okay?” he said. “It was stupid. Clearly some wires were crossed, and I read signals that weren’t there. But, like...I thought they were, okay? And it’s fine that they weren’t, I get it, but I wasn’t just randomly trying to kiss you. I really thought that you wanted me to.”

“Oh.”

That was all. Izuku’s normally expressive face was locked into a slight frown, brows furrowed. He still wasn’t looking at Shouto. And Shouto, in all his vast social graces, had no idea how to interpret his response.

They were on the platform now, waiting in the fading sun for the next train to come. All of a sudden, the thought of having to ride the same train, being locked in one place together for another half hour, felt unbearable. Shouto was tempted to play sick and bow out, saying he’d catch the next one or something ridiculous like that. Right now, he doubted Izuku would stop him.

Before he could, Izuku spoke up, saying softly, “You shouldn’t be the one apologizing. I’m sorry for how I reacted. I know how much that must have hurt. And it...was completely uncalled for. I panicked.”

Once again, you try and shoulder the blame for everything.

“It’s not your fault,” Shouto reassured him, sidestepping the issue that his feelings actually had been very hurt. It he could get away without admitting that, he would be much happier. 

There was more silence. The train arrived in a clatter like everything falling to the floor at once. With a sigh, Shouto stepped onto it with Izuku by his side. They grabbed seats, keeping a buffer space between them. 

And now he’s going to act like I have the plague and avoid touching me for the rest of eternity.

That was it, then. Even if they salvaged the friendship, Izuku would always be on guard, too nervous for any more casual shoulder pats or leaning against each other. He had been better off pining.

“So, um, you aren’t mad, right?” Izuku asked. He was looking at Shouto with big, watery eyes. It was his patented ‘puppy left out in the rain’ look, the one that made Shouto want to scoop him up and protect him.

“No. Why would I be mad?”

“It’s just, you know, I should have been paying attention. I should have never let you get feelings for me.”

“Excuse me?” Shouto said. “You aren’t... in control of my feelings.”

Usually I’m not in control of them either. 

Izuku looked down into his lap and sighed. Shouto knew he should be reassuring him, shouldering all the blame for the misunderstanding like a big boy. But right now he was feeling so drained, it was hard to be charitable.

“I’m not mad,” he said with a sigh, because that was the bare minimum thing to say. “Look, I don’t want to dwell on it, okay? If we could just move on and go back to being friends, I’d like that.”

Izuku chewed on his bottom lip, not looking towards Shouto. He was thinking something over very carefully, and Shouto felt the bundle of nerves in his stomach compounding, like a can of soda put under a hydraulic press. He was about to burst with the pressure of it. Minutes past, and Izuku said nothing.

Come on, Shouto thought bitterly. I’ve done my part to be a good sport about this shitty situation. The least you could do is reaffirm that you still want to be friends.

Wrapping his arms around himself, he shivered. Was the AC in the train on high? No, that was just his Quirk making a mess of things again.

Beside him, Izuku shifted to look at him. Maybe a week ago, this would have been where he offered his jacket or leaned against Shouto to warm him up. Now he just looked uncomfortable, the alley of space between an impassable gulf. Shouto did his best not to look like he was freezing. 

“I wish I could give you...what you wanted from me,” Izuku started, and Shouto cut him off.

“I said I didn’t want to dwell on it, okay?” he snapped. Then, with a sigh, he tried again. “I’m trying really hard not to be a little bitch about this, but I don’t think I’m doing a very good job. It’s not anyone’s fault. It just sucks. But...I kinda want to forget about the whole thing. Can we act like nothing ever happened?”

Izuku opened his mouth, but no sound came out. After a moment he sighed and dropped his head again.

“Yeah,” he replied, “that would probably be for the best.”

They rode the rest of the way in uncomfortable silence. As Izuku’s stop approached, he started to fidget and shoot pained glances Shouto’s way. Shouto ground his teeth. It had been a long time since the boy’s nervous habits had grated on his nerves. Funny how something that was endearing could flip to being aggravating so easily. All the little character tics that had made him want to reach out were now a reminder that Midoriya was beyond reaching. At least for him.

Shit, what happens if he starts seeing someone else? I don’t know if I can take that right now.

“So, um, I’ve been compiling data from the experiments we’ve been doing,” Izuku started. “I’ve come up with some interesting new theories that are definitely worth testing. So...we have that to look forward to. You want to come by the lab tomorrow?”

That managed to perk Shouto up.

“Yeah, of course,” he promised.

“Good,” Izuku said. The train was slowing down for his stop, and he rose from his seat, hands playing with the straps on his backpack. “Hey, uh, I just want to let you know that...you’re still my best friend, okay? That hasn’t changed.”

Shouto heard a tiny crackle of ice as he froze himself to the seat. Everything he had been so worried about drained away, and he could feel his shoulders sag as the tension left them.

“Same,” Shouto said.

That put a smile on Izuku’s face. It still wasn’t everything he had dreamed of, but it was something.

Both men waved each other goodbye, their expressions slightly strained but happy.

Chapter Text

Izuku still walked on eggshells around Shouto. He tried to cover it up by talking nonstop, not leaving room for any awkward silences to sneak in.

“...a lot of data to compile. Like you would be amazed how much you get just from five minutes of a neural scan,” Izuku was explaining, gesturing to different parts of a printout. 

Supposedly, he’d had a breakthrough in studying Shouto’s Quirk. However, he had been explaining it for fifteen minutes, and Shouto’s brain had flatlined after the first three. All he had absorbed was that it was very complicated, and Izuku was quite excited.

“So what is the next step?” Shouto interrupted. He knew that if he did nothing, Izuku would keep talking until he asphyxiated from lack of breath. 

“Well, it’s obvious that your emotions are influencing your Quirk, right?” he said.

Yeah, I guess I could have deduced that on my own, judging from the fact that I start lighting up like a blowtorch whenever we get too close. 

“So the problem is isolating exactly what part of your brain causes the disconnect,” he explained. “And then after that, what we are going to do about it.”

“And?” Shouto asked.

The hope he’d done a good job of caging reared its ugly head, ready to disappoint him. 

“I have a lead,” Izuku said. “Not a surefire solution, but I know where we’re going next.”

He proceeded to explain how the connections in Shouto’s brain were all tangled, and how he would have to learn how to disconnect his power usage from his emotions.

“I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as an emotional person, though,” Shouto said.

“Well, uh, I don’t want to be judgemental, but that might be part of the problem,” Izuku explained with a wince. “This is just a wild theory, but I think maybe the fact that you repress your emotions means your body seeks another physiological outlet, and that just so happens to manifest as you using your Quirk inappropriately.”

Shouto opened his mouth to disagree, but found he did not have a rebuttal. On some level, he had suspected as much himself. 

“So how exactly are we going to fix that?” he asked. “You said yourself that you aren’t a brain surgeon.”

“I’m not. Psychology is completely outside my realm of expertise. But I do have a few experiments I would like to try.”

He went to the little tub of supplies that sat under the desk and dug through them. After a bit of shuffling around, he pulled out a notebook.

“Ta-dah! Have you ever kept a diary?”

“No.”

“Well that changes now,” Izuku instructed. “We’re going to start a log. Every time your Quirk acts up, I want you to write down the time and date, along with what emotions you are feeling at the time, their intensity on a scale of one to ten, and if anything specifically triggered it.”

“That sounds awful.”

And intrusive of my privacy, he also thought, but didn’t say out loud. 

“I’m not making you do this for laughs,” Izuku reassured him. “Knowing what specifically triggers the malfunction will help us correct it, or at the very least find a way to block it from misfiring all the time.”

He held out the notebook. It was plain, the pages crisp and unmarred by querulous scribbles. Shouto hadn’t used a notebook since high school. Hesitantly, as if he was afraid it would bite, he took it from Izuku’s hands. 

“This stuff is going to stay confidential, right?” he asked.

“General conclusions will be reported in my paper, but any specifics will stay between us.”

Sighing his resignation, Shouto slipped the book into his bag. 

There really are no lows I won’t sink to if it means getting my Quirk back, he thought bitterly. 

And it was true, because no matter how humiliating this assignment was, he was determined to carry it out to the letter.

He got his chance to record his first Quirk flare-up later that day. Identifying the trigger for this one was easy enough. Dear old dad was home, and he was feeling chatty. 

Shouto had been minding his own business, sitting in his favorite spot by the koi pond and working his way through another section in his math workbook. Amidst everything that had gone wrong in his life as of late, he welcomed the chance to occupy his mind so fully he couldn’t worry about other problems. However, he couldn’t ignore the looming shadow of his father, standing directly in his light so that he would have no choice but to acknowledge him. In some ways, Endeavor was like a large, obnoxious dog, demanding attention by inserting his presence where it was most obtrusive. 

“Shouto. It’s been almost two months. Are you still dragging your feet about choosing a tutor?” he asked.

Instantly, Shouto felt himself boiling with spite. Almost literal boiling, as his left side flared dangerously. He snapped the book closed and leaned over it, doing his best to casually draw attention away. If Endeavor wanted him to be studying for entrance exams, then that was the last thing he was going to admit doing.

“Not really interested in getting a tutor,” he replied with a shrug.

“You’re being bullheaded about this,” his father reprimanded.

Wonder where I got that trait from.

“Just get a damn tutor. It will make everyone’s life easier.”

Shouto shrugged noncommittally, and he could see his old man seething in rage. Having that power over him, the ability to negatively influence his emotions, wasn’t something Shouto was about to give up on, even when common sense dictated otherwise. Maybe one day he could raise the other man’s blood pressure to the point where he had a heart attack. 

He could see his father forcibly unclenching his fist, doing his best to act like a normal human paternal unit. It wasn’t a role that came naturally to him.

“Shouto, exactly what are your plans if you don’t get into college?” Endeavor asked in a clipped voice. 

“Who said I wasn’t planning on going to college?”

“Gonna be hard to do that if you can’t pass entrance exams.”

Another shrug. His left side was making him sweat, and he was probably red in the face. However, his father was reacting similarly, fighting the urge to burst into flames.

“I guess maybe I need some motivation to study,” he replied. 

“Are you asking me to bribe you? Really? This is for your own damn good,” Endeavor pointed out, “and you want me to pay you to do it? We already give you an allowance like a damned child. What more could you possibly want?!”

“I want to move out,” Shouto explained, “and I don’t want to wait four years to finish college before that happens. If I do what you want, and take the tutoring like a good boy and get into college, then I want you to pay for an apartment while I do it.”

He had been thinking over this proposition for a while. As much as he hated relying on his parents, this seemed like the course of action that would get him out from under his father’s scrutiny the fastest. And from years of living with Endeavor, he’d learned not to pitch ideas to the man when he was rational and calm. That just meant his dad would shoot them down immediately. No, the only way to get Endeavor to agree to anything was get him riled up and angry, then cooperate just enough to ease the man’s bruised ego. The man would jump on any opportunity that let him feel like he was regaining control. It was a delicate dance.

