Hitoshi gasped desperately, his lungs shuddering as he struggled to take a breath. Sweat beaded on his burning forehead. Everything hurt. His stomach hurt. His legs hurt. His collarbones hurt. How could his collarbones hurt? Hitoshi regretted every single choice he’d ever made that had led him to this moment. He’d been so stupid. This was torture, plain and simple.
He knew now that he hated running more than anything else in the world.
“Just 30 more seconds, you’re almost there!” Midoriya didn’t even look winded as he bounced up and down beside him with a grin. “You’ve got this! You’re doing so well!”
Hitoshi wanted to flip him off, but he couldn’t summon the energy. Instead he settled for a dour glare that bounced off Midoriya’s cheery expression without any impact whatsoever. Was he even sweating? It didn’t look like it. Midoriya looked like he’d just tousled his hair after rolling out of bed in his exercise clothes. Hitoshi felt like a beached whale trying to crawl along the land.
“... And three, two, one, done! Plus Ultra!” The other boy pumped his fist into the air. Hitoshi stopped dead in his tracks and bent over double with his hands on his knees, panting as quietly as he could. Maybe now he could die quietly and Midoriya would leave his poor carcass to rest under a bush somewhere.
No such luck.
“No, don’t stop all the way! You have to walk a little after, Shinsou. You might get a cramp otherwise. Cooldowns are important for your health!” Midoriya said.
He hooked an arm around Hitoshi’s back and herded him down the path. Midoriya looked so small – how was he so strong? How did he hide the corded muscles that Hitoshi could feel guiding him forward?
“You…” Hitoshi breathed, “care about your health? I wouldn’t have guessed that with all the,” he guestered at Midoriya’s arms, “bone breaking.”
“Ah... well,” Midoriya’s freckles stood out starkly when his cheeks flushed, “That was a special case, and believe me, I heard about it from everyone until I figured out my quirk. But actually I wasn’t always this careful about working out. I had to learn the hard way when I was starting out with what not to do.”
They reached a bench on the side of the trail and Hitoshi collapsed onto it, feeling his heartbeat thunder in his ears. Midoriya didn’t object to them stopping this time, and settled lightly onto the other end. Even though the trailhead was just a short ways away, it still felt like the two of them were in the middle of nowhere, far from civilization.
The bench sat at the edge of a small grassy meadow, buzzing with bees and the quiet rustling sounds of the woods. Past that, the trees reached as far as he could see, with ferns underneath them swaying gently in the breeze. Hitoshi hadn’t, or couldn't, really notice any of the natural beauty of the park while he was running, but now he drank in the sight as he thought.
“What do you mean you had to learn the hard way?” Hitoshi said.
Midoriya grimaced, “When I first started… I went off my training plan. I thought that if I worked harder physically, then I’d get stronger more quickly and become a better hero. But instead I passed out. I couldn’t move for ages even after I woke up. Then I had to take a few days off and it ended up setting me way back. Since then I’ve been really careful, and I’ve read up on sports medicine which is actually really interesting and – ”
“You once worked out so hard that you passed out?” Hitoshi interrupted him.
“Yeah, I really wanted to prove myself worthy of… uh… being a hero.” Midoriya laughed, “I guess it backfired on me a little bit, huh?”
“But why would you need to prove yourself? You’re the golden child.” Hitoshi snapped his jaw shut and winced.
“I just meant… since your quirk is so strong, you get caught up in heroic nonsense practically every other day, and you’re so nice all the time on top of that, why would you feel the need to prove yourself so much you worked yourself into the ground? You’re – what did you need to prove? You’re already better than almost everyone else.”
Hitoshi immediately regretted his bitter tone when he saw the look on Midoriya’s face. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. You’ve gone out of your way to help me and all I’ve done is insult you.”
“Do you – do you really think that?” Midoriya sniffled, and to Hitoshi’s horror when he looked over, his eyes were glossy and his lower lip trembled. Then he burst into tears.
“Don’t! Wait, please stop crying!” Hitoshi said. Midoriya didn’t seem to hear him, and had buried his face in his scarred hands as he sobbed.
Hitoshi wanted to bury himself underneath the bench and never come out again. He’d made him cry. Midoriya had offered up his help and Hitoshi had been mean enough to make him cry. His hands hovered around the other boy’s shoulder and back, a few inches away from touching. What if touching him made it worse? Were you supposed to touch crying people if you made them cry?
