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under my skin

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The recruitment effort, if you could even call it that, went on for another hour or so. As Izuku predicted, the attempts to sway him to the villainous side failed miserably, and they grew more desperate and far-reaching with each minute, but not quite in the way he predicted.

When his back started aching from sitting on the stool, he moved to a more comfortable seat on the couch by the coffee table, this time with a plate of cake in front of him. It was the closest they’ve gotten to getting through to him thus far, but he chose to keep that thought to himself. “This is really yummy! How'd you know lemon meringue is my favorite?”

Don’t get him wrong; it was great cake, but not “leave your life behind and become a villain” levels of great. A+ for effort, though.

Before their frustrations could grow unmanageable, Kurogiri called for the recruitment effort to be put on pause for the night, giving them a chance to get dinner and some rest before tackling it again the next morning.

It wasn't long before the room was nearly empty as the villains filtered out to do… well, whatever it was that villains do in their spare time. He never really spent too much time wondering about that up until now. Sex and drugs? Gambling? Murder?

Oh god, were they out murdering someone?

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a bowl of fried rice being set on the table in front of him. He looked up to see both Magne and Toga beside him.

"Thank you," he said with a polite smile.

Toga plopped down on his left and grabbed his wrist before he could even reach for the spoon. "Can we paint your nails?" she asked with a childish glee.

"Excuse me?"

"Can we paint your nails?" She repeated without missing a beat. "Red nail polish would suit you!"

"I still say green is better," Magne countered as she sat on his other side.

"I don't have any green though," Toga said with a pout.

"I think I do, if I can find it."

Toga bounced excitedly in her seat, shaking Izuku's hand up and down with her. "Let's do it then!"

Izuku realized he never really gave them a proper go-ahead, but they seemed pretty keen on it, and he wasn't too opposed anyway. "Uhm, right now?" He asked.

"No, you should eat first. We're gonna be keeping an eye on you tonight, so we got plenty of time," Magne said, giving him a pat on the back. It occurred to him then just how physically affectionate many of the league members were. He realized with a start that he actually kind of liked it.

The three sat together on the couch as they ate. On either side of him, Toga and Magne chatted up a storm while Izuku silently listened to their chatter. He was surprised to learn that, in spite of how close they appeared to be, they have only known each other a little over a month when Toga first joined. Magne, on the other hand, had worked with the League on and off for years now.

He was hoping to get some sort of relevant intel on the villains, that maybe one or the other would slip up and mention something that could be of use, but so far all he's learned was where Dabi kept his stash of weed, that Kurogiri definitely had eyes for Compress, and that one time Twice nearly knocked himself unconscious when he tried to sing all the different parts of Bohemian Rhapsody and hardly took a single breath for the full six minutes. Somehow, very little of that information was surprising, but it was entertaining enough to hold his attention. He'd always imagined groups like this to be a sort of free-for-all, where each member only cared for themselves. As it were, they all were getting along almost as well as his own friends did, in their own weird way. He only wondered…

"What do you two think of Tomura?" He asked as their conversation lulled for a moment.

The question must have taken them aback, considering how quiet he'd been up until now, but Magne went ahead and answered, "He's a bit childish sometimes. Threw a hissy fit when Toga and Dabi joined. Remember that?"

The question was directed at Toga, and the two chuckled at the memory. Izuku distinctly recalled Tomura mentioned something about the two nearly killing each other at one point, and it dawned on him that the women were most likely talking about the same incident. "Hissy fit" sounded like an understatement, but it was clear the villains lived in a very different world with some very different standards.

Magne went on, "But he's been different lately. More collected, I guess? And definitely more contemplative. I'm not sure if he's making more of an effort to think things through before he does something, or if he's just too conflicted to know what to do anymore."

That much Izuku could see very easily. Memories from the attack on the USJ were still fresh in his mind. He recalled being surprised a man like Tomura was in charge of the whole operation to begin with—not for a lack of strength, but for a lack of organization and composure. But there was a sort of dissonance between that memory and the Tomura he was coming to know now.

