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Swords, Stars ands Shields

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I don’t remember exactly who said it, but the main components of being a hero involve courage, compassion, bravery, and the strength to change. You know, the normal things that set the protagonists apart from the extras.
The thing they don’t tell you when you try to become a hero is that all these skills are transferable; both villains and vigilantes require the exact same skills. So what’s really the thing that differentiates them? What is that astral difference that makes a moon the sun?
It’s hard to focus on life after the apocalypse. Well, my apocalypse. I think that we’re all in our own countdowns until the personal apocalypse; not your death, but the things they say are worse than death. The things that tear your heart apart.
Picture it like a tv. Everything’s switching between stations so rapidly that I can barely even hear the words on my own tv.
“Nico... we’re sorry to say-”
“I didn’t want to tell you this so early but-”
“Your father’s not doing well, Nico. I think we should-”
I try to shut the voices out because they’re not real. They’re not real, they’re not real, and I don’t have to listen to them. It wouldn’t make a difference if I lived in this house of ghosts or anywhere else; they’d still come back for me to destroy me. If I ignore them now, they’ll come back later. Still, it’s better than the alternative.
Those words interrupt my mind’s torture again. “Red Riot is on the scene!” The television exclaims proudly, showing that hardening boy from before. I think he’s probably around the same age as me. Maybe a year younger. Great, universe; way to show me how everyone else can do it all better than me, even without flashy quirks. Everyone kept telling me those lies about how I tried my hardest and it was just luck. Maybe I shouldn’t reprimand them though. They only lied because I did.
Right now, the only stable thing in my mind is him. This new hero, with a proper heroes license and a good school life. Someone solid and tough. And I don’t even know his name.
“Nico,” her voice drifts from above, settling down on the ground like dust, collecting slowly and carefully. "I think maybe you've watched this enough."
"Hey!" I protest, watching as my mom walks over to the tv, shutting it off with a click. "But I was-"
"Watching the same thing for the 54th time," she finishes, sighing. "You know, failing that test wasn't your biggest mistake. Or maybe it won't be. Or mayb-"
"No," I correct her, trying to ignore my bruised ego before it rises up again. Does she really think that's what she should be mentioned right now? "It was my biggest mistake to not get into the hero course."
"Honey," she crosses her far more tanned arms against her snug sweater, brushing dark hair from her face. "I really think you should stop saying that. Were you the one who rejected you?"
Before I can correct her, I have to swallow my pride, shuffle my feet a bit away, and think for a moment. Which lie did I tell her? "I didn't defeat any of the robots. And that's really all there is."
I don't think she's caught onto any of my lies yet; it's not like it's so unbelievable anyway. The truth is probably far more bizarre than anything else.
"Well," she rubs her hands together. "You're still doing fine in general studies. Maybe we should focus on that?"
"A course I didn't want to get into?" I snort, already feeling bad for being such a shitty person to her. Seriously; what the fuck is wrong with me? "It's funny that every other school accepted me, isn't it?"
"Maybe it's for the better," she consoles me for a moment before feeling the sharp edges of my shoulders. "I mean, it would have been a risky job. You can still help people. I know that you're in a great medical track and..."
And that's where her voice just becomes background noise to the swarm of voices in my head, all repeating thousands of words a minute. I even recognize her voice in some of them. Am I crazy, or is it just a distraction? Because I doubt they'd let someone operate on someone or help with social and mental issues if they too have social and mental issues.
"Could I maybe go for a walk?" I ask, grabbing my shoes. "Or a run. Whichever one comes first."
She waves her hand at me. "Fine. Just... be safe, Nico. I don't want you falling behind."
"It isn't UA's hero course," I pull my black hair back into a half-assed ponytail before giving up and letting it rest against my neck; I still can't pull off that look anymore. I might as well not try it anyway. "The classes are easy."

"I don't think anyone else would agree with you," she calls as I close the door. "But if it's fine with you..."
"It is!" I assure her, finally falling into my steps. Eventually, it turns into a run as I push my legs, watching the house fade into the background. To anyone else, it'd be a normal one. Maybe a bit more American than anything else, but that's probably because we are. Just a few Americans in a place they shouldn't be. What if that's why dad died?
I have to stop myself from using my quirk, no matter how hard it is. I trained so hard o get it to work, and now it's like I have to consistently turn it off. I watch as the spiky shell creeps up my arm, a reminder of the weapons hiding under my skin.
I was lucky to even get a quirk in the first place, especially one so powerful. They called it "Scales". I have scales lining my skin. Not as protection, but more as a blade. It's pretty useful in a lot of different ways, even if it's pretty simple. Coming from a quirkless family, I can definitely say that in a superpowered society where some play god, it's useful to have power. I can use the scales by pushing them up from their flat surface, making them into knives on my arm. They can also be used in many different ways, from shooting them off to using them for balance and aerodynamics.
It should have been a perfect quirk. In so many ways, it matched me I wanted to be. The me I'd obtained right before it all went under. I can't even really say that everything was destroyed with one decision either; it was just a series of interconnected events that demolished any chance of saving my life. Why do they let young kids make such big decisions?
I don't even time to realize that the world's growing dark by the moment. I haven't been running that long, have I? Was I accidentally using my quirk to push myself forward? Before I can stop myself, my eyes are scanning the crowd, trying to detect anyone's gaze on mine; one more slip-up, and it'll be the heroes on me.
"Don't move."
It's funny how my body understands the command before even I can. A click comes up near my ear, soft and silent. "Nice jacket," the masculine voice whispers in my ear, somewhere between a croon and a grumble.
