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sometimes kindness wears a mask

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The violent shove didn’t come as a surprise but the force of it sent Hitoshi to his hands and knees on the dirty concrete. He focused on his hands, palms stinging from reflexively trying to brace his body against the rough impact with the ground, and the pebble he could feel digging uncomfortably into his right knee instead of looking up at the older kids who’d dragged him here.

Better not to risk being caught glaring. Painful experience told him that would only make them think they had to teach him a lesson more often because he was getting ‘too aggressive’. 

He didn't have to look at them to know the exact expression on their faces, anyway. It was old news by now.

The small backpack he’d filled with things for his walk before these ‘siblings’ caught him about to leave the group home was ripped away from him and thrown next to the dumpster. It landed in the middle of one of the piles of garbage littering the ground of this dead-end, one strap splashing into a small puddle from a thrown out milk carton. Hitoshi turned his head away.

His bag would smell like rotting trash until he could convince one of the adults to have it washed. The yellow might stain permanently and the worst thing was, they weren't even seriously trying to ruin it. The second it was away from him none of the three teenagers paid any mind to where they’d tossed it. 

Obviously it wasn’t his stuff they were interested in trashing today. He felt bitter that that insight made him feel almost grateful to them.

The shortest and meanest (and, Hitoshi couldn’t resist mentally adding, ugliest) thirteen-year-old stepped forward and cracked his knuckles, always eager to play at being the ringleader. “Still walking around with that villainous quirk of yours… Who gave you the right, right?” The smirk in his voice was audible as he pretended to wait for a response that wouldn't come. Hitoshi glared fiercely but didn't bother raising his head. Peering out of the corner of his eyes would be enough to see any of their clearly telegraphed kicks coming. 

The snickering and insults continued for a minute, steadily decreasing in quality, but Hitoshi didn't let himself listen. Then the middle schooler suddenly switched tactics: "Hey. Saya-chan said she caught you secretly watching Hero Fights on TV yesterday. Wanting to see if you'll know any of the scum getting arrested? Or are you doing research on your future career? Ha. No need to wait for a big shot like Present Mic to show up when we can easily beat you into the ground right now." 

Hitoshi's fingers had curled into tight fists without him noticing until his knuckles scraped painfully against the rough cement. He forced himself to stealthily take a deep breath and relaxed his body the best he could, ignoring the instinctive discomfort. 

His hands were always his biggest tell, but there was no point reacting right now. They didn't know anything about him; it was just a stupid taunt. He’d have to be an idiot to rise to that.

Footsteps drew steadily closer to him, casually kicking aside an empty coffee can with enough force to crush it where it hit the building wall. They had gotten bored of playing the game quickly today. “I see you already packed your bags. Running away to lead a life of crime? Before we let you do that, I think you might need another reminder what future heroes like us are going to do to cowards like you if you get any other genius ideas.”

A scuffed up Ingenium-brand sneaker was lifted off the ground in anticipation of a vicious rib stomp. Hitoshi instantly raised his left arm to cushion his torso against the worst of the impact—

“Maa, could you brats give me some directions? It seems I got lost on the road of life.”

The unfamiliar voice startled every person in the remote alleyway into reflexively jerking back. Hitoshi’s head had been lowered all this time, so the sudden arrival came into focus as a fragmented series of impressions as he yanked his eyes up: a tall and thin body, the glint of light on a blade in gloved hands, dark clothes with a strange padded costume vest, the cold expression on a masked face. Hitoshi met the merciless gaze of that single eye and felt a shiver run down his spine.

“V-villain!”

A terrified voice called out what Hitoshi had been thinking and broke the momentary standoff. With wide eyes Hitoshi watched his bullies flee in the direction of the main road in a dead sprint, all cockiness and violent potential gone in the face of real danger. Suddenly left behind, Hitoshi realized exactly how vulnerable he’d allowed himself to become but didn’t dare try to make a run for it now. Fear kept his body immobilized.

The villain blinked. “Was it something I said?”

He — wisely — didn’t seem to expect a reply as he shoved his hands into his pockets, slouching casually on the spot. The air of polite curiosity he used to study the still kneeling Hitoshi, the newly abandoned alleyway and the dumpsters equally was so obviously fake it made Hitoshi’s teeth ache.

There was a tense minute of nothing happening— 

Hitoshi tried and failed to decide what to do now his situation had taken a sudden turn from a normal level of awful to absolute terror, overwhelmed with the feeling of his heart violently beating as if trying to climb up and out of his throat 

—and he flinched when the man unexpectedly continued, “As charming as this place is, why don’t we move to a cozier deserted location before we continue our chat? You can answer my questions there. I promise the smell will be only slightly better.”

Hitoshi didn’t think he had much of a choice faced with an adult villain. Stiffly, he got to his feet and walked over to the dumpster to grab his backpack. He pretended to need to fiddle with the zipper for a second with his face turned away, briefly closing his eyes and taking as deep a breath as currently possible against the rising panic. Focus. You didn’t need Superstrength to be brave or an intelligence quirk to show some common sense. 

He hadn't been hurt yet — had even avoided a beating from the other foster kids — and the villain clearly wanted something from him. 

(Directions, he'd said, but he was also currently pretending to be a harmless idiot after brandishing a knife. Hitoshi had met him less than two minutes ago and could already tell he was a born liar. Some adults were like that.)

He slung the clean strap of his backpack over one shoulder and nodded to show he was ready to go. For now all he could do was keep a level head. Expect the unexpected.

The villain grabbed his elbow and they disappeared in a swirl of leaves.

 

—*^*—

Hitoshi had been sneaking away from the group home — though careful to avoid breaking curfew — to visit the neighborhood strays for a few months now. He always saved up all the pocket money the caretakers handed out to their charges as practice for having to balance their own household budgets one day. 

Once he had a decent amount together, he grabbed his backpack and went to the local corner store to spend the lion’s share of it on small cans of specialty food suitable for cats of all ages, even those with sensitive stomachs. 

(The cat toys he handmade himself during Art class using the public school supplies, except for that one amazing time he’d splurged and bought a toy mouse filled with catnip.)

The ‘cozier location’ the masked stranger had transported them to in the time it took to reflexively startle at the sudden grab (using a speed quirk?) was a place Hitoshi recognized. It was another dead-end but this one didn’t lead to two overflowing dumpsters, instead ending where it met with the wall of a small, enclosed garden shared by several apartment buildings. 

It was low enough Hitoshi might be able to climb over if he went on his tiptoes or got a running start; for a tall adult, it would be even easier. Even though it was only a block away, there was almost no litter and everything was noticeably cleaner than the place they’d just left. 

Hitoshi looked around, turning towards where the alleyway bent sharply back towards the main road and all the foot traffic.

Before he could make the choice himself, the man had already dropped his arm again and stepped out of his personal space. Hitoshi was still alone with an unknown who threatened children with knives he made disappear using either his quirk or impressive sleight of hand, but he felt a little safer on his feet and away from the dirt. The familiar street helped. 

Hitoshi blinked when the villain tilted his head to look down at him thoughtfully and let out a hum. “Well, I took the trouble to borrow you, but it seems like you won’t be able to tell me what I need to know with that thing on you. You don’t mind if I take it off, do you?” His eyebrow lifted and his closed eye curved into a crescent — a fake smile — when Hitoshi raised a hand to touch the dark plating covering his mouth and, hesitantly, dipped his chin in a nod.

The villain immediately grabbed Hitoshi by the back of his neck with his left hand before reaching out to touch the straps securing the muzzle to Hitoshi’s face. He paused before he got to the miniaturized lock on the back of his head to make significant eye contact. “Don’t try anything stupid once I remove this. I have some experience handling the bitey ones and no interest in repeats.”

With his head mostly immobilized and his eyes wide, all Hitoshi could do was nod again. His heart was beating like crazy. Only seconds after first inspecting it and taking out what looked like a long metal toothpick, the man had bent forward a little more and opened the lock with an audible click

Hitoshi reached up to lift the muzzle away from his face himself.

Cool air brushed against his chin and soft cheeks, areas of skin sweat always gathered on uncomfortably. The device was carefully designed to be safe to wear and not have any sharp edges, but in Hitoshi’s mind it felt like it left permanent marks everywhere it pressed against on his face anyway. Having it off was a relief for more than one reason. He let it drop onto the hard ground, almost hoping it would break.

Hitoshi warily eyed the supposed villain that had taken several casual steps away to inspect a nearby plant breaking through the concrete. His behavior didn’t make sense to him at all. Unless…

He cleared his throat, immediately attracting the man’s full attention to himself. It was an intimidating sensation, like a scalpel hovering just above his skin or claws lightly pressing against his organs. No real threat, not yet, but an awareness of the other. Just enough pressure to keep you on high alert. He braced himself.