"He's definitely still fussy, though," Toga added. "I think he and Spinner are still arguing over whether or not Spinner cheated during their last match in Mario Kart."

Izuku couldn't help the chuckle at that. It certainly sounded like the sort of thing Tomura would do. "When did he start acting different?" He asked.

"About a week or two ago, maybe," Magne replied, and the answer only brought with it a dozen more questions. She must have noticed his confusion as she asked, "Why?"

He gestured up to his neck, where the soulmark no doubt still lingered, drawing far too much attention to itself.

The new context didn't seem to confuse them quite as much as it did him. Magne merely stood up with a sigh and began piling up the empty bowls and dirty utensils. "Come on," she said to him and walked off before he could even question it.

He and Toga both trailed behind her, making a quick detour to place the dirty dishes in kitchen, and ended up in a bedroom, with two beds on opposite sides. It was still quite a bit barebones, but he could hazard a guess that the right side was Toga's, if the extensive knife collection on display was anything to go by.

After digging through a drawer in the cabinet and finding a container of green polish and a number of other tools, Magne plopped down onto the bed on the other side and patted the space next to her.

Izuku shuffled his way over, confusion written on his face in bold font.

"Alright," she said. "Tell me about your boy problems."

If Izuku had felt even mildly chilly before, he now felt as though his whole face was set on fire. "I'm sorry?"

"That's what this is about, right?" She asked. "You wanted to know more about him. You're soulmates. No one gets it. We're all confused, so maybe talking it out will help make some sense of it."

Izuku fidgeted in his seat. "Is this another weird recruitment tactic? Getting me to divulge personal information?"

Toga plopped herself down on the ground beside them and rested her chin on the edge of the mattress. "What, we can't just be a little curious about the soap opera happening right under our noses?"

"You don't have to tell us anything. It's not in our job description or anything to get this out of you, if that's what you're worried about," Magne reassured as she reached for his left hand and began filing his nails into shape. "We won't tell him anything either."

Izuku watched as her hands worked deftly, mulling over her words. In the end, what did he really have to lose by telling them? And he wasn't opposed to possibly getting more information on Tomura…

"It's like you said," he spoke after a long silence. "I'm confused. I don't know why on earth he and I of all people could be soulmates."

Magne nodded in understanding, looking up from his hands briefly to shoot him a sympathetic glance.

"And I don't get how he's responding to it. What this all means to him. I mean, as soon as he knew we were soulmates, his first thought was to kidnap me! What's that about?"

Magne chuckled and nodded again in response. "Not the romantic gesture you were hoping for, huh?"

Toga asked, "What does it mean to you?"

Izuku found himself struggling to answer. Ever since the day he found out about it, he'd been trying to ignore it as best he could, and that option isn't really viable anymore. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "I always knew I'd have a strained relationship with my soulmate, but maybe I held out some hope that we could find common ground. Wanted us to be able to have a life together, you know? I always dreamed that my soulmate could be someone who understands me, makes everything less lonely, you know?" He shrugged. "I just kinda gave up on that idea since I found out. I don’t know what I want anymore."

Magne set the filer down and dabbed some too-cold chemical on each of Izuku's nails, gently rubbing it into his cuticles. "Wanna know what my guess is?"

Izuku nodded his head quickly, perhaps a little too desperate for answers.

"I think he hasn't given up that hope, and seeing you already throw in the towel is just a little disheartening."

The words sank like a heavy stone in Izuku's stomach, leaving him with a sense of guilt and leftover frustration at the whole situation. “He's crazy to think this is how to go about it,” he said. “You all know I'm not going to join. If he really cared, why not try to meet me halfway?"

"What is halfway in this situation anyway?" Toga jumped in again, asking the difficult questions. "If you're not gonna stop trying to be a hero, and there's no way he's gonna ditch the League, what's left?"

No matter how much he mulled the question over, what angle he tried to look at it through, he came up empty. "I don't know," he admitted. “I know there’s a reason this is all happening. There has to be. But this doesn't feel right.”

