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A scream in the night.
Terror and adrenaline pounding through veins.
In a world full of fear, hope can come in many forms.
A symbol emblazoned across a chest.
A beating heart encased in steel.
But it never (at least, not if it had sense), wears a cape.
Soft, lilting strains of music danced through the window of Soul’s apartment, coming from the Mexican family’s band from the house across the street. They played every night, and while it had been a distraction when he had first moved in, he now found it relaxing and would often hum along. He bobbed his head slowly along with the music, scrolling on his laptop as he read the news. It looked like several houses were hit over in Cedar Heights last night. They seemed to be following the same pattern of the robberies that had occurred over the last eight months, and the police didn't seem any closer to solving them. Whoever it was, they were good; no clues, aside from the notes left to the victims, telling them their belongings were serving a better purpose.
Somehow, Soul suspected that wasn't much of a comfort.
Not a lot he could do about it right now, though. Still, he’d keep an eye on the situation. Closing the tab, he went back to working on the tests he had been given to grade. They were supposed to be done by tomorrow, but since Theo--Mr. Harrison--wasn't going to be back for at least another day or two, he figured it wouldn't kill anyone if he was a little late.
He graded three more papers, and decided he deserved a break. Grabbing his jacket, he walked down the four flights of stairs, deciding to walk to the coffee shop that was a block away. He had to jump out of the way of two twelve year olds on scooters, and he exchanged nods with old Mrs. Fritzelhoff, who was out walking her dog, Mr. Tiddles. They were both wearing matching kilts and tam o'shanters today.
The bell over the door of the coffee shop tinkled as he opened the door, the clattering of dishes mingling with the jazz covers of pop hits coming through the speakers. The place wasn't very crowded this evening; a few people he’d seen around campus, staring dull-eyed at flickering laptop screens, and several couples in their mid twenties to thirties. He checked out the counter, hoping Brad wasn't on tonight. The guy had some sort of attitude problem, and all the speed of a dead sloth. His most irritating quality, however, was the tiny, smug little smirk he gave whenever he got your order wrong--pretty much always--just enough to let you know it hadn't been a mistake. Unless Brad had gotten a much needed makeover, the two pigtails swinging behind the machines could only belong to one person. Soul had known Maka Albarn for awhile now. She was nice enough; upbeat, just teetering on the edge of annoying without going over. She could also be a bit on the naggy side, but her cutting sarcasm and genuinely kind nature offset that.
“Hey, Maka,” he greeted her, leaning on the counter.
“Hey, Soul. Want your usual?” Maka asked, tossing down a rag she had been using to wipe up a spill.
“Yeah. Extra chocolate shavings.”
He poked at some of the candies on display by the register, flipping the brightly colored cellophane and ribbons. “How’s the book going?” He called out. Maka was an aspiring writer, determined to make people forget who Stephen King even was.
“Still working on my creepy to gore ratio. Not enough, and people get bored; too much, and it isn't shocking enough after awhile. But I’ve stopped using my good ideas in class, since that bitch Ashley developed a habit of ‘borrowing’ them, and got a story published last month.”
Soul winced in sympathy. Maka was normally a fairly cheerful, friendly person, but he also knew how hard she worked on her stories, so he wasn't surprised that there wasn't much warmth wasted on her classmate.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Is there anything you can do?”
She shrugged, adding the whipped cream and chocolate shavings to his drink. “Not really. And I spoke to the professor, and he said he’d be keeping an eye on her work in class, but outside of that, there wasn't much he could do. But I’ve sent in a few of my own things, so maybe it'll take off from there.”
“Good luck; if they were anything like the last one you let me read, they probably will.”
Maka grinned, setting his mug in front of him. “That’s one of the ones I sent. Lets just hope their taste is as good as yours,” she joked. “By the way, have you heard about the latest break-ins? They aren't in your area, are they?”
Closer to his family, but comfortably far from his personal type of neighborhood.
“I saw. I’m startin’ to think it’s more than one person.”
An odd look came into Maka’s eyes. “A crime ring? Hm. Something should be done about that.”
“Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if something was,” Soul said, hiding his smile behind his mug.
“Neither would I.”
Both of them gave a small cackle, then eyed each other strangely.
Soul cleared his throat and took another drink, Telling himself not to be an idiot. So far, he'd never let his secret slip, but there was just something about Maka that always managed to make him let his guard down and reveal more than he had intended. Sometimes that was nice, but the fewer people that knew about this, the better.
