You can't actually die from your soulmate's injuries.
They do hurt, for just a moment. A twinge for a stubbed toe; a blinding crack of agony for a broken arm. But only for a moment, just a moment. Then the pain vanishes, gone in a heartbeat, leaving nothing but scars in its wake. Small scars, barely noticeable, thin lines that fade within a few days; terrible scars, horrific, grotesque, ragged craters and tough, warped skin that are nauseating even to glimpse. Most people are lucky; most people have only a few scars, remnants from an appendectomy, a dog bite, a brash childhood spent falling out of trees. But some people aren't quite so lucky; some people have legs mutilated by scars from the knee down, round pockmarks in the chest, deep-sunk fishwire grooves encircling the neck. Some people bear the unspeakable tragedies of someone else's life on their skin.
But no matter how real the scars are, they are only superficially yours. You do not suffer the injuries; you do not live with their consequences. Your appendix remains. Your arm is not broken. There is no bullet in your heart. No matter the grievous the wound, you suffer nothing but the visual aftereffects, and your soulmate's injury does not truly harm you.
Your soulmate's injuries cannot kill you, and that's the only reason Inko's son is still alive.
Izuku is born just after seven o'clock in the morning, slightly underweight, with tiny fingers, patchy dark hair, and seemingly no voice.
"Why isn't he crying?" Inko asks, feeling slightly desperate. She's aching and sweaty and exhausted, but her baby boy's silence strikes fear into her very core, and she has no room for thoughts about herself. She clings him to her chest, feeling his little heart flutter almost as fast as hers. "Is he okay? Is something wrong? Why isn't he crying?"
"Oh, there's nothing wrong with him," the doctor says cheerfully. "Some babies just don't cry as much as others. He's a healthy baby, don't you worry. He'll start crying soon enough."
Inko holds Izuku close, her entire body trembling. Izuku's eyes are screwed shut, and his hands are curled into fists. He smacks his lips once or twice and turns his little face toward hers, and her heart melts.
"My Izuku," she coos, pulling him closer still. "My little Izuku."
Hisashi comes into the delivery room not much later, and though he is awkward when he takes Izuku into his arms, his eyes glow at seeing his son. "What a good boy," he says, his voice unusually soft. "You'll grow up to be a good man, a strong man, I just know it."
Together, they huddle around their son. Their beautiful, perfect, lovely son, who does not open his mouth except to yawn.
Eventually, one nurse whisks Izuku away to the nursery, while another wheels Inko from the delivery room to the hospital room she shares with three other new mothers. Inko promptly dozes off there, but she wakes only a couple of hours later, still tired but with a gaping emptiness inside. Unable to sit still, she calls for the nurse to take her to go gaze at her baby boy. He's swaddled in a soft blue blanket and sleeping peacefully in his bassinet. There's a chart above his head that reads MY MAMA IS MIDORIYA INKO, with his birth date and time and weight and length written below, and attached to it is a yellow star that has IZUKU-KUN written on it in kanji. He's the most incredible thing Inko has ever seen, and even meeting Hisashi can't compare to the feeling of completion that fills her now.
She watches him, her heart swelled to bursting with love, and then, out of nowhere, Izuku's eyes snap open and he screams.
Inko doesn't have much experience with newborns, she's only been a mother for a few hours, but she knows. This isn't the scream of a child who's hungry or lonely or scared; this is the scream of a child in unspeakable agony. Inko gasps and practically flings herself at the glass separating her from her son. "Izuku!" she shouts, and he screams and he screams and he screams, and her heart is in her throat and her lungs are empty and--
And then a horrific bruise spreads over half of Izuku's face, dark and mottled, accompanied by a vivid red line that slashes just above his eye.
Inko sags against the wall, breathless. The nurse standing next her offers her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Izuku-kun is fine," she said. "It looks like it's just a soulmate injury."
Inko remains pressed up against the glass, her hands leaving sweaty smears. She makes herself take deep breaths. It's okay, she tells herself. He's okay. It's just a soulmate injury. He's okay. And Izuku seems to have realized this himself; a nurse in the room has hurried to his check on him, but he's already stopped crying, and now he only hiccups, his face wrinkled up.
"I know it's scary," the nurse says sympathetically. "Children don't really understand how soulmate injuries work; all they know is that they feel pain. What's important is that you don't overreact. See, children take their cues from how their parents react. If you don't panic, then he'll learn soon enough that it's nothing to worry about."
Inko gazes at Izuku. She's trembling even more than he is. Just a soulmate injury, she repeats to herself. The horrible bruising and vivid scar will go away soon enough. Izuku is fine. Her son is fine.
After much reassurance and cajoling, Inko lets the nurse talk her back to her hospital room. She lies back down in bed. Her heart is still racing too fast. Izuku is okay, she tells herself. Izuku is okay. Izuku is okay. Izuku is okay. She tells herself this until she believes it.
She's just on the verge of drifting off into sleep when another thought strikes her, as sudden and shocking as a bolt of lightning. But what happened to injure his soulmate so badly?
Inko's eyes snap open. She stares at the ceiling, breathless anew, her heart clenching in her chest. She does not go back to sleep.
Two days after Izuku is born, he comes home from the hospital swaddled in a green onesie, his wispy hair already mussed, his eyes comically wide. He is quiet--too quiet, almost--and he takes in the world like someone who is simultaneously awed and terrified by its existence.
The soulmate injures he suffered in his first few hours of life are gone, the bruising faded, the scar vanished. Instead, there is an ugly mark marring his left leg, stretching from the middle of his thigh down past his knee, almost two centimeters at its widest. He's so tiny that half of his leg looks like scar tissue, and Inko can only pray that the wound itself was not as terrible as the soulmate scar makes it seem.
Hisashi drives them home. The car is shockingly quiet. Inko keeps turning around in her seat to look at Izuku, even though, in his rear-facing car seat, nothing of him is visible but the crown of his head.
"Inko," Hisashi says at last. "Relax."
"But his soulmate injuries," she says fretfully. "They're so terrible."
"We've discussed this," Hisashi says.
They have discussed this. In hushed voices, Inko picking at her bland hospital food, Hisashi holding their son and gazing with a furrowed brow down at the livid scar. Ultimately, there's nothing they can do about a soulmate injury; either it will leave a scar or it won't, and they can neither stop it from happening nor affect the outcome. Better to accept the soulmate injures as they come, and comfort Izuku without coddling him.
"And besides, the first one didn't scar," Hisashi adds. "This one probably won't, either."
But we've never had soulmate injures that bad, Inko thinks. She and Hisashi have had their share of injuries, but few have left a permanent mark. They each have a line on their left arm from when Hisashi broke his arm as a teenager badly enough to need surgery, and another on their calf from the time when Inko got caught up in a villain attack and a piece of shrapnel from a nearby exploding building had gashed her leg open, and another on their right palm from the time Inko accidentally burned herself in the kitchen.
"I wonder if his soulmate had them healed," Inko murmurs. Every hospital of decent size has a doctor on staff with some sort of healing quirk, but they are rarely used to heal away scars when there are real injuries to be healed instead. (And no matter the strength of the healing quirk, some injuries are just too traumatic, just too terrible, to avoid leaving scars. Inko had tried very hard not to imagine that possibility.) But Izuku's first soulmate injury vanished so quickly and so completely that she can't think of any other possibility.
"Maybe," Hisashi says gruffly.
"I worry about his soulmate," Inko confesses. "The poor thing--probably still a child, too. How does a child get injuries like that? Is it abuse? Was it some kind of accident, or--"
"Inko," Hisashi says. His eyes are fixed on the road ahead, but he reaches out one hand and rests it on her thigh. "There's nothing we can do right now. All we can do is take care of Izuku and hope that one day, they find each other."
She clings to Hisashi's hand, her fingers squeezing with more strength than she knew she had in her. He turns his hand into hers and squeezes in return. In the back of the car, Izuku snuffles softly, then goes silent.
The soulmate injuries do not stop.
By the time Izuku wakes up for his first feeding at home, the scar on his leg is gone. But a few days later, strange marks appear around his arm, like lash marks. The next week, his shoulder is marred by what looks startlingly like the result of a puncture wound. The week after that, the skin of his back ripples with what looks like a burn scar. The appearance of each one is announced by a sudden, high-pitched shriek. Izuku cries in the way only an infant can, his face scrunched up and enormous tears streaming down his cheeks, with a new, hideous mark that takes Inko's breath away and leaves her praying to the universe that this new horrific soulmate injury will not turn into a scar.
Thus far, her prayers have been answered. The marks, though suggesting truly terrible injuries, all disappear within a few hours. Inko is sure, now, that Izuku's soulmate is being healed with a quirk. That's good, Inko reassures herself, or tries to. Whatever the cause of so many terrible injuries, at least her son's soulmate is receiving treatment for them. But for them to be healed so completely is its own concern, because it suggests that someone is not only trying to heal the wounds, but to hide them entirely. She lies awake at night, staring at the ceiling as Izuku and Hisashi snore in the bed beside her, and her mind procures a million nightmare scenarios. Izuku's soulmate is a child who's being abused, and one of the parents has a healing quirk and uses it to keep anyone from finding out about the abuse. Izuku's soulmate is being raised by villains who are conducting horrific human experiments. Medical schools are secretly using actual humans to teach their students, and Izuku's soulmates is one of the victims being deliberately hurt to teach students how to heal.
There are innocent explanations, Inko is sure, or at least less horrific ones. But she can't think of any of them. All she can think of is a young child, barely older than Izuku, who is constantly suffering and, unlike Izuku, is not freed from the pain after only a second.
And those are only the most horrible and painful-seeming scars. Izuku is constantly covered in scrapes and scratches, small wounds that are left to heal naturally. And they do heal, fading away from Izuku's skin over the course of days. But they still last long enough to make Inko fret and fuss, because each one sets Izuku off, making him bawl and scream and whimper, and Inko can do nothing but hold him and bounce him and whisper meaningless words of comfort into his ear, her heart wringing into a frail string of helplessness.
Other children cry when they are hungry, when their diapers need changing, when they're afraid. Izuku only cries when his soulmate is in pain.
Izuku begins preschool when he is two years old.
Inko frets horribly. Hisashi has taken a job overseas, and that means that she has to decide on her own what preschool to enroll Izuku in. They have scheduled phone calls twice a week, but she calls him unannounced a few times as well, carefully timing it for the early afternoon in Japan to catch him just before he goes to bed in America.
"I just don't know what to do," she says, keeping a careful eye on Izuku as he naps on her bed. "Maybe we shouldn't do preschool until he's a little bit older. Preschools can't possibly be equipped to care for a child who suffers soulmate injuries constantly. But he does have to go to school eventually. But--"
"Inko," Hisashi says wearily. His voice crackles over the phone line. "We talked about this over the weekend, didn't we?"
Inko falls silent, chewing on her lower lip. "I know," she says at last, hushed. "But I'm worried."
"You're always worried," Hisashi replies. It isn't criticism; his voice his fond. "But the fact that you're willing to take him out into the world despite your worry is why you're a good mother."
And that's the crux of it, isn't it? She can't protect Izuku from suffering; she can't keep him from pain. All she can do is do everything in her power to ensure that Izuku can make his own way in a world that tries to beat him down. And she can't do that by clinging to him all her life.
So the next day, she dials the nearest preschool, seven blocks away from her apartment, and schedules a meeting. When the day comes, she brings Izuku with her, and he babbles happily in his stroller, "Mama, bird! Look! Bird!" as she wheels him down the sidewalk. When she arrives, she admires the environment--walls painted with bright, colorful images of pandas and lions, a yard with a small patch of grass, a playroom with a soft mat on the floor and buckets of toys. She introduces herself to the preschool manager, a matronly woman named Ikugami Kyouko, and as Izuku happily occupies himself with some toy cars, Inko explains, carefully and quietly, "My son suffers soulmate injuries very frequently."
She describes the variety of soulmate injuries Izuku has suffered since his birth. She pushes up the sleeve of Izuku's sweater to display his arm, the skin temporarily twisted and mangled. "They always go away," she says. "It seems like his soulmate always has the big injuries healed." She wonders who she's trying to convince. She wonders who she's trying to reassure. "But his soulmate injuries aren't the regular bumps and bruises. They're much, much worse. If he's going to go to preschool, I need him to be someplace where the people watching him understand that."
"Of course," Ikugami-sensei says. "We'll make sure to teach the other children that some people have more soulmate injuries than other people, and it's normal and nothing to laugh or tease about." She gazes down upon the obliviously happy Izuku with eyes full of pity. When she raises her gaze to Inko, her expression is unchanged. "Tell me, how do you cope with all of his soulmate injuries at home?"
Inko smiles sadly. "We don't have to do much at all," she replies. "He's so used to the pain that he barely ever cries anymore."
In the end, Inko decides to enroll Izuku at that preschool. One of the teachers there is a young man named Kizunashi Naoru, whose quirk is minor healing. He can't heal anything more than a scratch or a scrape, too insignificant to make a difference at a hospital but perfect for all the bumps and bruises that children at a preschool might get, and Izuku is fascinated by him. Kizunashi-sensei can't heal soulmate injuries--those only heal when the soulmate's actual injury heals--but any time Izuku scrapes his knee or drops a toy on his leg, he toddles over to Kizunashi-sensei and has it healed. "My soulmate already hurts," he says, matter-of-fact and innocent. "I don't want my soulmate to hurt because of me."