"I think he knows that too," Magne said. "But no one knows how to handle it yet, and maybe he's grasping at straws right now. If you ask me, there was already so much he was conflicted about. Adding this on top of it all must be throwing him in for a loop. Just too much on his plate, y'know?"

Both Izuku and Toga were equally as confused by the claim. "What do you mean by that?" Toga asked.

Magne mulled the question over and hummed in thought, struggling to find the best words. She spoke slowly as she pushed back the cuticles on Izuku’s nails. "Well, he's already been struggling to grow into his role as a leader. All for One keeps giving him more and more responsibility and power over the League's resources, and I don't think he really knows what he wants to do with it yet. He's always known how he's felt, what made him angry, and what he believes in. He's strong and he's got a lot of conviction. But he didn't know what to do about that. There's all this passion and not very much direction. Then you show up, Midoriya, and now it's more complicated than ever. It's not fair to blame him for feeling lost right now."

The reality of it hit him harder than he'd expected. Caught up in his own issues, he almost failed to recognize the way the whole situation must be weighing on Tomura himself.

"I'm not saying it makes what he's doing fair to you," she continued as Izuku remained silent, "but I am saying that maybe you shouldn't give up on him so fast."

In his heart, Izuku knew she was right, knew that this new information would no doubt change the way he looks at Tomura, but that doesn't stop him from squinting his eyes at her and playfully accusing, "So this is just another attempt to recruit me.”

With a dramatic gasp, she turned to Toga and said, "Our cover's been blown, he's onto us!"

"Looks like we have no other choice," Toga said in response, a dark tone underlying her words. "Sorry, Deku."

Before he could even respond to the sense of dread in the pit of his stomach, he was knocked back in his seat by a pillow attacking him.

With one hand tightly bandaged up and the other wet with nail polish, he couldn't fight back without causing himself a great deal of pain or creating a mess. It was a dirty trick, attacking a helpless victim, but Toga and Magne showed no remorse as they laughed heartily.

Izuku tried his hardest to kick them off with his legs, but it was no use. "Have some mercy!" he cried out, and he found himself laughing alongside them.

The night went on like that, with Izuku feeling oddly welcomed and comfortable among the villains once again. It was only well into the evening that he even remembered that he wasn't, technically, a guest.

Himiko flopped down onto her bed with enough force that she bounced up on impact even against the cheap, too-stiff mattress. “I’m craving boba.”

“Now that you say it, that does sound good,” Magne agreed. She turned to Izuku and said, “Hey, if we all go get some, you won’t try to run away, right?”

“I—I’m sorry?” That was certainly not the turn he expected this to take.

“Like, we’ll kill you if you do, and you’re a smart kid, so you wouldn’t try to.” She said it so nonchalantly that Izuku couldn’t quite place how serious she was.

“Technically we can’t kill him, but I can cut the tendons in his legs if he tries to run,” Himiko suggested, and Magne seemed all too pleased with the idea.

“Alright, perfect!” She said, and hopped up from her seat to throw on a jacket. “Come on.” She gestured for Izuku to follow, and he really had no clue how much say he had in the matter, so he obliged.

“Wait,” she stopped suddenly just before they exited the room. “Someone might recognize you,” she realized, seeming terribly bothered by the idea of not being able to get bubble tea lest someone recognize their hostage.

“Oh, I know!” Himiko made her way to the dressed and dug through it for a plain black mask. She hooked the loops behind his ears and adjusted the mask such that it covered most of his face, up to his freckles.

With that, they tossed an oversized hooded jacket over his shoulders and seemed satisfied enough to start heading out.

The main exit, it turns out, was the simple wooden door in the bar area. Just as Himiko propped open the door, another member that had been sitting in the room—Spinner—called out.

"Hey, where are you guys taking him? Isn't he supposed to stay here?"

"We're just getting some drinks," Himiko answered cheerfully. "Wanna come?"

"And you're just taking him with you?" Spinner asked, and Izuku was glad to know he wasn't the only one confused by the situation. "Are you allowed to do that?"