“Ah, I forgot; you looked like you could use this,” Maka said, darting halfway down the counter and returning with a cookie on a plate. “Eight kinds of chocolate, and still warm. Company policy obligates me to warn you that if you're diabetic, this will kill you on the spot.”
Mouth watering, Soul picked it up and took a huge bite. “If I had to go, this would be the way I wanted it,” he groaned.
A group of college students trooped in, the noise level rising as they all attempted to hold four conversations at once.
“I think I’ll take this to go. Ring me up?” Soul asked, digging out his wallet.
“You're lucky you get to leave,” Maka muttered, having often lamented the extra effort it took serving people you actually knew, but didn't particularly like.
“Hang in there. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired for your book?” He snickered, ignoring her eye roll as he glanced at the total, doing a double take. “What the actual hell? The cookie alone is almost six bucks!”
“It’s bigger than your head, Soul,” she explained patiently. “Bigger cookie, bigger price tag. Don't forget to tip.”
“No wonder you were being so nice with it,” he lamented, giving her puppy eyes. “I thought it was a gift; a sign of our close friendship.
“Oh, it was! And I’ll take your tip as your sign to me of the same.”
He plunked down the cash, picking up his cookie and stepping out of the way of the customers behind her. She thought she was being cute........but she just guaranteed that the next few times he came in, it would be with the most complicated orders he could come up with.
During rush hour.
Soul returned home, energized by his caffeine buzz. He locked the door, set the bag with half of his uneaten cookie on the coffee table, and went down the hall. At the storage closet, a thrill went through him--after all this time, he still got excited--and reaching in, he pressed down on two screws, and entered his keycode when the small panel popped open. The light flashed green, and the back wall swung open into the next apartment, which Soul payed for every month under the name Derrick Hotchkiss. The apartment housed everything related to his secret persona; armor, tools, weapons. He walked over to the special case that held his power suit, reaching in and running his hand over the shiny, cool surface of the helmet. The design was a cross between Iron Man and Batman, black with deep red trim and entwined DB across the chest.
He had assumed the identity of Deadly Burn while still in his late teen/The World is Dark but Not as Dark as My Sick Mind phase, back when he was still struggling with finding the meaning to his existence. He wasn't sure if he had answered that question completely, but there was something about becoming another person and going out and making a real and immediate change in the world that added a spark to life that had been missing. It also gave him an outlet for the money he received from his family. He’d never been comfortable with the ‘wealthy’ lifestyle, and had felt certain that his parents would think that using their money gave them some sort of control over his life. But what had started out as a ‘screw you’ gesture and subversive adrenaline rush quickly became a genuine interest, and something he grew to care about deeply. Even after his relationship with his parents (mostly) improved, and he wasn't getting anything out of it, he had no desire to quit. Considering it even bothered him a little. Now, he knew he wasn't likely to become one of the major superheroes in the country, or even in this city, for that matter. But he was doing his part, and even though no one, outside of Ox and his assistant, Harvard (and possibly Wes, who had been giving him suspicious and knowing looks), he felt like he’d found where he fit in.
“And although it’s never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good, and will do me good,” he muttered to himself with a small smirk, quoting one of his mom’s favorite Christmas movies.
He glanced at his watch. It would be getting dark soon. He had enough time to get changed, and to check the news stories again to make sure he would be in the right area to strike. Stripping off his shirt, he hummed the Darkwing Duck theme under his breath.
“Let’s get dangerous.”
The muffled sound of breaking glass caught Soul’s attention; it sounded like it came from above and to the right, so he scanned the rows of windows, at first seeing nothing. He retraced his steps, wondering if maybe he’d mistaken it. No, wait--there was a small, bobbing light coming from a second story window, like someone using a flashlight. Briefly he considered using the special rockets Ox had designed for his boots to fly up there, but they weren't exactly quiet, and not really built for use inside. He doubted the apartment owner would thank him if he caught the burglar and trashed the place.
Instead, he chose to use the grappling hook, aiming it at the railing of the balcony. In a few short moments he was up, trying not to draw any attention. He didn't know how many of them their were, what weapons they had, or if the people that lived here were inside. Judging by the sounds of ransacking going on he thought not, but wasn't willing to take that risk. Sticking to the shadows, he moved further into the living room, thinking it might be a good idea to ambush the thief on the way out. He was just about to slide into position in the corner when a hand clamped around the back of his neck, and yanked him back out onto the balcony, spinning him around and slamming him into the brick wall. He let out an entirely too shrill yell of surprise, really, really hoping that Ox had worked out the kink of close range bullets on his suit like he had promised to.
“You're busted, buddy! Anything you'd like to say before I haul your ass to jail?”