“I won’t help you,” Hitoshi said quietly. 

There was an awkward pause. The reaction he expected never came. “I don’t work with villains,” he added.

The man finally stopped staring to rock back onto his heels. “A villain? Me?” He put a hand to his chest, miming offense. But past the exaggerated emotion in his body language his one visible eye remained aloof and coldly assessing. 

Hitoshi frowned suspiciously and decided to keep silent. His fingers flexed where they held onto the strap of his backpack, rubbing a speck of dirt away with this thumb.

Giving up on his act for now, the stranger dropped his hand and shrugged. He tilted his head to the side inquisitively, making unruly silver hair slightly flop forward over his strange headband and into his face where it didn’t quite spike up all the way. “What does that word mean, ‘villain’?”

“That’s a stupid question for a villain to ask,” slipped out without thinking.

“Sa, kid, I’d say villains especially deserve to know. So humor me.” The low and smooth voice gained an edge of amusement to it but his gaze remained watchful. It seemed Hitoshi was expected to respond to this question seriously.

‘What does it mean to be a villain?’ was something Hitoshi had thought about a lot himself, only ever in the privacy of his mind — staring up at the ceiling of the shared dormitory when everyone else was asleep, exhaustion settled deep into his limbs but his brain wide awake —, but for all his contemplation he hadn’t been able to find a satisfying answer yet.

He looked at the man he suspected of being one, eyeing the stranger’s hands that definitely had experience handling weapons even if they were empty and harmless now; as if the shining knife he’d seen earlier had been a trick of the light.

He opened his mouth and answered.

“Villains are people who go against society’s rules. The worst of lawbreakers. They’re selfish and they use their quirks to do awful things to civilians. They destroy whatever they want to and they kill people. There’s… sometimes, you might have a good reason for having to steal from a store, but there are no good villains. Heroes have to fight them every day to keep people safe.”

All the years of being called one after his quirk manifested, before and after his mom disappeared, didn’t magically make Hitoshi an expert on villain psychology. He knew better than to think he understood everything about heroes and villains and the society he lived in at his age. Not yet. But for now he thought it was enough that he held on tightly to his dream and refused to ever become one.

Even if nobody thought he had a choice.

“Mhm. I suppose I’ve killed a lot of people to keep my precious people safe… and I have been known to say that those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their friends are worse than trash, so I’ve done that, too… I guess it’s fine for you to call me a villain after all.”

“Then I won’t help you.”

The most relaxed (and only) villain Hitoshi had ever met let out a dramatically mournful sigh of disappointment in response. He didn’t get angry at being denied or switch to more forceful persuasion… or just force. He didn’t even say what he actually wanted. It seemed he didn’t really care about Hitoshi, but he made no move to leave him alone, either. His body language was almost a blank slate with how much of a mix of confusing contradictions it held.

Hitoshi frowned down at the skinned knees on his Elementary school uniform and tried furiously to solve this walking puzzle. Half an accusation, half a reminder to himself, he said, “You’re a very dangerous person.”

“Oh, I don’t like to brag.” The amusement was even stronger in his tone now. He cocked his head again, lazily pacing semi-circles around where Hitoshi was standing in the alleyway. 

Unexpectedly the villain’s eye sharpened once more. Hitoshi hadn't even noticed when his gaze stopped being so cutting and analytical and turned more casual. “You say you won’t help me since I’m a villain, but wasn’t I the one to help you?” 

His voice was completely steady as he said that. He could have been asking out of idle curiosity as he made small talk or as a pointed barb, a return accusation. With his impassive dark eye and cloth covering all the facial cues Hitoshi usually relied on to read people, it was impossible to tell.

Frustrated, confused, scared and feeling keenly vulnerable, Hitoshi clenched his fists, made eye contact and desperately asked: “Why did you help me?”

Immediately Hitoshi noticed what he’d done and flinched in anticipation of the consequence. He hadn’t intended to actually ask a question, and to do it to a villain—  

But there was no instant anger or fear or disgust, no preemptive punishment. His eyes widened in sudden realization. It should have become obvious the second the muzzle was taken off. This villain… didn’t know about Hitoshi's quirk at all.

Likely unaware of the direction Hitoshi’s thoughts were racing, the stranger answered lazily. “Maa, I suppose it’s because…” He frowned, staring at the building’s brick wall as if looking into the distance in deep contemplation. He nodded pensively to himself and hummed. “…I just felt like it.” 

Hitoshi’s eyebrow twitched at such a stupid answer and how long the man had dragged it out. Another eye-smile, this one a lot more mocking, only increased his rising irritation but…

… he couldn’t let himself forget the same weirdo who was currently toeing at a dandelion as if an expectant nudge was all he needed to encourage it to bloom faster was actually terrifying. Had terrified him from the first moment they met. So casual about calling himself a villain. Talking about killing a lot of people.

Hitoshi’s heart rate picked up once more. He wasn’t sure when it had calmed down before. Impossible to know how such a delay between the question being asked and the response being finished would affect things. In his panic, he grabbed at the possible connection between their minds and yanked it into being. From potential into reality with desperate force.

It was instinct as much as it was a calculated risk.

If this didn’t work…

It might not be a good idea even if it does.  

The villain’s face immediately went blank just like all of Hitoshi’s victims. Without that air of danger, the calculating looks, the drooping eyelid just made him look tired. 

Hitoshi breathed out and loosened his fists. Looking at him again, the villain’s body seemed even lankier held motionless like this, without the tension that came from constantly holding yourself ready to move. Hitoshi had seen it on patrolling pro heroes and kids like himself, but this man wore it differently. Right now the edge of it was entirely missing. He just stood there passively, relaxed, waiting for an order.

Feeling safer for the moment, Hitoshi set down his backpack and let himself fully take in the other’s appearance. 

He was a tall adult, the effect increased by several inches of light gray hair sticking up straight. The clothes he was wearing looked strange and were obviously a costume, not civilian wear. A mask to conceal his identity, leaving only one eye visible. Pants and a shirt that looked more sturdy than soft. The padded vest had a large number of pockets; his thigh had something strapped to it, too — a holster for weapons. Combat wear.

There were scars visible on his fingers and forearms, some faint, some shiny and new. Hitoshi could see the villain’s wrists were skinny in a familiar way; his skin was very pale against the black where the metal-plated gloves ended and the bone jutted out. It made him look more like porcelain than live steel.

Dollmaker had been one of the kindest villain names his classmates had 'suggested' for his future. Hitoshi knew his quirk was, theoretically, as powerful as it was creepy, but it was strange to know his own mind had temporarily overpowered even an adult villain's. 

Assuming this wasn't a trick.

"Move away from me."

The command worked as it was supposed to. The tightness in his shoulders loosened a little more with each obedient step the villain took closer to the other end of the alley and farther away from him. 

Hitoshi tilted his head back to carefully eye the mostly concealed expression. Even without awareness or intention, the man’s height gave the impression of looming over him. It was effortlessly intimidating; Hitoshi kind of hoped he’d grow up to be tall, too.

“Sit down,” Hitoshi ordered after a pause. His fingers curled and uncurled with his uncertainty.

The villain folded his long legs underneath himself and sat. With him on the ground and Hitoshi standing, the ends of his hair were now just below eye level.

It was entirely a stupid impulse. Hitoshi was curious about hair that stuck up worse than his own and walked over to gently touch one of the spikes. It was… surprisingly soft. But springy compared to his own thin fluffy hair. 

He immediately yanked his hand back and shook his head at himself. In this kind of situation, what was he even doing?!

The feeling of keeping his quirk active and their minds connected hummed in the back of his mind like a live wire. The only quirk training he had ever received had been very basic. The specialist had really only cared about making a record of the limits of his quirk and teaching him how to stop using it on accident. 

And despite what the caretakers chose to believe when they brought out the muzzle — just as a precaution, a ‘preventative measure’ — he knew better than to use something so dangerous on other kids unless he had no choice.

Because he never had anyone willing to practice with him, Hitoshi didn’t know exactly how long he could hold the stranger under his control. It had been years since he’d used his quirk on an adult mind; once he understood what was happening, whenever he had gotten his mom with it accidentally he’d always quickly let go of her again. He didn’t even know if he had a time limit or if he could only do a set number of commands because recently he only ever used it for the few seconds needed to order his bullies to leave him alone.

In place of experience, he’d have to rely on stubbornness and concentrate on not messing up.

Hitoshi squared his shoulders and asked: "What's your name?"

"Kakashi."

He frowned. "Is that your villain name?"

