When she was thirteen, she saw him for the first time.
She walked home from school that day with nothing on her mind except her new assignment.
She barely even muttered an announcement of her arrival when she opened the door to her home, as greeting her mother would take too much concentration away from what was truly important: her grade. Her teacher had lectured her again that day about getting it up by at least one grade level. He’d sounded desperate - or rather, fed up with her failing 'attempts' on tests and worksheets.
Frankly, she wasn’t so sure she could sneak by with a passing grade again, and failing the eighth grade was not something she wanted to be on her permanent record.
It was her mother’s fault, she'd figured. As an only child, she had basically gotten away with murder. No one grounded her if she neglected her chores, no one told her, ‘no, you can’t have that because it’s too expensive’, and no one ever told her to put down her game controller or manga when she had overdue homework.
Her father had lost his temper once and had called her lazy. Immediately after the word - no, the label - had left his mouth, her mother had blown a gasket and chewed on his ear until he was bowing and kissing her feet.
“She’s not lazy," the woman had all but snarled, handling the word as one would poison. "She’s using this time to discover herself! Teenage girls have difficult lives as it is, and they don’t need stable, middle-aged men reprimanding them for finding themselves!”
She was so glad her mother was a Social Justice Warrior.
But on that day her teacher had finally drawn a line; he had finally put his foot down. If she didn’t try on this assignment, she would see him again after summer break. As bad as a failing grade would be, seeing that cruel man again was the reason she was worried at all.
Her assignment didn’t sound all that difficult until she plopped down on her bed in order to contemplate possible answers.
Who is your hero, and why?
She rolled the question around on her tongue, and when nothing came to her, she rolled around on her bed. She cocooned herself in her blankets like a caterpillar; no ideas came to mind. She jumped on her chair and spun in circles until she was dizzy: nothing. She spun in her chair again, just for good measure. Something almost came to her, but she lost it when the chair tipped over and threw her to the ground. She glanced down at her elbow and found it was red. There was no blood, although it did sting. She must have burned it on the carpet.
‘I'd better treat this,’ she thought. ‘I wouldn’t want to miss school because I succumbed to infection.’ She rummaged through her mother's emergency first aid kit, retrieved a bandage and disinfectant, and cleaned her wound. It was a painful process, but she managed to hold her tears.
She returned to her room, but then her stomach growled. After a quick snack, she got right back to work.
‘Okay, no more procrastinating,' she thought with determination. She preceded to pull out a blank sheet of notebook paper and a pencil.
She had just thought of an idea and went to write it down when her lead snapped.
‘Darn, can’t write without a pencil.’
She sharpened it - quite professionally, she’d say - and hopped back in her chair, spun in a circle once - and only once because she had learned her lesson - and finally, finally got to work.
Her progress was quite pleasing, as her paper now read: 'My hero is...'
“I think I need a break,” she announced to no one in particular. She fished a manga from her bag and immersed herself in a world of color coordinated magical girls.
She glanced up from her page when a slight tremor rattled her lamp. She steadied it, as she needed a stable light source to read by, only for another rumble to upset it once more.
“An earthquake?” she wondered, rising from her chair. She lugged down the stairs to her kitchen, where her mother should have been watching Soap Operas. She could hear the dramatic music coming from her destination.
She was halfway there when her home completely imploded.
Blackness was all that she knew.
When she awoke, the first thing she noticed was the chilly breeze. It pierced her through her thin blouse, biting more than just the skin that was exposed. The second thing she noticed was the smell of ash and fire; it was choking her. The third thing was uncomfortable and sharp rubble underneath her. And the fourth was the crick in her neck.
The final thing she noticed was the silence. All she could hear was the soft crackle of burning wood. She sat up, coughing from the cloud of ash that attacked her lungs and stung her eyes. Splintered plywood chips were sprinkled over her torso, but they fell away when she stood. Other than a pounding headache and a stiff neck, she was completely fine. Actually, her elbow still stung - but she had already treated that.
Her house was not fine in any sense of the word. It was gone, leveled, just like the rest of the houses and apartments on the block. Just like every single building as far as she could see. She scaled her pile of 'house', kicking at debris and digging at loose boards when she came across her family fridge. She kicked down to the ground, using what remained of the walls as leverage when her progress took her lower than ground level. Or, in this case, rubble level. She found that their tile floor had survived. She branched out from there, shoving, rearranging, and tugging her way through her kitchen. However, at one point the rubble became too compact for her to continue her progress, and she was forced to pull herself out of the hole she had burrowed. If she wanted to clear out her kitchen, she would need the assistance of at least one other person, two if she could find them. She went out to search for help.
She advanced beyond her parents’ property, sifting through debris as she went, circling her neighbors’ homes. The elderly gardener no longer had a garden for her to tend to, nor a house to enjoy its produce in.
She went farther still, passing by the library and then her school. Both of them were gone.
She walked further into the city, and again found nothing to salvage. She kicked at planks harder, and she shouted occasionally to see if anyone could hear her.
She felt rather than heard the other tremors. They were smaller, farther away.
They also glowed - like explosions, or a character attack from a manga. She watched it hit the south end of the city, then the west, forming two giant craters.
“Mommy,” she called. No one came. But her mother always came to her when she called.
“Daddy,” she yelled. It was her last resort, calling her father, an act reserved only used when her mom wasn’t home and the closet monsters had already made it under her bed. She had been calling him ‘Dad’ for years, in more casual interactions, but when she really wanted him to know she needed him, ‘Daddy,’ was the best thing to say.