"No," Magne answered simply.

Spinner stared for a long stretch before saying, "Cool, I'll come too."

Seeing the building he was being held in from the outside was a strange experience. It was just a few blocks down from one of the busiest shopping areas in the city and seemed to blend in perfectly. Izuku wondered how many people have driven right past it, completely unaware of what was really going on inside. The whole time, Himiko hooked her arm with his own unbroken one, and he could feel the hard outline of the knife sheathed against her thigh—a constant reminder of his fate if he attempted to escape.

It was an eerie feeling, left him a bit sick to his stomach, but at least he didn't get to sit with it very long, as it quickly came his turn to order at the store.

"Uh, could I please have the strawberry bubble tea with half the sugar?"

"Of course! That'll be 600 yen," the woman working the cash register said cheerfully.

Izuku, naturally, chose this time to remember that he didn't exactly have any money to his name right now. It didn't seem to matter, though, because Magne stepped him and placed the right amount on the counter.

"Thanks," he spoke on instinct.

"'Course, you're our guest," she shrugged.

"I… don't think that's quite the right word."

She just waved a hand nonchalantly, as though the difference was irrelevant, and in that moment, Izuku found it kind of hard to argue with her.

"Oh, should we get something back for Tomura?" He found himself asking and was reminded of all the times he'd been called "a little too nice." It suddenly felt like quite a fitting label.

"He's probably gonna flip his lid the second he realizes we let you come anyway, so we should try to butter him up," Spinner agreed.

Izuku turned his head back to the menu. "He seems like a cinnamon tea with lychee kind of guy," he suggested.

Magne shrugged. "Well, you are his soulmate, so you oughta know." She reached for another 600 yen and put in the order with the woman at the register.

"Is that the real soulmate test?" Izuku questioned with a hint of a smile behind his mask.

"Oh absolutely. Universal fate is one thing, but if you can't even get his boba order right, what's the point?”

The eerie feeling from earlier still lingered within him as the group walked back, but it was dulled slightly by the sound of pleasant laughter and the taste of sweet strawberry in his mouth.

Back at the bar, Tomura sat on one of the high stools, sipping clear drink from a glass tumbler. He looked calm and thoughtful in a way that Izuku hadn’t seen on him before—there was no aggressive scratching or jitteriness. He held that same sickly pale hand that often rested on his face, staring intently at it, as if it would answer all the questions floating through his mind.

He didn’t get any such answers, partly because whoever that hand belonged to was long dead, but mostly because the gaggle of villains burst through the door, chattering loudly amongst themselves and startling the life out of him.

He looked about ready to chew them out, but when his eyes fell on Izuku innocently sipping on his pink drink, his frustration turned near-murderous.

“You idiots let him out?!”

“We wanted boba,” Himiko answered cheerily. Izuku couldn’t tell if she was unable to read the room or if she simply didn’t care to.

Before Tomura could say anything in response, Izuku interjected hastily, “We got you some too!” He fumbled with the tall plastic cup, the seal decorated with a cutesy panda sitting next to a small campfire in the woods, and miraculously managed to not drop his own drink in the process.

Tomura stared at him incredulously, and Izuku really couldn’t blame him, because he, too, was surprised which side he was on here. Eventually, though, Tomura huffed and snatched the drink and straw from him as if the gesture was a personal offense.

"You're all fucking ridiculous," he muttered under his breath, and no one could really argue that. He unwrapped the straw and stabbed it straight through the little panda on the seal.

“Nooo!” Izuku cried out before he could stop himself, because he was too passionate about this issue for his own good. “You’re supposed to stab it somewhere else! Why would you hurt the poor panda?”

Watching Izuku’s distress seemed to bring the man just enough joy to distract him from the anger he’d felt moments ago. “What, like you’re any better? You stabbed it right through his fire. Now he’s gonna die of hypothermia. What kind of hero does that?”

Izuku looked down at his own cup with a little too much panic in his eyes for the situation to warrant and felt an overwhelming urge to get a red marker and draw in a little fire.