No reply. The question must be too complicated, then. As far as anyone knew, when he used his quirk to ask for information instead of giving out orders, it only worked for answers the target didn’t have to think deeply about. If he interpreted it as an ambiguous question because this ‘Kakashi’ was morally gray and didn’t entirely consider himself a villain…

Or maybe he was breaking out of Hitoshi’s mind control, starting with successfully ignoring the commands he didn’t like. Hitoshi shifted uneasily on his feet at that idea. He decided to rephrase the question to test it.

“What do you call yourself when you… murder people?”

This time Kakashi immediately responded: “Hound.”

Hitoshi had never heard of a villain by that name before either. Was Kakashi just starting his career? No; even ignoring the scars, he seemed far too experienced. He’d also talked about acting to protect someone… so it was possible he was a vigilante, instead. One that stuck to his ‘territory’ and was just passing through now. Local vigilantes often deliberately didn’t get named in the wider news. It was a way to discourage the people who might attempt vigilantism in order to get famous.

Kakashi had said Hitoshi was allowed to call him a villain, but hadn’t claimed the label for himself. Curiosity drove Hitoshi to ask: “What do you think a villain is?”

He was disappointed, then unsettled, when Kakashi only recited the definition Hitoshi himself had offered earlier in a lifeless monotone. It made him think of Kakashi’s reply to that: ‘I’ve killed a lot of people to keep my precious people safe.’

“How many lives have you taken?”

Silence. Another question without an easy answer. It proved that whatever he called himself, he must be a villain. Hitoshi coughed nervously to clear his throat and told himself it was because he wasn’t used to speaking so much anymore.

“Do you want to kill me?”

The dead-end they were in — with the low wall to the small community garden that someone had placed a tiny flower pot on, only just out of sight and around the corner from a road busy with traffic and pedestrians — suddenly seemed ominously remote and isolated.

“No.”

Hitoshi bit his lip. He hadn’t gotten to where he was in life by being lucky. “… Are you going to?”

“Currently unlikely to be necessary.” 

His hands trembled a little as he smoothed down the hoodie he was wearing over his school uniform. That… was all the most important questions covered, right? The police could figure out the rest. Right now, he was too busy concentrating on the sensation of his activated quirk to think of anything else.

The next step should be…

“Lay down all your weapons.”

Movements still eerily silent — something Hitoshi only then noticed had been part of what made the villain seem so off-putting and dangerous — Kakashi obediently started to disarm himself. His motions lacked the fluid grace with Hitoshi in command of his body but his hands were practiced and sure as he methodically undid the bindings keeping his thigh holster secure and set it down.

The pockets of his vest were also emptied. Kakashi took out a small katana from a concealed sheath on his lower back and set it on the ground with a clink. It joined a dozen knives, sheets of paper, what looked like actual ninja throwing stars and spools of glittery silver wire in a deceptively orderly, deadly pile in front of which he was sitting cross-legged. 

Hitoshi watched, both uneasy and strangely fascinated. 

Pro heroes on TV were pros because they typically had very powerful, ‘heroic’ quirks; not many of them boosted their combat ability with weapons of any kind. When they did, it tended to be things that suited their specific quirk while helping with non-lethal take-downs like a staff, tonfa or rope. Openly carrying blades was frowned upon and the rare ones he’d seen on TV (mostly used by the villain side) didn’t look at all like these ones. 

These knives were diamond-shaped, with a ring grip at the end but no proper hilt or handle for safety; they looked dangerous whether or not someone was wielding them with intent.

Weapons that were so obviously lethal were unpopular in the heroics industry — as if every strength quirk didn’t need training and careful control or they’d risk fatal injuries with each punch. At least in Japan, guns were even rarer than knives. Hitoshi had once overheard a story about a weird vigilante who wrapped up criminals in his own knitted scarf; later, he’d found out they were talking about the underground pro Eraserhead and his capture weapon.

The pile of weapons kept growing. Due to various expenses, heroes were rarely so well-equipped. Hitoshi thought the same went for your average villain. Kakashi… was something else.

As Hitoshi stared, Kakashi reached into the high sides of his open-toed shoes. With confusion, then understanding and growing shock, Hitoshi watched him take out several slim knives that had been impossible to notice in the lining.

Hitoshi picked up the knife closest to him — one of the triangular bladed ones — and carefully eyed it. He didn’t test its point on his thumb; he didn’t need to to see it was sharpened to a deadly edge. He looked at the arsenal in front of him. If anyone found him with these…

He swallowed. “Stop! Uh. Put all your weapons away instead.”

Kakashi stopped where he’d clearly been intending to take off his sandals next; Hitoshi didn’t want to know. Mechanically, the villain put the weapons away again, starting with his previously concealed boot knives and moving on to the strange long needles.

The thought of discovery had reminded Hitoshi. Kakashi was dangerous; even if he didn’t harm Hitoshi personally, his friends might show up to see why he was delayed or Hitoshi’s luck would be terrible enough a passing police officer would see him hanging out with what was clearly a villain and a whole mountain of obviously illegal weapons. (Kakashi didn’t seem like the type to carry a permit.)

Forget being unsure about the limitations of his quirk, the situation as a whole was impossible. But what should he do?

He watched Kakashi smoothly re-arm himself and frowned. Hitoshi tried to figure out how to get a villain with a speed quirk into custody — I’ve killed a lot of people — when his control may break at any second on the way there. He could no longer pretend that a migraine wasn’t already forming after multiple commands and several minutes of active quirk use. 

Additionally, the police might decide he’s guilty by association if he waltzed into their station with a serial killer villain under his mind control. It wouldn’t look good. At the very least they’d definitely charge him with unlicensed illegal quirk use.

For the things he wanted to do, with a quirk like the one he had, Hitoshi couldn’t afford any black marks on his record.

Should he order him to stay in the alleyway and try to get the attention of a patrolling hero, give a tip on a villain sighting? Hitoshi futilely wished he was allowed to have a phone, things would be so much easier if—

Out of the corner of his eye, Hitoshi saw Kakashi reach for a strange, three-pronged blade. The villain’s thumb caught on the sharp edge of it as he picked it up. It was only a scratch, no more than a paper cut, but Hitoshi felt his control break instantly.

 

—*^*—

Fear is something that comes in many different forms from many directions. Hitoshi wasn’t proud of it, but maybe his foster siblings were right when they called him a coward. He was scared of a lot of things; sometimes he was even scared of himself. His own future. 

At eleven years old he was experienced at feeling fear. 

Slow, creeping anxiety while laying awake at night. The unease of watching his classmates leave or turn their heads away one by one as the class bully made his way towards him with the promise of violence in every step. Spikes of adrenaline and raw terror after waking up from nightmares that left him more exhausted than his insomnia ever did. Feelings of powerlessness and a loss of control that burned even as they locked up his limbs and made him cower.

None of that prepared him for being pinned to the alley wall with a knife to his throat by a dangerous villain. Every trace of amusement was gone from Kakashi. Hitoshi hadn’t even seen him move. 

Without a question, this was the single most terrifying moment in Hitoshi’s life. He instinctively didn’t try to struggle. The hold Kakashi had on his neck pinned him harshly against the brick. Somehow it also paralyzed every muscle in his right arm. 

The line of the knife was ice cold where Hitoshi’s mind automatically imagined it to be; he knew the blade was so sharp it would split skin instantly the second it actually touched him. The implied restraint of the right hand that didn’t shake at all so close to Hitoshi’s pulse only increased the threat. 

Provoked or not, his throat would no doubt be cut with cold surgical precision. The corpse disposal, equally efficient.

Compared to the violence in his body language, the villain’s voice was very steady. There was the hint of a warning growl to it. “What did you do to me?”

Hitoshi’s eyes met the cold stormy gaze only an inch away from his own. “I-It’s my quirk,” he quickly stuttered out. “It lets me brainwash people who answer my q-questions… Please, I don’t… it’s weak, I’ve never even used it to hurt anyone — couldn’t, the control breaks with pain…”

Instantly, regret rose at this blatant confession of his own weakness. Ruining a second chance at capturing the villain. Revealing his incredible vulnerability.

Except something about Kakashi seemed to relax at this answer. Still kneeling over Hitoshi, he hummed and looked thoughtfully over at the muzzle. It had been lying discarded for the entirety of their conversation earlier. Hitoshi had almost managed to forget it was there until he turned his head slightly to follow his gaze.

He felt dread rise like bile up his throat. The shaking of his hands increased. The tiny motions were as noticeable as the rapid rise and fall of his chest with his shallow breathing as he did his best to stay obediently still against the wall. 

Except the villain didn’t force it back onto him. Instead, he lifted both his hands and the blade away from Hitoshi’s throat and settled back onto his haunches, giving him some space. He took out some of that strange silver wire and pushed up the sleeve of his shirt to loop a coil of it around the bare skin of his forearm. Finally, he reached up and adjusted his lopsided headband.