This was definite proof that Hitoshi ruined everything. He had a villainous quirk, he’d probably bombed any chance of ever getting into the Hero Course with his failure at the Sports Festival, and he was terrible at working out. And to top it all off he’d made the first person who’d been genuinely kind to him in a long time cry.
Steeling himself, he patted Midoriya’s shuddering shoulder. Hitoshi wondered if he had more freckles on his shoulder under the warm fabric of his t-shirt. He shook himself and refocused. What were you supposed to say when you made someone cry?
“I’m really sorry Midoriya. Thank you for helping me. I’ll go now.” He started to stand.
At this, Midoriya’s head snapped up, and he hiccuped before asking, “Why? We haven’t finished the workout yet.” He seemed completely unaware of the gobsmacked look on Hitoshi’s face as he wiped the tears from his face with his shirt collar. Talking with Midoriya was like riding a rollercoaster: there was never any warning for when you’d get thrown through a loop.
“I literally just made you cry Midoriya. I don’t want to bother you any more than I already have.”
At this, Midoriya’s face split into a giant grin as he once again was overcome by emotion – this time with helpless laughter. He pulled Hitoshi back down to the bench beside him as his mirth subsided.
“Shinsou, they were happy tears! and besides, I literally cry all the time. I cried two days ago because my friend’s pet rabbit hopped into my lap. I cried last week when All Might told me I did a good job in training. I’m just a crybaby. Always have been, always will be.”
“But I insulted you.” Hitoshi said.
“Yeah, it’s a really huge insult when someone calls your quirk really strong and tells you that you’re nice. I might never recover from the disrespect.”
“Still, I’m sorry,” He glanced over at the other boy, “Maybe you’re too nice. You shouldn’t let people walk all over you. I mean, I made you cry! You don’t deserve that.” Shinsou said.
“That’s very kind of you Shinsou, but you don’t have to worry about me. I actually have quite a thick skin. Don’t forget I grew up with Bakugou Katsuki.”
“Yikes.” Hitoshi murmured, and was surprised when Midoriya let out another peal of laughter.
“I know Kacchan can be intense, but he’s actually come a really long way since middle school!”
“I… actually can’t even imagine a more intense version of Bakugou. Or a child version of Bakugou. It’s pretty unlikely that childhood friends would end up UA Hero Course classmates. What were you like as a kid, growing up with a living bomb as a friend? I bet you two made an interesting pair.”
To Hitoshi’s surprise, Midoriya’s smile faded, and the good mood of only a moment before drained out of his face, replaced with something much quieter.
“We were really close when we were little, but Kacchan didn’t… well, we drifted apart as we got older. I’m not really sure where we are now. It’s hard to explain. Kacchan and I have sort of always been in each other’s orbit though.” He smiled thinly, and Hitoshi nodded. Both boys sat in silence for a long moment, looking out at the dense forest around them.
Midoriya clapped his hands together, breaking the silence and somber mood. “Ok,” he said, “now stand up, we need to stretch.” Midoriya rose and raised a bent leg behind him, holding his sneakered foot in one hand. Hitoshi copied him, wobbling a bit as he struggled for balance before finally setting one hand on the back of the bench. “This one stretches out your quad muscle, and it’s really important to do after running!” Once again Midoriya seemed to be an endless font of information.
Hitoshi continued to follow Midoriya’s lead as they continued to move through the series of poses. For each one the hero course student chattered about what muscle groups they were stretching and why the stretch itself was important.
“How’d you learn so much about this stuff?” Hitoshi said, as they both sat on the ground with their legs folded in butterfly wings. “Do they teach it all in the hero course?”
Midoriya hummed softly. “They teach some of it in the hero course, but I did a lot of reading on my own.”
“What started it?”
“Like I said, I made a few big mistakes when I first started training. I owe everything to the person that helped me train for UA, but I wish I’d known more about this stuff when I started working out. I did way too much weight lifting way too fast early on – it’s a miracle I didn’t injure my back!”
“So you just became an expert in anatomy and personal training instead?”
“Ha ha Shinsou, I’m hardly an expert. I just have a vested interest in fitness and health! I have to be, to become the best hero I can!” His smile was blinding.
“Sounds to me like you’re an expert. Do you always talk yourself down?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Psh, like you’re one to talk,” Midoriya said.
“What does that mean?”said Hitoshi.
“I’ve heard you badmouth your quirk more than once just today! And even putting aside the fact that all quirks are neutral until the person who has them does something with them, your quirk is really cool, and has a lot of possible applications for heroics that could – ” He visibly swallowed the rest of his words, but continued to look offended on behalf of Hitoshi’s quirk.