Soul squinted through his visor, trying not to be embarrassed that his assailant was at least a full head shorter than him, and failing. For fuck’s sake, her pigtails were level with his---wait. Pigtails. No. No, no. It couldn't be. The girl standing in front of him wearing a green number that looked like she had shouted Moon, Prism, Power to get it on, couldn't possibly be Maka. He glanced down at the legs, a soft bit of thigh and knee peeking out beneath the short skirt, down to the firm, well shaped calves encased in green boots with what he thought were gold wings stitched on the outsides.
Yep. Maka. He wished he had a drink, because this was a spit take moment if he’d ever seen one.
“I’m not the one you're after!” He hissed, trying to disguise his voice. “He’s inside!”
Her eyes widened, darting from side to side; she opened her mouth and then closed it as she took in the emblem on his chest.
“Well, why didn't you say so? And what are you lurking around for?” She shouted, seemingly forgetting where they were.
“I was trying to figure out how many are in there--”
“You'll never know if you stand around out here like an idiot,” she asserted, starting to push past him into the building.
He yanked her back by the arm. “You don't know what you're walking into!”
“Stop that--let go of me!”
The two of them slapped out at each other, looking to any outsider that passed like two kittens having a spat.
“Hello? Who’s out there?” Came the quavering voice of an old woman from the next apartment. “I’ve called the police, and they're on their way!” She warned.
As if to punctuate her statement, the wailing of sirens could be heard, and the blackness of the night was lit up by flashing red and blue lights.
“Crap! Get out of my way!”
Pushing and shoving, they both jumped over the railing, the special soles of Soul’s boots taking the impact.
Soul dragged her around the corner of the building, the sounds of sirens still ringing through the air.
“Unhand me! Just who the hell do you think you are--”
“Maka, for fuck’s sake, shut up! They’ll try to arrest us both if they find us here.”
Behind her bright green eye mask, she blinked, taking a step back. “How did you know it was me?” She hissed.
He crossed his arms, his eyes rolling so hard he thought he might sprain one. “You covered only part of your face, and you seriously expect that’s enough that I wouldn't recognize you? Plus, the pigtails. Dead giveaway. Who else even <i>wears</i> those nowadays?”
“And maybe you should keep your mouth closed, since those teeth are a dead giveaway. Why didn't you just call yourself Sharkman, or something?” She shot back grumpily.
“I had my heart set on Sharknado, but there were legal problems. Look, we can't talk here. You know where the Shangri La apartments are?”
“Yes. Don't tell me you live there! I always pictured something.....”
“It’s not that bad once your sense of smell dies, and you stop looking out the window at strange noises. Fourth floor, apartment fourteen. Meet me there in twenty minutes.”
She shook her head, craning around to look over his shoulder. “Look, I imagine I know what you want to say, so I don't think it’s a good idea. Let’s just--”
“One conversation, and then we never have to talk about this again. Tomorrow, we can pretend like this never happened.”
“Spoken like a man,” she whispered under her breath. “Alright, fine. The cops should be able to handle things, so I’ll meet you there.”
“Great. Oh, and Maka? Before you come, ditch the Sailor Moon getup.”
He’d barely had time to get home and changed before there was a knock at his door. Maka slipped inside when he opened it, dressed in faded jeans and a DCU field hockey sweatshirt.
“Hey, have a seat. Get you a drink?” He asked over his shoulder, on the way to the kitchen.”
“No thanks, I won't be staying that long,” Maka replied, sitting on the very edge of his couch, acting as if he’d salvaged it from a dumpster. Which he hadn’t; it had been <i>beside</i> the dumpster.
“Fine, we’ll cut to the chase,” he said, popping the tab of an orange soda as he joined her in the living room. “About tonight; I’m guessing this isn't new to you?”
“Not entirely. With school and work, I don't get out as much as I want to, but I know what I’m doing. What about you?”
Soul shrugged. “Been at it for about....three years now? Four? Something like that. You're not too bad. How’d you get up to the second story so fast, anyway?”
Maka raised an eyebrow at him, like he was being purposefully slow on the uptake. “I flew.”
“No, seriously--wait. You flew. Oh shit,” he groaned. “Don't tell me you're ~naturally gifted~.”
“Of course I am! Wait a minute,” she narrowed her eyes at him, before she shot to her feet, her finger pointed at his face in accusation. “That means you're not! Oh my God, you're one of those sad sack Batman types; please tell me you don't have some dark sob story to go along with it!”
“If I did, that was a pretty fuckin’ insensitive way to bring it up,” he snapped.