Whatever the extent of Kakashi’s speed enhancement quirk actually was, it came with a single mutated red eye with multiple pupils gently spinning around the central one. A scar cut through his eyebrow down to his cheek, the end disappearing under his mask. Hitoshi found himself staring at the revolving pattern, entranced.

Kakashi said, “I suppose that’s a useful… ‘quirk’.”

Not even the terror of a near-death experience could entirely erase the sting of hearing these words coming from a villain. 

Even a villain that was a complete weirdo.

One that seemed disinterested in actually killing him. Who continued not to hurt him. Slowly, as if suspicious the situation would once again turn sour in an instant, Hitoshi’s racing heart slowed down to a less painful level. 

“What were you going to do to me?”

Lying didn’t seem like an option. Hitoshi found himself a little surprised Kakashi was actually fearlessly engaging him in conversation after experiencing his quirk. Though on the other hand, it was equally obvious now who was actually a threat between the two of them. “I was making sure you wouldn’t hurt me… or get away to hurt anyone else.”

Though now it seemed laughably naive to think he would be able to get a villain like Kakashi into police custody by himself. Probably even if his control hadn’t broken, Kakashi would have escaped somehow. 

“Standing up to a villain all by yourself? Pretty brave of you, purple cabbage-kun.”

Hitoshi ignored the strange nickname. The teasing humor wasn’t genuine; it did nothing to change that this was a serious, possibly life-changing (or life-ending) conversation. He closed his eyes and finally admitted to something he had kept close to his chest for years, guarding his heart and the secret itself. “I have to be brave… because… I want to be a hero.”

Silence.

When Hitoshi opened his eyes again, Kakashi was watching him intently. His eyes curved into mocking crescents and he gestured to himself as he asked, “Maa, didn't you say those are supposed to fight villains?”

Said villain got up with a quiet hum. The projected aggression had disappeared entirely as he stepped over to the last few weapons still out on the ground, scattered by his sudden lunge towards Hitoshi. He picked them up and inspected them one by one. He paused over one knife that had been launched a few feet, slicing apart the dandelion sprouting from the cracks in the concrete.

Hitoshi silently watched all of this, back still pressed to the wall and sitting on the cold hard ground. Skillfully keeping the bitterness out of his voice, he explained with forced neutrality: “There’s nothing I can do.” 

Kakashi wiped the knife on the sleeve of his shirt before making it vanish into one of his many pockets. “Ah, normally people who quickly give up are boring, but…” He touched the decapitated flower bud absentmindedly, almost as if checking for a pulse. “It’s actually quite a refreshing change. You’re even purple instead of yellow. Or pink.”

Against his will, Hitoshi found himself bristling a little. As it so often did, anger rose up to chase away some of the fear. “It’s not that I’m giving up.”

“Oho? You only used your best chance on me once. Now you’re cowering against the wall like a little mouse. Even with the multiple openings I’ve given you, you haven’t asked me a single question since.” 

“It’s not cowardice to know when someone is out of your league! And, what… you want me to keep trying to trap you with my quirk?”

It was an attempt to trick Hitoshi. It had to be. Right? 

Kakashi seemed honestly amused this time when he glanced back over at Hitoshi, straightening to his full height with his hands in his pockets. “Keeps things interesting, don’t you think?”

Hitoshi grabbed the connection between their minds and—

Once again turned into a puppet, Kakashi’s forearms flexed as Hitoshi caught him and stopped him mid-step. He instantly snapped out of the brainwashing and gave Hitoshi an obnoxiously cheerful wave, as if to prove his control over his own limbs.

Eyes narrowing into a glare, both from being mocked and so successfully outmaneuvered, Hitoshi spat out: “Are you completely insane?!” 

“That’s the spirit,” Kakashi replied. This time Hitoshi’s control broke before he was even consciously aware he’d reached out again. 

Annoyance at Kakashi’s fake encouragement did a good job covering up the fear at Hitoshi’s quirk, his last resort, being rendered effectively useless by the villain once he’d recovered from being taken by surprise the first time. Or maybe it was that Kakashi was so obviously capable of killing him the second he wanted to that this additional development didn’t change much; Hitoshi wouldn’t have been able to fend him off either way.

He was a kid against what was easily an A-rank threat. Somehow, against all odds and despite the terrifying first impression, he’d let himself underestimate how dangerous a villain Kakashi was. Maybe because the man didn’t make any sense.

As if to provide evidence for that last thought, Kakashi finished his inventory check and slouched over to Hitoshi, casually sinking to squat down next to him against the wall but leaving plenty of space between them. “So, brat,” he began lightly, “if it’s not to righteously beat up lowlifes like myself, why do you want to call yourself a hero?” 

His tone of voice was lightly mocking and he didn’t seem to overly care about getting an answer. At the same time, Hitoshi couldn’t imagine him asking just to be polite. He was clearly willing to listen but in the end it didn’t really matter to him. That attitude was strangely freeing; it, surprisingly, encouraged a rare willingness to be honest.

Fidgeting with the fraying ends of his sleeves, he slowly opened up. 

“There’s not a lot I can do, with a mind control quirk,” Hitoshi told him. “Or… sometimes, it’s that I could use it to do too many things and that makes it a risk. It’s always something I use against another person. A quirk like Brainwash… no four-year-old would choose it. I didn’t. But when I grow up, I’ll get to choose how to use it. And I’m not letting idiots and bigots, the people who only see the evil in it, win. Even if it is a villainous quirk.”

The yellow dandelion was weirdly cheerful against Kakashi’s black gloves. He didn’t interrupt Hitoshi, listening quietly.

Hitoshi looked away. “…The Shinsous have always been a family of mental quirks. I think the quirk on my father’s side was a singing quirk. Something like that. But I ended up taking after my mom in looks and power. I can make people do things, like she could. I think my quirk is stronger than hers was, but… It doesn’t really matter. My mom always thought… There were rumors about us, a lot. When I was a kid. We moved to a new neighborhood because she wanted me to attend a better kindergarten and a good elementary school, to give me a decent education.”

The words got stuck in his throat. Hitoshi hesitated and glanced over at Kakashi, who had been sitting there motionlessly up to this point. The man reached into the breast pocket of his muted green vest. He pulled out a small paperback and flipped it to a random page, seemingly intent on reading.

The book was small and square, maybe the size of his palm, and bright orange. The cover was facing Hitoshi; he could clearly see the book’s title written in an over-enthusiastic font above a drawing of a man chasing after a woman in a short dress.

He stared.

After a minute of increasingly awkward silence, Kakashi arched his brow but didn’t look up. “Rumors, you say?” He prompted.

Hitoshi frowned, but turned to stare straight ahead instead of continuing to watch the villain enjoy what looked suspiciously like adult literature. The brick wall across from him was as unaffected by his judgmental look as Kakashi himself had been. 

The tightness in his chest that had almost choked him out as he started to talk about Mom had loosened some. Being so completely, blatantly ignored helped, too. He found the courage necessary to continue. 

“She was a young single mom and I used my quirk on accident a lot as a kid. They figured hers must be similar to mine if she never talked about it or used it. Gossip started to spread. At some point someone started the rumor that my mom had used her quirk on my father and that’s why he left her instead of taking responsibility when he got her pregnant.” 

His fist clenched in anger as he remembered that, nails digging painfully into his palms. He refocused himself with a deep breath. 

“Her reputation in the neighborhood turned bad quickly. We were new and hadn’t made a lot of friends there yet. Eventually someone even called her boss and complained about them hiring an employee with such an ‘immoral character’. A few weeks later, the place downsized and she just happened to be the only one who was let go. She struggled to find a job in the area after that. Most days she’d go for failed interviews in the mornings and then rush to school to pick me up and have to hear people tell me things about her. It was around that time they started calling my quirk villainous to my face, too.”

He had only just entered Elementary school. He remembered the pitying gazes of the adults, the fake smiles of his homeroom teacher, kids copying their parents and always whispering behind his back. The way his mom had tightened her grip on his hand as they walked through a gossiping crowd to the point of pain before suddenly letting go. 

“My mom… I think she thought that if she left — if people didn’t think of all the rumors about her whenever I used my quirk — that they’d change their mind or stop. Realize I was just a kid. But it was never actually about her at all. When she left me… all that leaving did was mean I had to face all of that alone. The closed minds, the fear, the pity. She was trying to protect me from it but she only added loneliness to it.” 

Hitoshi slowly pulled up his legs and curled his arms around them, burying his face against his knees to hide his expression. The soft rhythmic scratch of paper against paper, a page being turned, had paused as Hitoshi talked.

“She did it for me but she never asked what I wanted. Explained. Gave me a chance to say that maybe, instead of her doing what’s best for my future and becoming one of them, I just wanted to stay with her. It would have been okay if it was the two of us. Not… Not my choice and my only family being taken away from me one day. Going home to find the house empty with no-one to tell me, ‘welcome home’ ever again.”