"It was my father's," I tell him, only just realizing the sentimentality of the statement. Or the finality. A little laugh comes back in response, but I don't turn around to try to see anything.
"So I'm sure you wouldn't want any blood. That's right... Nico Balgera? That's your name?"
"You're after something more," I tell them, even though it's already pretty obvious. They wouldn't know my name that well if it wasn't something orchestrated. It doesn't even faze me that they know my mother's name, a name that separates me even further from the rest of my world.
"Weird name, kid. You don't belong here either."
"Just tell me what to do," I sigh, trying to get this over with. Mom would kill me if Dad's jacket got blood on it. For me, the thought of any stain is even worse than the possibility of death. At least at this point.
The gun gets pushed further toward my neck as a thickly muscled hand surrounds my hips. "Make it look like we're friends. I'll lead you to the spot."
I bite my lip. "I don't think friends hold each other like this. Are you sure that you actually have any?"
"We have enough information on you," he whispers, bordering on dangerously sensual. "If you use your scales, we're killing one person for each scar I receive."
"So those are the friends you're talking about," I say, trying to find anyone else suspicious. "Lead the way, mister."
He shoves me forward, almost causing the scales to shoot up from my skin. I breathe in, trying to calm myself down. This is the difference between heroes, villains, and ordinary people. It's the choice to do nothing but cooperate that sets normal people apart from the rest. It's the easy choice that makes us villains, and the hard one for the heroes. Maybe Mom was right; I only make sense to be in the general course. I should be glad that they even let me in there.
My feet are shoved down toward an alleyway, surrounded by orange brick and the kind of glowing lights that illuminate the seediest shops. "Turn this way."
"You guys have a great store," I whistle, watching as two other figures push themselves in, bodies still concealed with thick grey sweatshirts. "Wonderful establishment. I'll make sure to rate it 5 stars when I get home. Oh yeah, by the way; when am I getting home?"
"He's talking too much," the voice from behind me ushers. "I thought they said he was destroyed after failing to get into UA."
One of the hoodies shrugs, speaking in a clear, feminine voice. "They must have thought wrong. Or maybe it's a fake bravado."
Shit. She's seeing right through me. Underneath the sweatshirt, I can see a bit of her lower chin, as well as full lips pulled into a tight smile. Must be some sort of empath, right? Maybe all that quirk training and preparation wasn't useless.
The body behind me waltzes forward, almost in a strut. Unlike the other two bodies, he's taken off his coat, revealing a surprisingly younger man with wildly tamed blue hair, sticking into the air. His dark black suit and dress pants move closer to my chair as he inspects me with a predatorial gaze.
"Nico," he whispers, craning his neck around to face me as he moves behind the counter, collecting his things. After motioning to the right, the other body moves, shutting and locking the door. I can barely see it in the reflection of the window, but I can tell that they've even turned over the closed sign. Charming. "There's so much more, you know. More than your simple... general studies class."
"You seem to know a lot more about me than I do," I cough. "Hey, maybe you could get rid of my gender envy and questionable sexuality? Because that'd be nice."
"I'd advise you to return to your normal state of self pity," he reminds me, resting a hand on his sharp, angular chin. "Else I'll get annoyed. Still, I appreciate the energy."
"Why do you want me? What's the whole point of this?"
"Mirabella," he focuses on the younger woman. "Jog his memory."
She nods, ripping off her hoodie and gloves. The woman revealed has dark, almost black skin. Curly green hair is piled on top of her hand, almost a matching shade to the tight pantsuit she has on under the sweatshirt. "Don't worry," she smiles wickedly. "This will hurt."
She places her hands on my temples, pushing back my bangs. Have you ever remembered something cringy that you did forever ago, and the repercussions made you want to kill yourself? Okay... so maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic. Still, imagine that, but ten times worse. I don't even time to scream before the memory takes over my mind.
No. Not now. I urge my mind away from the thought, but it's already running in my mind like a movie.
The day of the UA tryouts. In my case, it'd been the same trials as this year; I guess the principal has enough budget for giant robots two years in a row. Still, it's not like it didn't bring back terrible memories.
I couldn't remember the faces or quirks of the other hopeful students even if you asked me. I'm sure the public would agree with that too.
The only special thing about my group was that every last one of us failed. And the worst part? It was all my fault.
Dad's case was getting severe. I wouldn't blame all my emotions on his health, but it definitely affected me.
The horn blared, setting the race to defeat as many of the robots as possible. At least, that was the goal of everyone else.
In one instant, I'd gone from a hero to vigilante. More blood had been spilled from my knife-like body in just that decision than ever before.
While other kids had been making the most of their freshman year back home, I was preparing for something they all thought was impossible. I'd been training my quirk and reflexes to the point of exhaustion. And because of that, I'd been on a different level. I still don't remember much from that day, but one of the weaker kids must have done something to anger me. After that, it was like genocide was the only thing on my mind. When the time limit was finally up, I was the only hopeful student still standing. Of course, by that point, I was already hopeless.
Our entire group failed. I heard that they wanted the kids I had taken out to try again the next day, but the injuries they sustained had damaged their bodies beyond any hope. In other words, while in pursuit of my own goal, I'd dashed someone else's. And you know what? There's nothing worse than just dashing someone's hopes; because once you've dashed their hopes, they can't come back. I broke their bodies, and I scattered the remains.
At that moment, I was a villain.
"Call me Sid," the real world comes back in a rush as Mirabella backs off, looking conflicted. I look up, watching as the man runs his mouth, polishing gems and rings. "Sidney's pawn shop," he explains. "It's the day job, at least."