Her arm dropped down, and her bright green eyes widened. “Oh no! Ohmygod, I’m so sorry!”
He waved off her apology. “I don't--parents alive and well, nothing that would probably rate anything worthwhile on your Tragedy O’ Meter. Besides, I don't see what difference it makes, if mine aren't natural. We both do the same thing.”
Her small nose wrinkled in disgust. “You keep telling yourself that. Well, at least I was right about why you asked me to come here, and the answer is no.”
“And just why do you think I asked you here?” He asked, confused.
“She rolled her eyes. “To ask to partner up with me of course! Having someone with actual powers would increase your success, and give you more legitimacy.”
Was she kidding? She had to be kidding. He looked at her face, little nose turned up in the air. She wasn't kidding. He knew Maka could be a little.....stuck up, when it came to her moral code or whatever, but he hadn't realized she was quite this elitist. Of course, he’d hardly met a natural born Super that wasn't, so he shouldn't be surprised.
“Then I have great news for you; I never intended to ask that,” he said, privately enjoying the look of surprise that flitted across her face.
“Nope. Farthest thing from my mind, actually. I work alone, and that’s the way I like it. I’ll keep to my dark, brooding self, so you don't have to worry that I’m lookin’ to recruit a Batgirl.”
“Oh. Well. That’s......good, I guess. So what <i>did</i> you want?”
He leaned back in his seat, chugging down half his drink. “To make sure something like tonight doesn't happen again. I’ve been working this area for awhile before you showed up, so I think maybe you should......stick to a different part of town.”
“Excuse me?” She asked, jerking back. “This is what I do! This is what I <i>am!</i> Why don't you lose the toys, and live like the nice little civilian that you are?”
Soul narrowed his eyes at her, his jaw tightening. “You’re just as much a civilian as I am. Last I checked, cops don't welcome your kind any more than they do mine; some tolerate us, but that’s about it. They’re just as likely to slam your perky little pigtails in jail as they are to thank you.”
“So you just expect me to give this up? Well, I have news for you! No one--”
“I never said you had to stop! I don't care if you flash your panties all around the city--”
“It is a <i>leotard--”</i>
“--Whatever. I just don't see why we can't coordinate things so we don't end up stepping all over each other. It isn't like there isn't plenty of crime to go around.”
“Plenty of crime that I can take care of myself; I don't need help from someone that sounds like he picked his name from some online generator.”
Soul hid a wince; he’d done exactly that, but so what? Superhero names were ridiculous, anyway, and he had sort of liked the classic superhero feel to it.
“Ooookaaaaay, I thought we could be mature about this. Obviously, I was wrong. So let’s make things interesting,” he offered, tossing his empty bottle across the room into the trashcan.
Maka eyed him speculatively. “I’m listening.”
“In two weeks, whoever prevents the most crimes or helps the most citizens--successfully, and no matter how big or small--gets to pick out their own turf.”
“Interesting. So anything goes? Some kid gets his marbles stolen, and one of us helps him get them back, and it counts?”
“It would if this was the nineteen fifties and there was even a possibility of that happening, but yeah. Like I said, nothing’s too small. Only rule is, no sabotaging.”
She gave him her best retail smile, the one that was all teeth and soulless eyes. “I wouldn't dream of it,” she said sweetly. Obviously lying.
“Good. As long as we both have integrity, this’ll go smoothly,” he answered, already plotting ways to muscle her out.
“So is that all, or can I go now?” Maka asked, already edging towards the door.
“I figured it would be sort of redundant to say not to tell anyone about this, so yeah. We start tomorrow, so find a way to keep track and have proof.”
“Sure, I’ll just take a selfie with every lowlife I drop off at the station,” Maka muttered, opening the door. “See you later, Soul.”
He waved a hand in a silent farewell, already pulling out his phone to make notes.
Carry camera, he typed.
This wasn't one of his best ideas, Soul thought a week later, as he rubbed his shoulder, which still ached from when Maka hip checked him through a billboard yesterday. He was comforted by the fact that she had tried to ‘rescue’ two children from their own father, because they had been crying over not getting to stop for ice cream. The thought of her slinking away in embarrassment almost made him forget his pain, until he thought about the day before that when he had tried to stop a guy mugging a sweet little old lady. It turned out to be her grandson helping her with some heavy bags, and Soul discovered just how spry a cane wielding octogenarian can be. Luckily Maka hadn't been there to witness it, so he still considered it a win. Maka, unamused at the way he had managed to get several of her professors to schedule extra homework, had slipped a laxative into his coffee to get even. There were a few moments when the toilet paper had run out that he had briefly considered reporting her to her manager, but Maka had called to apologize, and since she felt bad for going too far, had spotted him a few extra points. Since there hadn't been any permanent damage, and he had made it to the privacy of his own home before things went south, Soul decided to just accept it as cosmic justice for some of the shit he had pulled when he was younger.