“That sounds like a terrible idea,” his father grumbled.

“If I’m going to attend college, then I want the full experience. I’ll live on campus in the dorms if you want.”

Anywhere that isn’t here.

His father scowled at him some more. However, he could see the wheels in his head turning. Try and force Shouto to cooperate, knowing his son was every inch as stubborn and strong-willed as him, or acquiesce and give him what he wanted to insure his compliance. Considering his parents were so wealthy, paying for an apartment was a minor sacrifice for them. It should be an easy tradeoff, and was a bargain Shouto was confident he could wrangle his father into making.

“I don’t know if it’s wise to let you live on your own,” Endeavor said. He was still scowling, like he was personally offended at the idea of Shouto wanting independence. 

“What? I’m a damn adult. I lived on my own for years,” he rationalized. “My leg is getting better, too. I don’t need that much help.”

There was a shift in his Quirk, the heat fading away as an icy chill took its place. It was like changing gears in a car with the transmission failing, a sharp jolt in temperature difference. No doubt Izuku would go wild trying to figure out why his Quirk would suddenly shift modes like that, and would want all sorts of details about what had triggered it. One more layer of icing on this uncomfortable encounter.

Endeavor made a low grumble of exasperation. It was the sound of him not getting what he wanted and trying not to throw a complete fit about it.

“Look, it’s not the leg thing,” he explained through gritted teeth. “I’m not sure you can be trusted not to do anything stupid.”

“You mean like try to kill myself again?” Shouto asked. 

The instant look of discomfort that overcame his father signalled that, yes, that was exactly what he meant. Most days, Endeavor acted like he wasn’t aware Shouto had attempted suicide. He insisted on referring to it as an “accident,” as if Shouto hadn’t carefully thought through his options. On some level, maybe he understood that his son had decided death was a preferable outcome to living with him again, and it was easier to repress that knowledge.

“You’re the one who keeps telling me I need to move out,” Shouto reminded. His father’s discomfort just meant he had to lean into it harder. Enji Todoroki cared very much for his own ease of mind, and if Shouto was unpleasant enough, he might cave just to save himself the headache. “That was the whole plan: send me to college so I can get a job and move out afterwards. So what, I can’t be trusted until I get a degree? You think that’s going to give me mental stability?”

“I think it’s still too early-”

“It’s been six months. Seven, actually, right? Let’s see, it was just before New Year’s,” he mused, making a show of doing the mental math, “and today is July 14th, so that’s about, oh, 28 or 29 weeks without killing myself, give or take. I’d say I’m doing stupendously.”

His father was rubbing the bridge of his nose, and that meant Shouto was succeeding in giving him a headache. Shouto knew he was being petty and cruel. However, his father had been petty and cruel the vast majority of his life, so Shouto didn’t think it was that big of a deal if he indulged in his darker urges once in a while. At least, not if it was aimed at the old man.

“Look, it’s not just me,” his father tried to reason. “Your mother has concerns about you living on your own, too.”

I hate when they pretend like they are a functional couple that discusses things.

“So what you’re saying is that if I convince mom, you’ll go along with it and help me move out?” he asked.

His mother had witnessed him going through therapy, and she also was close enough to him to understand that he was doing much better now than he was a few months ago. She was also mature enough to admit that living here only did terrible things to Shouto’s mental health. 

“We are currently planning a funeral for your older brother. Let us deal with the stress of burying one child without adding to it the worry about whether you’re going to off yourself out of spite,” Endeavor snapped.

I didn’t know they were going through with Touya’s funeral, Shouto thought. The idea didn’t have the impact he thought it would. In a way, apathy was the worst feeling of all. He knew how traumatic it must be for the rest of his family, and he couldn’t even empathize with their feelings.

But it’s not like Dad really cares all that much, either. 

“It’s kind of late to be sorry about Touya, don’t you think?” Shouto asked. “Maybe you should have shown some fatherly concern before you ruined his life.”

His father didn’t even respond with anger. All he managed was a huff, shoulders squaring slightly.

“You’re being a brat about this,” he said. “I’m not giving you what you want, so you’re lashing out.”

That was exactly what Shouto was doing, but he didn’t feel guilty about it. After all, this was the only way to deal with Endeavor and carve out a small space for himself.

“If you gave a shit about your family, about actually making us happy, then you’d piss off and leave us alone,” Shouto replied. His right hand was so cold, he had to clench it into a fist to keep it from shaking.

“If this is supposed to convince me that you’re emotionally stable enough to live on your own again, you’re doing a piss poor job,” Endeavor shot back.

The air in the courtyard felt like an open field during a thunderstorm. Everywhere was the potential for disaster to strike suddenly. Shouto and his father hadn’t argued like this since...since he had moved out all those years ago. Despite Shouto’s fears, for the most part his dad had kept his distance since moving back in. They had both bitten their tongues and stayed out of each other’s way as much as possible. So far, it had successfully prevents conflict. Now that Shouto’s mouth was going, though, he couldn’t stop.

“Living with you is not going to make me ‘more’ stable,” Shouto growled. “It’s doing the opposite. You’re the reason I wanted to die in the first place. You know that, right? That I literally chose death as a preferable option to being around you.”

For a moment, his father had no response. Shouto took that as a momentous achievement. He had managed to strike Endeavor, the loudest man he knew with zero verbal-filter, speechless.

“You’re not being fair,” he finally said, voice uncharacteristically subdued. “You can’t keep throwing the past in my face. I’ve changed.”

Wonderful for you, Shouto thought bitterly, that you can move on. That your scars are ones that heal.

“If you were attacked by a dog,” he said, slowly and through gritted teeth, “even if that dog got sent to obedience school, would you ever want to be around it again?”

His father sagged. He really did look his age like that, an old man well into his fifties. When he opened his mouth to defend himself, Shouto cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter how much you’ve changed. Being around you makes me feel like shit,” he explained, voice caustic like a vat of acid. “You can’t change that . It’s forever.”

They stared at each other for a few tense moments. Shouto braced for a fight, for his father’s wrath, for the rage and violence that were synonymous with the Endeavor he knew. Instead, Enji sighed and walked away. 

Chapter Text

“Under no circumstances are you to put yourselves in harm’s way, even if you think I’m in danger,” Shinsou instructed. “Remember, I’m the professional. If I can’t get out of a situation, chances are throwing yourself into the mix won’t help.”

They were gathered in the computer room at headquarters, the place Shouto had come to think of as his base of operations. Shinsou was briefing them on the plan. Tonight’s operation was crucial: Shinsou was starting his deep cover. After this, he wouldn’t be back to the safehouse, and contact would be limited. Judging from the frowns on Deku and G-Force’s faces, they understood the gravity of the situation. 

“Uh, are you sure you want me for this operation?” Izuku asked, nervously playing with the visor on his helmet. 

“This is the easy part,” Shinsou reassured. “You’re just there to get visual confirmation of where I’m going and collect evidence from afar.”

“It’s too risky for Shinsou to bring a camera,” Shouto cut in. “If they find it on him, then that will be a dead giveaway that he’s planning on double-crossing them.”

He could see Izuku pale. Maybe G-Force was paling, too, although Shouto wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell on his darker skin. 

For once someone else is going to understand how frustrating it is to watch from the sidelines, he thought bitterly.

“I will have a small microphone, one-way, so you guys can hear what is going on,” Shinsou reiterated. “Again, I’ll try and use this to get evidence on them, but I doubt they’ll just spill everything the first couple of times. For now, we’re just earning their trust, and you’re there to tail me. It’s important that the Network keep tabs on me, so that when I’m ready to be extracted, I’m not on my own.”

In theory, it was a simple plan. However, it was also a very linear plan. If things went wrong, they wouldn’t have a lot of options.

“Well, I’ll see you guys on the other side,” Shinsou declared when no one had anything to say. With a nod, he donned his mask and was out the door. Without him, the safehouse felt too big,

“We’ll give him a five-minute head start, and then we follow,” Shouto instructed, settling down into his chair.

With his usual excess energy, Deku was doing stretches, warming himself up. What he lacked in experience, practical knowledge, and a single twinge of self-preservation, he made up for with a can-do attitude.

“I still think they should have asked Hammer or Amalgaknight to be here,” G-Force sighed. “I hate having to be the responsible one.”

“You don’t have to be the responsible one,” Shouto said. “That’s my job.”

And I am honestly grateful I have two people who don’t think they know better than me. That will cut down on arguing.

“All right, Shinsou should be approaching the cross streets he mentioned. Stay out of sight and proceed with caution,” Shouto ordered.

Deku threw him a quick salute before racing out the door. G-Force was right behind. That left just Shouto and his computer, watching from a distance. The worst part about this job was the down-time, where all he could do was wait for the next horrible thing to happen. 

Through the camera, he watched the two slinking from rooftop to rooftop. It was easy in this part of town, where the buildings were clustered together like stray kittens seeking shelter from rain under the same dumpster. Deku had gotten good at forming the occasional ice-bridge to cross gaps, making a pathway that naturally disappeared behind them.

At street level, Shinsou paced along. Shouto caught glimpses of him through the camera, shoulders stooped and walking like he was nervous. Maybe he was, but whatever nerves he decided to show were a deliberate act to catch his opponents off-guard.

He arrived at the location the broker had given him. Much like Shouto and Izuku’s first encounter with the Network, it was in an abandoned building. The vestiges of better years clung to its outside, posters advertising sales long expired.

“We’re going to lose visual on him, no matter what we do,” Deku muttered.

“It’s unavoidable. For now, I want you two to split up,” Shouto said. “That building probably has a back-entrance. G-Force, I want you to watch that. Deku, stay up here and monitor the front.”

“Roger that,” G-Force replied, springing away. He may not have been the most experienced member of the Network, but he was prone to caution and made level-headed decisions. Shouto was confidant he wouldn’t do anything stupid if left on his own for a few minutes. 

From inside the building, Shinsou’s comm system picked up a conversation.

“We’re so glad you came,” said an unfamiliar voice. With no video feed, Shouto could do nothing to help identify the owner. All he could tell was that it had an air of theatricality to it, typical of a low-level grunt that thought they had more status and influence than warranted. “Nice to see you came dressed to work, too. We’ll be putting you through a small test of loyalty later.”

“Can’t wait,” Shinsou drawled back. 

“Before we get too far,” the voice continued, “we’ll need to take some precautions. Make sure you aren’t ferrying anything suspect, you know?”

Shinsou grunted in response. He was doing an excellent job of keeping cool. Even though Shouto was tucked safely into an apartment some three miles away, he still felt chills.

Guess I’ll have to write that down in the feelings journal later.