“Where are you?” she shrieked. She received an answer, but it was from the piles of rubble towering around her. It was not the answer she had wanted.
“Where are you?” she cried. The sound echoed, her voice mimicked and stretched and sent right back to her.
She knew where her parents were. Her mother was always in the kitchen because she liked its open bay window and the nice television installed in it. Her father, who always arrived home from work after she got home from school, would have been in the living room. The living room, whose carpeted floor hadn’t even survived. Every square inch of the kitchen that she hadn’t cleared was packed under heavy walls and boards. The bay windows had blown out. They probably had been the first thing to go.
“Mommy! Daddy!” she screamed, injuring her vocal chords. The pain of it somehow lessened the throbbing in her chest, so she screamed again, and again. She suddenly felt a tad better, despite the tears leaking from her eyes. The relief didn't last long, and she resumed her cries.
Another explosion shook the ground, rattling her teeth and knocking her off her feet. It was so, so very close, much nearer than the others, but that fact did not register in her mind. She struggled to her feet, pushed forward, crying, calling for her mommy and daddy.
Someone heard her.
She didn’t see him, for her eyes were blurry from smoke and tears. She directed those eyes straight ahead and nowhere else, unable to look at the leveled neighborhood any longer. Had someone approached her from behind normally she would have heard them as they neared. It would have been impossible to avoid all of the unstable and weakened debris on the ground. Stepping on it would have made a noise, without a doubt.
But this creature could fly, in once sense of the word. Not with wings, just with the capabilities of his mind. He was bare, with nothing her planet would consider to be clothing. His violet skin was both beautiful and disturbing - it was as unnatural on her planet as it was natural on his.
He reached for her, his hand transmuting into claws of death and destruction. They grew, morphed until they could swat her like a fly. It was a silent change, and she still hadn’t noticed him.
He squeezed his hand close, sealing her fate.
She blinked, one moment looking at her leveled city, the next at the gray, clouded sky. Her sight was slightly blocked by a billowing white blanket. She felt metal bars wrapped around her torso. They were rather warm, for metal bars.
She was placed on the ground before she fully realized what had happened.
The wind had dried her salty tears on her cheeks, as if to say, ‘it’s okay, you’re safe now’.
The warm metal bars were actually arms - hard, muscular arms. The billowing white blanket was a cape.
“Who are you?” the purple alien boomed, snarling at her savior.
She inspected the man before her as he stood between her and her certain death. He was a tad on the short side, and the yellow jumpsuit he donned was not a good color on him. His bald head was shinier than her mother’s engagement ring.
At that moment, he was the most beautiful human being she had ever laid eyes on.
He gave the alien a plain smile at his question. “I’m someone who’s a hero for fun,” he answered.
The alien curled back his lip in contempt. “What kind of ridiculous backstory is that!?” He took a step forward, clenching his fist. “I exist because of humankind’s pollution of the environment!” He pounded his fist to his heart and declared, “I am Vaccine Man! The earth is a single living organism, and you humans are the disease-causing germs that are killing it!”
She watched, distantly, as his jaw unhinged and his teeth morphed into fangs as long as knives. “The will of the earth gave birth to me so that I may destroy humanity and its insidious civilization!”
He loomed over the bald man, his muscles bulging and foam spewing from his mouth. He was three times bigger than a bodybuilder. “But you do this for fun!? That’s the reason you oppose me, the apostle of the earth!?”
Her eyes were glued to the back of the man’s bald head. He didn’t tremble at the change, nor at the beast. He didn’t even flinch.
Vaccine Man didn’t stop his transformation there. He was suddenly taller than a house, suddenly nothing but sinewy muscles, claws, and fangs. His exhale was powerful enough to lift her off the ground by an inch. It proceeded to blow her backward by two feet. Small bits of rubble were flung at her, and she was forced to shield her eyes.
“Then indeed, I must...” Vaccine Man bellowed, “...wipe humankind from existence!”
With contractions starting from his legs and rippling through his abdomen, the purple alien lunged.
It was faster than she could see, the bald man’s swing. His fist connected with the middle of Vaccine Man’s chest, and suddenly, just like her house, just like her school, just like her gardener neighbor, just like her parents, he was suddenly gone. He was suddenly in nothing but pieces.
Blood and guts peppered her cheeks and stained her blouse, and steam escaped from the bald man’s gloved fist.
It took her several moments to piece together what had happened.
Baldy had defeated Vaccine Man with one punch.
He began to walk away.
“Wait!” she called, her voice suddenly working again, although it was scratchy and dry. She wondered how long vocal cords took to heal.
She scrambled to her feet, ignoring that purple ooze under her toes. She didn’t want him to leave, didn’t want to be alone again.
“Who are you? I mean,” she thought back to Vaccine Man’s question. “What’s your name?”
He turned to look at her, and she knew she wanted to be with him forever. Whatever that meant, she wanted to be at his side.
“Saitama,” he said simply, and he turned again and began to walk. In the chaos and utter destruction, she wasn’t sure how he knew where he was going.
She jogged to catch up to him. He glanced back at her with bored eyes. “Can I help you?”
He didn’t stop walking, and she didn’t either. After a moment of silence, he tried again. “Is there a reason you’re following me?”
She nodded, dashing closer with a newfound burst of energy so she could grab his pant leg. His expression didn’t change.
“I need your help with an assignment,” she said.
Saitama hummed. “School, huh?”
“I'd always hated school,” he admitted.
The duo walked on.
He didn’t promise to assist her, she realized, but he also hadn’t told her to leave. And, well, that was good enough for her.