Ikugami-sensei recounts this story to Inko at their first check-in conference, two weeks after Izuku begins going to preschool. It breaks her heart, because her little boy is so good and pure-hearted, and no child should have to live life thinking in terms of pain and suffering, but Izuku does. He always does.
It's at preschool that Izuku discovers heroes.
He's shown a vague interest in heroes before, poking at action figures of Endeavor and Crimson Riot when she takes him to the toy store. But there's a loud, charismatic boy in his preschool class, one Katsuki-kun, who quickly takes charge and becomes the leader of the boys, and he's almost obsessed with the Number One Hero, the Symbol of Peace, All Might. Izuku takes a shine to "Kacchan," just like every other boy in the class, and when Inko picks him up after his first day of preschool, he comes bounding up to her, holding an action figure of All Might, and with shining eyes and a huge smile, he says, "I like All Might!"
"Do you?" Inko says. The sheer glee on his face warms his heart and makes her want to cry, just a little.
"Yeah!" Izuku chirps, and he starts chattering away, in the disjointed, incomprehensible way of an over-excited child, about playing heroes and All Might and his new friend Kacchan and All Might and fighting villains and All Might and--
She eventually convinces him to put the All Might action figure back in the box of toys where it belongs. Then they walk the seven blocks home, hand in hand, and the entire time, Izuku flails his arms and tugs her hand and says, "All Might, Mama, All Might!"
She expects the infatuation to fade, the way so many childish fascinations do. After all, before All Might, Izuku was briefly obsessed with dinosaurs, and before that trains, and before that the color orange. But a week later, Izuku is still begging for his own All Might toy, and Inko can't resist his enormous, watery eyes and his quivering lower lip, especially not when his face is marred with the aftermath of an ugly gash. "All right," she finally acquiesces, and when she takes him to the toy store with the admonition that he can pick out "one toy, Izuku, you can have one," he wobbles his way from one shelf to another, haphazardly pulling out every single toy within reach that has All Might's distinctive golden bangs or his star-spangled red, white and blue. He gasps and squeals over each one with the wide-eyed awe of childish ignorance. By the time he's made his decision, his soulmate injury is gone, vanished just like all the others, and he proudly marches up to the cash register with an All Might Action figure that, with the push of a button, announces in that grandiose voice, "I am here!"
The toy becomes Izuku's most precious treasure, coming with him to preschool and sleeping with him on his pillow. Inko hopes it stops there, but it doesn't. One toy rapidly becomes two toys, then three; the toys are soon joined by a poster that Inko tapes to Izuku's bedroom wall under his exacting demands, his shrill voice shrieking, "more up, more up, over more, no, not that far!" Hisashi even ships home an American-exclusive All Might toy that Izuku proudly parades around the apartment for weeks.
It's silly, the intensity of his hero worship. But childhood is the time to have silliness humored, and it's really quite cute, and besides, All Might is a good role model. And more than anything, Izuku's adoration of All Might seems to distract him from his seemingly endless procession of soulmate injuries, and Inko will do anything, anything, that lessens that trauma for him.
And then Izuku sees the video.
It's an old clip, years and years old. It plays on the evening news one night, edited down for mass consumption, shown as part of an anniversary retrospective. A highway overpass has collapsed. A fire rages amid the rubble. Voices scream and cry and pray.
And then, from the inferno, All Might emerges, half a dozen people propped up on his broad shoulders. And even though blood drips down his forehead, his perfectly white teeth gleam in a perfectly wide smile.
"Everything is all right now!" he proclaims, climbing from the chaos like an angel of salvation. "Why, you ask? Because I am here!"
Izuku stares at the television screen, his eyes impossibly wide. On the screen, All Might laughs, letting out huge, bellowing guffaws as he frees the trapped and picks up the wounded and drags the victims to safety. "Wow," Izuku whispers, his voice tiny with awe. His chubby fingers squeeze around his All Might toy.
Inko keeps half an eye on Izuku as she washes their dinner dishes. He practically quivers with excitement, his grin spreading wider and wider. Then he finally explodes. "All Might is so cool!"
The show moves on, displaying a clip show of All Might's most famous rescues, but Izuku is fixated on the first video, the one marking All Might's pro hero debut. "Again!" he demands, "again!" and eventually Inko gives up and pulls up the clip online. It's a bit too violent for Inko's taste, but Izuku trembles in his seat like he wants to throw himself at the computer monitor and hug All Might through the screen. He pounds one fist excitedly against the desktop and clasps his All Might action figure in the other, and when the camera zooms up on All Might's face, Izuku thrusts his toy into the air into the air and shrieks, his voice overlapping with the hero's, "I am here!"
Inko rests her cheek in one hand and gazes at Izuku, smiling fondly. "You really like All Might, don't you?"
"Yeah!" Izuku's head bobs up and down in a frenetic nod. "He's the best hero! He saves people!"
"He does," Inko agrees.
But Izuku's not done. "I'm going to be a hero, too!" he declares.
Inko's eyebrows rise at that, because that's new. "Oh?" she asks, good-natured. "Are you going to grow up to be a hero?"
"Uh-huh!" Izuku kicks his feet wildly, his mouth full of rice. "I want to save people, too! So I'm going to be a hero like All Might! And then I can save my soulmate!"
Inko stares at him, and then her eyes fill with tears. She sniffs, then belatedly cups her hand to her face, trying to hide it. She fails, of course. Izuku stares up at her, his excitement bleeding away into confusion. "Mama?" he asks, his voice timid.
Inko blinks back the tears and puts a hand to his head, ruffling his curly hair. "I'm sure you will, Izuku," she says, her voice quavering, and offers him a tremulous smile. "I'm sure you will."
It doesn't take long for the other children to notice Izuku's soulmate injuries. If anything, Inko is surprised it took as long as it did.
When she arrives at preschool to pick up Izuku, one day perhaps a month after he starts attending, he's huddled alone in the corner, forlornly marching an All Might toy across the floor. Most of the other children have already gone home, it seems, but the handful who are still there are clustered on the other side of the playroom, staring at Izuku with bald-faced mixture of disgust, fear, and intrigue.
"Izuku?" Inko calls out, and when Izuku looks up, her breath hitches, because the right side of his face is one horrific, mottled burn scar, his eye drooping, his lip twisted viciously, and for a single, heart-stopping moment, her mind is blazingly blank and she can think nothing but my child, my child, what happened to my child--
"Oh, Midoriya-san!" Kizunashi-sensei says. He hurries over to greet her. "Izuku-kun had another soulmate injury today," he says, his voice pitched low. "It only happened an hour or so ago, so if it's anything like the others I imagine it will be gone by tomorrow. But--"
"I understand," Inko replies. Her heart is racing, but she takes a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She pastes on a smile, and just in time, because Izuku has come racing up to her.
"Mama," he says, tugging on her sleeve. He pats his face with his other hand. "My soulmate got hurt again."
"I know, Izuku," Inko says. She crouches down to be on his eye level and presses one hand to his mutilated cheek. "But I'm sure it will be healed soon, just like always."
Izuku nods, accepting this with the certainty of youth. "Everyone else thought it was weird and scary," he says. "They said it was ugly and why do I look like that." He doesn't sound upset by this; if anything, he only sounds confused. "But it will go away. Why do they think it's weird? It's a soulmate injury." He's completely bland and matter-of-fact, like it's something normal.
Inko swallows. She has explained this to him before--a dozen times, a hundred times--but before now, she's only had to explain why she doesn't have the same kind of soulmate injuries that he does. He's never experienced this kind of reaction from other people before, and it seems to have thrown him for a loop. Adults, at least, have been trained by society not to whisper and point and stare. "Most people don't get soulmate injuries as much as you do, Izuku," she says gently. "Most people haven't met anyone who gets as many soulmate injuries as you do."
Izuku just looks blankly at her, his head cocked to the side. "Why?" he asks.
I wish I knew, Izuku, Inko thinks.
"It was quite a shock for the other kids," Kizunashi-sensei says. "I don't think many of them have seen a soulmate injury quite like that before. But I'm sure it will be completely forgotten by tomorrow."
In the end, Kizunashi-sensei is right. Izuku's soulmate injury is gone by dinner, and when Inko takes him to preschool the next day, his friends stare at him. "What happened to the thing on your face?" one girl asks.
"It was a soulmate injury," Izuku says, wearing a big grin. "But it was healed, so I don't have it anymore!"
The other children continue to stare at him. "Okay," one of them says at last. "Do you want to play heroes?"
And Izuku goes scrambling, and the children start running around the playroom, squealing and rambunctious. "Like I said," Kizunashi-sensei says quietly to Inko, "forgotten by tomorrow."
Inko nods, but her heart aches. The other children will forget it, perhaps. The staff at the preschool might forget it. Even Izuku might forget it. But Inko won't forget it.
Izuku's soulmate probably won't forget it, either.
At the preschool, the children's quirks come in, one by one.
One boy's legs turn long and springy, and he starts leaping across the entire playground in a single bound. One girl's fingers go twisty and spindly, and she sneaks them into locks and under doors and into the cupboard holding Ikugami-sensei's stash of chocolate. Another girl can make the lights turn on and off with a snap of her fingers. The Bakugou boy, Katsuki, learns to make his sweat explode, and he takes much glee in blowing up leaves, and construction paper, and the air around other kids' heads.
"Kacchan says he's going to be a hero!" Izuku announces one day. "He can explode things, so he's going to explode all the villains and become the Number One Hero!"
"Is he, now?" Inko asks, amused. From what she's seen of Katsuki, he's far too impulsive and hot-blooded to make a good hero. Then again, maybe he'll grow out of it. "What about you, Izuku? What will your hero quirk be?"
Izuku's quirk is slow to manifest, but he dreams with the best of them. Some days, he pretends he can blow fire, like Hisashi. Other days, he waves his arms around, pretending he has Inko's telekinesis on a much grander scale. Usually, though, he plays pretend at having a completely new quirk. He races across the preschool playground with his arms spread, swooping down with imaginary wings on imaginary villains. He stomps his feet and creates imaginary earthquakes. He spits imaginary acid, squints imaginary laser beams from his eyes and reads the minds of imaginary foes.
When Inko asks him what his quirk will be as a hero, she expects another childish flight of fancy. I'll have suction cup hands and climb buildings, maybe, or I'll get a dog nose and find lost people. But today, he looks at her with startling solemnity. "I'm going to be a healing hero," he says, and though his voice is subdued, there's a layer of steel in there that she never, ever would have expected. "I'm going to be like Kizunashi-sensei and have a healing quirk. I'll go out and find people who have been hurt by villains and I'll heal them."
Today, Izuku had stopped halfway through breakfast to flinch and grab his shoulder. The soulmate injury was gone without a trace by the time she dropped him off at preschool. He never said anything about it, and Inko knows, with the tragic certainty of a mother who is powerless to help her child, that there are many more soulmate injuries that Izuku has never told her about. But it's in his eyes, and he says, with quiet certainty, "I'm going to be a healing hero," and Inko can only hug him fiercely and pray, silently but with the fervency of the desperate and the damned, that reality is even halfway as kind as his dreams.
Izuku does not get a quirk.
They wait and wait, Izuku with increasing impatience and Inko with increasing anxiety, but his quirk does not manifest. He starts asking her when he'll finally get his quirk. "I need a quirk to be a hero, Mom," he says insistently. "When will I get my quirk?"
"Be patient, Izuku," she replies. "People get their quirks at different times. I'm sure you'll get your quirk soon."
She says it so many times, again and again, until the answer sounds trite and meaningless in her own ears. But she has nothing else to offer him but a mother's reassurance, and so she says it, again and again. And each time, Izuku accepts her answer and goes back to watching videos of All Might, playing with toys of All Might, playing at a future where he is the next All Might.
"Perhaps you should get him checked out by a doctor," Ikugami-sensei says at last. "Most children have their quirks by his age. It certainly wouldn't hurt to ask."
Brittle and on edge, Inko schedules an appointment at a quirk specialist. When she takes Izuku in, he skips happily, the new soulmate injury on his hand completely forgotten. "I'm going to find out my quirk," he informs passers-by on the train. "I'm going to find out my quirk," he tells other patients in the waiting room. "I'm going to find out my quirk," he says to the doctor who sees him.
But the universe is cruel, and Izuku has lived a life of suffering, and fate has never shown him pity or mercy and never will. There is no quirk for Izuku, and there will never be one. He will never be able to fly, or spit acid, or heal people. He will never become a hero.
He tries to smile, but it's a pitiful, broken thing. He cries the way only a child can, wretched and disconsolate, his voice fragmented, the tears pouring down his cheeks, and Inko is powerless. She is not wise, or clever, or wealthy, or confident, or capable, or influential, or powerful. She is nothing but a mother whose love is insufficient to protect her child from the wiles of a heartless universe, and she can do nothing but cling to his tiny, trembling body and soak him in her tears.
"I'm sorry," Inko sobs, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and she says it not only to Izuku, but also his poor soulmate, a child beaten and tortured and forsaken somewhere out there, the child he was supposed to save one day. "I'm sorry, Izuku. I'm sorry."
Word spreads quickly.
