“Excuse me? Um, excuse me?”
It takes a while for the woman to notice him, and even longer for her to look up. She's sitting crosslegged on the park bench, curled in on herself as she rocks and weeps, and she's been sitting and rocking and weeping since Izuku first arrived ten minutes ago. He can feel a painful pressure in his throat just looking at her, and his eyes sting. He forces the feeling back. It's hard not to cry when other people are crying, and this woman's been sobbing her heart out while Izuku waited for everyone within hearing range of her to leave.
He wishes he could say he was surprised, but just three days ago a supervillain was in the area. Heroes from a local agency took him down, but not before he took a few buildings down with him. The damage still lingers.
Finally, slowly, she raises her head.
“Were you talking to me?” she asks quietly.
Izuku manages a smile. “Yes,” he says. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, not now when there's no one close enough to hear. “S-sorry to bother you. If you want me to leave-”
Her hand closes around his wrist, and Izuku manages to keep still and calm instead of startling. She can't help it, he knows she can't help it, but once in a while he still spooks. “No,” she says. “No, please don't go.”
Izuku sits beside her gingerly. “It's okay,” he says. “What's your name? I'm Midoriya.”
After a moment, she whispers, “Y-Yamamoto.”
“It's nice to meet you, Ms. Yamamoto.” She's still holding his wrist. “Did you need help with something?”
“Yes,” she chokes out, and the sob isn't just for fear and sorrow – there's relief in it, too.
“What is it?” Izuku asks gently, always gently. “What can I help you with?”
“I...” With her free hand, she wipes in vain at the tears coursing down her face. “I... I'm trying. I can't remember. Why can't I remember?”
“It's okay, Ms. Yamamoto,” he repeats. “It's okay. Nothing's going to hurt you. Just... breathe.” It's an absurd thing to tell her, but he can't think of anything else, and going through the motions of inhaling and exhaling seems to calm her anyway.
“I, um,” Ms. Yamamoto sniffles. “It was... it was something important.”
“Do you need to tell someone something?” Izuku asks.
“N-no, not really, I don't... I don't have anyone to tell... there's no one...”
“Okay. Do you need to find something?”
“Yes! Yes, I... um...” She pauses, and her cold grip on his wrist tightens. “Or maybe...”
“Did you lose something?” Izuku presses. “Did you... leave something somewhere?”
“Yes!” Her voice grates oddly in his ears, sending chills up his spine, but she's smiling through her tears. “Yes, yes! That was it! I left... I left...”
“Was it at home? At work? Where did you leave it?”
“Home,” Ms. Yamamoto says. “Home. Take me home.”
Izuku nods, and smiles at her in what he hopes is a reassuring way. “Tell me where.”
She takes him to an apartment building, only a few blocks away. She lives on the fifth floor, she says, and takes the elevator up and down every day. Izuku bypasses it and takes the stairs instead.
There’s no convenient spare key hiding under a doormat, which is a minor hiccup for Izuku. He knocks, just to be sure, but when no one answers, he checks over his shoulders for witnesses or security cameras. When none appear, he picks the lock and enters.
He's only just closed the door behind him when there's a faint, rhythmic jingling, accompanied by a high-pitched trill. Ms. Yamamoto lets out a sob as a small, one-eyed cat comes trotting out of the apartment's hallway, yowling over the ringing of the bell on its collar. As Izuku watches, the cat threads its way around Ms. Yamamoto's ankles and rumbles with a loud purr. The woman’s fingertips ghost over the cat’s fur, barely touching it.
Izuku moves off and creeps through the empty apartment. It's not messy in any way, but it looks cluttered and lived in, and he can tell that Ms. Yamamoto never had any roommates besides her cat. There's a daily calendar on the kitchen counter, showing the page for three days ago. At the foot of the pantry is a cute little mat with the cat's food and water bowls on it. Both are empty, and Izuku winces. He fills them, after hunting and poking through pantries to find the cat food, and moments later the cat comes trotting back in and falls upon the bowls. Izuku checks the tag on her collar; the cat’s name is Mika.
“I left her.”