For now, he tried to push down his nerves. They had done their best to incorporate the microphone into Shinsou’s mask. Anyone who was aware of his abilities wouldn’t be suspicious that he carried it with him all the time, and the specifics of how his vocalizer worked were a trade secret. So if the microphone was found, it could probably be waved away. That had been the hope. Now that it was time to actually test it, Shouto was nervous for him. It would be a shame if their plan ended so soon, especially considering the ending would probably be gruesome.

“So what do you want from me?” Shinsou asked with feigned indifference. “Do I need to strip down while you do a cavity search or something?”

This got a wry chuckle from his audience, and there were more voices than just the man Shinsou was addressing. 

“Sounds like we have a small group inside,” Shouto relayed to his team. 

“Oh don’t worry, we’re much more sophisticated than that,” the voice replied. There was a snap of fingers. “My friend here has an EMP Quirk. Stand still. Oh, you don’t have any implanted medical devices, do you? Because they’re about to go off.”

“No, not that I’m-”

And then there was nothing but the hiss of static over the microphone. Shouto heaved a sigh. So much for their plan to get these people to incriminate themselves and put their plans on record. Now whatever they told Shinsou, he would just have to hold in his memory. Much less useful in a court of law. 

“Twenty minutes in and we’ve already lost our microphone,” Shouto said into his commlink.

“Wait, really?” Deku asked. “What happened?”

“Is Echo Chamber okay? Do we need to intervene?”

“Absolutely not,” Shouto replied. “It was an EMP wave. We have no reason to believe he was harmed.”

But also no proof that he is okay.

For the next few minutes, they waited in tense silence outside the building. 

“So it occurs to me,” Deku thought out loud, “what if they have an underground entrance to this place, and they don’t need to leave through the street exits?”

“Then we’d be S.O.L.,” Shouto admitted.

“Well good thing there’s a group leaving this way,” G-Force’s voice came over the radio. “I see four people, and...yup, one of them is Echo Chamber. Should I pursue?”

“No. There might be more still inside,” Shouto replied. “Deku will tail Shinsou so I can have visuals on our suspects. You camp here. If anyone else comes out, let me know.”

“Always eager to split the party,” Deku chided, but he still obeyed.

Following just Shinsou had been easy. They weren’t trying to conceal their presence from him, merely anyone who might also be trailing him and thus have their attention elsewhere. Now, they had three people who would not be pleased if they spotted Deku dodging from rooftop to rooftop. So they hung back, always just on the verge of losing sight of their prey.

“They can’t be going too far, since they didn’t get in a vehicle,” Shouto told him. “Remember, wherever they’re going probably has security, so you don’t want to risk getting too close.”

Their trail led them close to the river, a scant three miles away from the dock-burning incident. Just as Izuku had speculated, it looked like wherever they were headed had waterway access. Finally, the group entered one of the many abandoned warehouses in this district.

“I doubt this is their headquarters, since they didn’t blindfold Echo Chamber or anything,” Deku mused out loud.

“They mentioned putting him to a test of loyalty, so they’ll probably do that before they give him any info of consequence.”

Deku was currently a couple of buildings away, camera focused on the door they had lead Shinsou through. It was slightly askew in the frame, meaning it didn’t close all the way. More than likely, this was just a convenient location to field interviews, one of many they probably used at random. There was no way they would store anything of consequence in a location that couldn’t be secured.

“I don’t think there will be any sort of alarm system in place,” Shouto said. “This building is listed as for lease, meaning it probably has the power cut off.”

“Should I see if I can get a closer look?” asked Deku.

Chewing his lip, Shouto deliberated the possibilities. It was risky, but possibly the least risky place they would be monitoring over the next several weeks. The deeper Shinsou got into the organization, the more dangerous it would be to get close. Perhaps now would be their best chance to learn about the people they might have to fight later.

“See if you can get in through a window and stick to the rafters. But be careful about casting a shadow, okay?” Shouto instructed.

The warehouse had definitely seen better days, and several of the windows were cracked and fallen in. Deku circled the building, landing on the north side of the rooftop so the moon wouldn’t be at his back. Using his Quirk to create footholds out of ice, he scaled down the building until he could get at one of the broken windows. The jagged gash was still pretty narrow, but fortunately Deku was pretty narrow himself, and he carefully slipped through the opening, landing on the support beams criss-crossing the roof.

Inside was gloomy, and Shouto switched over to the night vision lens so he could see the interior. There were still a long line of shelves ringing the walls, towering almost to the ceiling and devoid of anything more noteworthy than a few empty boxes. In the middle of the space sat a lone card table with a camping lantern on it, illuminating the figures huddled around it. There were more than four now, meaning some were here before Shinsou’s group arrived.  

“I can’t hear what they’re talking about,” Deku whispered, so soft the mic barely picked it up. “I need to get closer.”

“Stand back for now,” Shouto said. “Stay close to the exit. Shinsou can hear what they’re saying, and that’s good enough.”

“Is it?” whined Deku.

If it had been him perched in the rafters, Shouto would have been confidant in sneaking closer. However, he was also confident in his ability to freeze half a dozen pursuers if his presence was detected. Izuku didn’t have that raw power yet, and he was likely to make mistakes if put under pressure. For now, they had to content themselves with watching from the fringes.

It wasn’t completely useless. Shouto zoomed in on the camera so he could pick out more details about the group. It looked like scarface (and body and hands and everything else) was back, standing at the edge of the group. Shouto could recognize his wild patch of hair and the dark outlines of scarring on his face. The rest were a motley crew of incoherent costumes. While he couldn’t make out any facial details, maybe he’d get lucky when cross-referencing them against their articles later.

There was a man in a tophat, gesturing to the table and then to Shinsou in turn. He was also the one that had led them here, so Shouto had to assume he was probably the one in charge.

“Do you think they’re setting up some sort of plan?” Deku asked, voice still quiet as a breath.

“Yeah. Probably want Echo Chamber to do something for them, to prove he really means business.”

“You don’t think they’ll ask him to kill anyone, do you?”

“They might,” Shouto said, “but I think he could get away with refusing. After all, they want him for his hero connections, so burning all his bridges wouldn’t make sense.”

Whatever they assigned him, soon enough they were heading out the door. Deku made a hasty retreat back out the window, clambering up to the rooftop so he could watch where they were heading. The group split into two, with scarface escorting Shinsou while the rest went elsewhere.

“Which one should I follow?” Deku asked.

“Go with Echo Chamber. I’ll put G-Force on tracking down the other group.”

While Deku resumed his stalking, Shouto sent G-Force the coordinates of the second group, telling him that if nothing interesting had happened at the first location by now, it probably wasn’t going to. Hopefully he’d be able to catch up to the suspects and monitor them.

And hopefully Deku would be able to tail his mark without blowing cover. Shouto could tell he was letting eagerness rule his actions, often getting close enough Shouto had to order him to pull back.

“Sorry, I just don’t want to lose sight of them,” he apologized.

“You also don’t want them to catch sight of you, ” Shouto reminded. 

However, the two walked a direct path, not taking and twists or turns or other tail-throwing tactics. Perhaps the man accompanying Shinsou was inexperienced. Or maybe he was just lazy. Either way, it was a stroke of luck, and Izuku managed to keep sight of them when they finally came to a halt in front of-

“Is that a frozen yogurt shop?” Deku asked.

“Looks like it,” Shouto agreed. 

“What do they have against frozen yogurt?”

Shinsou and the man were currently casing the place, doing a quick sweep around the perimeter to make sure it was abandoned. As an underground hero, Shinsou had plenty of experience sneaking (and breaking) into places he wasn’t supposed to be, and Shouto saw him kneel in front of the door to pick the lock.

“We don’t know how they choose their targets yet,” Shouto explained. “It could be this is the business of a former associate who has crossed them, or is some sort of front for one of their rivals.”

“Or they’re going to burn it down and claim the insurance money,” Deku muttered. “So if they do start burning it down, do we alert the fire department?”

Shouto’s gut twisted. If any officials caught Shinsou doing this, his professional career would be in trouble, not to mention it would blow his cover if authorities arrived preemptively. As the two figures slipped into the store, Shouto thought over the options.

“This is a business sector, so no one should be around here this time of night,” Shouto reasoned. “As long as no one gets hurt, I think it’s within the parameters of the mission.”

“All right, but I’m going to check around the area and make sure there aren’t any homeless or anything that will get caught in the crossfire.”

That sounded both reasonable and very in-character for Izuku, so Shouto let him. In the meantime, he checked in with G-Force.

“Did you find our perps?” he asked.

“Yeah, they didn’t go too far,” his voice came over the radio. “Right now they’re just hanging around outside a building, killing time.”

Interesting. Maybe they’re waiting for a signal of some sort?

Maybe the signal was whatever Shinsou’s team was up to. But why carry out two missions at once at separate locations?

“Hey Deku, I want your opinion on something,” he said, then explained the situation.

“Sounds like they are using this whole arson thing as a diversion to me,” Deku replied. “Do a big, flashy crime, keep the local heroes occupied with that while they do something more clandestine in the background.”

It sounded so obvious when he laid it out like that. The randomness of the targets, how daring the arson was, would make sense if it was supposed to draw attention away from something else.

So then that begs the question: what are they really up to?

“Hey G-Force, your mission just got a lot more important,” he instructed. “I have a feeling pretty soon here they are going to act, and you need to be ready to find out what they are doing.”

“How soon is soon?” G-Force asked.

“Like right now,” Shouto replied, screen flickering as the little yogurt stand that could caught alight.

Chapter Text

He could tell by Izuku’s tensing muscles that the man’s first instinct was to jump headfirst into the quickly burgeoning fire. Shouto had to remind him again and again to hold his line, wait until he spotted Shinsou and the other target and follow them. It didn’t help that he was also on the line with G-Force, trying to coach him through a rapidly escalating situation on his end.

“I don’t know what kind of building this is, but they were prepared for it. They had some sort of way through the door, and it was too fast to be lockpicking,” G-Force explained.

“Could be someone’s Quirk. By any chance, does it look like an electronic locking system?” Shouto asked on a hunch. 

“Um, yeah, there’s a keypad. So did they have the code-”

“One of their members has an EMP Quirk, remember?” Shouto said. “Same one they used on Shinsou’s mic. Wouldn’t be hard to- Deku, I promise there is no one inside those buildings this time of night, stay put.”

“So should I follow them inside?” G-Force asked. 

“No. They’ll definitely discover you in an environment that enclosed. Stay out there and see if you can get a look at what they haul out,” Shouto instructed. “I’m putting in a police alert now, see if I can get anyone to head over and apprehend them. If not, we’re just on observation duty.”

Through Izuku’s microphone, he could hear the distant wail of sirens. Heading to the red herring and not the actual crime, no doubt. He had to admit, it was a simple yet elegant plan. Everyone had their eyes trained on the arson, so that the minor break-ins would go unnoticed. Even with his tip to the police, Shouto doubted anyone would arrive before the crew made their getaway.