Today, however, looked promising; He’d overheard a rumor about some dognappings at a local dog park, and had decided to stake it out. Fresh air. Sunshine. Frolicking dogs. Easy peasy, rice and cheesy, right? Okay, so it was a little hot, strolling around in his Supersuit, but luckily people were now so used to the city’s various superheroes, that they didn't bat an eye. This was the nicer dog park, where dogs that were frequently seen in the well known shows like Westminster came to be exercised; a shampoo commercial worthy afghan hound loped by him, being chased by a dachshund wearing a black sweater with pumpkins. One of the owners gave Soul a brief nod, and he realized he was probably too conspicuous for the dognapper to make their move, so he found a nice, quiet place to lurk. There was a small grove of trees, and after some awkward gymnastics and grunting, he wedged himself between three that were growing close together, pulling some of the vines dangling from them in front of him to obscure him some more. Still feeling slightly exposed, he reached back for another vine.
“Ouch! Damn it, you did that on purpose!” A shrill voice hissed.
Soul jumped, briefly thinking that he might need to as Ox to make the interior of this thing self cleaning. “What the hell are you doing here?” He asked angrily, his hand easing away from his utility belt.
“I’m here to stop the dognappers, naturally!” Maka whispered back, from her perch lying outstretched on a low hanging branch, her hair dangling just within Soul’s reach.
“How did you even find out about it?”
“I have my sources. Now shut up, or I’ll miss him.”
“Don't you have to work today?”
“I <i>am</i> working. Unlike you, this isn't just a hobby, So--”
“No real names! Aliases only.”
“There’s no way I can call you that with a straight face.”
“As if yours is any better! ‘Green Zephyr.’ It sounds like a cleaning product. You could have gone with Scrubbing Bubbles. ‘Who washes away crime? None other than Scru--”
“Green is a nod to all of the classic heroes, and Zephyr sounds a lot nicer than Wind! Imagine what you would've done with that. At least mine’s classy, DB.”
“I think Wind would've been perfect,” Soul muttered, flipping some of her hair out of his vision. “Fine, whoever gets there first gets the collar, right?”
“Of course,” Maka said sweetly.
Soul had his back to her, and felt safe letting a tiny smirk creep across his face; he’d had his boosters upgraded since the last time, but he didn't feel the need to tell her that.
To the right, several yards out of sight and in the middle of a large cluster of of thick bushes, a dog yelped. Neither of them hesitated. With enough speed to take the bark off the treesand possibly off an actual dog, they blasted away to save the beleaguered pooch, paying no attention to the fact that there should be someone visible, unless they were crouched down in the bushes. Both of them tore into the leaves (making mental notes to volunteer and or pay for replacements), just as the dog, a large, curly moplike creature, shot past them. Thinking it had managed to escape, they turned to deal with the dognapper, and.......
No one was there.
Frozen with confusion, both allowed their gazes to pan slowly down to the ground, following the sounds of something scuffling. Another dog popped out of the bushes. Small. Black--no, black and white, and--and not a dog.
“Skunk!” At least one of them shouted uselessly, just as the animal whipped around to express its displeasure (as well as its glands) one more time at an invader that had disturbed its burrow.
Perhaps if they had been more focused on speed than in pushing each other out of the way, they would have outrun the spray. At what speed does a skunk clock in at, anyway? It didn't matter, since, limbs tangled, they fell to the ground, the noxious cloud settling over them like a department store perfume sample. Gagging, Soul fumbled a few moments before managing to get his filtration mask to lower over his nose and mouth. He rolled away from Maka, who was still hacking, tears leaking from her eyes from the stench. He couldn't deny that there wasn't a part of him that wanted to smugly point out that there were some advantages to tech over Super--and that green might be more accurate than he thought, given her current shade. But the slump of her shoulders and little wheezing noises got to him; now wasn't the type to gloat. Later, perhaps.....
“Here,” he said, standing and offering her his hand. “Let’s go back to my place and get cleaned up. It’s not gonna be pretty, and we might as well only stink one place up.”
Maka hesitated only a moment, before accepting his hand. “We might as well. At this point, the dognapper would smell us coming,” she said heavily, her lip curling back as a fresh wave hit.
“True. Let’s get out of here before one of these dogs decides we’re something to roll in; I don't like the way that Boxer is looking at me.”