He raised his head and smiled bitterly. Kakashi’s gaze was fixed on his book. His reaction was impossible to read through Hitoshi’s own intense mixture of old grief and new resentment. “Suddenly all my neighbors were so concerned about me and who was looking after me. ‘Where’s your mom, sweetie?’, they asked, as if it had nothing to do with them. I was sent into foster care. People there had no idea about my parents but they still thought a seven-year-old that can make you jump off a building was terrifying.” 

It hurt, how pointless it was. How powerless he felt as adults made choices for him, in the face of people determined to fear and judge and expect the worst no matter where he was. Before they had invested in the special order quirk muzzle, the caretakers used to remind him very firmly that they barred the access door to the roof and that all the sharp knives were in locked drawers in the kitchen, too. He’d been a terrified, homesick kid, but it didn’t matter. At some point, ‘he could do this’ had turned into them treating him as if he already had.

Just a villain in the making. A willingly abandoned child — obviously not even his parents wanted to deal with a quirk like that. 

Once, he’d gone to the library to use the computer there. He’d looked up the missing persons report on his mother. Something ugly had risen in his chest at the sight of that beloved smile, the fall of hair the same color of his own, freckles he hadn’t inherited but had always traced with childish eagerness. Whatever emotion he felt in that moment… it hurt too much. He’d quickly closed the search again.

If he found out where she was after all this time, he wasn’t sure he would go see her. 

“It terrified them,” Hitoshi continued, glancing over at the actually terrifying person who had resumed his leisurely read, “but it’s not my fault I have a power that scares people. It wasn’t my mother’s fault either. I forgive her for that but not for abandoning me to live my life alone because of gossip.”

Kakashi’s fingers spasmed slightly against the book cover.

“I want to change what happened. I’ll be Shinsou Hitoshi and I’ll use my mental quirk for good and make people admit it’s a ‘heroic’ quirk after all. It won’t just be for me; it’s for their own sake, too. Quirk discrimination is stupid. The whole world may think I’m only ever going to be a villain, but the world doesn’t get to decide that for me. No one gets to decide for me ever again. …You don’t, either. In case this is all a really weird attempt at recruiting me.”

The villain tilted his head. “Though I'm sure you could be useful, I’m not really the one they let handle the recruitment speeches. …Nobody gets to decide for you, huh?” He casually put his book away again and studied Hitoshi’s expression closely. More than any of his previous smiles, the slight nod reassured Hitoshi. His fingers flexed against the warm sensation in his chest as he reached up to dust off a bit of dirt from his hoodie.  

There was no mockery in Kakashi’s respectful gesture, this once. 

“Why become a hero to change the world and not do it some other way?” Kakashi asked. He blinked, looking a little surprised at himself, but then the expression was gone. In an instant, he was back to his polite disinterest.

Hitoshi shrugged, lowering his raised knees to sit cross-legged instead. “The heart can’t help what it wants.” 

If he had a response to that, he didn’t voice it.

Hitoshi cleared his throat and picked up a pebble to play with. At this point, he didn’t think Kakashi would take it badly. He hadn’t told him to shut up yet, either, so…

“I’ll be graduating soon. It’s a chance to be moved into a different group home. There’s one in the next district; some of the older kids talk about it. They act like it’s my ears that don’t work when the muzzle is on.” Kakashi made a small approving sound — Hitoshi guessed eavesdropping was technically villainous. In a way. 

“That institute is small and only has kids over the age of ten. Someone said the caretakers there keep most of the funds that are supposed to be used for the kids for themselves, but as far as I know they also don’t hand out any harsh punishments. You can use your quirk or stay out all day as long as you don’t cause the kind of trouble that attracts police attention. Sounds worth a little neglect and emberment to me." At least they won't use a muzzle on me there, was left implied.

"Embezzlement," Kakashi corrected absently. Hitoshi shrugged. A villain would know that better than him.

"The neighborhood the home is in is in the right zone for one of the best middle schools in the city. It’s better quality than the local one, at least. My grades will definitely be good enough to get the transfer approved by then. I’ll… be safer there. And afterwards… I’m going to attend U.A.”

It was one thing to say you wanted to become a hero — at some point in their lives, most kids claimed that — but Hitoshi had thought about it and come up with an actual plan. It was a goal, not a dream. He looked at Kakashi again and surprised himself at how disappointed he was when he didn’t get any visible reaction. 

What did he expect, an encouraging nod from this villain? A cheerful thumbs up with a wide grin? Kakashi’s masked poker face gave none of his thoughts away. He could hate U.A. with a burning passion or just have a mild preference for Shiketsu and Hitoshi would never be able to tell. 

He withdrew a little, throwing the pebble over the low wall at the end of the alleyway. He ignored the muzzle, still lying on the pavement a few feet away. 

Maybe Kakashi thought the idea of a kid like Hitoshi wanting to be a hero was already so ridiculous that, U.A. or not, it didn’t make any difference to him. He hadn’t exactly expressed his support of Hitoshi’s life goal so far. Still, neither had he told him to his face that he could never be a hero, so this was already the most supportive reaction Hitoshi could imagine getting when having this conversation with someone who'd already experienced his quirk.

(Not that he’d ever planned to in the first place; it was just surprisingly nice to meet someone who wasn’t scared to talk to him.) 

Talking to Kakashi… wasn’t so bad.

Even if he’d angled his upper body slightly towards where Hitoshi was sitting and was analyzing him closely again. He didn’t say anything for a long moment, just looked at Hitoshi.

“So you’re going to be a hero?” He asked. His tone was as light as his attention was heavy. 

His weird multiple pupils kept spinning idly, but Kakashi seemed suddenly very intent on an answer. 

“… I am.”

“Defying expectations like that… You’re going to make a lot of people very angry with you.” Hitoshi had ducked his head to get away from the fierce scrutiny of those strange eyes, one dark and one hypnotically red. He startled when he felt something touch his hair and quickly looked up. Kakashi withdrew his hand from the light head pat and smiled mockingly at him. “That’s always the fun part.” 

“Fun,” Hitoshi echoed blankly. 

“It’s no good to be predictable, is it? Keeping others off-balance is only good sense if you want to leverage your own position. You can let their assumptions do the work for you, for now.”

He had to admit, “I haven’t exactly thought of it like that.” But it was true Kakashi’s bizarre behavior had taken him off-guard to the point he’d relaxed even before he was sure that for whatever reason, the villain didn’t intend him any harm. 

(He was mostly sure of that now, especially after he stopped pretending to be harmless. The remaining caution was just common sense. As Kakashi pointed out himself and definitely applied to him, it probably wasn’t safe to make any assumptions about his future behavior.)

“I suspect there’s a lot of things you haven’t thought about yet on your road to what you want. You’ll have to get a lot stronger, first. This world is a very strange place. You should never allow yourself to get cornered and rely on only one weapon, especially one you resent having.” 

Hitoshi thought back to the other alleyway. Dragged there by three older kids for a beating who had stolen the muzzle from the caretaker’s office and put it on him first. Because they knew he would defend himself with his quirk if they let him; they were scared. But he was scared too, wasn’t he? It was why he let them drag him around, kick him while he was down and take his best defense away like that. Did he secretly resent his quirk so much that he allowed for that to happen? Let them treat him like a villain for his villainous quirk?

It was no secret he would have chosen a different one. But he used it when he had to. He wasn’t going to live his life a mute; he wanted to use it, too. Make it a weapon for good. To stop villains in their tracks and help people.

But the patronizing tone aside, Kakashi had a point about relying on only one thing. 

As if to drive that point home, Kakashi cheerfully announced: “You have a long way to go, even with graduation around the corner and your goal in sight. You haven’t even tried to stab me yet!”

Quick as lightning, Kakashi poked the hoodie pocket into which Hitoshi had slipped the knife he’d picked up earlier. He hadn’t really thought about it before pocketing it; the shiny metal blade now glinted accusingly up at him where the nudge had dislodged it from the cover of his hoodie. Hitoshi flushed bright red at getting caught stealing. But it didn’t seem like Kakashi wanted it back… he looked amused, instead.

Hitoshi’s brain finally caught up to Kakashi’s words, the tone of mock surprise he’d delivered them in. “Do kids usually try to stab you when they meet you?”

“A hazard of my lifestyle. They come at me with the intent to kill.” He didn’t explain what he meant by that. Hitoshi’s lips twitched up into a reluctant smile.

The corners of his mouth quickly lowered again. “I don’t know how to get strong. Where to even start.”