“We’ll have to look at a list of reported break-ins over the past few weeks, see if we can spot a correlation,” Shouto mused out loud to his two remote teammates.

“If they’re not breaking windows and setting off alarms, can we be sure the break-ins are even reported?” Deku speculated. “It depends on what they are taking, but there’s probably a reason no one has picked up on this pattern.”

He was right. For the past few weeks, this group had been getting away with theft, and it would be hard to tell if they couldn’t even track down what items they were taking. That would make it harder to come to any conclusions. 

“Hey, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Deku continued. “I still don’t see Echo Chamber and that other guy. Um, do you think they are okay?”

“They’re probably stoking the fire,” Shouto explained. “Modern buildings are surprisingly hard to burn down. You have to get the fire hot enough so it can sustain itself instead of just whiffing out.”

“Leave it to the fire expert,” Deku chirped. 

“Technically, we should both be fire experts,” Shouto reminded him.

He didn’t dare elaborate more than that, though, because he didn’t want G-Force overhearing their big Quirk-Swapping secret. Through Deku’s lens, he saw a pair of figures emerge from smoke on the far end of the block. The sirens were louder now, close enough that if it were Shouto in their place, he would be nervous. They were cutting it close.

“All right, follow them. See if they can lead you back to a safehouse or something,” Shouto instructed.

“I can’t believe no heroes have shown up yet,” Deku remarked. He was jumping into action, springing along the rooftops propelled by ice. It had been maybe ten minutes since the first flames had peeked out the edge of the building, and maybe four since they first heard the sirens. 

“There was a hero alert put out,” Shouto explained. He still had access to the city-wide hero system, and could see when calls for action were put in. “However, this is a relatively quiet part of town that isn’t heavily patrolled. I think it would take most heroes a while to get here, and most wouldn’t bother going out of their way for something this small unless it was a really slow night.” 

As if his words were a curse speaking misfortune into reality, he got a ping from the system. Someone was responding to the call.

“Well shit,” Shouto muttered under his breath.

“What is it?” Deku asked. 

“You’re about to have company,” Shouto explained. “At this stage, it’s more beneficial to us if the perps get away, especially since arson isn’t even their end goal. You might have to run interference.”

“Y-you mean like fight an actual hero?” Deku stammered. As eager as the man always was to jump headfirst into a roaring fire, he had enough respect for Pros to be suitably pessimistic about his odds against one.

“No, not fight,” Shouto reassured. “Distract. Lead them away from Echo Chamber and our target, make sure they can get away. Think you can do it?”

“Uh, well, I guess it depends on who the hero is,” Deku said.

“The system isn’t showing me,” Shouto sighed. 

Since he wasn’t currently affiliated with an agency, he couldn’t see exactly who was responding to what calls. Something about preventing heroes from trying to sabotage each other, yadda yadda, political stuff he had never cared for. If Deku got apprehended, best case scenario he got written up for operating without a hero license and a slap on the wrist. Worst case scenario he got the arson pinned on him. However, if they did nothing, that could mean this operation fell apart.

“Why don’t you hang back for now, see if they need help before you step in?” Shouto advised.

“Are you saying that because it’s what’s best for the team, or because you’re worried about me personally?” Deku accused.

“I-no, of course not. I’m a professional,” Shouto stammered. “I wouldn’t let my...personal feelings get in the way.” However, he felt an icy rush through his veins, his Quirk flaring. 

Great. I’ll have to log this in the damn feelings journal.

Izuku hummed in suspicion under his breath, but he didn’t disagree.

“Look, just continue to follow them some distance behind. If it looks like the hero is gonna catch up, then we move on to next steps. But they might not even notice.”

“Hey MC,” G-Force’s voice came from the other line, “the second team is exiting the building now. They’re carrying some sort of...suitcase thing. They didn’t have it with them on their way in.”

What I wouldn’t give for visual on that right now, he thought to himself. At least then we could save it for later when we had time to pick it over.

“Should I follow them?”

Shouto chewed his lip, torn over the decision.

“No,” he said finally. “Deku might need backup. Head to this location.”

“U-um Mission Control,” Deku said, “I think there’s something coming up behind me, but I can’t stop to look.”

He was too busy leaping from rooftop to rooftop, trying to manage his footing. Shouto was supposed to have his six, monitoring it in the rearview cam. He had been momentarily distracted. Cursing under his breath, Shouto turned back to the display. Sure enough, the camera could barely pick out a bright point of light, arcing along the rooftops on a clear trajectory towards them.

“Yeah, they’re in pursuit,” Shouto said. “They must have done a quick sweep of the perimeter and picked up your ice trail. Don’t know how they did that so fast, but here we are.”

“Sh-should I stop making ice?” Deku asked.

“Too late for that now. Besides,” Shouto explained, “they’re already on to you. How far ahead are Echo Chamber and his playmate?”

“About three blocks.”

The pinprick was getting larger in his sights. Whoever it was, they were moving pretty fast, low over the rooftops.

“Okay, break off from them,” Shouto ordered. “If they’re following your ice, we can lead them on a wild goose chase. Here, see if you can curve around to this location.”

Shouto sent the coordinates. He had a hazy plan in mind for getting Izuku out of this mess safely, but a lot of it relied on if he could stay ahead of the pursuing hero.

Now that he didn’t have to worry about not letting the duo in front of him notice, Izuku went a lot faster. He propelled himself from rooftop to rooftop with spires of ice, leaving behind an obvious trail. 

Even at his increased pace, the light behind him grew brighter. 

“How am I doing?” Deku asked. His breathing was labored.

“Fine,” Shouto lied. “Keep going.”

So Izuku did. As he went, the outline in the rearview grew closer and closer. 

“Well, I think I have narrowed down the list of possible heroes that could be pursuing you,” Shouto said. “For starters, they appear to be using some form of propulsion to catch up quickly.”

“Crap,” Deku stuttered. “What am I gonna do?”

“You’re heading for the subway. You can lose them underground.”

The nearest subway stop was still a few blocks away, and their assailant was gaining. From the purposeful way they vaulted from roof to roof, Shouto knew they had been spotted.

Well, at least we successfully drew them away from Shinsou.

Distantly, he heard the figure behind them shout something. The mic wasn’t good at catching long-range sounds, so it was only the dimmest of crackles. However, the effect on Deku was immediate. He missed a step and stumbled, barely avoiding face-planting on the ground.

“I know that voice!” he said.

“Really? Some hero you’ve heard in interviews?”

“No! It sounds like Kacchan!”

He could hear the panic in Izuku’s voice. Shouto wasn’t so ready to jump to conclusions. He knew how adrenaline could cloud the mind, make a person connect two dots a mile apart. There was no way that out of the over 200 heroes the city had on roster, the one that just so happened to be chasing them was-

“Stop running and fight me, you coward!” roared a voice.

Yeah, that’s Bakugou.

Izuku was mumbling a litany of swears and fear-induced predictions under his breath.

“Oh shit, he’s gonna smear me across the pavement. Crap. Damn. I always knew it would end like this. Fuck.”

A childhood of conditioning reared its ugly head, turning Izuku into a whimpering mess.

“Breath,” Shouto reminded him. “And don’t stop moving. I have an escape plan, okay?”

He wasn’t sure if Deku heard him or not, but he was still running. That worked just fine for Shouto. He needed just a few more minutes to line things up, and then everything would fall into place.

“Subway entrance is up ahead. Get down there,” he instructed. 

By now, he could make out the stark outline of Bakugou behind them, each blast from his hands lighting up his silhouette like trees blocking out a fireworks show. When Izuku suddenly went from roof to street level, sliding down a ramp of ice, the idiot even overshot them. In the few moments it took him to decelerate and flip around, Izuku was already at the stairwell. He also made a weak attempt to block the entrance with a wall of fire. However, Ground Zero made a profession out of being up close and personal with inferno, so Shouto wasn’t optimistic about how effective that would be at stopping him. 

“What now?! He’s gonna recognize me, he’s gonna know who I am in an instant and then it’s all going to be over-”

“First of all, I suggest you stop talking so he doesn’t recognize your voice,” Shouto ordered. Izuku clamped his mouth shut, but a strained whimper leaked through.

We will have to work on that ingrained victim complex, Shouto thought to himself. 

“All you need to do is vault the turnstile, get to the yellow line, and wait there,” he explained.

“Then what? I can’t beat him in a fight, there’s just no way-”

“Remember what I said about no talking?” Shouto reminded. “You’re gonna have to trust me.”

It did complicate things that Izuku knew their pursuant personally. However, that didn’t change the plan in the grand scheme of things. They just needed to get him down here.

Izuku launched himself down the steps, moving like a panicked rabbit fleeing back to its burrow. He arced over the ticket gate, coming down hard enough he was practically running on all fours for a few steps. Behind was Bakugou, taking the steps just as fast, his explosions behind him jettisoning him forward.

“All right, right there. Stand still.”

Izuku screeched to a halt, doing his best to fall into a defensive stance. Even from his skewed perspective, Shouto could tell it was all wrong. He was doing that thing he always fell back on when he was scared, where his arms were hunched too close to his middle to be mobile. If they wanted to convince Bakugou that he was in pursuit of some rookie villain, this would probably do the job. Deku looked scared and pitiful and like he was ready to crumple to the ground. Didn’t matter. They weren’t fighting fair. 

“All right, freeze and put your hands up!” Bakugou yelled. His voice echoed around the empty station, distorting his already rage-filled tone until it sounds like a feral beast.

Deku was whimpering something under his breath, but thankfully it was quiet enough not even the mic against his face could pick up most of it. Bakugou held one hand out, palm aimed towards him. It was effectively like being held at gunpoint, and dead center in his sights was Izuku.

Which meant that he wasn’t checking his periphs.

You always did get tunnel vision when you were worked up.

It’s why, much as Bakugou would never admit it, he worked a lot better when he had someone to watch his back. A shame he was always rushing ahead, so eager to leave everyone else behind.

With a surprised bellow, Bakugou collapsed to the floor like an anvil had been dropped on him. There was a satisfying crunch as his head hit concrete, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to knock him out. He snarled and tried to thrash, but his limbs were suddenly too heavy for him to lift.

Right where Shouto had instructed him to be, G-Force stepped out of the shadows. His fingers splayed in front of him to form a frame. He wasn’t good at stopping a moving target, but if something stood still long enough for him to frame it between his fingers, they were as good as neutralized. Increasing gravity’s effect on someone made it hard for them to get away.

“All right, Deku, listen to this next part because it’s very important,” Shouto said slowly and deliberately. “You need to knock Bakugou unconscious so you two can get away. Just whack him over the head with some ice.”

Izuku whimpered.

“It’s fine. He’s immobilized right now, but G-Force can’t hold him forever. You need to move quickly, okay?”