When she drops Izuku off at preschool the next day, he is quiet, vacant, almost lost. He does not say hello to the teachers or speak to the children, or even look at anyone. He just shuffles over to the bin of toys and pulls out an All Might figurine. He doesn't play with it, just holds it up and stares it in its plastic, painted eyes, his gaze desperate, one fingernail picking at the cape.
Ikugami-sensei and Kizunashi-sensei both notice immediately, and because Inko doesn't know what else to do, she blurts, "He's quirkless."
Some of the children overhear, and they start whispering. "I'll go talk to him," Kizunashi-sensei says, and he strides over and crouches down beside Izuku. Ikugami-sensei turns to Inko with an expression full of pity, but she says nothing.
Inko stays longer than she perhaps should, longer than she has since Izuku's first day of preschool. She watches Kizunashi-sensei talk to him in a murmur, watches her son say nothing at all. Finally she turns and goes home, walking the seven blocks completely blind. There are things she has to do at home, but she does none of them, just sits down and stares at the wall and wishes there were some way she could stop her heart from breaking into tinier and tinier pieces.
When she goes back to preschool to pick up Izuku, she arrives to find the Bakugou boy waving his crackling, smoking hands in the air, thrusting them at Izuku as though threatening to set off a blast in his general direction.
"You can't be a hero," Katsuki sneers. "You don't have a quirk, so you can't be a hero! You quirkless loser!"
Later, the preschool will set up a meeting between Inko and Katsuki's mother Mitsuki to try to broker peace between their sons. Later, the preschool will introduce games meant to teach the children not to bully each other. Later, the preschool will take time away from their playful lessons about numbers and colors to teach lessons about quirks and soulmates, and how some people don't have one or the other.
None of it will help.
Later, Izuku will suffer for years as his peers' preferred target of bullying and abuse and scorn, because he is the quirkless boy whose soulmate hates him and tries to punish him. But today, Izuku comes home utterly silent, and he hugs his favorite All Might plushie and watches his favorite video of All Might over and over again, on endless loop. "I am here!" All Might declares, his digital voice booming through the apartment. "I am here! Everything is all right now! Why, you ask? Because I am here!"
You aren't here, Inko thinks spitefully. My son is suffering, and you aren't here. You save all those people, but who's going to save my son? And if my son can't be a hero, who's going to save his soulmate?
It's silly and misdirected and a little cruel to blame All Might, even if only in the privacy of her own mind. But All Might isn't just the Number One Hero; he's Izuku's idol, Izuku's aspiration, Izuku's hero. And if he won't save Izuku, who will? Who can?
It's true that Izuku was never a boy who stood at the center of attention; he was never the boy all the other children gravitated toward or wanted to play with the most. But he still had friends, Kacchan most notably, who would chatter away with him, play hero with him, admire All Might with him. He had friends until his quirklessness came to light, and by the time he leaves preschool and starts elementary school, he's completely and utterly friendless.
Inko sends him to the local elementary school, Ryuusan Elementary School. It's where most of the children from his preschool end up as well, including Bakugou Katsuki. Inko agonizes over this decision, but ultimately, they can't afford anything else. The two nearby private elementary schools, St. Maria Pure Heart Elementary School and Rishi Elementary School, are both horribly expensive. Hisashi earns good money working abroad, true, but it has to cover not only the rent of their apartment in Musutafu but also his rent in America, and it doesn't stretch as far as the same sum would in Japan alone. Inko has her own part-time job, working the cash register at a nearby grocery store a few days a week, but she doesn't want to increase her hours, doesn't want to make Izuku come home from school to an empty home, and besides, if she earned much more, they'd end up in a higher tax bracket and lose the extra income to taxes anyway. Inko tries to make the math work, penciling out adjustments to their household budget again and again, but there's just no way to pay for it, not if she wants to keep food on the table and hot water in the tub.
So, with a heavy heart, she sends Izuku to Ryuusan Elementary. They practice the walk to school together a few times, Izuku holding her hand as she shows him which streets to turn on. She meets with his teacher, Fushiana-sensei, and explains Izuku's quirklessness and his soulmate injures. And when Izuku's first day of school arrives, on an unseasonably cold day in April, she packs his backpack (navy blue) and straightens his bucket hat (neon yellow) and sends him off with a wave and a bright smile.
She follows him to school, that first day, just to make sure he arrives safely. He doesn't notice her walking ten meters behind him; he just toddles along, making all the right turns without problem, chirping out a cheerful hello to the crossing guard, and finally disappearing through the gates of Ryuusan Elementary. She watches him from a distance, feeling strangely bereft, and then she walks home.
Inko spends the day puttering around the apartment, cleaning near-obsessively. When Izuku comes back home, she's only too relieved to swoop down on him. "Izuku!" she exclaims, wrapping him in a hug. "How was your first day of school? What did you learn? Did you make any friends?"
He looks up at her, his eyes blank. "Kacchan is in my class," he says. "He told everyone that I didn't have a quirk and that my soulmate hates me." Then, somehow, he procures a smile. "But that's okay. Can I have a snack?"
"There's some apple for you on the table," Inko replies, feeling faint. Izuku nods and wanders off to the kitchen, where there's a plate of bunny-shaped apple slices waiting for him. She trails after him and watches him munch on the apple, seemingly without a care in the world. "Izuku," she says at last, "you know your soulmate doesn't hate you, right?"
Izuku pauses halfway through an apple slice. He blinks at her, guileless. Then he drops his eyes. "I guess," he mumbles.
"Izuku." It emerges a sigh. Inko sits down opposite him and leans forward, trying to catch his eyes. She fails. She speaks anyway. "Your soulmate doesn't hate you. They're your soulmate. They love you, Izuku. They'll always love you. That's what soulmates do."
Izuku doesn't reply at first. He just nibbles on his apple, staring stubbornly at the tabletop. Then he takes another slice, prods unhappily at one bunny ear, and says, in a voice so small she can barely hear it, "I'd hate someone, if they knew I was being hurt and they didn't help me."
Inko closes her eyes and swallows down the sorrow. "Izuku, do you hate your soulmate for giving you all those soulmate injuries?"
He recoils, his eyes jerking up, his expression utterly blindsided. "No!" he shouts. "It's not their fault they get hurt!"
"And it's not your fault, either," Inko replies. "Hear me, Izuku? This is not your fault. None of it."
Izuku sullenly eats his next slice of apple. "Kacchan called me Deku," he mumbles.
Inko blinks. It seems like a non-sequitur. "Deku?" she asks.
"We introduced ourselves in class," Izuku says. "Fushiana-sensei wrote our names on the board. In kanji, not just kana. Kacchan said that my name says Deku."
Instantly, Izuku's name rewrites itself in her head, the reading of the kanji shifting. Not Izuku, but Deku.
"He says it means useless," Izuku adds.
"Izuku, no," Inko says, horrified. She and Hisashi had picked out that name together, months of her pregnancy spent pondering and debating, and they'd arrived at the name Izuku together. It was a way to mark his long-awaited arrival. My son is here. At long last, my son is here.
It wasn't until after he was born, well after his name had engraved itself on her heart, that the worker at the local ward office had looked at the paperwork and said, "Deku-kun, is it?" Inko would hear it a handful more times, when people saw Izuku's name before they heard it and didn't bother to check the furigana for the pronunciation. But of all the people who had called him "Deku," none of them had said it like that.
"That's not what it means, Izuku," Inko says, leaning forward with the urgency of her words. "That's not what it means at all. We gave you that name because we wanted you so desperately, and it means that you finally arrived." But no matter how forcefully she speaks, her voice seems not to reach Izuku; his face is still downcast, his eyes cloudy. It's like talking to a brick wall, and her mind whirls as she grasps for straws. "Like All Might!" she blurts. "You know how All Might says it? I am here! That's what he says, right? Well, that's how you made us feel, Izuku. Mom and Dad, that's how we felt when you arrived. Izuku is here! That's what your name means, Izuku. It means that you're finally here."
At last, he looks up. Slowly, hesitantly, but he looks up and meets her eyes. Tentative, like he's afraid to see what she really thinks. Inko offers him a hearty smile. He smiles back, wobbly. "Really?" he whispers. "I'm like All Might?"
And it breaks her heart anew, because he isn't All Might, he's nothing but a quirkless little boy whose dreams are impossible and whose soulmate knows nothing but suffering, but her heart aches with love nevertheless. "To me, you're better than All Might," she says.
Izuku's smile is still uncertain, but he sniffs and wipes his face on his arm and looks up with newfound determination. "I am here," he says, his voice trembling just a bit. He looks down, clutches his tiny hands into tiny fists. "I am here," he mutters. "I am here. I can't be useless Deku. I am here. I am here. I am here."
This isn't when it started. In retrospect, Inko knows this. She will look back on this moment and realize that even then, she knew. She knew that her son felt rejected and powerless, that his dream was hopeless, that one day the world would grind his face into the dirt and make him taste the bitter truth: He cannot be a hero and he cannot save anyone, not even his tortured, beleaguered, downtrodden soulmate. In the future, she will realize that some part of her always knew this. But in the moment, her heart breaks, because this is the first time that she realizes it consciously, with a clarity and an undeniable weight that makes her bite her tongue until she tastes blood. Izuku is here, she thinks, and the world does not care.
Over the years, Izuku's always-wounded soulmate fades into the background. It isn't that Inko forgets, per se; it's hard to forget when Izuku intermittently emerges from his room for breakfast with ugly, knotted scars peeking out from beneath the neck of his shirt, or comes home from school with hideous gash marks down his arm, or breaks off halfway through a sentence to gasp or hiss in pain and clutch at some part of his body. So Inko doesn't forget, really. But it happens so often, and the only things that ever change are the details--this type of wound, that part of the body--and Inko can only panic and fret so many times before the sharp edge of worry becomes blunted. Besides, she has other things to worry about, more pressing problems that she actually has some hope of addressing. Like the fact that Izuku still can't make friends.
One year of elementary school, two years, three, and no matter how his classmates change, Izuku can't make friends. Perhaps there's no helping it. Izuku is hardly a common child--what with his constant soulmate injuries, his quirklessness, even his propensity to mutter at random occasions, "I can't be useless Deku, I am here, I am here"--and Inko knows full well that children are not always kind to those who are different. But it still hurts her to know that the closest thing Izuku has to a friend is the ever-vitriolic, ever-sneering Kacchan. Part of her still can't believe it when she hears Izuku still call him "Kacchan."
But still, Izuku gets by. What he lacks in friends, he makes up for in heroes. He watches news reports avidly, memorizing hero factoids by the dozens and talking about heroes like he knows them personally. He plays by himself, All Might figurines swooping in to save toy innocent victims. And she reminds him sometimes--as gently as she can, her heart aching all the while--that he'll never be able to become a hero, but it never seems to sink in.
Izuku is a smart boy. Surely he knows by now that you can't be a hero without some kind of useful quirk. Heroes have superstrength, or can create firestorms, or can run a hundred meters in a heartbeat. Heroes can heal people or lift fallen boulders the size of elephants or hear human heartbeats beneath tons of wreckage. Surely Izuku realizes that he can do nothing like this, that he'll never be able to do anything like this. But every time Inko tells him this--"You can't be a hero without a quirk, Izuku"--he just looks at her with damp eyes, then smiles, a bit pained, and replies, "I need to be a hero, Mom. I need to save my soulmate."
It isn't that Inko forgets, because she doesn't. She never forgets about Izuku's soulmate. But by now, she knows how Izuku's soulmate injuries work. They're terrible, they're awful, they're tragic, but by this point, they're routine. Mundane. Izuku's soulmate gets hurt; Izuku's soulmate gets healed. That's all there is to it, and if Izuku's body constantly bears the signs of his soulmate's wounds, well, at least Inko knows that they won't become scars. So she stops worrying about Izuku's soulmate injuries, stops worrying about his soulmate, stops worrying about him.
She's such a fool.
It happens while Izuku is sitting at the table after dinner. He's finishing his homework, copying newly learned kanji in his awkward, still-childlike scrawl. The only unusual thing about the situation is that he still has homework to do; normally he'd have finished it before dinner, but there had been an All Might special on TV in the afternoon, and Inko knows where Izuku's priorities lie. Still, he's a good son, earnest and hard-working, and so now he makes up for his afternoon of wide-eyed worship at the altar of All Might by studiously scribbling away at his assignment.
He's doing his homework, and Inko is washing the dinner dishes and humming idly beneath her breath, and it's a perfectly normal scene--until Izuku inhales sharply, a shocked, pained gasp.
Inko hears him and turns around, one soapy rice bowl in hand. Izuku is bent over on himself, clutching at his left side, his face twisted into a grimace of pain. "Izuku?" she asks, worry making her voice pitch high.
"I'm fine," he says. His voice is taut and tense, the words forced out through gritted teeth. Then he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and straightens. "I'm fine," he repeats. The pain is gone from his voice, now.
"Another one?" Inko asks sympathetically.
Izuku nods. He's still holding his left side, his palm pressed down on his ribcage.
"Well, it'll go away," Inko says blithely. "They always do."
"Yeah," Izuku says, but he's frowning. He rubs his side as though trying to massage away some strange phantom pain.