Kakashi reached up to tug at one of his silver spikes, lightly ruffling the mess of hair. “Maa,” he started, “I think it’s pretty simple. Your heart tells you what you want but not how to get there. Use your brain. Figure out what you’re good at and what the world will throw at you. Work smart and hard. Try to be the hero you need.”

Of course it would never actually be ‘simple’. There was a lot more to it than that even without the advice being so vague. Still, something about be the hero you need resonated with Hitoshi. He quietly thought it over.

As strange as the situation was, Hitoshi started to realize he was feeling grateful for all of Kakashi’s help. He turned towards the man, trying to figure out how to express that.

Kakashi didn’t meet his thankful look. Instead, he was looking ahead, eyes on the ground. “Of course, if you want to become truly unstoppable…” He trailed off meaningfully before continuing: “You’ll have to start training your body right away. Strength training, stamina, hand eye coordination… wearing green spandex and running around the city limits ten times on your hands every morning…” 

He wiggled his fingers after ticking off these five things.

Hitoshi blanched. “I think I’d die.”

A musing hum. “No, you’re not very youthful, are you?”

“… I’m eleven.” 

“And you still don’t know how to hold a kunai properly? Here.” Kakashi reached out, not to take his knife — the ‘kunai’ — back but to adjust his grip instead. 

The blade fit surprisingly well into his hand, even though his was obviously much smaller than Kakashi’s. Kakashi demonstrated how the thumb had to be placed carefully to avoid slipping and cutting yourself on your own weapon, pointing out it would get easier to handle as he grew into it. He didn’t seem to think what he was doing was unusual, so Hitoshi didn’t say anything either. 

It was kind of cool, anyway. And potentially useful for when he became a hero.

Hitoshi accepted he was actually going to try to keep this knife — and Kakashi’s words — close for as long as he could. He hoped it had never been a murder weapon. Not that Kakashi seemed incompetent enough to leave behind evidence or even a body. “You’re giving me a souvenir.”

“Something to always remember your favorite villain by.”

“Favorite villain? Don’t flatter yourself.” Rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand, he quickly glanced over to check Kakashi’s expression.

He looked amused by the teasing. “Brats these days, always ungrateful.”

Hitoshi put on a serious expression and dipped his head into a shallow bow. “Apologies, honored elder.”

Kakashi’s right eye visibly twitched. “I was born like this; the hair color is natural.”

Was he… actually pouting? “My mistake, I should have realized you were a kid like me from the way you act.”

“I think I liked you better terrified.”

Hitoshi was pretty sure that was a lie. Kakashi made no move to disrupt the relaxed mood that had slowly developed between them. It would have been easier for him to be threatening; Hitoshi was still very aware, looking down at the sharp blade in his own hand, just how close he was sitting to death. He’d avoided it today only because Kakashi didn’t feel it was necessary. Quirk use included, he hadn’t done anything to provoke the villain into killing him. Into effortlessly cutting Hitoshi down and making him disappear into these city backstreets forever.

Being able to sit here and tease a self-confessed murderer so easily… Hitoshi would have to think about it, later. What that said about him and what it meant for his dreams of becoming a hero to help bring criminals to justice. 

(But even ten years from now Kakashi would probably still be out of his league.)

For now, Hitoshi put the kunai away. He was careful, aware of the multiple sharp edges that would ruin his clothes as easily as cut his own skin — he might have to steal from the Art classroom again, to make a sheath for it out of some cardboard and ducktape.

It was getting late. Exactly as expected of the kind of place shady meetings between criminals took place (even if this was actually a surprising heart-to-heart with a villain instead) they were sitting in a dead-end backstreet, the alleyway shadowed between larger buildings and out of sight of the main road with its streetlights and bright advertisements for hero merch. The sun would be setting soon but its light would stop reaching the fenced-in area and the deserted side streets long before then.

Even if he wanted to sit in the dark, Hitoshi guessed he only had an hour or two until his curfew kicked in. The long hand on his cheap watch kept getting stuck, so he usually had to stick to rough estimates, but every minute he showed up late would be counted against him. Not being allowed a phone (hard to tell if they had valid reasons for that or if it was just more stupidity about his quirk) and being unable to set an alarm or send a text when he got delayed was not an excuse to be late. Especially if he wanted to eat dinner tonight.

He should head back to the group home. For a number of reasons, only some related to the villain next to him. But. He didn’t get up just yet. 

The last half hour had switched between being absolutely terrifying and absolutely bizarre a number of times but he finally felt he’d… caught up, somehow. And now that he had he wasn’t entirely ready to let go of the first real conversation he’d had… maybe since his mom disappeared.

Trying to figure out what to say when he was sure Kakashi was entirely capable of ditching him at a moment’s notice, never to be seen again, was pretty hard. Hitoshi didn’t think he was good at talking to other people in the first place. At least Kakashi didn’t seem to mind sass. He hadn’t even shut Hitoshi up when he’d unloaded the highlights of his sad childhood on him, even if he hadn’t returned the favor.

His mouth opened and closed a few times, but no words came out.

With a small sigh, Hitoshi got up to pick up his bag. The spoiled milk had dried where it had soaked into the yellow fabric and he wrinkled his nose a little. Stains aside, the cheap little backpack had held up to the day’s rough treatment well, even after Hitoshi dropped it again when he caught Kakashi in his quirk. He’d almost forgotten it earlier, overwhelmed by the situation, distracted by danger and then old emotions dragged to the surface. 

He carefully shook some dirt off it, then ran gentle fingers over the goggles he’d painstakingly drawn on a few weeks ago. The black had faded a lot recently. He’d have to borrow another permanent marker and redo the design. 

Kakashi was still crouching with his back to the wall when Hitoshi sat back down. He was lazily tracking Hitoshi’s movements, but seemed deep in thought. One finger was drumming a steady, absent beat where his hand rested loosely on his knee. It wasn’t anything as obvious as nervous fidgeting, but Hitoshi noticed it anyway. He seemed… thoughtful? Relaxed enough to be distracted? As relaxed as a man as lethal as any weapon could get, anyway.

A loud meow interrupted Hitoshi’s observations. He turned his head towards the noise, Kakashi following suit.

A cat had jumped up onto the wall of the enclosed garden, eyeing them from its perch a few feet away. It looked like it was enjoying the height advantage to look down on the two humans, green eyes squinting suspiciously. 

Hitoshi recognized it; hard not to, when it was such an intense shade of orange. He had privately nicknamed it Road Sign because of the bright color and liked greeting it with variations of the name the cat all bore with indifferent dignity. 

Next to him, Kakashi twitched a little.

Hitoshi’s curiosity at that reaction was ignored in favor of leaning forward while making eye contact with the cat, encouraging her to come closer.

Road Sign was only one of a number of cats that came to this particular alleyway to stalk the grass and demand treats from Hitoshi. His familiarity with the location had slightly set him at ease earlier since he often walked here, cat food ready for any hungry mouths.

Unlike some of the other cats he visited, the state of her fur made it obvious Road Sign had an owner. Hitoshi thought she was probably a balcony escape artist, an indoor cat looking for adventure and some attention whenever she was left alone too long. 

Jumping down from the wall, the cat landed as if gravity was something she deigned to obey. The light-footedness reminded Hitoshi a little of Kakashi, actually. She side-eyed the stranger next to Hitoshi for a long moment before obviously deciding to ignore him on her quest for her regular pampering. Never as cautious as an actual stray, but not overeager from hunger, either, Road Sign sauntered towards where Hitoshi was waiting.

Hitoshi obliged the request for pets, gently rubbing behind the ears in greeting. Road Sign tolerated this before headbutting Hitoshi’s hand a few times. She meowed again. 

Lips curved into a small, lopsided smile, Hitoshi turned and unzipped his backpack. He pushed aside cans of cat food and the granola bar he’d stolen from the communal kitchen to get out a small bag of cat treats. The crinkle of the plastic bag was rewarded with purring, treats eagerly licked from Hitoshi’s fingers. 

Turning back to Kakashi, Hitoshi raised his eyebrows. The man was watching him interact with the cat emotionlessly, not looking particularly impressed. Hitoshi wondered what it would take for him to show actual joy instead of fake smiles if an objectively adorable kitty wasn’t enough. Villains really were different from normal people.

“This is one of the cats I come and feed pretty often,” he explained after a moment, not pausing his careful petting.

“Interesting color,” was Kakashi’s verdict.

“Orange isn’t so bad. Or… do you not like cats?”

“I prefer dogs,” Kakashi replied, tugging a little at the wire looped around his forearm as he answered. He casually shifted his sleeve down when he noticed Hitoshi observing his actions, covering the shiny silver with black fabric once more. “They’re intelligent, very loyal, and do as I tell them to. Mostly. I know what works to bribe them, anyway. But cats… Cats are unreliable, vicious beasts that don’t care about what you expect of them or how they’re inconveniencing you.”