One trembling step after another, Izuku moved forward. Despite the futility, Bakugou hadn’t given up on his thrashing. He let out a few explosions, but since he couldn’t move his arms to aim, they just fizzled off the floor. That didn’t stop Izuku from flinching.

You’re the one who still wants to be friends with him, Shouto thought bitterly. How can you still be so obsessed with someone who terrifies you?

With Shouto coaching patiently in his ear, he was able to talk Izuku into stepping up, forming a mallet of ice around his right hand. 

“That’s right, enough to concuss him. I’ll send in a tip to a recovery team right after we’re done, so they’ll come heal him, okay? Don’t worry about that. Just knock him out.”

Bakugou was glaring up at Deku, eyes red like a dying sun. He could hear Deku gulp audibly though the mic, then he swung his fist in a clean arc. One crack, and Bakugou was out cold against the ground. He could hear a sigh of relief from G-Force as he let his power go.

“Thank goodness. I was starting to get light-headed,” he said.

“Both of you need to get out of there ASAP,” Shouto ordered. “We don’t know if he has backup.”

G-Force was all too happy to oblige, turning the other way and sprinting towards the stairs. However, Deku didn’t move. He was looking down at Bakugou, his hands folded in front of him and shaking.

“D-did I kill him?” he asked.

“Check his pulse if you want,” Shouto replied, since he knew it would be easier than fighting it. “I assure you, though, I’ve seen him take worse.”

However, Izuku crouched down next to his former friend. With one trembling hand, he felt along Bakugou’s neck.

“Y-yeah, he’s breathing,” he said.

“Good. Now the sooner you get out of there, the sooner I can send in help for him.”

On shaking knees, Izuku followed after G-Force up the stairs. Shouto couldn’t resist taking a screenshot of the rearview camera, showing Bakugou sprawled across the floor.

Once Shouto had navigated them a safe distance away, he told Izuku through the mic, “I bet that probably felt good, huh? Getting payback on your bully.”

Deku fell to his knees and vomited. 

Chapter Text

It had been a month since he’d started what Izuku called his “emotions log.” One painful month of writing down every time he made himself broil or ice over and what emotions he was experiencing at the time. Looking it over, even Shouto could pick up a pattern: his Quirk acted up when he experienced an emotion that he’d normally repress.

“I’m not sure exactly how you’re going to quantify all this data,” Shouto said. 

They were sitting across from each other at the table, Izuku flipping through the journal hurriedly and mumbling to himself. He had been distracted and distant since Shouto had arrived.

“You can quantify anything if you use the right spreadsheet,” Izuku replied, not looking up from the pages.

“Maybe, but even then, how is it supposed to help you find a cure if the problem is an emotional one?” Shouto asked. “You aren’t a therapist.”

“Mmm. Yeah. Therapy would be good for you,” Izuku muttered, as if speaking to himself.

“I’m...in therapy,” Shouto reminded him. “Hasn’t done a whole lot of good for my Quirk control, has it?”

Izuku startled for a bit, as if just realizing Shouto was still in the room. A flash of red filled his face, embarrassment at his outburst. 

“Sorry, that came out wrong,” he apologized.

Really? Because it sounded like it came out just right, but unintentionally.

“Um, but no, the problem isn’t that you are experiencing emotions a certain way,” he explained. “The problem is that somehow certain emotions have become entangled with your Quirk. If we can find and isolate the part that is malfunctioning, then...we’ll have next steps.”

Coming from him, that was an uncharacteristically succinct explanation. He turned back to flipping through the pages, chewing on his bottom lip.

Okay, obviously something is bothering him.

However, Shouto wasn’t sure if it was his place to ask what was wrong. He and Izuku were still on tenuous ground, and he didn’t want to overstep any boundaries. Also, he still had to fight the urge to eat up any spare scrap of information about Izuku, because he would just use that information to fuel sappy daydream scenarios that would never happen.

“Um, I guess that’s everything I need you for today,” Izuku said. “I’ll enter this into the computer and do some data mining, but you’re free to go.”

Shouto had barely arrived five minutes ago. Granted, all he had to do was drop off the journal, so he hadn’t expected a long meeting. Normally, though, they would make up excuses to spend more time together. The way Izuku avoided his gaze, looking anywhere but at him, gave Shouto the impression that maybe Izuku didn’t want to be around him right now.

“Did I do something wrong?” Shouto asked.

“What? No, of course not,” Izuku answered quickly. Too quickly. And he still wasn’t looking at Shouto.

That’s definitely a yes.

“Look, if you’re mad at me, could you just tell me what it is? I’ve never been good at reading people’s minds,” Shouto said.

Izuku sighed and thumbed the corner of the notebook. After a brief pause, he hesitantly said, “I’m just a little concerned about what happened the other day. You know, the...Kacchan incident.”

The last part was a hushed whisper, as if he was afraid of someone eavesdropping.

“He’s fine,” Shouto reassured. “I checked the police report afterwards. He suffered a minor concussion, but he was back at work the next day.”

Of course, even if he’d had his limbs ripped off, Bakugou would still probably haul himself into work. Ground Zero did not take days off. It was that unbridled passion that kept him as high on the Hero billboard as he was. However, the notes from the police report had said that the hero at the scene hadn’t suffered any serious injury, so he was trusting that.

“I’m glad he’s okay,” Izuku said, “but it wasn’t just his well-being that worried me. It was the way you acted.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Shouto responded reflexively, confused. He hadn’t even been there physically, relegated to watching from behind a screen. 

“You said some things,” Izuku explained, “that were really vindictive. And I guess I’m just curious why you seem to hate him so much.”

Oh. That.

Shouto rubbed at the bridge of his nose, trying to think of how to explain. He was aware that his hatred of Bakugou was a little more than the average ‘not liking his emotional outbursts.’

“I guess I blame him for how awkward things were between Kirishima and me. Still are, I guess,” he said. That only covered the tip of the iceberg. He conveniently left out the part where Bakugou won the affections of his crush and sent him into a downward spiral of insecurity. Having to explain one failed romantic endeavor to a second failed romantic endeavor was too humiliating to bear.

Izuku frowned, displeasure written in the lines of his face. Apparently Shouto’s answer hadn’t been satisfactory.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to hold on to grudges like that,” he said.

Earnest Izuku meant it, too. The man probably hadn’t held a grudge once in his entire life. He could have someone push him down a flight of stairs and he’d get up and ask if they needed any help climbing down themselves. 

After a moment of studying him, Izuku asked, “Shouto, do you always feel like you should hurt people who have wronged you?”

“I’m not secretly some sort of sociopath, if that’s what you’re asking,” Shouto snapped back. His fire was acting up. If Izuku wasn’t currently cradling his emotions log to his chest, he’d probably have to jot that down.

In response to Shouto’s raised hackles, Izuku made soothing hand movements and said, “That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t think you’re a bad person. I just...we talked before about how Bakugou reminds you of your dad, and that makes it hard for you to deal with him. You’re just carrying a lot of anger around. It’s making you sick.”

“Oh, so I’m just not supposed to be angry with the people who have hurt me?” he growled. “I’m supposed to forgive them for doing shitty things to me?”

He knew he was channeling his anger in the wrong direction. He could tell from the pained look on his friend’s face that Izuku sincerely wanted to help him, even if his efforts were misguided. Setting the notebook down on the table, Izuku bridged his hands in front of his mouth and took a moment to collect his thoughts. Then, softly, he said, “I don’t have the answers, and I’m not an expert. But I think there’s a difference between wanting to avoid people who have hurt you, and actively wanting to see them hurt. And that’s what it came across as with Kacchan. You wanted to see him hurt. That’s not going to make you feel better.”

You’re wrong about that, Shouto thought to himself. Because over the years, he had found that watching people who had wronged him suffer did make him feel better. Every time his father struggled and floundered, it was like a beacon lighting up his day. Like that time when the tabloids had published an article about his and Rei’s rocky relationship, and he’d been so furious at the scandal that he’d immediately taken an undercover job and gone missing for two weeks. Those two weeks had been bliss. 

Sensing Shouto’s scorn, Izuku sighed. He studied his friend for a moment, before hesitantly reaching out and placing a hand on Shouto’s shoulder. Shouto froze. By an unspoken agreement, they hadn’t been touchy-feely since The Incident. His hand felt so cool on Shouto’s left shoulder, even through the fabric of his clothing.

“Stop wasting your time and energy thinking about them,” Izuku said. “You should be spending that on yourself. You deserve it.”

Now he was making eye contact with Shouto, unbroken even as Shouto felt himself get ten degrees warmer. 

“Yeah, well, you aren’t king of healthy coping strategies either,” Shouto accused. “Remember the way you almost had a meltdown in front of him?”

This forced a sharp huff from Izuku, who puffed his chest out stubbornly.

“Yeah, I admit, Kacchan still scares me a little,” he said. “That’s different, though. It was an intense situation, and it brought up some bad memories. But I don’t hate him. And I’d...if given the chance, I’d want to repair our friendship, not tear him down.”

That didn’t make sense to Shouto. He couldn’t comprehend why Izuku would still be so set on letting Bakugou back into his life after everything. Unless…

“Do you have a crush on him or something?” 

The words were out of his mouth before he could think better of it. The reaction was instant. Izuku took a startled step back, eyes widening in shock at the audacity.

“It’s not any of my business, I guess,” Shouto backpedalled. 

It would explain a lot, though. Why Izuku was so desperate to fix things with Bakugou all the time, why he didn’t reciprocate Shouto’s feelings. Wouldn’t that just be fate? For Shouto to lose to Bakugou twice when it came to the affections of people he cared about. He was always losing to Bakugou.

“I don’t like Bakugou...like that,” Izuku replied. Shouto eyed him up and down, eyebrows arched in skepticism, so Izuku followed up with, “Bakugou’s not my type.”

“Then what is your type?” Shouto asked, his mouth again moving faster than his brain could censor. However, he couldn’t curb his curiosity. A small part of him desperately wanted to know what was wrong with him, why he wasn’t enough.

Izuku shifted his weight from foot to foot, shoulders hunching in. With a nervous twiddle of his fingers, he looked to the side and said, “That’s not an easy question to answer.”

“Then don’t,” Shouto replied. “Just forget I asked, okay?”

Rather than look relieved, this just made Izuku look more frustrated. His brow scrunched, and he looked at Shouto with big eyes that were surprisingly moist. For some reason, the question had pushed him to the verge of tears, and Shouto felt his gut twist in guilt. He hadn’t meant to overstep his bounds.

“Can we go somewhere?” he asked, voice squeaking. “Like for a walk or something?”

“Uh, sure,” Shouto said. 

Honestly at this point I should probably just leave before I do more damage, but I don’t want to brush him off.