Inko turns her attention back to the dishes, and she doesn't think of it again, doesn't even wonder if she should think of it, and it's not that she forgets, because she never forgets, but--
But the next morning, as Inko is frying an egg for Izuku's breakfast, there's a strange sound coming from Izuku's room. It sounds a bit like his occasional self-assuring mumblings, I am Izuku I can't be Deku I am Izuku and I am here I am here I am here, but different, as though his voice is emerging from a dying animal. Inko pauses, turns and looks in confusion toward his bedroom. "Izuku?" she calls out. "Izuku, are you all right?"
There's no response. Inko finishes frying the egg and slides it onto a plate. She sets Izuku's breakfast out on the table--a bowl of rice, a fried egg, a few wieners cut octopus-style, a little sprig of grapes, and a cup of milk.
Izuku still doesn't show.
Frowning, Inko peers down the hall toward Izuku's room. "Izuku?" she calls. "Breakfast is ready! If you don't hurry, you'll be late!"
She returns to the kitchen and pours herself a cup of tea. She's just taking her first sip when she hears Izuku's footsteps, slow and trudging. "Good morning, sleepyhead," she says, turning to face him with a smile.
And then she freezes, because something's wrong.
Izuku's face is pale and bloodless, wan with exhaustion. His downcast eyes are bloodshot. His hair is always wild, but now it's a complete mess, tousled with something much less restful than sleep. But worst of all is the way he stands there, his arms dangling limply by his sides, his shoulders slumped, his expression utterly lost. Defeated.
"Izuku," Inko whispers. "Izuku, what's wrong?"
Slowly, he raises his eyes. They're utterly empty. "Mom," he whispers, and his voice is hoarse, almost shattered. "It--it hasn't gone away."
Inko blinks at him. Her brow furrows in confusion. "What hasn't gone away?" she asks.
He swallows. "Mom," and now his voice is distraught, "Mom," and he lifts the hem of his shirt.
The teacup slips from Inko's grasp and shatters on the floor, but she doesn't care, doesn't even notice. She's gone numb; she can't feel her hands. Her vision swims drunkenly and goes gray around the edges, and there's nothing but a faint buzzing in her head.
The entire left side of Izuku's torso is scarred and pitted, the aftermath of a war zone. There's a crater almost the size of his fist halfway down his ribcage; the scar tissue ripples out like rays from the sun, reaching all the way up to his collarbone and all the way down to his hip. It's gruesome and nauseating and lurid and terrible, so terrible--
No, Inko thinks. No.
"Mom," Izuku croaks. "It's been here since last night. It should be gone by now. They're always gone by now. They're always--"
His voice cracks. Inko covers her mouth with both hands. She's trembling--her shoulders, her arms, her knees knocking together, her entire body shaking violently. She stares at him. Her head spins. "Izuku," she whispers.
"Mom," and Izuku's voice is shaking, too, and his body shuddering, and his eyes welling with tears, "Mom, my soulmate--is my soulmate--"
He doesn't finish the sentence.
"Oh, Izuku," she whispers.
He crumples on himself, burying his face in his clenched hands, dropping to his knees on the cold kitchen floor. Inko collapses with him, wrapping her arms around his too-slender shoulders, and she clings to him with all the strength in her body and buries her face in his hair and weeps.
Izuku is nine years old, and his soulmate is almost certainly dead.
Izuku cries himself to sleep, and Inko carries him to bed even though he's too big for it by now. She gazes down on that perfect, pitiful face and strokes the hair out of his eyes. The only reason she's not still crying is because she's already cried herself completely dry of tears.
She stares at him for a long, long time, and then she leaves his bedroom and goes to hers. It's too early in the day, it's the middle of the workday in America, but she makes the phone call anyway.
It rings too many times before Hisashi finally picks up. "Hello?" he says in English, audibly distracted.
Inko swallows. "Hisashi," she whispers.
A pause. "Hello?" he says again, this time in Japanese. "Inko?" Now he's paying full attention. "Inko, what's wrong?"
"Hisashi," she repeats, her voice raw, and then she claps a hand over her mouth, biting back another sob.
"Inko?" There are sounds in the background; Hisashi's getting up. "Inko, what's wrong? Are you okay? Is Izuku okay? Inko!"
"Izuku's soulmate," Inko chokes out. "Hisashi. Izuku's soulmate is dead."
She's been thinking it for the past three hours, ever since Izuku pulled up his shirt to reveal the grotesque scar, but this is the first time she's said it aloud. It makes her swoon and stagger, plunges like a dagger straight through her heart. She's been thinking it for hours, but now it's real.
Izuku's soulmate is dead.
"Inko," Hisashi says, barely breathing her name. "You can't know that. He's had soulmate injuries before--"
"This one isn't going away, Hisashi," Inko interrupts, and normally she wouldn't but she knows it, she knows it, and she has to make Hisashi understand, "and you haven't seen it, it's terrible, it's so terrible, and it isn't going away, Hisashi, they always heal but this one isn't--"
"And it's on his chest, Hisashi, I don't know how anyone could survive that, I don't, I don't--"
Inko breaks off and realizes, belatedly, that she's desperately gasping for air. Hyperventilating. She sucks in air, but her head still spins.
She presses a hand to her nose and mouth, closes her eyes, focuses on breathing normally. Her hand is trembling so hard that it's a miracle she hasn't dropped the phone yet.
"We don't know anything yet, Inko," Hisashi says, his voice soft but steely. "Okay? Maybe his soulmate got it healed normally this time." Normally, meaning healed but leaving a scar. Healed just enough to survive. "Maybe it's bad enough that it's taking longer to heal." Even powerful healing quirks have limits, after all. Some wounds are survivable but can't be healed all at once. "Maybe it's worse than it looks. You aren't a doctor, Inko, and neither am I, we can't know for sure how bad the actual injury was." Maybe it wasn't even a lethal injury at all. "So let's not panic yet, okay? We don't know anything yet."
Inko's head bobs up and down, a bit frantic. Hisashi can't see her, but she keeps nodding. "You're right," she says, "you're right," and it feels silly to cling to such pitiful straws, but she needs some kind of hope right now, any kind of hope, because Izuku has gone through so much, suffered so much, been denied and stripped of so many things, and surely the universe wouldn't be so cruel as to take even his soulmate away from him, surely, surely--
"I'll come home," Hisashi says. "I'll buy a plane ticket for tomorrow, and if the soulmate scar hasn't gone away by then, I'll come home. We can go see a doctor, and we'll try to figure out how bad the injury actually was. Okay? Don't panic until we know for sure."
"Right," Inko says, "right."
"You need to stay strong, Inko," Hisashi says. "Izuku needs you."
Inko's eyes widen, and then she lifts her chin and her back goes ramrod-straight. "Right," she says, stronger this time. "Come home soon, Hisashi."
"I'll see you in two days," he promises. "Take care of Izuku."
"I will," she promises, and then she hangs up and dials Izuku's pediatrician.
Inko keeps Izuku out of school that day. He's wearing an All Might blanket around his shoulders like a cape, and it has the added benefit of draping completely over his entire body; there's no way to see the soulmate scar.
(Soulmate injury, Inko corrects herself, we don't know that it'll be a scar--)
She calls him in sick to school and is vague with the office when they ask why. She calls herself in sick to work and gives them exactly the same amount of explanation. She turns on the TV and plays Izuku's favorite, a three-hour-long special documenting All Might's career from his entry into the world of pro heroes to his ascendancy as the Symbol of Peace. Izuku won't eat anything, but she lets him drink soda, which she normally only allows on the weekends. She can barely bring herself to eat, either, so she sits with him instead, not wanting to leave his side. For dinner, she makes hayashi rice with a salad on the side, and she spends more time urging him to eat than either of them actually spend eating.
When Izuku goes to bed, the soulmate scar across his chest and side has not healed, has not vanished, has not faded or shrunk by even a centimeter. Nor has it been joined by a companion, no fellow injury to give sign that Izuku's soulmate is alive to be hurt again. Inko leans against the wall in the hallway outside his room, staring up at the ceiling with tears in her eyes, and bitterly accepts that this is it.
She calls Hisashi. It's six in the morning for him. "It's not going away," she says.
He doesn't need to ask what she means. "I have the first flight out," he says. "Just after ten in the morning. I'll head to the airport in an hour or so. I'm scheduled to land at about 2:30 in the afternoon. Tomorrow, for you."
"Hisashi," she says. "What do we do?"
For a long, long time, he says nothing. "We pray," he says at last, his voice grim. He sounds like a man going to war. "We take care of him, and we pray."
They take Izuku to a specialist, a doctor who specializes in soulmate injuries and soulmate scars. The man takes one look at Izuku and leans back in his chair. "Well, I can't say for certain without seeing the actual injury, but from the soulmate scar, it sure looks fatal," he says.
The doctor does not hedge his words. Izuku does not cry.
For the next twenty-four hours, Izuku looks absolutely shattered. He gazes vacantly into empty space, his eyes fixed on something far, far in the distance. He is quiet, voiceless, saying nothing, even his footsteps making no sound. Half the time, he doesn't even react when Inko says his name.
That evening, after he's gone to bed, Inko and Hisashi sit at the table, nursing cups of tea that neither of them drink.
"He doesn't deserve this," Inko says at last. She chokes on the words; they're bitter and acidic in her mouth. "After everything he's had to deal with, Izuku doesn't deserve this."
Hisashi is quiet. Instead he rubs the scar on his left arm, almost absent-mindedly.
Inko has a matching scar on her own arm.
"He can still be happy," Hisashi says at last. "Even if his soulmate is gone. He can still be happy. He can find a new dream."
"He still hasn't let go of his old dream," Inko mumbles, because even though Izuku doesn't say it with the same frequency as he once did, she knows that he still dreams of being a hero. Quirkless and powerless though he is, he still dreams a being a hero. But so much of that was tied up in being someone who could help people, someone who could rescue people. Someone who could rescue his soulmate. Now that he has no more soulmate to rescue, what dream is he supposed to cling to? What dream is he supposed to pursue?
Izuku hardly looks any better the next morning, so Inko and Hisashi agree, after sharing a significant glance and some silent communication, to let him stay home from school again. "Just for today," Hisashi murmurs as Izuku fiddles with his chopsticks and doesn't eat breakfast. "We can't let him retreat from the world."
What does the world have to offer him? Inko thinks spitefully, but she knows that Hisashi's right. "Just for today," she agrees, more reluctant than she would like to admit.
She wants to hide Izuku from the world. The world has been nothing but cruel to him, and she wants to hide him away, protect him, keep him from becoming victim to any more of the world's capricious, cold-hearted whims. But she can't. She knows she can't.
Just for today, she tells herself.
Izuku wanders around the apartment aimlessly. He slips a hand beneath his shirt sometimes, as though to touch the tortured skin, as though in hopes that the scar might have disappeared. He lies in his bed and stares at the All Might posters covering his walls. He comes into the kitchen long enough to get himself a glass of juice, which he does not drink. He turns on the TV and watches news reports of various heroes saving the day.
Inko spends the entire day puttering around in his vicinity, trying to make herself innocuous by carrying cleaning supplies or freshly folded laundry. She's never felt so helpless in her life. Even Hisashi seems at a loss, and this is a man who has the nerve and decisiveness to take a job transfer to America despite knowing almost no English. They are completely out of her depth, and as the minutes drag by, Inko wonders, again and again, Why isn't a parent's love enough to save a child?
But maybe she should have realized before now that she can't save Izuku from the world. She never could. It was just that, in all her blind maternal arrogance, she'd never accepted it when the universe had told her so.
It's late in the afternoon when Izuku finally speaks. "All Might is strong," he mumbles.
Inko instinctively whirls toward him. Izuku is sitting on the floor, hunched up, his arms wrapped around his bent knees, staring with wide eyes at the TV. Top Ten Hero Rescues of the Month, reads the banner in the corner of the screen. In all his pixel glory, All Might lifts a car, laughing his huge, explosive laugh. "Why, you ask?" he booms. "Because--"
"I am here," Izuku whispers with him.
Inko swallows. "Izuku," she says. Her voice emerges hoarse.
"All Might is strong," he repeats. He doesn't look at her; he continues to stare at the screen, unblinking. His fingers tighten on themselves. "I bet he's strong enough to save his own soulmate."
The screen flashes to a different video clip. This time, All Might lunges over four lanes of traffic to land a clobbering punch on a nameless villain's rubbery cheek. His bangs whip in the air and his jaw is clenched, but he's still baring his teeth in a smile.
"I want to be as strong as All Might," Izuku says.
A lump builds in Inko's throat. She wipes the tears away before he can see them. "You know there are different types of strength, right, Izuku?" she asks, trying to keep the desperation from her voice.
Izuku makes a vague noise that might be assent. But then his eyebrows knit together. "I wonder how strong All Might is," he mutters, more to himself than to her. He stares at the screen a few moments longer, and then he slowly untangles himself, pushes himself awkwardly to his feet, and wanders off.
Inko watches him go, feeling utterly useless. "Let him be," Hisashi says. She's debating whether or not to follow that recommendation when Izuku reappears. He's holding one of his spare school notebooks, the one she's seen him doodle in sometimes. She tries not to peek--she wants to respect Izuku's privacy as much as she can--but there have been times when she's caught glimpses of childlike drawings of superhero uniforms.