“I like that cats only care about the people they choose to.” They were independent creatures, which made some people think of them as cold or uncaring, but Hitoshi had experience being climbed over by kittens eager for treats and affection. He also thought everyone who believed there was such a thing as a psychopath cat was just an idiot who couldn’t be bothered to read their body language or respect their boundaries. 

Road Sign blinked at him slowly when he switched to scratching underneath her chin.

They were very social once they warmed up to someone. Even if they weren’t, Hitoshi thought he would still like them. He fed the neighborhood cats as regularly as he could — sometimes emailing tip offs to the animal shelter he trusted when he noticed particularly young or skinny strays he didn’t think would survive on only his unpredictable visits — and didn’t insist on cuddles if they seemed skittish, as much as he loved running his fingers through soft fur and being rewarded with a purr. Quiet or loud, high pitched or rumbling like a car engine, purring was the sound of happiness. It wasn’t something you could demand.

Cats didn’t follow orders well. Hitoshi liked that about them and spent his allowance on them anyway.

Kakashi watched the cat rub her cheek against Hitoshi’s fingers, licked clean from every last crumb, and asked: “And does this one choose you?”

It was a nice thought, but… “No, she just wants a snack.”

Being used like this was fine. After all, he got something out of it too. 

He watched Road Sign finish scent marking him before dashing back towards the wall and over it in one graceful leap. He put the cat treats back into his backpack, fiddling with the zipper again.

“So, you’re a dog person. I guess that’s why you picked ‘Hound’.”

Kakashi wasn’t so obvious about it that he turned his head to stare at Hitoshi, but his attention had a certain weight to it again. The threat of dissection was back, if only for an instant, before the line of his shoulders loosened into a casual shrug. “Not really. I didn’t choose it; the name was ‘given’ to me. … But I do like dogs. I have eight.”

Eight. Eight dogs.

Hitoshi dropped his backpack with a quiet thump. It seemed there was a pretty big chance he’d misunderstood Kakashi this entire time. Maybe he wasn’t actually secretly an anti-social, emotionless disaster; it was just people he didn’t want to connect with.

Asking what they looked like — that was probably crossing a line. Assuming there were many of those left, breezing right past all social conventions in his casual conversation with a highly dangerous villain as he was. The weirdness worked as a decent shield against the usual layers of politeness of a first meeting.

Too bad. Kakashi suddenly seemed like the type of person who carried dog pictures in his wallet.

“Pakkun has very soft paws,” Kakashi surprisingly continued without prompting. “He’s also the smartest one, but don’t tell him that. He already looks down on me enough.” His tragic sigh turned him into the picture of a defeated but helplessly indulgent pet owner.

Watching the play of dimming light on silver hair and a masked face, Hitoshi thought the expressiveness was faked but the feeling behind it was probably real. He was learning how to read Kakashi’s expressions now that he had double the amount of eyes to work with. 

He smirked a little. “What, a strong villain like you can’t handle some barktalk?”

The joke earned him a quiet huff. “Maa, good dogs should just do as they’re told.”

“Is that why someone chose the name Hound for you?” 

Silence.

Slouched casually against the wall, body and expression lazy with parts of his gravity-defying hair throwing gentle shadows on his strange headband and the half of his face visible… Nothing about Kakashi’s body language changed or showed he was annoyed. There was no reaction, as if Hitoshi hadn’t said anything.

Still, his hands started to shake again.

It was the first question he asked, Hitoshi noticed even as nerves made his throat close up, that Kakashi didn’t respond to. It didn’t feel like a victory, forcing the villain to take him and his quirk seriously; it felt like Hitoshi had crossed a line he shouldn’t have.

He bit the inside of his cheek and regretted his curiosity. He wasn’t a cat; satisfaction wouldn’t bring him back.

There was teasing someone and then there was provoking a villain by getting too nosy about their organisation.

(Kakashi had implied his code name was assigned, hadn’t he? Not in so many words — he was too careful for that — but he was wearing a costume with an emblem prominent on his headband and carrying an arsenal. He valued loyalty. He was willing to kill even if he personally did not want to. And… he hadn’t resented being commanded by Hitoshi, just taken steps to make sure he wouldn’t lose control again.)

“It’s getting late.” Kakashi’s voice was back to its low and smooth tone. Neutral. Disappointment chased the momentary sense of relief and Hitoshi closed his eyes for a second. Then he nodded, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

Hitoshi remembered, “You said you needed help with directions.” Tentative; a statement instead of a question, just in case.

“That’s right,” Kakashi said, absently tightening the bandages securing the holster to his thigh. His voice became a little lighter as he went on. “You see, regretfully I’ve gotten a little lost on the way to a meeting, so I’m sure to be late. Even more so than usual, even.”

He did not sound bothered by this at all. In his heart, Hitoshi crossed ‘professional’ off of his list of suspicions about the man. 

Unaware or simply uncaring of Hitoshi’s judgmental side-eye, Kakashi continued: “As interesting a learning opportunity it has turned out to be, scouting can only take you so far, even with my skills. Plus, I really do have to return soon. I have eight very cute puppies waiting for me at home and we don’t want to disappoint them, do we? To be honest, they’re good at nagging.”

“You have places to be that aren’t city backstreets.” Technically, so did Hitoshi. Once the initial panic at being ‘borrowed’ slash kidnapped — is that what happened? — was over, he just hadn’t minded too much because there wasn’t much else for him to look forward to and really, this alley was one of the nicer ones. 

A lazy hum of agreement. “I was only passing through. How convenient that we just happened to bump into each other, then. Speaking of coincidental convenience… it would be a big help if you were an expert when it comes to unusual forms of long distance travel. My own education on the matter seems to be dangerously lacking, since all my prior experience with visiting a different realm doesn’t apply here. …There’s a disappointing lack of dogs, for one.”

Clearly Hitoshi had been fooling himself when he thought he finally had a handle on Kakashi and knew what to expect from the man. Read his expressions? Kakashi's visible face was relaxed, talking like the nonsense he came up with didn’t make him sound like an alien.

He added ‘probably insane’ back onto his list of theories.

“I’m… still eleven years old.”

Kakashi squinted, as if unsure what that had to do with anything, so Hitoshi quickly gave up.

He played along instead. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert. Different realms… long distance travel… Um, do you mean stuff from TV, like the multiverse theory? Or more normal stuff like teleporting? Traveling through time and space in an instant.”

“Teleporting,” Kakashi repeated. “Hm… I was thinking more of a literal hole you can trip into while reading fine literature.”

Hitoshi bit his tongue instead of saying what happened was probably divine punishment for questionable taste in books then. It did make him think of a possible solution. “You might be able to find some information on wormholes in the public library. Most likely… in the physics section. Or in science fiction. Practical stuff like warping would be in Quirk Sciences.”

Kakashi quietly thought this over while Hitoshi picked up his backpack again. He used it for his own trips now but it had originally been his schoolbag when he arrived here in this group home, so there should…

Yes, folded in the front pocket of his yellow backpack next to his wallet was a slightly torn up piece of paper. He took it out and carefully unfolded it, thumb automatically smoothing out a crease.

This map of downtown was handed out to all Elementary schoolers when they enrolled. He’d kept it safe and used it a lot when he first transferred in because he didn’t want to be forced to rely on being able to follow along with the other kids or having to ask a passerby for directions. Even something like that was made difficult as soon as people knew about his quirk.

After getting familiar with the whole neighborhood to the point he could navigate even alleyways like this one, he mostly forgot he had it. Ignoring the red line drawn in to show the route from the group home to the school campus, he pointed out a square only a block away from the Elementary school, within easy walking distance.

“The library should still be open to the public for another hour or so. Or it’ll open again at 09:00 tomorrow morning. You have to have a card to borrow anything or print out things, but there are free computers you can use to look online if books aren’t the answer.”

With his left hand, Kakashi took out a kunai and spun it around his fingers, ring grip moving smoothly around his index finger. Hitoshi looked up from the map to watch.

Idly, Kakashi asked: “Online?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty sure you can find almost anything on the internet, not just funny cat videos or how to make a bomb.”

“… Right.”

The blade was still spinning and Hitoshi watched with more fascination than fear as light glinted on the sharp edges and Kakashi showed off his extraordinary dexterity. The villain eye-smiled and, with a flick of the wrist, made the weapon vanish again. 

Hitoshi looked down at the map, then at Kakashi’s face. 

It was possible he really hadn’t learned his lesson before. Probingly, Hitoshi asked, “I’m surprised you’re asking about wormholes of all things.”

It seemed strange even for a particularly weird villain and pathological liar. And if his organisation was building some kind of doomsday device, danger and ability to give irritatingly evasive answers or no, Hitoshi wanted to at least try to find out before seeing it cause mass chaos on the news.