Izuku looks back at the sound of Ms. Yamamoto's voice. The woman stands at the entrance to the kitchen, hands wringing at her sides. “I left her,” she repeats. “Three days ago, when that man... the building fell… I wasn’t fast enough. She could've...” She flickers, like an old video. For a split second blood runs down her face and her neat clothes are ragged and scorched with dark, wet stains, and then Izuku blinks and she's normal again. “I left her.”
His eyes sting, and when he blinks his vision is blurry. “It wasn't your fault,” he says softly.
“She could've starved.” Her eyes – or the blank white sockets where her eyes would have been, three days ago – turn to him. “She would've died, but you helped me.”
Izuku forces a shaky smile. “Do you need anything else?”
“Make sure – make sure she's okay.” Izuku blinks again, and then Ms. Yamamoto is beside him, stooping to stroke her cat. “Can you do that?”
Ms. Yamamoto smiles and stops crying. Izuku blinks one last time, and opens his eyes to an empty kitchen with a purring cat at his feet.
“I don't understand,” his mother says, for at least the fifth time. Izuku sits quietly in her lap, brows knitted together in a thoughtful frown. His stomach feels tight and uncomfortable and heavy, and he's not old enough to know what word goes with this feeling. “The X-rays-”
“The X-rays do... throw a wrench into the diagnosis,” the doctor sighs. “It's true, Izuku lacks the extra toe joint that we would normally associate with quirklessness. Statistically, his lack of a quirk is highly unusual, but-”
“The other doctors said it was practically impossible,” Mom interrupts.
“But it's time to face facts,” the doctor continues patiently. “Even if he does have a quirk, you can't register it if you don't know what it is.”
“What do you mean 'even' – he could just be a late bloomer!”
“With all due respect, Mrs. Midoriya.” The doctor's eyes are full of sympathy. “His sixth birthday has come and gone. It's long past the usual window in which a quirk would manifest.” Mom sighs deeply, and the doctor leans forward. “There is a possibility. It's rare, but some people are born with what we call 'invisible quirks'.”
“Invisible quirks?” the boy from the emergency ward echoes. He's a little older than Izuku, sitting over in the corner on the plastic chair where Mom left her purse, dripping water all over the floor. Izuku first saw him while having his height measured, and he'd introduced himself as Takada. “That sounds kind of cool.”
Izuku perks up hopefully.
“With certain people, their quirks are so obscure that they simply aren't noticeable,” the doctor explains. “Or their quirk can only be activated under an extremely specific set of circumstances. Such people can go through their entire lives without even noticing their own quirk, simply because those specific circumstances never occur, and there's no practical use for it.” The doctor shrugs apologetically. “That's the best explanation I can offer.”
Izuku's face falls. Across the room, Takada blows a raspberry. “That's lame,” he remarks. “That's almost as bad as having no quirk at all.”
Mom is quiet for a while, lips pursed. “W-what if he sees things?” she asks at length. “There have been times... I mean, he talks about people who aren't there, he'll talk to himself or stare at the wall for hours – when he was three he said something about his father tucking him in, a-and... and Hisashi died just after he was born-”
“Mrs. Midoriya,” the doctor says patiently. “I know you're worried. And I know you want the best for your son and his dreams, but... it's dangerous to nurse false hope. Children have wild imaginations, and if you encourage them to see something in nothing, it may be harmful in the long run. If he does have an invisible quirk, then it will either show itself or it won't.” He stands up, putting on a smile. “In the meantime, being functionally quirkless will in no way prevent him from living a normal and happy life. He's in excellent health, and well-behaved on top of it.” The doctor ruffles Izuku's hair, but Izuku barely notices. He's too busy watching as Takada rolls his eyes, gets up from the chair, and strolls out of the room, lazily swatting the jar of tongue depressors as he passes.
The jar wobbles and tips over.
The doctor glances over his shoulder with a frown. “Odd,” he mutters, and goes to turn it right-side up again. “Must be a draft in here.”