Izuku plops himself back down in front of the TV. By this time, it's showing the #1 Hero Rescue of the Month. Of course, the #1 Hero Rescue of the Month is also All Might. He leaps into the air to free half a dozen people who dangle upside-down in the air, held captive by a creepily spider-like villain. All Might blasts through the cocoons of silk with a ferocious roar, but he still manages to catch each and every victim without leaving the slightest mark, not even a bruise. If she were to think about it more deeply, Inko might consider it respectable, even remarkable. Their soulmates will never know the kind of danger they were in.
Izuku stares at the TV, his brow scrunched and his eyes narrowed. He picks at the eraser of his pencil with torn fingernails. "I bet he's strong enough to save his soulmate," he repeats, so soft that Inko can barely hear it, and then he starts scribbling.
The fact of the matter is, no one knows who All Might's soulmate is.
Inko can recall, very vaguely, the flurry of rumors that surrounded All Might in the immediate wake of his explosive arrival on the pro hero scene. Newspapers published speculative columns in their opinion sections; interviewers shoved microphones in his face and breathlessly asked probing, intrusive questions; the gossipmongers whispered furiously to each other, and to anyone else who would listen, at the train station and between cubicles and in the grocery store checkout line. All Might himself never breathed a word about who his soulmate might be, and soon enough, everyone caught on: He was protecting his soulmate. Of course, any villain who aimed to bring down the Number One Hero would nefariously target his soulmate, his one weakness. The only way to keep All Might's soulmate safe--and by extension All Might, and by extension everyone who looked up to All Might for hope, for rescue, for salvation--the only way to keep any of them safe was if no one knew who All Might's soulmate was at all.
By the time Izuku was born, all of the rumors and questions and theorizing had essentially vanished, and it has remained that way since. Oh, people still whisper and wonder amongst themselves, but they respect All Might's privacy and his soulmate's safety; reporters don't ask, journalists don't speculate, the public doesn't pry. Izuku has probably never even heard anyone say a single word about All Might's soulmate.
And that makes it even worse. Because when Izuku says wistfully, "I bet he's strong enough to save his soulmate," it isn't Izuku regurgitating something he's heard in passing; it isn't Izuku repeating something he has no independent conception of. No, this is Izuku realizing, on his own, that All Might has a soulmate who is protected and safe. This is Izuku realizing, with a child's bruisingly, agonizingly clear-eyed understanding of the world he lives in, that this is just one more way he is inferior, that this is just one more way he falls far short of the example set by his idol.
All Might is strong enough to save his own soulmate. No wonder Izuku wants to be like him.
The notebook becomes Izuku's refuge.
Inko and Hisashi ultimately keep Izuku out of school for the rest of the week; they have a letter from the soulmate scar specialist to excuse his absence. Izuku spends his suddenly free time sitting in front of the TV, his notebook open in his lap, watching the news or special reports or interviews or documentaries, anything that features heroes. He watches intently, never blinking, never tearing his eyes away, and anytime All Might shows up on the screen, he leans forward, his full attention on the TV. Then, whenever the show cuts to a commercial break, Izuku hurriedly starts scribbling in his notebook, although what he could possibly be writing, Inko isn't sure.
"It's a coping mechanism," the therapist says. Her name is Ajimi Shinri, and on the recommendation of the soulmate scar specialist, Inko and Hisashi took Izuku to see her. After half an hour of talking with Izuku in private, Ajimi-sensei seems to feel that she understands every nook and cranny of Izuku's psyche, and Inko is immediately suspicious. Still, Ajimi-sensei certainly sounds like she knows what she's talking about. "He's subsumating his grief at losing his soulmate--his own inability to save his soulmate--into his admiration for heroes. It will help him come to terms with his loss. Let him have his notebooks. Children are flexible and adaptive; Izuku-kun will recover soon enough."
It sounds too easy to be true, but Inko isn't the professional. So Izuku has his notebook, and he scrawls in it at all hours of the day and night. Even after Hisashi goes back to America and Izuku goes back to school, the notebook remains a fixture, as though Izuku is confessing all his fears and pains and insecurities and woes to the silent, unjudging eyes of paper and ink.
Eventually, Inko gives in to her own anxieties and peeks in the notebook while Izuku is at school. But what she finds there answers no questions and provides neither solace nor understanding. The pages are crammed full of sketches and timelines and, most of all, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of notes, almost entirely about All Might--descriptions of changes to his hero costume, careful calculations about how fast he can run and how high he can jump and how hard he can punch, analyses of how he fought and ultimately defeated this or that villain. It's all quite childish, of course, some words written in kana because Izuku hasn't yet studied the kanji, mathematical-looking arcs and arrows anotated with question marks where Izuku hasn't yet learned the necessary algebra. Still, it's a clear window into the mind of a boy who is obsessed with heroes--the Number One Hero in particular.
Inko just wishes she knew what it all means.
Aldera Junior High School is no kinder than Ryuusan Elementary had been. Inko learns this on Izuku's first day of middle school, when he's sent home for refusing to change for gym class.
"I didn't want to change in front of everyone else," Izuku mutters sullenly, staring at the floor. His hand is clenched into a fist over his ribcage, hovering above the impact crater that took his soulmate's life. Inko hasn't seen it in over a year, maybe two, but she knows it's still there.
She spoke to Izuku's homeroom teacher before the school year even started, explaining Izuku's quirklessness and his soulmate scar. Apparently, the woman hadn't gotten the message. "I'll go talk to your homeroom teacher again," Inko promises, and she goes over that very afternoon, waiting until school lets out and then walking straight into the classroom.
Hijou-sensei receives her quite politely, listening without argument as Inko reiterates that Izuku's soulmate is dead and that Izuku carries the proof of that mortal wound on his chest and he doesn't want to have to show it to other students when he changes for gym class, and can't anything be done to let him change in privacy? Then Hijou-sensei, cold as ice and unyielding as steel, says, "I'm sorry, Midoriya-san, but we can't give your son special treatment. He'll have to change with the rest of the boys." There is not a single speck of sympathy in her voice, not a fleck of warmth in her eyes.
Inko promptly goes to the principal's office and bullies her way into a meeting with him. She then makes her case, hotly punctuating her words with a few stern jabs at his desk. He doesn't flinch or twitch or even blink. "I'm sorry, Midoriya-san," he says, not apologetic in the slightest, "but I trust my teachers to manage their classrooms as they seem fit. Other students have soulmate scars, too. They don't get special treatment. I promise you, no one will even notice. Besides, Izuku-kun needs to come to grips with the fact that he's stuck with that soulmate scar for the rest of his life."
Inko glares at him, her jaw clenched, angry tears welling up in her eyes. How dare you, she thinks, with more vitriol than she'd ever thought herself capable of, how dare you, because no one knows better than Izuku what his soulmate scar means, no one understands better, and how dare this man speak so lightly about the death of Izuku's soulmate, someone who'd spent years upon years suffering in agony before finally, finally succumbing, and how dare this man act like Izuku doesn't understand, how dare he--
But the principal's face is shuttered and cold, and suddenly, with a bone-deep chill, Inko realizes that there's no point. This man doesn't understand, will never understand, doesn't want to understand. No one at this school does. And there's nothing Inko can do to change that.
So she stalks out of the office, slams the door behind her, and goes home. She makes spaghetti carbonara for dinner, with some salad and some corn soup on the side, and as Izuku slowly twirls a strand of spaghetti around his fork, she says to him, as gently as she can, that she talked to his homeroom teacher and the principal both and neither one budged. "I'm sorry, Izuku," she says. "You're going to have to change in front of the other boys."
Izuku stares at his plate of spaghetti. He eats another bite. He doesn't look up at her.
"Is it still the same, Izuku?" she asks at last, timid. "It hasn't healed?"
"It's never healing, Mom," Izuku says, frightfully blunt, his expression a mask. "My soulmate is dead."
The next day, Izuku changes for gym class with the rest of the boys. After school, Inko receives a phone call from the school. "Midoriya-san," a voice says, downright meek, "this is Hijou, Izuku-kun's homeroom teacher. If it isn't too much trouble, may I ask you to come in for a brief meeting this afternoon?"
Her heart sinks, but Inko just swallows and says, "Of course," as cheerful and pleasant as she can manage. When she walks into Izuku's classroom, he's sitting at his desk, his shoulders hunched and his eyes fixed on the desktop as though there's something fascinating etched into the empty wood.
"Midoriya-san," Hijou-sensei says, and she gets up from his seat so quickly that the chair scrapes across the linoleum floor. The teacher's too-round face is oddly shifty, her eyes skittering about every which way except at Inko. "Thank you for coming today. Please, have a seat."
Inko takes a seat next to Izuku's desk. He doesn't look up at her, just keeps staring at the desktop and fidgeting uncomfortably. Right now he's picking anxiously at his own fingernails.
"Midoriya-san," Hijou-sensei says, and then she takes a deep breath, as though steeling herself. "I owe you an apology."
Inko just looks at her.
"I've discussed with the gym teacher and with the principal," Hijou-sensei continues, subdued. "We had not realized the, er, extent of the soulmate scar."
"You should have, because I told you," Inko replies, and somehow she keeps her voice cool. Her hands tremble in her lap. "I told you exactly what my son has dealt with."
"I understand," Hijou-sensei hastily adds. "And I'm very sorry, Midoriya-san. We didn't want to give anyone special treatment, but after today, we've reconsidered the issue. We'll let him change into his gym uniform in private, and--"
After today? What had happened today? Had the other boys teased him? Bullied him? Or had they simply stared and whispered and backed away, sentencing a boy who was lonelier than any of them would ever be to even further solitude? "Perhaps you should have reconsidered before exposing my son to further trauma," Inko snarls.
"Trauma--oh, no, Midoriya-san, it was nothing like that," Hijou-sensei says, waving her hands in a flustered manner. "It was nothing of the sort, I promise, it's just that Deku-kun--"
And that's it, it's too much, too much--"His name is Izuku!" Inko snarls, rising up from her seat in a fury.
"Yes, of course!" Hijou-sensei yelps. "Izuku-kun!" She shrinks back in her chair. "It's just that the other students often call him Deku, you understand, so--"
You, Inko thinks savagely, are a failure of a teacher, but she says nothing. Instead she stands up from her seat. "So you'll allow Izuku to change in private from now on," she says.
"Good," Inko replies. "Have a good day, Sensei." She places a gentle hand on Izuku's shoulder. "Come on, Izuku," she says, with all the gentleness she can muster.
Together, they walk out of the classroom. Inko's hands are fists; she strides down the hallway with her chin held high. Izuku shuffles alongside her, his head lowered, gripping the straps of his backpack so tightly his knuckles are white. Neither of them speak.
They're halfway home when the flame of Inko's fury gutters out. She pulls up short. "I'm sorry, Izuku," she whispers. She doesn't even know what she's apologizing for--his teacher's unthinking inconsideration? His classmates' cruelty? The universe's heartlessness? Her own powerlessness?
All of it, maybe.
At last, Izuku raises his head. Five years ago, he would have been crying--attempting to smile through the tears, but crying nevertheless. Now, there are no tears, but the smile is just as brittle and false. "It's okay, Mom," he lies. "I'm used to it by now."
Izuku has taken to muttering. He's always done it to some degree, from the time when he was a little boy who repeated All Might's catchphrase like a mantra, I am here I am here I am here, but now it's evolved and expanded. Most of the time, his voice is too low and indistinct for Inko to hear anything but a vague blur of noise, but sometimes she can catch bits and pieces. "A new suit alloy that's 20% stronger," he'll mumble while watching reports of a hero rescue, or "steel melts at 1,370°C, but it starts going soft and losing its structural integrity at around 550°C," or "must be blind in his left eye, he always reacts a fraction of a second more slowly on that side, if the heroes use that to their advantage--"
Inko doesn't understand it, but she's learned to appreciate it. There's something about the way Izuku loses himself in thought, something about the way he mulls things over and picks through them, something about the way his eyes dart back and forth as though he's seeing something visible to no one else.
Maybe it's because he's off in his own little world. She likes to think that that world is a kinder world than this one.
Izuku is halfway through his second year of middle school when he says one day, apropos of nothing, "We're supposed to start thinking about high school."
"Are you?" Inko asks, ladling out cups of miso soup. "Take these to the table, please, dear. Well, where do you want to go for high school?"
He shrugs uncomfortably.
Inko hums idly as she beckons the rice spoon up off the counter. It floats through the air, herky-jerky, and settles in her palm. "Have you thought about it at all?" she asks.
He watches as she neatly spoons out rice. He shrugs again. "Kacchan wants to go to UA," he says. "He's aiming for their hero course."
Inko's instinctive reaction is a sigh of relief. Thank goodness, she thinks fervently. Izuku doesn't talk about the bullying much anymore, but she knows better than to think that the Bakugou boy might have become any less explosive over the years. If he ends up at UA, he won't end up at the same school as Izuku, which can only make Izuku's school life better. "And what do you think?" she asks mildly.
Izuku takes the rice bowls to the table and doesn't answer.