They both laughed weakly, slinking around the edge of the park, then taking to the air when no one was looking.
After dumping his Suit to be cleaned later (Ox was going to smother him in his sleep some day, he knew it), he asked the computer to pull up a remedy for skunk spray, then called down to Mrs. Myeong to see if she had any of the ingredients. To his relief, she did, and promised to bring up everything they needed. Soul grabbed some clothes for himself, then dug around for a pair of basketball shorts with a drawstring and a T shirt for Maka.
Down the hall, he knocked on the bathroom door. “Hey, Maka? I’m gonna leave some clothes out here for you to change into when you're done. I don't want to sit on anything like this, So I’m headin’ over to Saul’s to take a shower--he’s just upstairs.”
“Saul? Are you kidding?” Maka asked through the door.
“Nope. Saul Stevens. We’ve bonded over mixed up mail. Look, Mrs. Myeong is bringing up something that’ll get the smell out, so you can use the robe in there to answer the door.”
“Wait! M-Mrs. Myeong?”
“Yeah, little old lady who lives downstairs--she makes traditional clothing for kids and dolls, I think you’d like her. She won't stay long so you don't need to worry; she never misses her afternoon shows.”
“Um, alright.......and you won't be here?”
“Not until I scrub at least three layers of skin off. Don't worry, I’ll knock when I get back, just in case,” he added, assuming she wasn't exactly thrilled to be showering in the home of a guy she didn't even know all that well.
“.....Alright, then,” she called back, still sounding odd.
He stood staring at the door, before giving a shrug and turning to leave, locking the front door behind him as he left the apartment. . Not wanting to be trapped with himself in the elevator, he dashed up the stairs, and down the hall to Saul’s. Saul had won a cruise for two, so he and his girlfriend were gone for two weeks, leaving Soul to look after the place--and keep their mail separated. Once there, he realized he’d left before he had gotten anything to wash himself with. Rather than make the trip back, he dug around in the cabinets and surprisingly found everything he needed. He filled the tub, mixed up the wash, and proceeded to scrub himself raw, not sure if it was working, or if he had just gotten used to the smell. As he leaned back to soak a little, his mind drifted over what happened. Things like this were starting to become more and more common with Maka, which surprised him more than a little. He’d always considered her a pretty cool person (if a little intense at times), and they had gotten along well. Her weird stubbornness when it came to their shared......um, hobby? Secondary job? Confused him. It wasn't like they were the only ones in this city. It wasn't like he was following her around and trying to stop her from what she was doing, or take credit for it. And it wasn't like he didn't want her to be out there at all! He had just thought it made sense to have some boundaries so they didn't trip each other up like they had the first night.
Whatever it was, they couldn't go on like this. It wasn't doing anyone any good, and they were both pretty miserable--and that was even before they got skunked. He was going to try, at least one more time, to talk this thing out. Not that he had any idea what he would do if she didn't listen. A glance at his pruned fingers told him he’d been here longer than he had intended, so he scrambled out of the tub, cleaned everything up as best as he could, and headed back down to his floor.
Hearing voices as he opened the door, he was surprised to find Maka and Mrs. Myeong having what looked like an intense conversation, although they both sat back and smiled at him when they realized he was there.
“Hello, Soul! I didn't think you would mind if I kept your friend company while you were out,” Mrs. Myeong said. Her voice was slightly husky from smoke damage she had suffered from being in a fire when she was younger.
“Ah, yeah, thanks for that; I’d felt bad about leaving her down here alone.”
“Well, it wasn't like you had much choice,” Maka pointed out. “Besides, it was nice......<i>meeting</i> Mrs. Myeong.”
Soul looked from one to the other. There were vibes here that were practically solid, and he didn't pick up on them so much as he was bludgeoned by them.
“Okaaaaaay, what am I missing, here?” He asked, raising an eyebrow at Mrs. Myeong’s expressive eyeroll and Maka’s pursed lips.
“Oh, tell him! It isn't like it’s a big secret--and even if it was, it’s mine, not yours!” Mrs. Myeong said to Maka.
“But he’s not--”
“Not what? Not born with the powers, like you?” Mrs. Myeong shrugged. “So what? Are criminals somehow considered caught at a higher level because you do it? No? No. It all comes down to the same thing.”
If she knew, and if Maka knew her, did that mean........he tried to picture her in a mask and spandex, but it just wasn't happening. She had two bad hips and a back that went out more than she did. And with her weak heart, she didn't walk more than a few blocks; he couldn't see her zipping around the city, busting up crime. That left only one other option, one he didn't want to believe.