Izuku stares at the jar and doesn't say a word for the rest of the doctor visit, even as Mom holds back tears, kisses him on the cheek, and takes him by the hand. He barely hears her, barely feels the gentle squeeze of her fingers as she leads him back out. He's too busy thinking, sifting through what he knows and what he thinks and what he remembers, piece by piece as it all falls together.
No one else can see his friends – he knows that much. But that's the first time one of his friends has ever done something that someone else saw.
He saw Dad, back when he was three – he knows he did, he knows he didn't dream it, because Mom remembers him telling her. But Dad was dead.
Takada was dripping wet, but the floor is dry. But Izuku saw him knock over the jar, and the doctor saw the jar fall but didn't see Takada.
Izuku glances up as they pass through the hallway of the doctor's office. The hospital ward is close by, and Izuku looks around and sees–
Among the doctors and nurses and patients, people pass by in stained hospital gowns, pale-faced and wandering. Lost. One of them wanders close to Mom, calling for her husband, and Mom doesn't even turn her head. Izuku reaches out, and his fingertips brush cold skin. The woman turns her tearstained face to him, meets his eyes, and vomits blood.
Izuku hides his face in his mother's side and cries. She doesn't see what he sees. She has no way of knowing that he's crying with fear. She thinks it's because he doesn't have a quirk, or because he has a quirk that's so useless that he might as well not have one at all.
He ought to be happy. Because he does have a quirk after all, and it’s not a useless one. And when he's cried all his fears away, when they're safe at home, then he'll tell his mother that she has nothing to be sorry about after all.
He leaves the collar on when he takes Mika to the no-kill shelter he usually goes to for this. They'll call the number on the tags, do their homework, and find out that the cat's owner has passed away. She's a cute cat even with her left eye missing. She's friendly and loving, white with gray-and-orange patchwork fur, and a trilling purr. She has a good chance of being adopted, and then she'll never have to go hungry by herself again.
(He gives the woman behind the counter his cell phone number, just in case.)
The whole incident makes him late getting home, but not late enough to miss dinner. Mom is still busy in the kitchen, so Izuku parks himself in front of the TV and turns it on. The volume is as high as they dare to keep it without disturbing the neighbors. It always is; it drowns out the strange whispering in the pipes, the odd door that slams on its own, and the myriad noises that could be written off as “the house settling” if they weren’t so frequent. Izuku flips the channels listlessly, until coming to rest on the one he’s looking for.
A jingle of faux-ethereal music signals the end of a commercial break, accompanied by a round of applause from the studio audience as the host of the show strides out on stage. His outfit is nothing short of gawdy, a spangled silver waistcoat over a pressed white shirt and bright blue slacks. Rounding off the ensemble is a bolo tie – a bolo tie, for heaven’s sake – with a decorative half-moon clasp. The announcer introduces the flashy host with a moniker that makes Izuku cringe with secondhand embarrassment and purge it immediately from his memory.
There’s a lot of sound effects, wild gesticulations and grandiose announcements in an amplified voice that drags out every vowel. Audience members approach the stage for the chance to be on TV for fifteen minutes, and the garishly-dressed show host proceeds to exorcise demons from one, make contact with another’s deceased husband, and cure another of their recurring nightmares. At one point he swoons, staggering with the “effort” of using his “quirk”. One audience participant is reduced to tears when the host holds an emotional one-sided conversation with her twin sister who died as a child.
The stage is empty but for the host and the crying woman. He’s talking to thin air. He’s been talking to thin air for as long as Izuku has been watching.
“I don’t understand how you can watch things like this.” His mother pauses at the doorway and steps in to stand right behind where Izuku is sitting. She leans on the back of the couch and sighs, shaking her head in disapproval. “Who greenlit this show, I wonder?”
“Why do you think people do this?” Izuku asks. He’s not really expecting an answer, or looking for one. “Just… make up stuff like this and pass it off as real?”
His mother sighs again. “I think, maybe it’s because… even in a world like ours, there are still impossible things. Or, things that everyone thinks is impossible.” She drops a kiss on the top of his head. “Even if they may be wrong. And as long as there are impossible things, there will be people who want those things to be real.” She snorts a little, then. “And as long as people want something, there will be others who use that want to make easy money.”