Dinner passes as it usually does, with Izuku's gaze fixed on the TV as the news recounts the hero activity of the day. He watches unblinkingly, muttering beneath his breath between bites. During commercials, Inko tries to draw him into conversation, chattering away at him about the report he's doing for his history class or the new park that's opened just a few blocks away or the newest hero on the pro scene. He replies, mostly, and even if he doesn't take any initiative in the conversation himself, the fact that he answers at all is enough. He doesn't bring up the topic of high school again. He probably hasn't thought too much about it. To be honest, Inko hasn't, either; she assumes he'll go to one of the handful of public high schools in the area. Still, she decides as she washes the dishes after dinner, she should start doing research. And maybe, the next time he brings it up, she'll float the idea of a private school. They can't afford it on their own, but Izuku's a smart kid; he might be able to get a scholarship.
The topic slips her mind after that, and she doesn't think about it again until her parent-teacher conference with Izuku's homeroom teacher, Kokkei-sensei. The man is all smiles, even as he says severely, "Midoriya-san, are you aware that your son wants to go to UA?"
Inko blinks. "I'm sorry?"
Kokkei-sensei places a sheet of paper in front of her. It's a form titled Future Plans, filled in with Izuku's familiar scrawl. Inko runs her eyes down the sheet, skimming over Izuku's answers, and then she stops.
What high schools are you considering applying to?
There are several blank lines below the question, but Izuku has written only one thing: UA (hero course).
"Oh," Inko says, numb.
"Midoriya-san, this simply isn't realistic," Kokkei-sensei says. "A quirkless boy like him hasn't got any hope of getting into UA, much less the hero course! You must impress upon him that he needs to stop dreaming and accept that he'll never be a hero. Understand?"
"Of course," Inko says.
"Ridiculous," Kokkei-sensei huffs. "He's bright enough, I don't see why he's so blind about this. If I've told him once, I've told him a hundred times, but will he listen? Of course not." He sets aside Izuku's form and pulls a blank copy from his desk. "Please ask Izuku-kun to fill out the form again, seriously this time. I don't want to see this kind of foolishness again."
"Of course," Inko repeats, but inside her heart is blazing with white-hot anger, directed at him, at herself, at the universe. No parent wants to hear someone else shatter her child's dream. No parent wants to acknowledge that her child's dream needs to be shattered.
She carries the feeling with her back home. It burbles inside her like the beef stew she makes for dinner. She holds off on broaching the subject until they've finished eating. "Izuku," she says, catching him just as he stands up to clear the plates, "I had a meeting with Kokkei-sensei today. He told me that you want to go to UA."
Izuku's head jerks up and he freezes. When he meets her gaze, his expression is a strange mix of confusion, fear, and defiance. She holds her tongue. At last, Izuku averts his eyes. "I want to be a hero," he mutters. He drags her dirty bowl closer to him, his fingertips just barely hooked over the rim. "I can do that if I go to UA."
Inko sighs. "Izuku, you don't have a quirk. You'll never have a quirk."
"Does a hero have to have a quirk?" he shoots back.
She stares at him blankly. "Are there any quirkless heroes?" she asks him. She means it rhetorically--of course there are no quirkless heroes--but as the words come out of her mouth, she realizes that she doesn't actually know the answer to that question. And if anyone does know, it's Izuku.
And then a bolt of fear strikes her heart, because what if there is a quirkless hero? What if there is a precedent, a role model, a path blazed by someone else that Izuku can follow?
He can't be a hero, Inko thinks, her mind utterly blank except for that one thought. He can't be a hero. It will kill him.
Izuku has suffered so much, lost so much. He can't be a hero, not when he can barely even save himself.
Izuku stares at the tabletop. His face is red. "No," he mumbles. "There's never been a quirkless hero."
Inko exhales. "Izuku," she says, speaking very slowly, trying to inject as much sympathy into her voice as she can. "You can't go to UA. You won't get in--they won't accept someone who's quirkless."
"Quirks aren't required for admission to their hero course," Izuku replies, but the fire is gone from his voice.
"I'm not talking about what their rules say, I'm talking about being realistic. Just because they say they're open to quirkless students doesn't mean they'll actually accept one. You need to start thinking about a high school you can actually go to." She fetches the worksheet Kokkei-sensei gave her and holds it out to him; he takes it only reluctantly. "Fill it out again, Izuku," she says firmly. "Think of what high school you might want to go to. Someplace that is not UA."
"I'm going to go to UA," he mutters.
"If I write something else, just to get Kokkei-sensei off my back, will you let me apply to UA?" he blurts.
And oh, that just wrings Inko's heart straight in two, because he looks up at her so hopefully as he says it, that pitiful hope so tempered by fear that it's a miracle there's anything but resignation in him. She closes her eyes. "All right," she says. "If you want to apply to UA, you can apply to UA. But you need to think about other schools, too." Someplace you can go when you get rejected by UA, she thinks, but she doesn't say it aloud. She doesn't need to; Izuku's stiff expression tells her that he hears it loud and clear.
Inko hears about it on the news.
She's just brought the laundry in from where it was drying on the balcony. She sets the pile of clothes down on the sofa and turns on the TV to the local news, and it plays commercials for gummy candy and light beer as she starts sorting out Izuku's shirts. She folds a neat stack of three by the time the commercials end.
"And now for the five o'clock news," the newscaster says somberly. "A villain attack was reported near Tatooin Shopping District. A villain with a sludge-like quirk possessed a teenage boy with an explosive quirk."
Inko is only listening with half an ear, so it takes a moment for the words explosive quirk to register. Then she looks up to the TV screen to see a grainy video, clearly taken from a distance, of a filthy mass of sludge, dark brown and sneering, and caught within it is a familiar middle school uniform and a head of spiky blond hair.
Katsuki-kun? Inko thinks, and then her heart seizes, because on the screen, a similarly uniform-clad shape breaks from the crowd and runs toward the slime monster, the mop of forest green hair and the terror-stricken wide green eyes only too recognizable, and it's lucky she's folding laundry because when Izuku's shirt slips from her suddenly powerless grip, it only flops harmlessly to the floor.
Inko leaps to her feet and stumbles to collapse on her knees in front of the TV, staring helplessly. On the screen, Izuku paws futilely at the sludge, screaming without voice. "Another boy attacked the villain in a failed attempt to free his friend," the reporter's voice states. "Fortunately, the number one hero, All Might, soon arrived on the scene. The villain was apprehended and the two boys were rescued without incident."
The video of Izuku clawing at slime cuts away to a clip of All Might, with his ever-present muscles and his ever-present smile, speaking into a microphone. Inko doesn't hear the words. "Izuku," she says numbly, and then she leaps to her feet. She's pulled on a sweater and grabbed her purse and is already in the genkan, hurriedly shoving her feet into her shoes, when rational thought finally catches up.
The news report was after it was all over. They didn't say what time the attack happened. There's no guarantee that Izuku is still near the Tatooin Shopping District. For all she knows, he's already on his way home, starry-eyed about his close brush with his idol All Might.
She fishes her cell phone out of her purse and, with shaking fingers, taps Izuku's number in her list of contacts. She listens, her heart beating in double time, as it rings, then goes to voicemail. "Izuku, it's me," she says. Her voice is shaking. "I heard about the villain attack. The news said you were okay, but--please, call me?"
She hangs up and dials Bakugou Mitsuki next. It rings only once. "Inko!" Mitsuki hollers. "Have you seen the news?"
"Yes, yes," Inko blurts. "I haven't been able to get a hold of Izuku--have you heard anything?"
"Idiot boys," Mitsuki says, her voice still too loud. "They're fine--All Might saved them, apparently. I haven't seen Izuku-kun, but Katsuki said he went home on his own."
Inko sags against the door, her eyes fluttering shut. "Thank goodness," she breathes. Then she collects herself. "And Katsuki-kun?"
"Oh, he's fine," Mitsuki replies, far too flippant for Inko's comfort. "A bit shaken up, but he'll be fine. This is a good lesson in what it takes to be a hero!"
That's not a lesson Izuku needs, Inko thinks, but she doesn't voice the thought. All that matters is that Izuku is okay.
He's okay, she tells herself. All Might saved him. He's okay.
After a few more pleasantries and reassurances, Inko hangs up the phone. She stands in the genkan for a minute longer, trying to steady her breathing. Then she dials Izuku again. She gets voicemail again. "Izuku, it's me again. I heard you're okay and that you're on your way home, but if you get this message before then, please call me. I just--I want to know if you're okay." She hangs up and stares at the phone screen until it goes black. Then she steps out of her shoes, sets her purse back down, and returns the sweater to her closet.
Without nothing else to do, Inko finishes folding the laundry. She puts Izuku's clothes away in his closet, then hers in her own. She starts the bath, and then she starts dinner. She frets all the while.
Izuku comes home just as it starts getting dark outside. His arrival is announced by the distinctive click of the front door. "I'm home," he announces to the empty hallway. His voice is strange, in some undefinable, indescipherable way.
"Izuku!" Inko drops the cooking chopsticks and darts out the kitchen. Izuku is sitting in the genkan, untying his shoes. "Izuku, are you all right?"
He pauses, and the he looks back over his shoulder. Inko freezes.
Izuku is her son, and she takes pride in the fact that she knows him. She understands him, his strengths and his weaknesses, his dreams and his fears. She hasn't always been the best mother, but she's done her best, and she knows Izuku, through and through.
But right now, he looks at her with an inscrutable expression on his face, and Inko has no idea, not the slightest clue, of what is going through his mind.
He blinks, and then he seems to snap out of some reverie. "Mom."
Inko inches closer. "I saw on the news," she says. "You were attacked by a villain? Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are--"
"I'm fine!" Izuku leaps to his feet, waving his hands before him in a gesture of denial. "I'm fine! It's okay! Nothing happened!"
Inko marches forward and takes him by the shoulders, looking him up and down. He goes stiff and straight, his eyes wide. "Mom?"
He really does seem okay. She nods firmly, and at last, the tension knotting her back eases a bit. "You're okay," she says, and then, belatedly, the tears come. "Oh, Izuku!" she cries, wrapping him up in a hug. "I was so scared! I saw on the news that there was a villain attack, and you were right there, and--"
"Mom! I'm fine!" Izuku tries to disentangle himself from her grip. "I'm fine! I'm really fine! I--"
"And you didn't call me, and you didn't pick up your phone, and I was so worried, Izuku, I was so worried--"
"I'm sorry!" Izuku yelps. "I'm sorry, I didn't even think about it, there was kind of a lot happening--"
"I know," Inko says, and she at last releases him. She wipes away a few errant tears. "But you're all right? You're really okay?"
"I'm fine," he assures her. "Kacchan, too."
"Kacchan," she echoes, and then she puffs herself up in indignation. "And you! I know Katsuki-kun was in trouble, but honestly! Running into danger like that! You're lucky there were heroes there, mister, because you almost got yourself killed!"
"Mom," he protests. "I--I couldn't do nothing."
Inko sighs and deflates. I know, she thinks, and that's why you still can't give up on being a hero. But she doesn't say that. "I'm just glad you're safe," she says instead, pressing a hand to his cheek. "Thank goodness All Might was there."
Izuku's eyes widen, as though he'd forgotten it until now. Then he blushes. "All Might saved me," he says, as though with newfound awe. "I met All Might." And then he looks at her, his eyes full of unadulterated wonder. "Mom. I met All Might."
The pure joy in him is infectious; Inko can't help but smile along. "How was it? What is he like?" she asks.
Izuku swallows. "All Might is," he says, and then his face does something strange, shuffling through a dozen different expressions in half a heartbeat. His eyes fall, then rise up to her face, then fall again. "He," Izuku starts again, but then he hesitates, bites his lip. His hand is pressed to his left side.
A seed of worry sprouts in Inko's stomach. "Izuku?"
Izuku looks up at her. For a moment, his expression is open, almost panicked; then it shutters, as though he's made a decision.
"All Might," he says, and then he closes his eyes for a moment, as though remembering. A note of reverence enters his voice, and he whispers, "All Might is amazing."
Izuku changes, after his encounter with the sludge villain.
Maybe two days after the attack, he comes home with a sheaf of typed-up papers. He puts half of them on the kitchen table in front of her and says, quite seriously, "Mom, can you start making this for me?"
She picks up the first sheet of paper. Food Menu, it reads at the top. Below are several sections--breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner--and in each section, a startingly specific list. Breakfast: 2 bowls rice, 1 cup miso soup, 2 eggs sunny side up (salt and pepper only), 1 piece fruit, 1 cup green tea. She stares at it for several seconds, baffled. Then she finally finds her voice. "What is this?"
"I'm applying to UA," Izuku says. His eyes dare her to contradict him. "But I need to work harder than anyone else to get in. Exponentially harder. It's not just studying. I need to be in shape, too. I need to exercise, I need to sleep enough, I need to eat right--"
"I see," Inko says, though to be honest, she's a bit taken aback. Of course Izuku had always said he would apply to UA, but she hadn't expected this. "Yes, of course, I can cook this for you."
"Every day," Izuku presses. "Every day until the entrance exam."
Inko draws back. "That's ten months away," she says.
"I know," Izuku replies.
They stare at each other, and at last, Inko folds. "Of course," she says. "I can cook your menu for you."
Izuku softens. "Thanks, Mom," he says with a smile. He turns to leave.
He stops in the doorway, looks back at her over his shoulder with a quizzical expression. "Yeah?"
Inko waves the paper at him, a bit helplessly. "I know you've been planning on applying to UA since forever," she says, "but this is--new. What inspired this?"