So the two walked side by side in awkward silence, to the elevator and then out of the building. Despite how frequently he was here, Shouto had yet to explore much of the campus, and he just followed behind as Izuku led him through the gently curving paths. It was late enough in the afternoon that the walkways were filled with more shadows than students, and Shouto was experienced enough in using his cane now that he had no trouble keeping up. 

Nestled amidst the buildings was a botanical garden. Shouto assumed it was part of one of the classes on campus, all the plants labelled with signs detailing latin names and info, handfuls of land carrying a cornucopia of fauna. The air around it was fragrant with the scent of things living, blossoming, growing, wilting, decaying. The cycle of life, all compacted into one tiny space. There were a few benches scattered around the edges, and he and Izuku sat on one, making sure to keep a wide distance between them. 

They sat in silence for so long that Shouto was tempted to ask something. However, his last few attempts at opening his mouth had been disastrous. Better to wait, letting the sound of rustling branches fill the air.

Finally, Izuku said, “I’ve told you before about how much I admire Bakugou, right?”

“You’ve mentioned it.”

“Well, when I was younger, I thought maybe it was a crush,” Izuku explained. “I had the same thought process as you. I wanted to be around him, and I was willing to forgive him for the things he had done, so that must mean it was something romantic, right?”

“...I guess?”

“But that’s not really how it works, is it?” Izuku continued. “There’s a lot more to liking someone than just wanting to spend time with them.”

“Okay.”

Shouto had no idea what the point of this conversation was. It seemed odd to drag him out here just to say that he thought Bakugou was neat but not boyfriend material. 

“Back when I was holed up in my room, I spent a lot of time in chatrooms and stuff. Turns out, it’s not all that hard to meet someone online,” Izuku explained. “Ironically, I think I did more dating than most kids my age. I mean not a whole lot, but once in awhile one of my online acquaintances would suggest we date and I never said no.”

At this, Shouto couldn’t help but raise one eyebrow. That didn’t sound like the Izuku he had come to know, the boy who had talked about being friendless and alone and socially awkward most of his life.

Izuku shot him a look, as if expecting him to interject, but when Shouto didn’t have anything to add he continued, “It was pretty awful. Like, nothing ever lasted long. Everything would be fine for a couple of weeks, when we were just getting to know each other. Stuff like watching movies together or talking about manga or whatever. But then they’d get frustrated, because I didn’t do or say the right things. Looking back on it now, I realize that I just wanted a friend and they wanted a lover, and that’s where the disconnect happened.”

Izuku looked at him again, and Shouto knew he was supposed to say something, but he didn’t know what. He settled for commenting, “That sounds frustrating.”

“You have no idea,” Izuku muttered. He leaned back on the bench, feet scuffing the ground as he observed the branches overhead. “It was always my fault, too. I ended up hurting people without meaning too. They wanted things I couldn’t give them.”

“Such as?”

Shrinking in on himself, Izuku replied, “Physical stuff, mostly. They’d try and be romantic, ask me if I’d kiss them if we were in the same room together, wanted pictures, wanted me to tell them how much I wanted them. And I had always known that I wasn’t really interested in that stuff, and had sorta assumed I could avoid it if I only dated online. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want it, and it showed, and as a result people didn’t want me.”

“I think that’s normal for a teenager to not be ready for that kind of stuff,” Shouto consoled. 

“Yeah, but that’s the thing,” Izuku replied. “I’m twenty-three, and I’m still not ready for...that kind of stuff. And I don’t think I’m ever going to be.”

“Oh.”

OH.

“Yeah,” Izuku agreed, looking down at his knees. “Oh.”

“Just so we’re on the same page, when you say that kind of stuff, you’re talking about-”

“Sex,” Izuku finished for him. “And kissing and fondling and everything that goes with it. I just...I don’t want to. When people find out I’m not attracted to them, that I don’t want them like that, it hurts their feelings. They take it personally, and then they dump me.”

“Wow. That has got to be shit for your self-esteem,” Shouto mused out loud.

Huffing in frustration, Izuku let his shoulders rise and fall in a shrug. The dappled light through the trees made it hard to see, but he definitely had a blush working across his face. Also the tears were still there, threatening to spill over, but so far he had kept them at bay. Shouto was impressed with his self-control.

“I’m sorry,” Shouto apologized, because he didn’t know what else to say. 

“It’s not your fault,” Izuku mumbled, complementing it with a sniffle. “It’s just, yeah, now you know. I don’t have a type, and I don’t really do relationships.”

He looked like a puppy left in a cardboard box. Not for the first time, Shouto wanted to reach out and hug him. Not for the first time, he felt like it wasn’t his place.

“So...are you not interested in relationships at all? Or is it just the sex part you don’t want?”

With another despondent shrug of his shoulders, Izuku said, “Theoretically I’d love a relationship. After all my failures, though...I don’t think it’s possible. Even if I found someone who was willing to compromise on the sex thing, I don’t want to be seen as a compromise. I’m tired of not being enough for people.”

He said the last part bitterly, lip curling up at the taste of the words. A part of Shouto could understand that bitterness. Previous partners had always found him lacking somehow, left him feeling like there was something wrong with him just because he couldn’t do the arbitrary amount of vulnerability on command. He didn’t think it was a one-to-one comparison, but…

I know what it’s like to feel like you’ll never be good enough for anyone the way you are.

Sucking in a breath through his teeth, Shouto realized he was shivering in the summer heat. Just the thought of what he was about to do made him nervous. He’d already hurt himself once. However, Shouto Todoroki excelled at self-destructive tendencies.   

He took another nervous breath in, then out. Before he could let his common sense catch up, he blurted, “I think we should go out.”

Izuku winced. Not the best sign, so Shouto went on to make his case.

“I could have sworn that you felt something for me. That’s why I tried to kiss you,” he explained. “I don’t care if you don’t...if you don’t want to have sex, big deal. I’m a grown man. At this point I’m pretty proficient at giving myself an orgasm.”

At this, Izuku ducked his head into his hands, a facepalm to the second degree. He didn’t have a rebuttal, though, so Shouto pressed on with his pitch.

“You make me happy, and I think I make you happy, and I know this is a clusterfuck waiting to happen, but what relationship isn’t?”

At least, all my relationships are.

“I want to at least give it a try,” Shouto pleaded. Shouto wasn’t the begging type, had always placed his pride as higher priority than his wants, but right now it was forgotten. “It wouldn’t be easy, but…”

“But you’ll be a saint and make this huge sacrifice and resent me for making you give something up?” Izuku guessed. His eyes had a dark look to them, creased with frown.

“Izuku, every healthy relationship requires compromise.”

Or so I’ve been told. I’ve never actually seen a lot of healthy relationships.

“I’m not going to hold it against you if you don’t want to have sex. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have sex with you. If you wake up one day and suddenly want it, I’m on board.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Izuku said. “See, this is what I’m worried about. That people will hope I’ll magically change my mind or warm up to them, and then be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Shouto countered. “I’m not holding out on the idea that I can wear you down or whatever. I’m saying that right now I am getting neither sex nor a relationship with you. A relationship with you, without the sex, is still a net positive.”

Izuku kneaded his bottom lip in his teeth, considering Shouto’s words.

“What if you meet someone else after we get in a relationship? Someone who does want sex? And all of a sudden I’m holding you back from someone who could make you happier?”

“I don’t know,” Shouto replied with a huff. “Honestly, the amount of sex I’m having has never correlated to the amount of happiness I get out of a relationship. You’re overthinking it. Stop that.”

But it was hard-wired into Izuku to overthink everything. Shouto could see the gears turning behind his emerald eyes, crunching the numbers and finding all the ways he came up lacking. 

In a whisper, Izuku said, “What if I can’t make you happy?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that. You already make me happy,” Shouto explained. 

“A-are you sure?” 

“Yeah,” Shouto replied, staring back evenly into his eyes. “I’m sure.”

The blush that spread across Izuku’s face was the most resplendent thing Shouto had ever seen. 

“I guess...you were right, then, about me feeling things for you,” Izuku admitted. “I care about you. I want you to be happy. I want to be the one to make you happy, but I’m afraid I’ll screw it up.”

“I feel the same way,” Shouto agreed, “but I don’t want to let my fear stop me.”

After a moment, Izuku looked up at him and said, “You’re right. I...I want to give this a try, even if it’s going to be difficult.”

Shouto smiled. He didn’t smile often, and when he did it was usually in response to a wry comment. However, this was one of his rare sincerely joyful smiles, making his face soften and his teeth just barely show under the edge of his lip. 

“So the not liking physical stuff. Does that include holding hands, too?” he asked, leaning in close.

“Oh, no, um, I don’t mind that,” Izuku stammered.

“Good.”

Clumsily, they entwined fingers. If it wasn’t for Izuku’s hand in his own, solid and calloused, Shouto wouldn’t have believed it was really happening. He felt like he was floating outside his body, all his worries and aches forgotten. Izuku returned his smile, blush deep enough to obscure his freckles. He gave Shouto’s hand a faint squeeze. Timid, but trying.

Everything could not be more perfect.

Chapter Text

Shouto Todoroki was dating Izuku Midoriya. 

It had been three days since they officially tangled hands and sealed the deal on their very real, not-just-a-pipedream relationship. Since then, every day Shouto woke up and had to remind himself that it was reality, that he hadn’t just dreamed it all. Of course, if he had any doubts, they were erased by rolling over and checking his phone and seeing the good morning text from Izuku. 

(I_M 6:32am) Good morning sunshine~

(I_M 6:35am) I’m so excited to get to see you today! And to meet your mom!

(I_M 6:37am) Excited and a little nervous >.<’

(I_M 6:37am) You don’t think it will make a bad impression if I just wear my lab clothes to lunch today, do you?

(S_T 8:36am) No. You don’t need to worry. I’m sure she’ll love you.

Despite his reassurances to his boyfriend, Shouto was having his own personal freakout session. It wasn’t that he was afraid his mother would be unkind or disapproving of his partner, but it was just...he hadn’t actually told her yet that’s who they were meeting. He had only asked her if she wanted to come to lunch with him and a friend, and Rei had been delighted (if somewhat confused) to agree. 

“So who is this friend?” she’d asked conspiratorially, her smile speaking of mischief. “Are they the reason you’ve been disappearing so often lately?”

“Yeah,” Shouto had explained. “We’ve been spending a lot of time together.”

And he’d meant to tell her then that he was dating, but he’d suddenly gotten cold feet. 

Shouto had introduced her to boyfriends in the past. It wasn’t like it was a shock. But...that was part of the reason he was having such a hard time now. Those past lovers had all been flings, coming and going like morning dew, and Shouto was afraid his mother would think this was the same thing. Another transient relationship, not lasting long enough to bother learning their names. Shouto was afraid his mother would think that, and even more terrifying, he was afraid it was true. None of his other relationships had lasted very long. What if it was the same way with Izuku?

He really, really wanted this to work out. 