"What was the point of that? Did I need to see how I ruined their lives again?"

"You never ruined anyone's life," Sidney pulls up close to me, stabbing a long finger covered in heavily decorated rings in my face. "Because of you, those kids got into the General Studies course. And you got in. You're a second-year now; you should be focusing on more realistic dreams than the hero course.
"Nico, I believe in reciprocity. Did you take any other languages?"
"Enough of them," I say, bringing up slightly less painful memories of taking Japanese, English, Latin, and a dozen other languages. Just in case I needed to save someone who didn't understand me. What a waste of time.
"Then I think you might understand what I'm after. You see, it's a pain to be born weak into this world. Whether it's a matter of being quirkless, or if it's due to an illness."
"Are you sick?" I ask, cursing myself for feeling bad for him.
"My daughter," he pulls up his phone, showing me a picture of a child lying in a hospital bed, unmoving. Immediately, I get a pang of sympathy; it's almost exactly like Dad. "Diagnosed with a rare disease involving a quirk malfunction last year. It's funny that the things that motivate us the most can destroy us.
"You see, I seem to be missing the… proper materials to deal with her disease. That's where my shop comes in; doesn't it feel poetic to destroy someone else to bring yourself up?"
"What kind of business are you running here?" I glance around, finally trying to look for an exit. Maybe he'll be distracted enough that he won't notice? "You make deals with people?"
"As I said before, I believe in reciprocity. I'd rather see a world of smiles, even if it means hiding those that don't submit."
"That's sick!" I spit back at him, watching as he walks toward the exit, blocking it with his body. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Many would do anything to save the ones they love. I suppose I fall into that category. Would you believe me if I told you that people often seem to walk straight into my traps? Whether it's blackmail or a faked suicide note, they always seem to require my skills.
"Empath," he taps his head. "You were close with Mirabella. Sadly, she only has a minor memory quirk. Nothing to do with altering; only bringing up memories."
Mirabella pulls a thin gun from her coat, pointing it straight at my head. "I'd prefer guns to quirks any day. Much more reliable."
"Now now... we don't want our newest client to be scared away so easily! My quirk is simple in terms of explanations; I can manipulate subliminal desires and latent opinions. Essentially, the world of the subconscious is mine, as long as I can keep a hold on one person."
"Great," I throw my hands up. "And you know what? That's great for you. But that doesn't explain why I'm still here."
"It'd be... beneficial for me if I could find someone to stay in the hero course. Preferably that popular group... Class 1-a."
"I'm too old for that," I point out. "I'm a second year."
"They'd accept a transfer for you," he tells me, shuffling through more vintage items and tarnished metal. "Trust me on that. With my powers, you could get in fairly easily."
"You said that you're only supposed to control opinions that haven't been made yet," I remind him. "And it's not like they'd accept me based on just that."
"That's right," he laughs. "If only there was some way to get you in... We'll meet again, Nico."
The third body snaps his fingers, causing my vision to go blurry. When the clouds dissipate, I'm barely surprised to find that they're all gone.
I trudge out of the room, kicking up rocks and pieces of gravel that haven't been put down yet. There goes another opportunity. If they're always meant to be taken, then why do I keep passing up chances like they're so common?
The inner city welcomes me as it does with anyone else; I'm shunned by the crowds, pushed away from everyone else. Here, everyone is either alone, or in a group so tightly knit that it's impossible to enter. I don't even make an attempt to focus on any one person until I hear the scream.
No one else even looks up, as if their phone screens are more important. I stalk through the crowds quickly, cursing myself as the sky grows even darker under the bright city lights. It's going to take even longer to get home if I try to find what's causing the screams, but I can't just leave them alone.
"You!" a woman's voice cries out. I stare up, finding the target of the screams embedded too far into the crowd. "Get off of me!"
I push my way through the crowd that's circled around her, already feeling my hero complex push past any impulsive thoughts. I don't care if it's through surgery, therapy, or anything else; If I can find someone to save, I want to make sure they're feeling better.
From what I can see, it's just another normal case of natural selection; someone of an undistinguishable gender with an ordinary powerup quirk attacking a quirkless person dressed nicely to steal money. With the city so close to my house, it's not like I haven't seen this a thousand times.
Only this time, there are no heroes, and it's more than one villain. Random chatter breaks out from the crowd, piercing my ears.
"Did anyone call a hero?"
"Do you think that Fat's gonna come around?"
"I wonder if there'll be a fight this time. Last time, it got pretty boring."
I breathe in slowly, watching as the two villains back away slowly, looking confident. "If anyone attacks me," the larger one promises. "My buddy will kill her. Understand that?"

What is it with villains and threats involving their friends today? That limits my options almost too much, but there's no point in stopping now. I still have my own two arms and legs and more than one brain cell; there's nothing else to lose.
"You might have a backup if you get hurt!" I shout, jumping in from the circle, already preparing the same move I just watched myself use on those kids back at the tryouts. "But not if he gets hurt!"
I pull out my front leg, preparing for a quick handstand, followed by a quick torque to pull my knife-like arms against the smaller one's tough skin. He shouts in surprise, a deep roar.
Just as I suspected, the leader runs off with the bag, shouting with glee. Fine by me; lives matter more than money.
"Why did you do that?" the woman screams, already pulling out her phone. "Now they have my money!"
"But they don't have your life," I point out, hacking and slashing at the smaller beast with surprising ease. I guess I haven't lost my touch from the lack of training.
Two fists fly at my face with shocking speed, catching my left arm. "I still have most of my limbs," I correct myself. "I can keep going."