His eyes flicker away from hers. He bits his lip for a moment. His fingers dig into the doorjamb. "When All Might rescued me," he says, then pauses, as though debating what to say, or perhaps how much. "I told him I wanted to be a hero," he says at last. The words sound as though they're being dragged out of him. "I told him I was going to apply to UA. And he told me I should."
"Oh!" The sound escapes Inko's lips before she can hold it back, a tiny gasp of surprise. "All Might did?"
The idea is almost too stunning to believe. Of course she knew All Might had saved Izuku, but she hadn't expected anything like this. The Number One Hero, encouraging her quirkless son?
Oh, she realizes, and her buoyant heart sinks.
All Might was just being kind to a boy he'd rescued. He didn't actually know anything about Izuku--not his quirklessness, not his dead soulmate, nothing. Izuku had probably just blurted out something about wanting to be a hero, and All Might, hero and idol that he was, had just responded the way any hero and idol would--kind pleasantries, impersonal encouragement. She could imagine it only too easily--that white smile gleaming, that enormous fist flashing a thumbs up, that booming voice saying, "Do your best! I believe in you!"
He probably had told a thousand other starstruck, hero-drunk children the exact same thing.
There's a lump in her throat, but she doesn't dare try to speak past it. She just nods and stitches together some sort of smile.
Somehow, Izuku doesn't notice. "So I have to do it," he says, and when he looks up, there's a new set to his jaw, a new strength in his gaze. "I can't let All Might down. Not after--I can't."
At last, Inko finds her voice again. "Of course not," she says, and somehow she sounds normal, like she doesn't see that this is just one more way Izuku is setting himself up for heartbreak. "I'll do what I can to help, Izuku, so do your best."
She's no better than All Might. The only difference is that she knows Izuku--knows what he is capable of, what he isn't capable of--and she should know better than to set him up to fail.
It's a few weeks before Inko realizes that Izuku is keeping secrets.
To be fair, she's too dazzled by the transformation that seems to come over him. Overnight, he's become obsessed with working out and getting into shape. On his request, she takes him to a sporting goods store that weekend. He spends three hours there, constantly muttering and glancing down at a page of notes written in words so tiny it's a miracle he can even read them; by the end, Inko is cringing as she places her credit card down in the tray to pay for everything in the shopping cart. They go home with tens of thousands of yen worth of shorts, shirts, running shoes, weights, hand grips, jump ropes, and all other manner of exercise paraphernalia that Inko can't even begin to identify.
The next day, Izuku is gone when she wakes up, and she panics for a few minutes before finding the hastily scrawled note left on the kitchen table: Back by breakfast, it says. She frets, as is her nature, but she begins making breakfast (in accordance with the menu that's stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnet), and by the time she's placing it on the table, Izuku comes in the front door with an exhausted mumble that might be an attempt at saying I'm home. When he trudges into the kitchen, she nearly dropped the frying pan--his face is alarmingly red, sweat drips from his hair and soaks his shirt, and his hands tremble.
"Izuku!" she exclaims. "Where have you been?"
"Out," Izuku says, and he's breathless, still panting for air. "Exercising."
He comes home late, too, just as sweaty and fatigued. He has particularly long sessions two or three days a week, leaving before dawn, returning only for a quick shower and breakfast, going to school, and not coming home again until after dusk; the rest of the week, he's just as likely to be at home, doing pushups and situps in the living room, jumping rope in the hallway, squeezing his hand grips as he works on his math homework. He develops an enormous appetite to go with his new hellish training schedule, and though at first he can't force down everything his nutrition plan dictates, by the end of the second week he's regularly asking for seconds.
And to be honest, even Inko can see the results. Izuku has never been a particularly strong or well-built boy, at least when it comes to physique; he's always been on the short side, and maybe a little bit scrawny. But he's starting to put on muscle, and he can do more pushups before collapsing, and the dumbells grow larger and larger.
Inko is impressed despite herself, because it's one thing to dream, but it's another thing entirely to put in the hard work to make that dream become reality. Even if Izuku doesn't get into UA (and of course he won't, he can't possibly get into UA, not without a quirk), the effort alone is admirable, and it is surely a reflection on the kind of person he is, and a lesson that will stay with him for the rest of his life. She's so impressed that she can't help but ask him one day, "How did you figure all of this out?"
Izuku was scribbling in one of his notebooks over breakfast, but at her question, she freezes. He looks up at her slowly, almost jerkily. "What?" he says. He looks at her like she is the headlights and he is the deer.
"Well, your training schedule and your nutrition and everything," Inko says. "You've put so much thought and so much hard work into it. I just think it's so impressive that you've come up with this all on your own."
His eyes are still wide, the whites showing all around his irises, and a worm of suspicion starts crawling through Inko's gut. "Are you working alone?" she asks.
"Yes!" Izuku yelps. "Yes, of course! I don't have anyone helping me! I'm doing this on my own!" And then he laughs, too high-pitched. "I'm going to school now okay bye Mom!"
And he shoves seemingly half a bowl of rice into his mouth, snags his notebook, darts away from the kitchen table with a clatter, and flees the kitchen. A few seconds later, the front door slams. Inko is left behind to stare at the dirty plates, her heart racing too fast.
Someone is helping Izuku. Someone is trying to get Izuku into UA. Something thinks Izuku can get into UA.
She scours her mind for anyone who might be helping Izuku. A friend? A teacher? A fellow hero wannabe? She comes up blank. She can't recall anyone ever giving Izuku any sort of encouragement. If anything, he's only heard people beat him down and deny his dreams. You can't be a hero. You'll never be a hero. Give it up, you quirkless loser.
Well, except for All Might, if Izuku's recounting of the tale even remotely resembles reality. But Inko knows better than to imagine that the Number One Hero might be personally supervising Izuku's self-improvement project.
She tries to follow him one day, to see if he's exercising with anyone, but he takes off at a quick, loping pace, and she's lost him before she goes a block. At home, she tries a few more prodding and prying questions, but Izuku either answers so vaguely as to be useless or doesn't answer at all. Inko knows a lost cause when she sees one, so she resigns herself to placing everything in trust--trust that he isn't getting involved with anything dangerous, trust that whoever's helping him does have his best interests at heart. Trust that this will all lead Izuku to where he wants to get, or at least does not lead him astray.
So Inko cooks according to his nutrition plan and clears space in the living room for him to do his pushups and watches him, just watches. She has no choice but to trust the great unknown of the universe, even though it has only ever been cruel to her son.
The day of the UA entrance exam, Inko wants to hug Izuku. Instead, she cooks him a big, healthy breakfast, sees him out the door, and says, "Good luck, Izuku. Do your best."
She wishes she had better words than that to offer him.
"I'm off. See you later, Mom!" he calls out, and she waves and watches him until he vanishes out of sight. Then she promptly spends the entire day fretting. She keeps herself busy with housework and accomplishes nothing; the hours are a blur of anxiety. Eventually she gives up on being productive or distracting herself, and she instead sits herself down at the table with a cup of tea, which she turns in endless circles until it goes cold. When at last she hears the front door click open, she practically bolts from her seat.
"I'm home," Izuku mumbles to no one, and Inko freezes. His glum voice makes something inside of her splinter. Then Izuku walks inside, his head hanging low and his shoulders slumped in defeat, and Inko's heart sinks. That's when she realizes, for the first time, that somewhere deep down, she, too, had been hoping against hope.
Stupid. How stupid she'd been, to allow herself to harbor even the tiniest sliver of hope. Izuku wasn't hero material and wouldn't have been even if he did have a quirk. She'd known that Izuku couldn't possibly get into UA; why did she allow herself to hope otherwise? She shouldn't have even allowed him to apply. It would have been better for everyone if he had just applied to a normal high school. He would have resented her for denying him his dreams, but surely that was better than having those dreams crushed before his very eyes.
"Izuku?" she says softly. She doesn't want to ask him, doesn't want to make him say it. But she has to.
He needs to face up to reality. They both do.
Izuku stares at the floor, and then, painfully, he lifts his head and smiles. "It was no good," he says, then lets out a fractured laugh. "I guess I really am no good." His eyes dart downward. "I'm going to my room," he says, and he trudges off, each step unconscionably heavy.
"Izuku, " Inko whispers, but there's no reply. His bedroom door slams shut with the finality of defeat.
Izuku spends much of the next week in a daze. He goes through the motions--eating breakfast, doing his homework, even working out like he's been doing for the past year, lifting weights and doing pushups in the living room--but the light is gone from his eyes. The last time Inko saw him look shattered like this was immediately after his soulmate died.
Inko tries to offer words of comfort. "It's amazing that you even applied to UA," she tries, "it's so admirable that you never gave up on your dream," but it doesn't work. Nothing does; Izuku continues to float through his life like a ghost, barely there. "I'm sure All Might would be proud of your effort," Inko tries at last, but it backfires horribly--Izuku cringes as though she's slapped him, and she doesn't know why it was the wrong thing to say, but clearly it was. She doesn't mention All Might again.
The letter comes a week later. Inko fetches the mail the moment she hears it thunk into the mailbox, and there it is, a simple envelope sealed in red wax, emblazoned with the UA logo and addressed to Izuku. Her fingers itch to tear it open, or perhaps to tear it apart, but instead she scrambles to the living room. "Izuku!" she yelps. "Izuku!"
She topples through the doorway to see Izuku sitting on the sofa, doing bicep curls with an enormous weight. She holds the letter out to him, her hand trembling. "It's here," she says, "it's here!"
Izuku stares at her, at the letter in her hand. He sets down the weight, stands up, totters over to her, and takes the letter, almost gingerly. He stares at it for a long moment, and then he drifts to his bedroom and shuts the door behind him.
Inko paces anxiously in endless circles, glancing at his closed door every few seconds. His All Might nameplate hangs there innocently, betraying no secrets. There are faint sounds--Izuku mumbling, or perhaps a recording of someone else's voice--but it's too muffled and blurred to understand the words. Inko keeps pacing. Let this be the end, she prays, to whatever gods or whatever cold corner of the universe might be listening. Let this be the end of it.
That's not true. She doesn't want it to be the end; for Izuku's sake, she wants it to be a beginning, the beginning of a long and glorious dream come true. Somewhere deep down, deeper than the cynicism and resignation, is a tiny seed of hope. She doesn't want to give up on Izuku's dream. She can't, not until he has.
Still, her gut tells her that if this is any sort of beginning, it's only the beginning of the end.
At last, slowly, the door to Izuku's bedroom creaks open. Inko whirls around, clasping her hands together. Izuku's standing in the doorway, looking down at the floor. He glances up, almost timidly, and then he smiles--small at first, but broadening until it's an enormous, beaming grin. He doesn't need to say anything; his smile says enough.
Inko sniffs. Her heart swells; tears start welling up in her eyes. "Izuku," she whimpers, "Izuku!"
She pounces on him and hugs him tightly, and he hugs her back. For several minutes, there's nothing but hugging and crying and laughing. "You got in," Inko bawls, "you really did it, oh, Izuku!" It takes her longer to calm down than she'd like to admit.
It's incredible, unfathomable, unbelievable. Izuku got into UA. He was accepted. Into UA! Him, a quirkless boy, told by everyone that he could never be a hero--
I was wrong, Inko realizes, a flash of crystal clarity. I was wrong about you, Izuku.
Eventually they both calm down, and Izuku begins explaining, "I thought I failed the practical exam, because I didn't get any points, but it turns out there were rescue points--"
And he launches into a long, rambling explanation, gesticulating wildly, his eyes sparkling. Inko loses the thread about one sentence in, but it doesn't matter, none of it matters, because Izuku is happy. He was a quirkless boy whose heroic dreams were impossible, and now look at him, headed to the hero course at the best hero-training high school in the country. It's as if all the things that life has taken away from him, all the things the universe has denied him, are finally being laid down at his road-weary feet.
If only he could get his soulmate back, too, she thinks wistfully. The thought is like a bucket of water on her enthusiasm.
"Oh, Izuku," she says, sniffling and wiping away a few tears. "I'm--I'm so proud of you."
He beams widely, and when was the last time her son was this happy? She can't recall. Maybe he never has been this happy.
He can still be happy, she thinks, remembering what Hisashi had said so long ago. Even without a soulmate, he can still be happy. He can find a new dream. Except it isn't a new dream, is it? It's just a variation on his old dream. Maybe he can't save his soulmate, but he can save other people. Maybe he can save someone else's soulmate, save someone from suffering the same way he did.
Still, she lies awake that night, staring blindly at the dark ceiling overhead. He got into UA, she thinks numbly. He got into UA's hero course. He's going to become a hero. He's going to be a hero.
It's been Izuku's dream his entire life. She should be happy for him. She is happy for him, she is. But it's only one fragment of the complex storm of emotion inside her. She's thrilled, she's ecstatic, she's relieved. But she's also nervous, uncertain, afraid. She wonders, too, if Izuku really understands what it means.
"Being a hero won't bring your soulmate back, Izuku, " she whispers into the darkness.
He first wanted to be a hero because he wanted to rescue his soulmate. After his soulmate died, he clung to that dream even tighter, as though it were the only thing he had left. In some ways, it was the only thing he had. But even if he does become a hero, it's too late for his soulmate. The goal that drove him for so long, the purpose that inspired him to pursue this dream, is gone, and it's never coming back. Does he realize that? Will he be able to create a new purpose, a new reason, for being a hero? Or will he someday become a hero and realize that this dream, too, is empty?