“You told her?” Soul asked, feeling the sting of betrayal. Alright, so he didn't figure Mrs. Myeong was the type to blab it out somewhere, but--
“She didn't have to tell me. You think I don't know what goes on in my own building?” Mrs. Myeong shook a finger at him. “I'm an old woman. I can't sleep at night. When I can, my bladder makes sure it isn't for very long. You don't think I don't see you going in and out at all hours? You don't come home with no girls. Or boys. You don't come home drunk or high. You think I don't know? I know. You have that look.”
Okay, he was officially lost. At least he was experienced in that area. “So then, how do you....why does she.....” he gestured between the two of them, hoping they would make the connections he couldn't.
“Mrs. Myeong designs the Suits for most of us in the city,” Maka answered grudgingly. “At least, for those of us that don't need special enhancements.”
“That's an exaggeration, child. If my Suits didn't have special enhancements, you think you could fly around at the speeds you do and not have them ripped to tatters? Face it, if it wasn't for my work you would be flying around naked with your titties hitting your knees!”
Soul felt himself blanch, but Maka made up for the loss by turning a bright shade of red. “You know what I meant,” she hissed, refusing to look in his direction.
“I know what you meant. Soul did, too. I swear, even after all these years, I don't know why some of you can't accept that heroes don't have to be born with powers.”
“Because there’s no reason! There’s plenty of us to get the job done, without people with inferior substitutes for powers running around getting in the way!”
“I've done just fine for years, until you decided to make an issue of it!” Soul put in heatedly. “And I think I've been pretty damn good at it!”
“What you've been is lucky,” Maka shot back, cocking her hip so that the silver and red shorts she was wearing (that on her looked like floppy capris) slid lower on one side under the large shirt she wore.
“What does luck have to do with it?” Mrs. Myeong asked. “I've seen plenty Supers crash and burn, in my day.”
“That's different! There’s obviously hazards that go with the job--”
“Why is it hazards when you do it, and stupidity when we do?” Soul asked.
“Yes, why? They're not born with powers. Okay. They compensate. They succeed, same as you. If they aren't born with it, what’s wrong with getting it however they can?” Mrs. Myeong pointed out.
“Because it’s just not worth the trouble it causes!” Maka yelled in exasperation, throwing her hands up. “And it’s not like it’s really any more fair, that way! Not everyone has access to the kind of money that takes--it’s just spoiled rich kids indulging in escapism by defiantly spending mommy and daddy’s money, because they didn't get enough attention as a child!”
Mrs. Myeong gasped, and shot him a worried look, causing Maka’s eyes to widen in shock at her own words. She turned to Soul, one hand partially stretched out.
“Soul, I didn't mean it like th--”
“I think,” he cut in, his voice low and steady, his face completely masking his feelings, “that you should leave now. You can call a cab downstairs--don't worry, my daddy has enough money to pay for it,” he smiled insincerely, “and you can wait with Mrs. Myeong. I'm sure she can help get the stench out of your outfit.”
The oversized clothing she wore and the way her loose, wet hair hung down gave her a lost look when combined with the stricken expression in her eyes, but rather than let himself be moved, Soul walked over to his laptop and flipped it open, starting to type like she wasn't even there. After a few moments, she picked up the plastic grocery bag she must have found in his kitchen to hold her dirty clothes, and quietly left the apartment.
Mrs. Myeong came over and squeezed his shoulder. “Don't take it so hard, Soul. Maka has a good heart; I can't think she meant what she said.”
Soul shrugged his opposite shoulder and gave a short nod, knowing he was acting like a sulking brat, but not feeling up to the effort of acting his age.
She patted him once more, and walked to the door. “I’ll go down, make sure she gets home okay.” One hand still on the door, she added thoughtfully, almost to herself, “When I was a young girl, those with special powers were feared. Hunted. Babies were left out to die, if parents thought there was something different about them. And now, to fight over such foolish things......” she shook her head with a sigh, her fuzzy slippers scuffing against the carpet as she shuffled into the hall.