I don't even notice the phones on me until they flash, blocking my eyesight for a moment.
"Well," I dangle my right leg. "Half of them gone. But I still have everything else."
I bound away from the monster, holding my right arm out, shooting off the scales. Blood streams from each crack in my armor, but I ignore the pain, trying not to black out. "I can do this," I murmur, moving in close for the kill. "It's just like then."
My legs give out just as the overpowered man falls, leaving me defenseless from the new shadow eclipsing my view.
"What is it, Fat?"
The familiar voice is almost enough to give me a reason to rise, but I can't force myself up even if I wanted to.
"Thank you, nice lady!" a voice calls out, with a similar timbre to the boy's; gruff, yet kind. "Everyone, please back up a little! We have a job to do! You can rest assured that everything's safe now too!"
"Hell yeah!" another voice returns, accompanied by the sound of clashing metal. "What's the chance we get to beat down that many villains, huh?"
"I'm on the ground," I state simply, trying to clear out my vision. A hand gets wrapped around my arm, pulling me onto my feet. After wobbling for a moment, I look back at the face, silently screaming.
"Hey," Red Riot pushes back my hair a little, only to freeze up. "Fat, he's alive!"
"Huh? No I just- oh!" two large hands take hold of my wrists, pulling up to my waist. Thanks to my depressing mind, it takes me a moment to realize that someone's hugging me, not trying to kill me.
"Gah!" the adult's voice returns. "He's sharp!"
I get placed back down on the ground, right in front of the hardening hero. I glance back at his wild red hair, sticking straight up from his tanned skin. "Woah," he says in awe, checking out my arm. "You're a transformation user too?"
"Um," I hold up my hand, watching as the scales rotate across my wrists before lying flat and level against my skin. "I guess?"
Another boy stands in the back, concealed by his cloak. I reach my hand out to him, trying to say anything, but we both just lean back, causing the gruffer voice to laugh.
"The name's Fat. Fat Gum, to be precise!" the hero pushes ahead, grabbing my hand too tightly, shaking it way too forcefully. "Woah," he says from behind his black mask. "Your grip is tight. Not as tight as Real Steel's or Red Riot's, but you're getting there!"
"Thanks..." I say, pushing away from him, only to fall into a metal body, dressed similarly to Red Riot, only in all grey hues. "Um, sorry."
"He's funny!" Red Riot informs me. "Can we keep him?"
"Well," the hooded kid says, scanning me up and down. His floppy black hair is almost like looking in a mirror, especially with his demeanor. "We have to. I guess I'm the only one that remembers what we came here for. What a bother...
"Fat Gum," he looks up to the massive man. "He used his quirk in a public area. He was the one we got a message about, right?"
Shit. Guess there was something to lose. I've been on a losing streak, after all.
"Oh, fine," Fat Gum huffs, pulling out a comically large pad and pencil. "Name?"
"Nico Balgera," I tell them. "And yes, I'm American. No, I'm not high. Yes, I'm bi."
The red boy blushes a little, pushing closer. "Nico... don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Um..." I cough. "We go to the same school?"
"What?" Real Steel gets in my face, looking both threatened and threatening. "Bullshit! No one from our school would pull that crap!"
"I haven't seen him," the cloaked one states plainly, pulling his hood down. "We need to get somewhere, Fat. Maybe we could leave the interrogation to someone else?"
"Great idea, Suneater!" Mr. Gum smiles, ruffling the hero's hair, giving off similar vibes to Dad. "Why don't you-"
"Oh no..." Suneater says, facing away from me. "One on one talking? With a stranger? Um... no."
"Well," Real Steel says, still giving me the cold... er, metal shoulder. "I'm itching to get back into the fight."
"Red Riot?" Fat Gum asks. "Sorry to leave you... are you okay with this?"
"Oh yeah!" he smiles, pumping his fists. "Anyway, it's not like I'm gonna miss anything; I'll bet you'll just be surveying the streets, Real Steel."
"Damn," the rough boy smacks Red Riot, grinning like an idiot. "Well, at least I can pretend that I'm getting some action."
The red-haired boy blushes again, only to wipe it away. "Right... so you're this vigilante, I hear? Wanna explain that?"
"Um," I look around, watching the crowds gathering near us. "Am I getting arrested? Maybe we should go somewhere a bit more private too; I'm getting the feeling that some people would rather deal out their own justice."
"Whatever," he shrugs, still smiling. Fat raindrops land on his nose, splashing up into his eyes. "We better find cover. Maybe... I'll get changed into my normal clothes; that way, we'd look more like two high school students studying together instead of a hero interogating a villain. Oh... not that you're a villain or anything!"
"Got it," I say, trying to find cover from the storm. "So... um, go do that! Plus Ultra..."
"You're weird," Red Riot observes, moving towards a blank alleyway. "I like it. Why'd you go and ruin yourself?"
I freeze up, still facing away from him changing. It's not like he was wearing much before, but I still feel like I have to face away from him; it's just respectful. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone."
"Well, personally, I think it was cool of you. I hope we don't have to take you in for anything."
"Got it," I tell him, getting a little peek of his toned, masculine body. With the gears off, I can catch more of his soft, tough shoulders.
"Alright!" he shouts, bounding with energy around me. Instead of his jagged hero outfit, he's now outfitted in a bulky orange hoodie and black jeans. It's almost like a reverted image of my purple hoodie and black jeans, tapered tightly to my body by the rain. "Are you-"
My stomach growls above his voice, loud and penetrating. My face turns redder than his hair, getting a laugh out of him.