“Glad to see you two getting along!” Himiko called out from the other side of the room, already halfway out the door to the hallway along with the rest of the group. Izuku hadn’t even noticed them slipping past.

“Hey, get back here!” Tomura called after them. “You still have work to—” He stopped himself abruptly with a groan. It was clear they were intent on leaving the two alone, and there was no point calling after them.

Instead, he redirected his attention to Izuku again, studying him closely. “You didn’t try to run away? Even with that opening they gave you?”

Izuku shrugged it off, keeping his eyes pointed anywhere besides Tomura’s eyes. “They didn’t give me much of an opening. I couldn’t sneak away with all of them keeping a close eye on me, and there’s no way I’d be able to get through them all in a fight without letting anyone else get hurt.”

At least, that was how he rationalized it in his mind. But truth be told, there was a large part of him that enjoyed spending time with them. And from the look Tomura gave him, he wondered if the man could see right through his lies.

“Do you like the drink?” Izuku asked, quick to change the subject.

Tomura took a long sip from his straw, chewed meticulously on the lychee jelly, and contemplated the taste for a long while before giving his review. “It’s disgusting.”

Izuku frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He held out his own drink. “Uhm, do you wanna maybe have mine? I already drank some of it but maybe you’ll like strawberry more?”

“Awh, you’d do that for me?”

“Of course, I—”

Tomura wore that same cheeky grin from earlier as he watched Izuku fumble with his words.

“You’re teasing me again,” Izuku whined.

“Oh no, not at all,” Tomura insisted, entirely unconvincingly. “In fact—” he reached his hand out to carefully grab Izuku’s cup and took a sip of it— “I think I do like this one more.”

“I don’t buy that for a second.” Izuku made to grab the drink back, but Tomura responded in kind by raising his hand up as high as it would go.

Izuku didn’t notice how much the other towered over him until he was made to hop up and grasp wildly with his unbroken arm in an attempt to grab his drink back. It needn’t be reiterated, but Tomura was an ass who took way too much joy in watching Izuku suffer, so he merely held the cup high up and laughed at the sight of Izuku on his tiptoes.

Izuku would be a lot more frustrated by it if the man’s laugh wasn’t so contagious. “Give it back!” He demanded, trying and failing to hold down his own giggles.

“Hey, now,” Tomura spoke with a lighthearted, easy air, “what’s the magic word?”

“You’re being a butthead!” Somewhere in his mind, Izuku was well-aware that wasn’t the most jarring insult he could throw out, and it probably was a little too tame for a wanted criminal, but it was all his mind could supply and it was accurate enough for the time being.

Through his smile, Tomura feigned offense. “How vulgar. What happened to the polite, kind-hearted hero that I knew?”

“His drink was stolen and he's out for revenge. Now give it back!”

“Only if you stop being a little brat.”

Izuku stopped his reaching and gave a loud groan to firmly establish that this was a cruel injustice that he did not condone, but begrudgingly complied. “Please.”

Tomura didn’t seem satisfied and kept his hand high up. “Come on, you can do better than that,” he said, sounding somewhere between encouraging and condescending.

Izuku bit back the second groan that threatened to fall from his mouth, because he’s been under a lot of stress lately and a nice sugary drink sounded really nice right about now. So, for purely selfish reasons, he schooled his expression and looked up at Tomura with big doe eyes that he’d been told on multiple occasions were impossible to say no to. “Please, Tomura?”

It must not have been enough, because Tomura simply stared at him with a slack jaw and an expression that Izuku couldn’t place.

Izuku waved a hand in front of the man’s eyes. “Tomura? Is that a no?”

The question seemed to snap him out of his daze with a start, and if he hadn’t looked away so quickly, Izuku could’ve sworn he’d noticed a faint blush on his face. Regardless, he got his drink back, for what it was worth.

“Thank you,” he said politely, even though it was his own drink to begin with. He watched as the man made his way to the bar counter, scratching absentmindedly at the skin of his neck.