He felt a warmth blossom in his chest. Nobody had ever really liked Hitoshi’s quirk for what it could do for others; people mostly were either afraid of what he would do with it (which was bad), or interested in what his quirk could do for them (which was worse).
“Working out with you is no problem, Shinsou! It’s good for me to add some extra onto my workout.”
“Not for working out – well, yes, also for working out with me, but mostly for talking to me like I’m normal.”
“Of course I talk to you Shinsou. You’re my friend, and my future classmate!” He said it like it was a foregone conclusion, and not a ridiculous miracle.
“Midoriya, the idea of losing control scares people. My quirk is only useful when other people have their free will taken away. It’s underhanded by design, or at least a lot of people see it that way. Nobody likes a kid with a cheater’s quirk, or worse a villain’s quirk. My classmates all hated me before high school.”
Hitoshi doesn’t mention that even now half his classmates won’t really speak to him. He can deal with it. He hadn’t even tried to make friends with them
“I know how you feel,” Midoriya murmured.
“No. No you really don’t know how I feel.” Hitoshi matched him in volume, but his voice was cold.
“I had a hard time in school too, Shinsou.” It seemed as though Midoriya couldn’t even see him, as his wide eyes stared out into the middle distance.
Despite himself, and despite the fact that he’d already regretted so many of his impulsive words to Midoriya today, he felt a tidal wave of words rise in his chest unbidden. Suddenly he was shouting, and the tsunami of anger that Midoriya didn’t deserve poured out.
“How could you know how I feel? You’ve got lots of friends and the perfect quirk and the perfect goddamn life! I bet you never had to eat lunch in a bathroom stall, or throw away a bouquet of flowers on your desk after lunch, or tape together shredded homework! Don’t tell me you know how I feel!”
“Yes! Yes to it all! I dealt with all of that!” Midoriya’s hands were clenched in fists, his whole body rigid as a taut bowstring.
The silence spilled out between them as both boys stared wild eyed at the other. Hitoshi’s heartbeat was almost as loud in his ears as it had been when he was running. He couldn’t comprehend what Midoriya had just said. He didn’t understand. Who could do that to someone like Midoriya?
“I said,” Midoriya ground out, “that I dealt with all of that stuff in middle school too. My bullies used to do all that. They liked to beat me up too.”
“But you’re… you didn’t deserve any of that.”
“Neither did you.”
Again, everything was quiet for a long moment before Midoriya spoke again.
“I got my quirk late. Really late. The doctors always told me that I was,” he glanced over at Hitoshi and took a deep breath, “quirkless.”
Hitoshi stared at him, completely unmoored. Midoriya kept talking.
“They talk some about quirk discrimination in school, but no one ever mentions what happens to quirkless people. If the whole of society is a rotten contest of quirks and yours is somewhere near the bottom, I was never even in the running for most of my life. Just a useless, worthless Deku.” Midoriya spat his hero name out like a curse.
“So what if most people never even use their quirks in their everyday lives? At least they still have one. It’s the first question that people ask, that teachers ask, and I’m sure it’s the first question that employers ask too.
“Do you know how rarely a random quirk shows up spontaneously in your teenage years? I do. Me getting my quirk so late… was a one in a billion chance. And most of the time those are invisible quirks with specific activation requirements, not … what I got. I think that if I hadn’t trained so hard the quirk would’ve actually blown my limbs off instead of just breaking them.
“That’s why I work so hard to prove myself. I feel like any moment now someone’s going to figure out that I’m just a quirkless imposter wearing a Hero Course uniform. I have to prove to myself that I really do belong here. I’m not the golden child, Shinsou. I never was.”
At some point Midoriya had started crying again, this time in a silent stream that clung to his lashes before falling to the ground. Hitoshi reached over on impulse and grabbed his hand, squeezing it tight. The other boy looked at it like a lifeline. Had he really thought Hitoshi would reject him after that story? Hitoshi definitely wasn’t the only emotional mess out of the two of them.
“I already thought you were amazing Midoriya, but I had no goddamn idea. Of course you’re a worthy hero student – who else would spend a Saturday helping a random person just because they need it? It sounds like you deserve your spot in the course more than everybody else combined.” Midoriya’s hand, still clasped in his, felt like a lifeline. “Come on, let’s head out.”
Hitoshi pulled Midoriya to his feet and they set off in the direction of the trailhead together. It took them a minute to remember that they were still holding hands.