"There's a ramen shop across the street. I know you said that you're American, but I don't think you'll find anything really familiar here."
"Oh," I shrug it off. "My dad was raised here. He sorta introduced me to some stuff. Sorry if it wasn't clear from um... me."
"Not at all!" he laughs, pulling me across the street, whooping in the rain. "I know it's kinda silly of me, but I love the rain. It's not the clouds or everything being wet, because I hate that part. But just the feeling of running through. It feels... it feels interesting, you know?"
"Infinite?" I guess. "Is that what you meant?"
"Yeah!" he gasps, breathing in the city air. "Like I can't be stopped. Isn't it one of the best feelings?"
"It's why I wanted to be a hero," I answer back, sliding into the entrance of the restaurant. Red Riot pulls up a seat, dropping into the faded yellow plastic. I sit opposite him, despite his protests. "It's the only time I get to feel whole anymore."
"So that's why you attacked that guy back there?" he jabs a finger back toward the sidewalk. "Interesting. Do you mind if I get us both the same order? I'm kinda short on money... at least in this version of me."
"Um," before I can ask any questions, I'm nodding. Instead of overthinking during the time he's gone, I can barely think. Everything goes numb, almost like I'm a planet revolving around nothing.
Hey... I actually like that. Sometimes, I feel like I should have been born with a space quirk to match an aesthetic. Still, I can't help the feeling that I got a quirk that's more powerful than I deserve.
"Hey," he slides a bowl across to me, grinning widely. "They ended up recognizing me, even when I'm this me. Guess I gotta try harder to hide."
I can barely document what his real name is in my mind; I've probably walked by this kid a thousand times, but I still can't recall any real moment where we've talked. "Do you... do you have different identities?"
"Oh," he hangs his hand on his neck, but not in any way to mimic me. "No. I just mean that sometimes, I have to pretend I'm not me. At least, I have to pretend that I'm not Red Riot. People would recognize me easily."
"Well," I smile for the first time since meeting him, staring at the black and white tiled floor, both vintage and homey. "Maybe if you got a better mask, people wouldn't recognize you so much."
"Nah," he notes cynically. "It's gotta be the hair. Maybe I should..."
He pushes his hair down into bangs, accentuating his soft cheekbones. I pull my own hoodie up, trying to block the heat that's quickly rising. "Um... interesting development."
"Speaking of that... maybe we should talk a little about why you don't have a hero's license, yet you decided to attack a villain. That was so manly of you, but people could have gotten hurt!"
"You're dodging the question, spiky."
I ignore the jibe at my quirk. "Well, when they don't let you into the hero course, it's not like you have many chances to get a license."
"It was harder to get than you'd think," Red Riot wrings out his wrists, pushing back against the chair. "Are you sure you're not still shaken up? You've barely touched your food."
"I'm not hungry."
"I heard your stomach growl. C'mon... it tastes good! Anyway, we gotta get you some protein! You're looking thin over there."
"Well," I point to his muscles hiding underneath the soft orange fabric. "Compared to you, it's a bit hard to be strong."
"Anyone can be strong. It's jus how we use it that matters."
We sit in silence for a moment, letting that sink in. Red Riot starts the conversation back up, still trying to pry into me. "I mean, your muscles aren't that bad either! But you could be stronger if you got into the hero course. But how did someone like you fail the entrance exams? You seem really smart!"
"It wasn't that. I failed the practical."
"I just saw you beat down a beast that would have taken me almost the same time."
"Well, you're a defensive type, right? So why does that matter?"
"You shouldn't discredit yourself. You're really powerful, you know!"
I am? It takes me a moment before I realize that I've said that out loud. Red Riot smiles back at me warmly, nothing like that guy from the pawnshop.
"Hell yeah. You're manlier than so many other guys. So how'd you fail the entrance exam?"
"I..." I swallow for a moment. He'd be the first one I told the truth. "I attacked the other students."
"Oh," he falls quiet, stirring his ramen around a little. "I couldn't imagine someone like you..."
"Maybe you could finish what you were saying? What do you mean?"
He laughs a bit, but the sound is nearing cynical, away from his trademark joy. "You don't really seem like that dynamic anti-hero type. More like the type to protect someone at any cost. Someone more like... yeah, someone like that."
I don't even bother digging into what he said, coughing instead. "I didn't want them to get more points than me. And, well... I guess they didn't!"
He doesn't join in on my laughter. "That's cruel though. What were you thinking?"
"I wasn't. It's exactly why it had happened. I originally lived in America, but I pleaded my parents to come here when I got into UA. That was probably my worst mistake."
"What happened? I'm sure I could help you settle into your classes a bit better."
"No," I answer back. "It's not that. I had a lot of friends back home. I-I'm sure I can make more friends, even if people are already scared of me. With fear, comes respect. Right?"
"There are other ways to get respect. As a man, it'd be hard to know that people only liked me because they thought I would hurt them."
I hang my head low, finally taking in the gravity of his words and my actions. I really did something horrible, didn't I? I could have hurt someone back there. "All I thought was that if I didn't do anything, it didn't matter if I lived or not; I'd be living in hell I'd make myself."
"What are you saying? That you'd self-harm?"

"It doesn't matter if it's self-harm or not; just trying to get into UA destroyed my body. These scales aren't like your hardening; they don't protect people. I'm a human switch knife, a double-edged sword. Anything I do destroys me."
He sits with that, ruminating for a moment before reaching out to grab my arm. "You don't mind if I take a look for a second, do you?"