So in an uncharacteristic display of superstition, he decided not to jinx himself, not to speak into reality his own fears. He’d wait until the very last minute, hoping to get it over with quickly enough nothing bad could happen, like a magician yanking out a tablecloth from underneath a stack of plates. 

“It’s so good to see you getting out of the house,” Rei said. From anyone else, Shouto would have suspected they were teasing him, but with his mother he knew she was sincere.

“I’m gone from the house a lot,” Shouto defended. And it was true. Between science sessions and late nights with the Network, he spent a suspicious amount of time away from home. He was surprised his parents hadn’t noticed or started questioning him about it. 

His mother drove them to the little cafe he had arranged to meet Izuku at. Izuku stood outside, nervously playing with the strap on his bag. As they approached, he could see Izuku light up. It was probably no different from the way the boy usually lit up when seeing him, but now it took on a whole different layer. This was his special person, ecstatic and happy to see him. 

Izuku restrained himself from tackling Shouto with a hug, a concession he and his cane were grateful for, but he did playfully rub shoulders. Then, he turned to Rei and gave a bow, complete with nervous self-introduction.

“It’s so nice to meet you, ma’am! Although we actually met before that one time when I came to your house, but I’m sure you don’t remember me. That was like five months ago and I tend not to leave an impression on people. Haha, Shouto doesn’t remember the first time we met, either, actually, which is going to be a very funny story to tell people-”

“His name is Izuku Midoriya,” Shouto interrupted, because he knew Izuku would go on forever and then regret it later if left unchecked. “This is my boyfriend. I love him very much.”

If Izuku noticed the way Rei quirked her eyebrows in surprise, he gave no indication. More likely, he was too busy blushing and looking down at the ground to see.

“Well it’s...very nice to meet you. And hear about your existence,” Rei said, giving Shouto a look at the last statement.

Yeah, she’s mad I haven’t told her anything about this before. Whoops. 

Introductions made, they seated themselves in the cafe and transitioned to the interrogation portion of the meeting.

“So when exactly have I met you before?” Rei asked.

“Oh, I came to your house back in February,” Izuku explained.

“Mmm. How long have you two been dating?”

“Officially, three days,” Izuku said, “but like I think that’s because we’re both very dense and have been dancing around it for months?”

“Have we?” Shouto wondered out loud. “I know I’ve had a crush on you since that one dinner party. When did you start liking me?”

Judging from the way Izuku went fluorescent and glanced at Rei, this probably wasn’t the best time or place to have this conversation. Shouto couldn’t help it. The words had just come out of his mouth.

“I mean, I knew I cared about you back during the movie theater incident, and it’s sort of been a complicated mess since then.”

Izuku was studying the menu, staring hard at the pictures of two different, and yet somehow surprisingly similar, sandwiches that the restaurant served. 

Yeah, definitely not the time or place to press him about this.

But it was like trying not to pick at a wound. For so long, he had felt like his crush was completely one-sided, so learning that it was not only reciprocated, but had apparently been eating Izuku up on the inside too...he couldn’t resist.

“So this entire time, we’ve both had feelings for each other but didn’t act on them?” he asked.

“Looks that way,” Izuku replied.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Well, you know,” Izuku said, casting another glance at his mother, “I was afraid that you weren’t interested. Or that you wouldn’t be interested, once you knew about...me.”

Shouto was pretty sure that was code for ‘the asexuality thing,’ but he could tell from the furtive glances at Rei that he didn’t want to discuss it in front of her. Fine by Shouto. He didn’t want his mom knowing that much about his sex life, or lack there of, and he was fairly confident the feeling was mutual. 

His mother coughed into her hand, and Shouto was astonished to realize that she was trying to hide a laugh.

“Wow, it sounds like you two have a lot in common,” she said, amused. 

“Yeah. We’re both idiots and we deserve each other,” Shouto agreed.

Izuku bit his lip, trying to hold back a smile. Depriving the world of Izuku’s smile seemed like a travesty to Shouto, so he threw an arm around him and nuzzled him gently, bringing the smile to the surface. Izuku returned the gesture by briefly resting his head against Shouto, letting his hair tickle along his chin.

“I’m so glad you two are happy,” Rei said. “Not all relationships can make you feel that way. You should cherish it.”

Immediately, Shouto understood that was code for ‘my own relationship is an endless nightmare and I would never wish the same on my children.’ The look on his mother’s face was wistful, watching them with sad eyes and a smile. To his surprise, he wasn’t the only one who caught on to the subtext. Apparently, Izuku had gleaned enough information about his home life to also understand what she was getting at.

“I don’t want to overstep my bounds, ma’am,” he said, overly-formal as always when he was nervous, “but if a relationship isn’t making you happy, you should leave.”

His mother seemed taken aback, tilting her head like she wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

“You should listen to him, mom,” Shouto agreed. “He’s very smart. He’s getting his doctorate.”

“That doesn’t make me a relationship counsellor,” Izuku rebuffed, blushing. Shouto was finding out that it was both very easy and very rewarding to flatter his boyfriend. 

“Not all relationships serve the same purpose,” she replied, shrugging. “The one I have now is...convenient.”

As always when talking about his parents’ dismal marriage, Shouto felt a distinct hollowness in his stomach. For a long time, he hadn’t even known spouses were supposed to like each other. He had thought that was something you just saw in movies, like unicorns and dragons: fun to believe in, but childish to actually expect. Part of him still felt that way, still felt like the harder he tried to hold on to anything good he had with Izuku the faster it would crumble in his hands. Fortunately, Izuku was there to talk sense into him.

“You deserve more than what is convenient,” he said, shrugging Shouto’s arm off so he could lean over the table to look closer at Rei. “Happiness doesn’t come knocking on your door. You have to actually get out and search for it. I know that better than anyone. I spent a lot of time...waiting for happiness, or anything really, to come knocking. And it didn’t. Nothing got better until I decided I was done waiting.”

Even if he wasn’t explicitly spelling it out, Shouto knew he was referring to his time as a shut-in. Strange to think Izuku had ever been holed up in his room, especially considering he spent so many of his nights jumping from rooftop to rooftop. 

Rei gave a small, sad smile, reaching out to pat Izuku’s hand.

“Thank you for your words of wisdom. But I have a duty I can’t abandon just yet,” she explained. “Besides, there is a sort or...perverse pleasure in watching Enji realize too late that his career can’t make him happy.”

On the surface, Shouto was surprised to hear his mother say anything vindictive. However, he had a scar on his face to prove that she was just as susceptible to stress and resentment as anyone else in the universe. And honestly, the thought was kind of a relief, to know she wasn’t taking it lying down. 

“What do you mean by that?” Izuku asked. 

“That man is cursed,” Rei said. Looking to the side, she continued, “He’s destined to always want what is beyond his grasp, and whatever he does claim to not satisfy him. When he was young, it was the spot of number one hero. Once he got it, he realized that it wasn’t what he wanted. Or at least, it wasn’t enough. He wanted his family, too, but we were already in shambles. And he has no one to blame but himself.”

Beside him, he could hear Izuku give a sharp exhale in frustration. He understood that feeling, had rubbed up against his mother’s stubborn refusal to be happy. The conversation turned to lighter things, they ordered their meals, made small talk. The tension in the air didn’t entirely dissipate, but Izuku didn’t press his mother further. Towards the end, Shouto reached out and took his boyfriend’s hand. Izuku gave him a startled look, but it was quickly replaced by a fond expression as he squeezed back.

He couldn’t fix his mother’s relationship, but he could make sure he didn’t make the same mistake. Izuku would always be his priority. He swore it. 

***

“So what do we do now?” Hammer asked. She was sitting cross-legged on the practice mats in the safehouse, looking exhausted and harried. They all looked that way. With Shinsou on radio silence, they were without leadership. That meant Shouto and Amalgaknight were in charge of this ragtag group, and had to pretend like they had a plan.

They did not. 

“Shinsou said he couldn’t contact us often, but he promised he wouldn’t be completely silent,” Shouto reiterated. “I say we wait for him to reestablish contact.”

“Okay, but it’s been a solid week since we’ve heard from him,” Amalgaknight countered. “What if he’s been found out, or can’t contact us, hmm? The longer we wait, the more danger he could be in.”

“Oh man, I don’t like when mommy and daddy fight in front of us,” Flashback muttered. 

Shouto could tell they were all worried about the status of their fearless leader, and he couldn’t blame them. For all that he was a professional, Shinsou was still his friend. However, he also trusted in the man’s ability to take care of himself.

“We aren’t putting agents in the field haphazardly,” Shouto reiterated. “That would just make it more likely for someone to be taken hostage or for them to discover he’s a double agent.”

Amalgaknight grumbled something under his breath, but didn’t openly cause more defiance. 

“So as far as we know, he’s been missing from everything, right? Not just groupchats?” Hammerspace asked. “No hero operation, no visits to his home, nothing?”

“He asked me to take care of his cat before he left, in case something like this happened,” G-Force replied. “He hasn’t stopped by to collect the little guy, so I assume he hasn’t made it home. I know that’s the first thing he would want back.”

That did paint a bleak picture.

“There’s still things we can do in the meantime,” Deku suggested. “We could be working on piecing together the robberies, and uncovering what they were for.”

“I thought we had no idea what they stole,” Hydrophobe pointed out with a head tilt. “Other than that one robbery we witnessed, there’s no way to figure out their other targets.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Deku mused. “At the very least, we should investigate the one crime scene we know of, and see if we can dig anything up.”

The crew turned to Shouto, as if seeking approval. At least they all respected him as the final authority, meaning he didn’t have to constantly wrestle with Amalgaknight for it.

“Okay,” Shouto conceded. “That sounds...harmless enough. Plain clothes, we go and see if we can find someone to talk to.”

“I volunteer,” Deku said. “I actually have an in at that place. They borrowed some of my lab’s microscopes once. Science is a small community.”

“Of course you would volunteer,” Shouto sighed. “Fine. Deku, you’re on the case.”

The manic glee his boyfriend showed did not inspire confidence. 

Chapter Text

The next day, Shouto and Izuku stood in front of the facility in civilian clothing.

“What exactly is this place again?” Shouto asked. He was glad Izuku had invited him along, since it meant he could have the man’s back (and because he wanted to spend every waking moment of every day staring at the beautiful pinnacle of a man he got to date ), but he was a little confused as to what his purpose was.

“They are an experimental facility that researches new kinds of medical equipment,” Izuku explained. “Think of them like a Hero Support center, but for like hospitals everywhere and not one agency.”

Another world he knew nothing about. How strange that his life had been taking him to so many new places lately.

He followed behind Izuku into the building. It looked more like a police station than a hospital inside, with a tiny waiting area and a glass reception booth. Strutting up to the receptionist, Izuku announced, “Hey, I talked with Dr. Nashio on the phone. She said we could come check out your brain wave scanners for my thesis I’m working on?”