“Maa, I didn’t expect it to become a relevant life skill when I woke up this morning either,” Kakashi said, a little wryly. “Oh. You dropped this.”

Saying that, Kakashi raised his hand to show Hitoshi a familiar wallet with a cat sticker gently peeling off on one side. He blinked. He hadn’t even noticed it falling out of his bag.

“Thanks,” he said, somewhat awkward. It really only had his school ID, library card and some loose change in it, but it would have been annoying to lose it.

In probably the exact same move he used on his dogs, Kakashi patted Hitoshi’s head twice and then returned the wallet to him. Hitoshi took it, a little bewildered.

He made sure to carefully zip the front pocket of his backpack closed this time, passing the map to Kakashi to keep.

He accepted it without comment, only glancing up at the rapidly darkening sky.

“Do you have a map of some forests too? Somewhere with big trees, not the tiny ones growing by the park.”

They weren’t exactly in the middle of Tokyo, but looking for forests in urban Japan was still pretty strange. The park with the trees he called tiny was already a proud effort on part of the city to maintain some actual nature and greenery.

Why was Hitoshi still surprised? Maybe he should have braced for increasingly weird questions the second Kakashi opened their conversation by making him contemplate the nature of villainy. 

“The library has maps and directions to the closest national park, I think. Or… I guess, Musutafu and U.A.’s campus is pretty close to here. That place is huge and includes some forests for outdoor training exercises. It’s not really an option for most people, though; it’s not open to the public. And U.A.’s invincible security is legendary.”

“Oh?” Kakashi asked, his voice showing genuine interest. “That’s good. I’m somewhat of a security connoisseur myself.”

He got up from his crouch next to Hitoshi, legs extending in one smooth motion, a sudden reminder of just how lanky the man was. Taking a few steps away from the wall, he glanced down at Hitoshi, but didn’t offer him a hand up.

Hitoshi didn’t expect any help, either, and got to his feet himself, slinging his backpack over one shoulder again and brushing dirt off the back of his pants. Kakashi was still looking at him; he titled his head back to meet his gaze and silently promised himself to drink more milk so that one day, he’d be the one looking down on people.

“A lot of people must get cricks in their necks talking to you,” Hitoshi told him.

“Ah? I actually consider myself a very modest height,” Kakashi said, waving the comment away. “I’ll be heading to the library first.”

He paused. “Do you know what you’re going to do next?” Standing like this, they weren’t even close to being on an equal level, but Kakashi waited for Hitoshi’s reply with what seemed to be an uncharacteristic amount of curiosity and patience. 

As always, the group home loomed at the end of his day. With overworked or outright antagonistic caretakers, crowded dorm rooms and broken things showing how underfunded the place and how casually cruel the people were, and too many other troubled children all eager to drag each other down in their unhappiness; it was all that was waiting for him. As well as the possible repercussions of those three bullies getting chased off earlier. 

“Make sure I don’t get in trouble.” Hitoshi smirked a little, tired. “Then I guess I’ll start saving up for some green spandex.”

Kakashi shuddered with his entire body. “If that’s the only thing you take away from our conversation today… well, I suppose with my track record it may be for the best.”

The sudden self-deprecation took Hitoshi a little off-guard. “It won’t be the only thing,” he pointed out reasonably, “You did give me a pretty cool kni—, um, kunai.”

“‘Cool’, huh? Just remember it’s not a toy. Stab responsibly.” By his expression, he was a man well aware of what his weapon could do to someone and comfortable in that lethality. Kakashi was more likely to make fun of Hitoshi for cutting himself than worry, but he had instructed him on the proper grip earlier, hadn’t he? And it was undeniably kind to remind him again.

Without really thinking about it, Hitoshi adjusted his hoodie to make sure there was no way the kunai could fall out of his pocket and get lost, fingers reaching up to fidget with his hood strings next. “If… When I need to use it, I’ll be serious about it.”

“As serious as you are about becoming a hero?”

“I’m not sure I can be as serious about anything as that. But… Practicing with throwing knives can be part of my training for it, right? I won’t want to be a one trick pony.”

Kakashi seemed pleased. “Good kid.”

“You taught me a lot,” Hitoshi said on an impulse. 

“Oh?” 

Walking to the end of the alleyway with a few casual steps, Kakashi turned his back to Hitoshi and peeked over the wall into the neighboring garden area. He gave the abandoned flower pot a little poke, absently wiping his hand against his pants when the dead leaves on the withered plant disintegrated at his touch. 

“More in what you are than what you say,” Hitoshi admitted. Hitoshi was naturally observant and Kakashi was naturally misleading. It was a combination that grated as much as it clicked.

“Then I’ll leave speaking well to you. Who knows, one day you might not have to rely on questions anymore.” 

Train his quirk to work with statements? It hadn’t even occurred to him that could be possible, but if he practiced and really did it, it would be an important advantage as a hero if people ever figured out his quirk relied on questions and guarded against it. He looked at Kakashi with bright eyes and the villain glanced back at him, eyebrow raised.

Hitoshi clenched his fist. “I’ll get better. And in the future I won’t have to get shoved down like that again. … Unless it’s to get into a more advantageous position.”

“That’s right,” Kakashi said approvingly, “kneeling temporarily limits your mobility but you’re in excellent striking range to go after their vulnerable toes or even permanently disable the knee joints. Your instincts aren’t terrible, so you’ll manage.” He looked down at his own open-toed shoes as he talked with the air of a man who had many regrets. 

Brushing his hand over the handle of the weapon in his hoodie pocket again and resolute that he wouldn’t use it to maim people, Hitoshi smiled. “Thanks, sensei.” The words came out sounding less teasing than he had intended.

Kakashi turned his head away instead of replying, feigning disinterest. His gaze fell on the muzzle as he did, still lying discarded on the ground and looking deceptively harmless for all that it represented to Hitoshi. He walked over and bent down to pick up, cradling the muzzle lazily in the palm of one hand. It was hard to tell what he was thinking as he looked at it. 

“The lock design on this is pretty simple,” he said, in the tone of someone casually musing aloud, “it probably wouldn’t take too long to teach yourself how to pick it without needing to look. Lockpicking is an essential skill anyway, and even something improvised from a hairpin will generally do for this type of keyhole. Otherwise, preemptively smashing it with a hammer also works.” 

He had just jokingly expressed his gratitude but at that the words got stuck in Hitoshi’s throat. He swallowed painfully, then looked down and away.

Kakashi didn’t call him out on his moment of emotion, just tossed the muzzle over to him in an easy underhand throw. Hitoshi caught it against his chest, fingers tightening on the dark plastic. 

“I have to return it to the caretakers because it got stolen,” he said after a moment. “But… I won’t let them keep muzzling me for much longer.” 

Both his eyes curved into cheerful crescent moons. “Good. Otherwise people might never realize how much of a brat you can be.” Impressively, Kakashi made ‘brat’ sound like a compliment without really changing his inflection.

Done shoving the muzzle into his backpack under the cans of cat food, Hitoshi zipped the bag shut and put it on properly this time. The smell was only as bad as he’d expected earlier, really. He bowed a little. “I’ll strive to respect the wisdom of my elders and be more disrespectful."

"This disrespected elder thinks you should shut up and run some laps."

"Telling me to shut up now… I thought you didn’t want the world to miss out on what I have to say.”

The Hitoshi that had been kneeling on the alley floor between piles of garbage earlier, convinced he’d avoided something painful only to meet with something even worse, would never have imagined he'd be teasing the man now. Altogether, Kakashi had raised more questions than he'd answered, but Hitoshi couldn't bring himself to regret meeting him.

"As long as you're not an idiot, running will improve your physical stamina and your lung capacity. Feel free to sass the world once I've left."

Hitoshi stared at the ground, fingers flexing. "And you're leaving now?" 

“Mhm.” A spark and the sensation of a live wire—

"Good final effort," Kakashi decided, smoothly breaking the control as soon as Hitoshi hooked him. When Hitoshi lifted his head again, he smiled, not offended by the attempt at a last second betrayal in the least.

His headband was pulled back down to cover the spinning eye and he turned as if to leave but stopped. Looking back over his shoulder towards Hitoshi, he looked more like the cold stranger that had first appeared than the man crouching to listen to Hitoshi talk or casually reading an embarrassing book, but the new warmth in his sole gray eye was still there. 

"When you've made it to the top," Kakashi said after a moment's thought, "remember what really matters. Look underneath the underneath."

Overwhelmed, Hitoshi just nodded. "I will. … See you."

The villain replied with a lazy salute. In the blink of an eye, he disappeared, and Hitoshi was left alone in the quiet alleyway.

He watched the leaf drift all the way down onto the concrete silently before turning to make his own way home.