"No," I swallow uncomfortably, even though his soft hands against my skin are probably the best thing I've felt all day. He brushes against one chink in my armor, flipping it back and forth. When I wince in pain, he stops, apologizing. "You've got such an interesting quirk. You know that, right?"
"Oh," I brush back a little. "My parents didn't give it to me. Genetically, I mean. I guess for them, it took a while to get used to."
"No heroes in America?"
"Too many. Nothing like here, where you have so many pro heroes that people look up to. Back home, it's about the money. It's not about the world they could create for us all, but the life they could make for themselves. They're no better with the villains."
"What are the villains like back there?"
"All Might wasn't ever a symbol. I think he was more of a taunt, what with his American design. The villains back home are all just criminals. Many are either quirkless or useless. The stronger the light, the stronger the shadows, as they say. And back there, there was barely a difference between the light and dark. I think we were all one grey shape."
"But what do you think? You're not in that grey, right?"
"Well... it's complicated. There was a point where I thought I had everything it took to be a hero. But at this point?"
"What?" he props his head against his hand, leaning in close to me. I can smell a bit of chocolate on his breath, rich and dreamy. "At this point, you're scared to be a hero?"
I nod slowly. "Because being a hero and being a villain is all about one decision. And if you choose to do nothing, you're the worst of everyone. It's inaction that lets the world crumble. And what happens when I can't do anything?"
He stares at me, looking conflicted. Just when I think he's about to tell me what he's thinking about, his phone buzzes, alerting him of a text. "It's Mr. Gum," he tells me, not trying to betray any secrets. "I'm going to have to take you with me."
"No," I tell him, pulling my arm back quickly. "No... if you think that you can just lull me into some sense of safety like this and then throw me in jail-"
"Relax!" he holds his hands up in defense. Of course, for Red Riot, it's probably a stronger defense than the wall I'm leaning against. "we're taking you back to UA."
"It's a Friday," I tell him, checking my phone. "School's already out. What's the point?"
"Well," he smiles, holding my shoulders tightly. "I guess they're accepting transfers to 1-A?"
No way. This has to be something he's just telling me to cooperate. "But why would they?"
"It took Fat a good amount of time to deal with that villain. Almost the same time as you."
"My quirk is just better suited for dealing with those big strong types. You know, because there's no need to overpower them or anything."
"It doesn't change the fact that you still took him out like that!" the hero snaps his fingers, looking impressed. Somehow, I can tell that he's not lying. Too bad that doesn't clear it all up; I'm sure anyone that texted him could have died. This won't change my guard.
"I'm a year ahead of you," I point out. "I'd be going down a grade if I joined your class."
"Well," he shrugs. "I might have read the text wrong. Or maybe Mr. Gum told me it wrong. Either way, it's great news, right?"
"Yeah," I rub my arm. "Shocking, but still exciting."
Another buzz interrupts my anxiety attack. "They'll be waiting for us. Do you want to walk, or do you want to wait in the rain?"
"I'll wait," I mumble, watching as the rain falls right in front of us in fat drops, exploding on impact as they reach the ground. "Do you... do you think it's okay that I attacked the guy?"
"Well," he hums for a moment before deciding sporadically. "Yeah. It's not my place to think anything about it, but I think you made the right choice. The hardest, most complicated choice, but definitely the best.
"When the League of Villains took my...." he stops for a moment, trying to think of what to say. "Friend, I think I felt how you do right now. Everything was just numb, and it wasn't going to change until I did something about it."
"The Hosu City incident? But I saw that it was all Pro Heroes."
"Well," he laughs a bit, a little bright spot against the darkness shrouding us. "A group of us wanted to do something about it. We're training to save people, aren't we? It's just... why do we have to stop because it's dangerous? Why do we ever stop because we might die?"
"We miss out on so much," I agree, pushing my hands into my pockets. "Because we're scared of what's going to happen. I used to overthink like that."
"But it's not about what happens after; it's about the present, and how you can change everything in a single moment."
I open my mouth to respond, but I hear the pro heroes rushing after us, looking drenched by the rain.
"Red Riot!" Fat Gum smiles, looking invigorated by the sight of us. "You're not hurt!"
"Um," I point out. "Why would he be?"
None of them say anything, a stark difference from their loud selves. Finally, Suneater coughs, staring me straight in the face. "We thought you would attack him."
"Ah," I say, feeling my smile fade. "Right."
"Still don't know how I feel about this guy joining the hero course," Real Steel admits, rubbing his back. "He's impulsive, and he needs to think a bit more."
"Then he'll fit right in!" Red Riot argues back. "C'mon, Fat! What do you think?"
"Well," Fat Gum inspects me up and down. "He has a powerful quirk and a good body. He could probably stand to gain a few pounds..."
"He has a voice," I remind them. "And he can also make his own decisions. Didn't you say that I was being transferred or something?"
"There's a chance of it," Suneater reminds me, looking finally in his element now that he has some control over the situation. "It's not guaranteed. We need to take you to UA first. You might want to text your parents; it's going to be a while."
"Parent." I correct bitterly. None of them seem to notice the remark, but I fire off a quick text. "Done. Now, let's get this over with."
"Seriously?" Fat Gum ruffles my hair, almost too much like a doting father. "That's what you say right before you get into the hero course?"
"Yay!" I feign hyperactive joy. "My favorite place! School!"