The last part was tipped up, a hopeful question. Blearily, the receptionist flipped through an old-fashioned schedule book before finally paging them through. 

“She’s in room 304,” they said. “Elevator’s at the end of the hallway.”

The main facility was spotless, sterile enough that Shouto felt distinctly out of place in his normal clothes. 

“So what’s the plan?” Shouto asked.

“Well, we act casual and start a conversation with the doctor, see if she’ll tell us about anything amiss in the past couple of days. She’s the head of the lab, so if anyone knows something, she does.”

It was straight-forward enough, and less likely to land them in trouble than breaking into each room consecutively to look for clues. As they ascended the elevator, Shouto took note of the fire alarm warnings on the doorway to the stairs, and the note that they were only to be used in an emergency. If the organization had cut off power to this place, would they have had to use those stairs? Would that have stopped the alarm from going off?

The third floor looked a little more lived in. This is where the administrative offices were, and the doors were decorated with cut-out comic strips and motivational posters. Dr. Nashio greeted them with a quick smile and a nod, pouring over some files on her desk.

“Ah, you’re from Wada’s lab, right?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Izuku responded. “I’m working on a project right now about Quirk Degeneration in relation to amygdala processing, and I need some equipment for my subject here.”

He jerked his head in Shouto’s direction.

Ah, so that’s what I am right now. The research subject.

It wasn’t a role he minded taking, if it helped further their goals. 

“Right, right, I remember your email. You need something more mobile than a CT scanner. Well, normally we don’t lend our equipment, since we are a business, but your lab did do us that favor last fall…”

Here she drawled off, flipping through more files. Shouto had to wonder if she had some sort of sheet detailing favors owed and their net worth, since it looked like she was evaluating something.

“I mean, I understand if you’re short on devices right now,” Izuku said innocently. “Being short on inventory is a real hassle.”

“We’re not short on anything,” she replied. “At least, nothing we’d lend out.”

Shouto could sense Izuku perk up at that, and he wanted to remind the boy not to play his hand too obviously. Fortunately, he contained himself, and they both waited until the doctor gave a sigh, rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“I would have had the perfect thing for you. We are designing a new device, one that can theoretically help treat insomnia and sleep paralysis. A device light-weight enough to wear while sleeping, but with in-depth monitoring capabilities. We’ve needed a way to test it. Unfortunately…”

Now it was Shouto’s turn to resist perking up. This was exactly the info they needed, practically hand-delivered to them.

With a sigh, the doctor rubbed the bridge of her nose, saying, “Well, it’s currently unavailable. Come on, I have something else I can lend you.”

 

They left that office with a new, fancy helmet meant for observing Shouto’s brain-meat and telling them how his Quirk was malfunctioning. That was definitely a win, but Shouto considered it just a bonus compared to the real information.

“So we can assume that this group was after some sort of experimental brain-monitoring device,” he said, sitting on the park bench next to Izuku. “Why?”

“Beats me,” Izuku replied, drumming his fingers on the top of the helmet. 

Even as he said that, Shouto could tell his brain was whirring, trying to come up with possibilities.

“They said it was specifically for monitoring sleep usage, yeah?” Shouto prompted. “Maybe they...have someone with some sort of sleep Quirk?”

Izuku grunted noncommittally, his eyes narrowing. Judging from the way his mouth moved silently, he was muttering to himself, chasing different threads of possibility. Shouto let him think undisturbed.

“The reason we need a brain monitoring device is because we’re trying to figure out exactly what parts of your brain are malfunctioning, right?” he said finally. “Maybe it’s the same with them. Maybe they need to...understand what’s going on in someone’s head. Something that they can’t just ask the person about and get a straight answer to.”

“That makes sense,” Shouto agreed. “But...why? It’s not like you can get concrete information out of someone with this technology, so it would be useless for interrogation.”

“We don’t have the full picture yet,” his boyfriend said. “We need more information.”

Shouto heaved a sigh. Typically he had an entire agency behind him to help with these kinds of things. The thought of doing it alone, with no support network and no one else to do the legwork, was exhausting. 

“It feels like we’re running in circles,” he complained.

Izuku reached out and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. It was as if his hand was an enormous red button labelled ‘press here to turn off complaints,’ because any he might have had died on his lips. Nothing was bad if Izuku was here, touching him. 

“On the bright side, I’m close to a breakthrough on your case,” he said. “I have it narrowed down to a general area, and this device is more powerful. We should be able to hone in on that spot and find out exactly what is firing that shouldn’t be.”

“Wow. That’s...incredible,” Shouto said. “Don’t overwork yourself, though. You’re already doing so much with the Network. I can wait a little longer.”

Mouth twisting up in a smile, Izuku leaned over and nudged him with his shoulder.

“What happened to mister ‘I’d do anything to get my Quirk back?’” he teased.

“That’s still true,” Shouto replied, “but now...it doesn’t feel like the rest of my life is on hold, like I’m stuck and can’t move forward until I fix it.”

Izuku looked so sweet and wonderful, smiling at Shouto like he was a work of art, that Shouto couldn’t resist pulling him into a one-armed hug.

“Well, you’ll forgive me if I still make it a priority to help my boyfriend,” Izuku said. “After all, I can’t bare to see you in pain.”

Izuku closed his eyes and rested his head against Shouto’s shoulder. If it wasn’t for the bulky helmet still perched in his lap, Shouto probably would have collapsed onto him and fallen into the world’s most satisfying nap right there, public space be damned. 

They were both stalling, hanging around in the park far longer than necessary, because neither wanted to part ways. With Network activities on hiatus, they wouldn’t have an excuse to see each other again for a few days. The wait felt unbearable. 

“How long should we wait before moving in together?” Shouto asked, struck by an uncontrollable whim.

“W-what? Move in together? You mean, like, be roommates?” Izuku stammered. “I mean, wow, no one’s ever asked me that. It’s not that I’m against the idea, just that all my previous relationships were long distance and it was never really an option and then I stopped dating altogether so I figured it would never come up so I’ve honestly not even thought about it-”

“I just thought, since you had brought up the possibility before we were officially dating, you might want to. We don’t have to rush,” Shouto clarified. “It’s no pressure or anything. Just...if you’re ever interested, I would move in with you in a heartbeat.”

Izuku was silent for a moment, chewing his lip. He really did wear his emotions on his sleeve. It made it easy for even someone as dense as Shouto to tell what the boy was thinking.

“So even...if that time was tomorrow, you’d still be up for it?” Izuku asked. “Like, that wouldn’t be too soon for you?”

Shouto’s heart did a leap and a skip.

“If you’re willing to take the risk,” he said.

Shouto had never lived with someone properly before. He’d had plenty of people crash with him, and many of his lovers had stayed at his place because his apartment had been luxurious and spacious. However, they had never moved their things in, instead acting more like a house guest. He had never truly shared space with someone. He’d probably be a terrible roommate. He was sure Izuku would coach him through his shortcomings, though. 

Before he could get too lost in his rose-colored fantasies, Izuku’s shoulders slumped.

“There’s really no way for that to happen, though,” he said. “It’s not like either of us could afford it.”

Of course. All my dreams foiled by lack of money again.

“I don’t personally have any money,” Shouto suggested, “but I could talk to my mom about it. She...might be willing to help us out.”

The thought of pleading with his mommy for money so he could live with his boyfriend made him feel like a spoiled heiress. He knew Rei would do it, though. And perhaps if it meant living with Izuku, it would be worth bearing a little humiliation. 

Izuku still hadn’t perked up at his offer, though. Instead, he said softly, “I don’t know. Maybe we should wait a bit and see if...the relationship sticks, you know?”

Shouto knew. He knew exactly what the odds were of them breaking up in the next few weeks. It was just a little bit disheartening that apparently Izuku knew it, too.

“After all, what if you get bored of me?” he asked, snapping Shouto out of a self-pitying reprieve.

“What?” Shouto asked. “We’ve already known each other for, what, six months? I haven’t gotten bored of you yet, and I don’t see it happening any time soon.”

He could tell that still wasn’t enough to convince him. It wasn’t like Shouto wanted to pressure Izuku into anything, but he could see the other man caught between desire and anxiety, wanting to give in but wanting to talk himself out of it. If all he needed was a little reassurance, than Shouto was ready to give. So he threaded his fingers with Izuku’s, bringing his hand up to give it a quick kiss.

“The more I’ve learned about you, the more I’ve fallen,” he said. “Honestly, I think sharing a space would just give me ten thousand new reasons to fall in love.”

Izuku had to look away, a blush spreading across his face.

“W-well, when you put it like that,” he mumbled, “I don’t think I can resist.”

 

Shouto wasted no time in approaching his mother. That very night, after Endeavor had skulked off to parts unknown to do...whatever it was he did when he wasn’t busy making other people miserable, Shouto pitched his master plan.

“Izuku makes me happy and I want to be more happy, so I think we should live together,” he said in one breath.

Rei paused from where she was tidying up the table, expression swiftly shifting from shock to fondness.

“I think that would be good for you,” she said. “I’ve noticed how much happier you’ve been lately, and I sort of suspected you were in a secret relationship, but then I thought, ‘No, there’s no way Shouto would ever keep something like that from you. He’d definitely tell you first thing.’”

I’m still in trouble for not telling her sooner.

However, her tone was more teasing than scolding. 

“Yeah, he’s a good influence,” Shouto agreed. “The problem is, though, that neither of us have money.”

Here he had to look down at the wood grain of the table. His mother sat down beside him, hands folded in her lap.

“Well, I suppose we can help you out, provided you keep studying for college entrance exams.”

“Really?” Shouto asked. “But...do you think you can talk dad into it?”

That was the real issue. At the end of the day, it was Enji Todoroki’s name on the bank accounts. If he didn’t want Shouto moving out, then he was trapped. Shouto remembered the last conversation he’d had with the man, of being told his father thought he was too irresponsible and...suicide prone to be trusted on his own.

“Leave your father to me,” Rei promised. “I can convince him.”

The smile she gave was so confident and conspiratorial, bringing her eyes to sharp points as her mouth lifted up. Shouto didn’t know where she had gained this blase attitude towards dealing with Endeavor, but it was a marked improvement from the long years of her cowering and surrendering without a fight. 

“Okay,” Shouto said. “I trust you.”

 

It had been a busy day, and he fully expected to collapse on his futon and spend several hours turning over everything in his head. However, his anticipated topic of contemplation was derailed when he received a text.It was from Shinsou.

(H_S 9:35pm) Meeting up with some friends tomorrow night. You should come if you can.

It was followed by GPS coordinates for a pharmacy in the bad part of town.

Shouto knew better than to ask for clarification. If Shinsou was texting him in code, it was because he was afraid his messages were being monitored. Besides, his message came through loud and clear.

Their targets were on the move again, and they would strike tomorrow night.