“You should probably catch up with Toga and Magne,” Tomura said, his tone shaky and the slightest bit nervous as he replaced the pale, stiff hand back on his face.

“I will,” Izuku said, even as he lingered behind. “But first," he decided to test his luck, "can I ask you something?”

Tomura seemed taken aback at the sudden change in his tone. “You just did.”

It wasn’t a no, so he went ahead anyway. “You said you wanted to know what gets under my skin. That it’s the key to getting me to join you.”

“Yeah, and?”

“Well, what is it for you?”

Tomura was caught off guard by the question that Izuku had assumed to be a natural thing to wonder by now. “Does it matter?”

“How else are we going to make sense of this with only half the story?”

Tomura didn’t seem pleased about the direction the conversation had taken, but it wasn’t like he could argue that point. “It’d be easier to name the shit that doesn’t get under my skin. So far, it’s All for One, Kurogiri on a good day, and that strawberry boba you’re so selfishly keeping to yourself. That answer your question?”

Not really, but it certainly goes to show how short a fuse the man has. And how tightly closed off he was. Izuku, reckless as ever, probed further. It was only fair, after they spent a whole three hours attempting to pick his brain.

“What about me?” he asked. “I get under your skin?”

Tomura huffed, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t even get me started on you.”

The words stung, strangely enough. “Here I thought we were becoming friends,” Izuku admitted.

“That—” Tomura pointed, like Izuku hit the nail right on the head— “that right there is the problem. I actually like you! And I hate it. People like you are everything I hate in the world, so why the hell do I like you?”

Izuku took a wild guess. “Cause I’m nice?”

Tomura didn’t seem convinced by it. “Nice people also get under my skin.”

Izuku wanted to be patient and understanding, but he was simply at a loss. “Why? Why do you get so pissed off about the fact that I care about people?”

About you, he wanted to add, but held the words back.

“Because you don't!” Tomura exclaimed. “How can you? How can you sit there and call yourself a Hero, go through all their bullshit training, talk with them every goddamn day, and still not realize how scummy they all are? How can you honestly believe that they can do no wrong? They don’t give a shit about protecting people. Either you're too dumb to see it, or you're lying to yourself and don't care any more than they do. I don't know which one pisses me off more.”

If Izuku were a more volatile person, he may have given in to the temptation to throw a punch at the man's jaw. Might have raised his voice, defended himself, questioned what a villain would know about such things.

But he didn't—couldn't dare to lose his chance at understanding. He needed to know. They both did.

"I didn't ask for a lecture," he said instead. "I asked about you."

The words must have thrown Tomura in for a loop, because the frustration that had been steadily building seemed to dissipate in an instant. "If people like you really cared," he spoke, "then none of us would be here."

And as Tomura peered at him behind the pale hand covering his face, Izuku finally recognized it. That silent cry for help in his eyes. It was different from the other times he'd seen it—it was not the look of fear in the moment someone stared into the eyes of death. It was a pain that had been building for many, many years.

But it made no difference. Izuku still found himself moving towards him before his conscious brain could stop it.

Slowly, watching for any signs of discomfort, he reached up and pulled away the pale hand covering Tomura’s face.

He didn’t fight back. Didn’t resist it. Just watched, seeming equal parts confused and distraught, like the very notion that Izuku cared for him tilted his world on its axis.

“Tell me, then. Why you're here.” Izuku needed to know—for his sake and for Tomura’s.

“Izuku, I…”

Izuku waited patiently for him to find the words.

“I think you should go meet with the others,” Tomura said, gently pulling the hand away from Izuku and replacing it onto his face. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

And with that, he backed up and made his way to the opposite hallway.

Izuku, done pushing his luck for the day, sighed and grabbed his drink that he’d left on the counter. “Before you go,” he called, “be honest. Do you like the drink or not?”

Tomura huffed a small laugh and took a long sip of the cinnamon tea. “It’s good,” he answered. “Thanks.”

It was a small development, but it still brought a bright smile to Izuku’s face. “Good night, soulmate.”

“Good night, Izuku.”