"Just get in the car," Fat sighs, pulling me into his car. Surprisingly, it's a lot more muted than his own yellow jacket and bright blonde hair. Instead, his car is almost like a perfect vehicle of subterfuge, all with tinted windows. Red Riot and Real Steel sit beside me, almost like that saying; between a rock and a hard place. Only this time, the rock is much, much friendlier than the hard place. Red Riot smiles at me, all pointed, jagged teeth. Still, his eyes are warm and soft, where Real Steel's stares at me with so much energy that I feel like I'm going to melt under his gaze.
"Alright, kids," Fat Gum says, motioning toward the radio. "Anyone want me to play anything in specific?"
In a single moment, all three students grow louder than before, shouting out random genres and songs. The pro hero grows exasperated in a single second, rubbing his temple with his free hand.
"Wow," he smiles despite the clear migraine that's growing. Even Suneater was able to reach his ear, sitting right beside his mentor. "Okay... Nico, you have anything you want to hear?"
"You know," I point out. "I'm mostly sure that usually, the almost criminal doesn't get to choose the songs."
"Well," he waves his hand. "You don't have a lot of time before I start playing anything at random."
Angry classical music starts bursting through the car, enveloping me in anxiety. Seriously, which part of violins are supposed to be calming? "How about... indie?" I'm mostly sure I heard Red Riot say something like that, and if I can get him on my good side, it'll be helpful."
"Well," Fat Gum shrugs. "Not what I'm used to hearing in this car, but it's a welcome change from last time."

"You usually let us pick the song depending on how many villains we caught," Real Steel says, crossing his arms. Still, I can see his foot tapping a bit to the soft beat of the unnamed song.
"Well, it'd still go to Nico. I don't really have a taste in music. And I'm glad to hear whatever you guys want to hear!"
"You really got a good hero," I whisper to Red Riot. He smiles a bit, shifting a bit closer to me. I gasp at the movement, feeling his warm body beneath the sweatshirt.
"Mr. Gum is nice. A lot different than the other heroes we've worked with before. He really cares for his students, I think," the red-haired boy barks, letting loose the same earthy, wafting scent.
"Hell yeah I am!" the pro hero says, taking a sharp left turn. "You guys got lucky with me. Hey, Nico!"
"Um... yeah?"
"You're a transformation type, and I've got a lot of them now. When it was just Suneater and me, we were big on quirks relying on eating. But now that I've taken on these two rascals, the theme's changed a bit. Whaddya say you join me?"
"That requires a hero license," I inform him. "And plus, I don't really fit in with you guys anyway, do I? I'm not outgoing or anything."
"There's more to saving people than hero work," Fat tells me, reminiscent of the same argument I told myself. "And anyway, I took Suneater here and made him outgoing, didn't I?"
"Please stop talking," Suneater pulls his cloak down farther. "Still, I wouldn't mind someone a little quieter here."
"You good at writing or interrogating, kid?"
I think back to what mom said earlier, about all the things that general studies wants me to be. "I've learned some basic psychology. And I can write down stuff. Like a secretary, right?"
"Yeah, exactly!" he laughs, pulling up to the school. "Hopefully, they don't try to arrest you for the stunt you pulled back there."
I nod, trying not to hide how nervous I am. Still, with the sight of UA, I'm almost calmed. Even for the general studies program, it's still a sight to behold. It doesn't change the fact that I'm still in one of the best high schools in the world, Still, it feels like the majority of the general studies course is composed of wannabe heroes like me; people whose lives were ruined by just one decision. The cherry blossoms are barely blooming yet, but the barren trees lining the gates give me nostalgia for a place I was bored out of my mind in only a few hours ago. I guess I should probably explain that UA has amazing courses. Honestly, I think the General Studies course sometimes has a more promising future than the hero course; you're almost guaranteed a career with some of the classes. But they're always too easy. When your dad's dead and your friends are an entire ocean away, it's hard to find anything else to do. So I study and work hard. But never above 100 percent. It's funny how they always say that our school's motto is Plus Ultra; what about the kids who don't get the spotlight nearly every day? Do we go above and beyond? Or does it simply not matter?
"Alright!" Mr. Gum stretches out as he clambers from the car, walking up the steps to the main entrance. "Everyone else, wait out here. I'll be taking Mr. Balgera up to the authorities. Thanks for your help!"
The three students don't react in any way. Instead, Fat Gum just pushes me up the stairs, sighing at his outfit. "I should have dressed a bit better for this, I think."
"Is this... important?"
"Well, kid... you might go to jail, or you might get your dream. Either way, your life's about to change. I doubt they'd just let you go after a repeated offense. Keep walking."
I follow his orders until we eventually reach a simple red door. Fat Gum breathes in, trying to calm himself down. Or maybe he's trying to calm me down.
"Once we're in there, I won't be able to help you, kid. I really think you have a good heart, but that nightmarish display you showed back then might change their opinion of you. I'd tell you to keep quiet and just listen to what they're saying, but I doubt you'll listen to me, will you?"
I shake my head, already cursing myself for it. "Sorry, sir. Thanks for all your help though."
He nods, smiling one final time before putting on a serious expression. Finally, we're face to face with at least a dozen plainly outfitted police officers, all dressed in black. In the middle, two familiar figures sit. With Principal Nezu, I'm barely surprised. Even though he looks like some animal, he's got to be a thousand times smarter than one. Right beside him though, a smile freezes me up.
Sidney has his feet kicked up against the desk, grinning like a madman. Nezu doesn't even seem to notice the disrespect. Or maybe he just doesn't want to dignify it with a response. Is this what he meant when he told me that he could get me everything I wanted? Is this how I might get in?