“But it’s not impossible,” Izuku says quietly. His throat feels tight. “In the world we live in, we can’t even know what impossible is.” He waves a hand vaguely at the screen. “It’s just because of stuff like this that everyone thinks it’s a big joke.”
He’s still staring at the screen, watching the gawdy spectacle of a show, but he can feel his mother’s eyes on him. He knows she worries.
“I know, Izuku,” she says at length. “And of course it’s not impossible – you’re proof of that, aren’t you? And one day… one day people will know that. I may not know much about ghosts, but if anyone can find a way, it’s you.” Another kiss, and Izuku manages a smile. “Thank your lucky stars you got your mother’s brains. Don’t worry about conmen like that. Your quirk is your own and nobody else’s.”
“It’d be nice if it was any good for hero work,” Izuku mutters. “And even if it was, I’m still quirkless on paper, so no school’s gonna want me-”
“Hey.” Mom touches the side of his face gently. He looks up at her automatically, and his heart sinks a little at the pity on her face. “I’m sorry, Izuku. I know it isn’t what you wanted. But you know, you don’t have to be a pro hero to help people. You help people that heroes don’t even know need help.” She smiles again. “And I think that’s really cool, don’t you?”
Izuku changes the channel. When he doesn’t reply, his mother finally leaves the room. His hand is a fist, almost painfully tight around his pencil as he tries to turn back to his homework. In spite of Mom’s encouragement, the show has left him with a gross feeling in the pit of his stomach. It really isn’t fair. It’s like crying wolf, only everyone else has done the crying, and now that there really is a wolf on his hands, he’s at a loss for what to do with it.
Hoping to lift his mood again, Izuku turns to the news to see if he can catch any superhero reports. There's not much – at some point during the afternoon, Kamui Woods stopped a corner store holdup, but beyond that it's been a quiet day. Izuku's interest wanes, and he finally turns his attention to school assignments while the news reports drone on in the background.
He's nearly done with his math homework for the day when the reporter's voice fizzles out. At first he doesn't notice, but then the static blares, and his pencil jerks and scores a dark line on his paper. Grumbling to himself, he shoots the TV a scowl. The screen blinks black, then static. The whiteness falters and shorts out, and for a split second it looks like the picture might be coming back. Or... a picture, anyway. It doesn't look much like the news. It looks like a video of an empty room, but it blinks out too rapidly for Izuku to tell for sure. As he watches, the image breaks up and gives way to static once more.
“Oh dear,” Mom mutters as she passes through the room again. She picks up the remote and tries to change the channel, to no avail, before handing it to Izuku. “You know, this is the third time this week.”
The static gives a violent jerk. As Izuku watches, a pale hand emerges from the screen, clawlike and grasping at empty air. The hand reaches down to the floor, nails scraping for purchase, and a head comes out next. Black hair, tangled and stringy, spills from the white static, followed by shoulders, another groping hand, and finally the pale apparition claws its way out of the screen and onto the living room floor.
“Well, let me know if anything changes,” Mom sighs. “Dinner's almost ready.”
“Okay,” Izuku says. The corpselike figure drags itself across the carpet, face shrouded in dark hair. Izuku finishes the last math problem. His mother leaves the room.
The apparition grabs his ankle.
“I'm pretty sure that's bad for the TV,” Izuku says, twitching his foot. Her hand feels cold, even through his sock.
The noise she makes in response sounds nothing like any noise that a little girl of eight or nine ought to make, but it does sound strikingly similar to the TV static. As if to prove him wrong, the screen blinks again, and the news is back.
“TV's okay, Mom!” he calls toward the kitchen.
“Oh, good! You two play nice, now!”
The couch cushion doesn't dip when the pale ghost sits beside him, but her dark, damp hair does get in the way when she leans over to look at his homework. Izuku scoots over, positioning himself so that he has room to work and she has a better view of it. “It's pretty boring, Rei,” he says, a little apologetically. “Just math.”
More ghostly rattling. Izuku has never heard her speak for as long as he's known her, and she's almost as old a friend as Bakugou was. That's all right, though. She doesn't need to talk to make him feel less lonely.