Inko broaches the subject, delicately, at breakfast the next morning. Izuku is still uncharacteristically chipper, and she almost bites her tongue, but part of the job of being a parent is to address the painful questions. So as Izuku spreads jam on his toast, Inko says, "Izuku, can I ask you a question?"
He looks up, surprised.
"About you becoming a hero, " Inko clarifies.
She's hedging, and he can tell; his expression goes guarded and wary. "What?" he says, more challenge than question.
And maybe she deserves that; she knows full well that she has not supported him and his dreams the way a parent probably should. He's right to be cautious around her. But he needs to hear this. She has to tell him, she has to.
But she becomes tongue-tied, because she doesn't know what to say. She can feel it, bone-deep, soul-deep, on a level far deeper than words; she doesn't know how to express it. She hesitates, stammers, falls silent. Izuku just stares at her, perplexed.
Finally, Inko takes a deep breath. "I just want to know that you're sure about this," she says. "About becoming a hero."
Izuku's eyebrows are still quirked in confusion. "I'm not changing my mind," he says, but he still watches her like she's sprouted a second head.
Inko stared determinedly at her chopsticks, which rest neatly on her plate. Her hands are wringing below the tabletop, out of sight. "Izuku," she says quietly, "do you remember when you first started wanting to become a hero?"
He stares at her, uncomprehending. Then he lets out a bashful laugh, scratching the back of his head. "No, actually," he admits. "I feel like I've always wanted to be a hero."
Inko steels herself. The words are acid on her tongue; she forces them out anyway. "Do you remember when you got your first soulmate injury?"
Izuku flinches, recoiling almost. His expression twists, too swift and complicated for her to read. "No," he says, much more guarded now. "I don't."
His hand is on the left side of his chest, just below his heart.
"You were just a few hours old," Inko says. "You were in the nursery at the hospital, with all the other newborns. You didn't cry when you were born. You didn't even make a peep. And then you got a soulmate injury, right on your face. That was the first time you cried, and we couldn't do anything to make it better."
Izuku's body softens, just a little. He pulls back into himself, his eyes averting. He opens his mouth, but then he shuts it again, the words unspoken.
Inko wishes she knew what he'd been about to say.
"You understood what it meant," Inko says. "From a young age--too young. You knew that it meant your soulmate was suffering. And then, when you discovered heroes--"
"I wanted to become a hero to save my soulmate," Izuku says, finishing for her.
Inko nods. "The two have always been so tightly linked for you," she says, a bit sadly. "You wanted to become a hero to save people, but it was really because you wanted to save your soulmate." She swallows. "But that can't be the reason you become a hero now, Izuku. Not--not anymore. The motive that inspired your dreams as a little boy doesn't apply anymore. So why do you want to be a hero now? What is your purpose, Izuku?"
He's staring at her, his brow furrowed. He doesn't say anything.
Inko takes a deep, deep breath. "Izuku," she says, putting all the love and gentleness into her voice that she can. "I want you to be happy. If this is still your dream, I want you to pursue it. I just--I don't want you to do this only to discover that you have no purpose."
Izuku is still quiet. His gaze is fixed on the tabletop. For once he isn't mumbling; he's perfectly silent, perfectly still. But when he at last looks up at her, there's a strength in his expression--a determination and a strength that take her breath away.
She's never seen this in him before, never.
"Don't you understand, Mom?" he says. "I'm doing this for the same reason I always have. I'm doing this for my soulmate."
"Izuku, " Inko says helpless. "Izuku, your soulmate is--"
She falls silent. He levels her with a steady gaze. For a long, long moment, they just look at each other, Inko fidgeting uneasily, Izuku almost preternaturally calm.
"I know what you're thinking, Mom, " he says at last. He looks down at the table again, subdued. "You're thinking that me becoming a hero because of my soulmate is just a, a coping mechanism or something. You're thinking that I'm becoming a hero because of a reason that doesn't even exist anymore, and one day I'll realize that being a hero won't bring my soulmate back, and when that day comes, it will break me."
He puts it in terms that are much, much starker than Inko had even allowed herself to think. She flinches. "Izuku--"
"But you don't need to worry, " he says. "I know what happened to my soulmate. I've accepted what happened to my soulmate. And that just makes me want to be a hero even more."
He meets her gaze then, steady and unwavering. She swallows. "Are you sure, Izuku?" she whispers.
There are no shadows in his smile. "I'm okay, Mom, " Izuku says, gentle. "I'm okay."
She stares at her son, and suddenly, he isn't her little boy anymore. He's a young man, standing on the cusp of adulthood, self-assured and determined, with a vision and a path forward.
Somehow, in a place and a time unbeknownst to her, Izuku has grown strong, in more ways that she imagined possible.
"All right," Inko says, and she offers him a tremulous smile. "If you're sure."
"I'm sure," Izuku replies, and there isn't an iota of hesitation in him.
The odds are stacked so steeply against him, and he has already been through so much, suffered so much, lost so much. But for the first time in a long time--perhaps the first time in his life--Inko believes in him, in his ability to survive and overcome. It won't be easy. He will struggle and suffer, and perhaps he will fail. But suddenly she feels it within her, deep as the ocean and solid as the earth itself--a certainty, a faith, that no matter what happens, Izuku will be all right.
Oh, she thinks, this is what hope looks like.
Inko meets All Might and she knows.
The man is tall and gaunt, with sunken cheekbones and sunken, haunted eyes. He's all skin and bones and ill-fitted clothing and frazzled blond hair, and when he bows before her there is nothing but self-recrimination and guilt in his eyes.
She'd seen it on TV, of course, just like the rest of the world. It had seemed impossible that this frail shadow, this tortured wreck of a man, could be the strong, powerful, invincible Symbol of Peace. It still seems impossible now. But this is the very man, and he bows to her as though in saving everyone else, he has destroyed her world.
And then, in a flash, she realizes why.
The pieces slot together, click click click, like a jigsaw puzzle she hadn't even known she was constructing. All Might's years and years of being the Number One hero, of risking life and limb to save other people. All those injuries he suffered in the line of duty, only for him to show up at the next disaster scene completely unscathed. The terrible injury he'd suffered six years ago, the permanent damage it dealt him--the very reason he's this pitiful shell of a man today, a wound so terrible it couldn't be fully healed. The scars on his hands, oh, the scars that are just like Izuku's --
Oh, Inko realizes, Izuku's soulmate isn't dead, Izuku's soulmate is --and the dizzyling flood of emotion makes her want to weep from joy and horror and sorrow and pure unadulterated relief, because--
"All Might," she says politely, when the teachers stand to leave. "May I speak with you privately for a moment?"
He looks surprised, but he replies without hesitation, "Of course, Midoriya-san, " his voice grave, and while Aizawa-sensei and President Nezu see themselves out, Inko sits at the table with her hands clenched tightly around her coffee mug, her racing heart swelling almost to bursting.
The silence extends, pregnant and ponderous. At last, All Might coughs delicately into his hand. "May I ask what you wished to speak about, Midoriya-san?"
Inko takes a deep breath, steels herself, and looks up at him. "All Might, " she says, and it feels strange to call him that, to address him without any honorific--All Might-san, she could say, or All Might-sensei, but it's not right, none of it is right, but if she can't call him by his given name then she must call him by the name he has chosen for himself. "All Might, " she says, meeting his gaze with barely a quaver in her voice, "I know."
He blinks at her, uncomprehending. "Pardon?"
"I know, " she repeats. "I am Izuku's mother. I've watched him grow up, every single day of his life. I should have realized it earlier, but--well. I know now."
His expression is still blank and baffled. It isn't a front, she thinks; he truly doesn't understand what she's saying.
Inko takes a deep breath. "When Izuku was born, he didn't cry, " she says. "He didn't cry at all. The doctors said that some babies just don't cry that much. But even by those standards, Izuku was quiet. He didn't make a sound until a few hours after he was born, when he got a soulmate injury. I'd never seen a soulmate injury like that before--a huge cut on his forehead and a bruise over half his face. It was horrible." She closes her eyes, just for a moment. The memory wrenches her heart, even today. "He screamed when he got that soulmate injury. He screamed and he screamed and he screamed."
All Might's face twists into an expression of horror.
"He kept getting soulmate injuries, " Inko continues. "Bad injuries, horrible ones. And he got them again and again--once a week, or even more often. None of them scarred; his soulmate was always healed. But that didn't help, because Izuku still suffered, and he knew that his soulmate suffered. The other children teased him horribly. They said his soulmate hated him or that his soulmate was a bad person. That's why he first wanted to become a hero, you know. He knew that his soulmate was suffering, and he wanted to save his soulmate."
All Might swallows. His Adam's apple bobs in his throat.
"But his quirk didn't come in, " Inko says. "We figured out that he was quirkless. His friends started making fun of him for that, too. We all told him that he couldn't be a hero without a quirk. I told him that, too. He refused to listen to us, though. I think that's because being a hero was the only way he could imagine being able to save his soulmate one day."
All Might turns his face away.
"And then, " Inko presses on, "when he was nine years old, he got that soulmate injury. And it didn't go away like the others. It didn't heal. The doctors said that Izuku's soulmate was dead. Izuku was nine years old, and he'd spent his entire life knowing that his soulmate was constantly being injured, constantly hurting, constantly suffering, and the only way he got through it all was by thinking that one day, he'd become a hero and be able to save his soulmate. Except now his soulmate was dead."
"Midoriya-san, " All Might says, his voice strangled.
Inko still isn't done. "No quirk, " she says. "No soulmate. Of course, no friends. No one who really believed in him. Not even his own mother. And yet he still wanted to be a hero. Do you know why?"
Silent, All Might shakes his head.
"Because of you, All Might. Because of you. He saw someone he admired, someone who was good, someone who dedicated his life to saving other people, and he wanted to be like you. He wanted to save people." She pauses. "He wanted to save his soulmate, but he couldn't. So he decided instead that he'd save other people, so that no one would have to suffer like he did."
She squeezes her eyes shut because she can't bear to see All Might's reaction.
It's all because of you, she wants to say. She wants to shout it, scream it, light it on fire and turn the backdraft on him. All Might is the reason that Izuku is the person he is today. All Might is the reason Izuku's childhood was full of such suffering. All Might is the reason Izuku was teased and bullied and cast out. All Might is the reason his world shattered when he was only a child. All Might is the source of all of Izuku's agony and loneliness and heartbreak.
"It's because of you," she whispers. "Everything Izuku is, it's because of you. Everything he's suffered, all the pain, all the sadness. It's all been because of you."
Her words are like whips, like thorns, like barbs. All Might flinches with each one and accepts them like his just due.
But she knows, too, that this is only the half of it. Yes, All Might is the reason that Izuku is the person he is today. He is the reason Izuku suffered, and cried, and mourned. But he is also the reason Izuku strove to be a hero. He is the reason Izuku learned to care for the downtrodden and heartbroken. He is the reason Izuku learned to sharpen his wits and rely on himself and press on in the face of all adversity. He is the reason Izuku tries to defend those who cannot defend themselves and believes in his own power to create a better future, no matter how cruelly the world might scoff and sneer, no matter how many times the universe might cast him aside.
Inko loves her son fiercely, desperately, whole-heartedly, for all and everything that he is, and that boy--that young man--is the person he is today, brave and strong and true, because of All Might.
She has to pause to ponder this, to feel the enormity of it all. Maybe he knew all along, she realizes, feeling something akin to awe. Maybe he always knew, on some level, that you were his soulmate.
Inko closes her eyes, gathers her bearings, takes a deep breath. Then she looks at All Might, taking in his bowed, tortured form. He, too, had dedicated his life to saving people who could not save themselves. He, too, had suffered. He, too, had been alone.
Inko leans forward. "Everything Izuku is, it's all because of you," she says, with all the strength she has in her. "So you have to promise me one thing, All Might. Promise me that you'll take care of Izuku. Promise me you'll take care of my son."
All Might stares at her, his eyes black pits, his expression broken. Then he bows, so low and deep that his forehead brushes the tabletop. "I will, Midoriya-san, " he says, his voice a low rumble, full of emotion. "I can't promise I can keep him safe from everything. Not the way I am now." His voice hitches. "But I will do everything in my power. I will do everything to turn him into the type of hero who can save everyone."
Inko looks at him for a long, long moment. He still won't raise his head. It's as though he won't dare look her in the eye.
"Everyone," Inko echoes, her voice flat in her own ears.
"Everyone," All Might repeats, like an oath.
Inko reaches out and places one hand on his, pressed flat against the tabletop. He jerks upright, his eyes widening. His hand snatches away; her fingers tighten, refusing to let him go. He stares at their hands, then looks up to her face, his eyes darting back and forth as though desperately searching for meaning.
"Including you," she says softly, looking him straight in the eye. "Izuku wants to save the world, but his purpose in life has always been to save you. Let him."
All Might keeps staring at her, his expression dumbfounded. But then, out of nowhere, his gaunt face breaks into a smile. It isn't his patented Hero smile, broad and bright and a perfect mask; this one threatens to crumble at the edges. But it's the single most genuine thing Inko has ever seen, with a helpless fondness so sharp it aches.
"He already has," All Might says.