I have to push the sick feeling rising in my stomach down; right now, they're going to ask me questions. If I answer just one of them wrong, my life might end. "So," the principal shuffles his papers around. "I've seen that you have an impressive record, Mr. Balgera. You even tried out for UA after being accepted to many high schools in America. You could have continued your education there; after all, you were already in your freshman year. Yet for some reason, you decided to abandon all that for UA. Why is that?"
I answer almost automatically. Probably a combination of my nerves and Sidney. I'll bet he already has every decision laid out exactly how he wants. Still, that doesn't mean I'm in the clear.
"If you were given the option to help someone or to save yourself, which one would you choose."
"Excuse me," one of the men motions to Nezu. "I hardly think that's relevant."
"No," he keeps his sick, unwavering smile. "I think the most common answer would be to save yourself. But that isn't what you thought about two hours ago, was it?"
"It's what I thought when at your tryouts," I bow slightly, still unsure of what to do according to the customs. "I'm terribly sorry about it.
"I saw all those people nearly being killed... and all because of me. After that, I didn't want to see anyone else being put through so much pain."
"But it's only natural for that to be the case," the principal picks up a thin cigar, inspecting it carefully. "People get hurt, Mr. Balgera. It's all there is to it."
"I'd like to limit the pain then," I shout back, trying to control my temper. Still, it's difficult to keep my adrenaline down, even after sitting with Red Riot for so long. "As long as I can minimize the pain people feel, it'll help. I know that I can't fight death, but I'll do whatever I can to prolong it."
"Hm..." Nezu sighs, looking at Sidney absentmindedly. My heart begins to thump wildly, almost like a storm. I know the principal is extremely intelligent, but the opinions he hasn't even realized he's made might not be under that category.
"I think it'd be safe to say that you don't deserve any jail time," he nods, ignoring the shocked and angry gasps surrounding him. "At least for this offense. You didn't get off that easy for the tryouts, what with the house arrest forever ago. Yet under the circumstances, it wasn't as if there was much choice for you to leave your house anyway."
"O-of course," I tell him, trying to ignore the world around us, focusing on only our conversation. If he thinks I'm not ready just for a second, it could be all over. "But you beleive I did the right thing in this situation?"
"Well, it wasn't exactly legal. Still, in the time we live in today, it would have disastrous consequences were you to not step up. I admire your bravery, but you must understand that there will be consequences down the line.
"I'm still not sure if you truly believe in the hero course as your right path, but never mind all that. If it's what you want, I'll make arrangements right away."
"You'd really let me in that easily?"
"We need more heroes like you," the principal stares into my eyes adamantly, looking steely and determined. "People willing to do the wrong thing. Heroes who are ready to face chaos."
"So what you're saying is," I wait for him to finish, scared that if I interrupt him, he might throw away his entire promise. "I'd be a sort of counter symbol."
"We don't want anyone playing the anti-hero, but there will be a time where we need a symbol like you. We've been resting all our hope on one hero, with other pros sprinkled in. I'd say that it'd be quite useful to change that up and have many different pillars. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Um," I stare up at Fat Gum for a moment. "I think we need more types of heroes. There are so many kinds, but I feel like I've never seen so many of them."
"There are many different kinds of heroes. Yet, for the past era, it's been one man in front of it all. I'd like to change up that type of status quo, even if I'm unable to see it. The world doesn't need more heroes; we need to focus a tad bit more on the ones we already have."
"Does this mean I get in?" I finally drop my act, letting out all my anxiety. The principal lets out a rare, kind smile.
"Well, you'd have to be moved down from the first years; you'd be missing out on nearly everything if you were kept in the second years. And we've been looking at changing up the hero course anyway."
"I need some letter- oh, thanks," before I can even finish my gripes, Nezu hands me a signed permission slip. "If you get this signed, you'll enter next week."
"That early?" I look down at the paper. Can I even get mom to sign this in time?
"There's no use in wasting time. I'll expect in on my desk by Monday morning."
"But..." I trail off, watching as Sidney lurks in the corner. I didn't trust him before, and I still can't shake the feeling that it feels a little too planned. "Won't I be switching classes on Monday morning? You'd really have everything prepared in time?"

"We have many dorms open. The class size wouldn't be affected very much. I don't see much of a point in waiting anyway. And in any case, you'll only be joining the dorms the week after that. Come Monday, you will be taking general classes with your other class 1-A students. Does this make sense?"
"So I won't really be taking any hero classes until the week after?" I shrug. "That's fine with me. But why 1-A?"
"Those students seem to have a tendency to find trouble when they aren't looking for it. I'm sure that you'd go looking for trouble yourself, correct?"
I brush my arm with my hand, leaning back on the balls of my feet. "What does it matter?"
"If you're going to find trouble," the principal ushers the police out of the room. "Then it might as well find you. If I'm being frank here, I'd say that out of all my students, I'd care the least about you."
"Nezu!" Fat shouts from above me, filled with more rage than I've heard before. "What are you saying?"
"I shouldn't have spoken," he takes a long sip from his tea, waiting for a response. When neither of us gives him one, he places the cup down slowly, looking me in the eyes. "Some of the public is already aware of your misdemeanors. In truth, the media may paint this as a villain entering the school."
"What?" I cross my arms, trying to coax my spikes down.
"I'm simply stating a fact. Please pardon the blunt tone in which I spoke. All I am trying to say is that when the media attacks you, don't expect a warm response."
"I can take them," I push back my scales, sighing. He raises an eyebrow hesitantly.
"We'll see about that," he plucks a hair from my sweatshirt, placing it delicately in the trash. "You have great things to look forward to in the future."
I swallow nervously, staring back at Fat Gum. Is this the right decision?
It's all up to fate.