Soul set his laptop to the side and flopped back against the couch, glaring up at the ceiling. He didn't get it. He’d known Maka for awhile, and she could be sarcastic, or stubborn and irritating whenever she thought she was right about something, but she’d never been........well, cruel like that. It didn't go with what he knew of her personality, and it bothered him almost more than what she had actually said. He didn't open himself up to many people--he was a pretty private person, with a resting bitch face that made him come off even colder than he intended. But Maka was someone he’d felt comfortable around almost immediately. He never had to keep up any pretences with her, and she had never treated him any differently than anyone else, even once she had found out that he had much more money than his lifestyle indicated. He kept his secret identity closely guarded, and although he hadn't realized it until after the fact, Maka was the one person he didn't mind knowing. Maybe, sometime after the shock had worn off, a part of him had thought it would give them even more to talk about, something they could share in common. He hadn't lied when he had said he didn't want to partner up--he did just fine on his own, and he didn't want to step on her toes--but the small, wispy part of him that stretched out of his soul in search of human companionship always seemed to connect more solidly with her somehow.
Her harsh, condescending words had hacked away at that connection until he wasn't sure it could be repaired--or even if he wanted it to.
No. That was a lie. He did want it, and that was probably the thing that irritated him the most. For once he was actually willing to consider sharing himself with someone, and she didn't even respect the part of him that mattered to him the most. He shook his head, digging the heel of his hand into his eye as a wave of exhaustion hit him. There wasn't a lot more he could do about the situation except sit there and make himself even more upset, so he might as well take a nap. Stumbling to his room where it was darker, he flopped onto the bed, told his speaker to play his sleep playlist, and buried his head into his pillow. Maybe, when he woke up, he wouldn't feel like shit.
The view from the penthouse was exquisite; the setting sun painted the town in shades of red, giving the illusion of a modern purgatory scene. The thought amused him, as he gazed out, slowly sipping his wine. Observing him, one wouldn't guess the thrum of excitement that was crackling through his body, for his dark, roughly chiseled features betrayed no emotion; his oddly shaded brown eyes gave nothing away. No one would suspect that after years of meticulous planning, his dreams were about to come to fruition. Oh, it wouldn't happen all at once; that was part of the pleasure, drawing it out. Savoring it as he did the wine. Until slowly, ever so slowly, his ambition was satiated. The same hypothetical observer, upon examining his surroundings, would be hard pressed to find in what areas he could be wanting. His furnishings, while sparse, were luxurious. And well they should be, as the accumulation of wealth had been the first step in his plans, mildly diverting at best, tedious at worst. But wealth bought an important element he couldn't do without---anonymity. With enough money, one could become invisible, with privacy jealousy guarded, to the extent of having their existence effectively erased when it suited them. And now that he had reached that point--
“Master? Is it tonight? Should I prepare?” The door had slid silently open, the high, grating voice of his lacky carrying across the room.
He sighed impatiently. The fawning of the younger man was highly distasteful. But he was utterly loyal, and would follow the most barbaric instructions without question, never once thinking of himself. Useful qualities, when you needed......certain delicate situations handled, but couldn't afford to get your own hands dirty. Very useful, indeed. For now.
“Yes, Gopher.” If the sycophant had ever had another name, he had long since forgotten it--such things were of no importance to him. “We leave at full dark. Be ready.”
“Oh, yes, master! Everything will be as you have commanded!” He trilled, his eyes glowing with fanatical fervor.
“Then leave me until I call for you,” he instructed, turning away and ignoring the disappointed expression his dismissal had caused. He turned his gaze out the floor length windows once again, contemplating his near grasp of the one thing that truly mattered.
Gopher slunk from the room, his thin lips twisted into a pout; it seemed like nothing he did ever pleased the master for long--if at all. He knew he wasn't worthy, but all he wanted was to bask in the master’s attention, to hear words of praise, and maybe even--he shivered deliciously--feel a tender caress, however brief. He knew, six years ago when he had first caught sight of his master, that he would devote the rest of his life to him. Immediately, he had cut ties with his family and few friends, leaving everything behind. He’d never regretted it; the memories of his previous life were burned away over time, consumed by the sun that was his master, his life. Someday, his master would see just how devoted he was to him; his unfailing love and loyalty would be rewarded. Not with money, or power, or any of the trivial little things most people longed for. If he helped his master achieve his goals, he knew he would finally be seen as a worthy vessel of his interest--his passion. And then.......then he would no longer be ‘master.’ At last, as in his fantasies and dreams, he would be.......
“Noah,” he whispered reverently, the one word holding a promise.
Soul entered the cafe warily, still debating on actually ordering anything, after last time. Things had been pretty tense after the dog park incident, and neither had backed down--if anything their argument had fueled them on.
But he wanted to confirm the rumors about last night, and Maka was the only one he really knew that would have insider information--aside from Ox, but he hadn't been answering his calls. The cafe was packed tonight, and it took him several minutes to get closer to the counter. He frowned, realizing that neither of the three people working were Maka. Strange, since he knew this was one of her nights. He was just about to order something to go when he saw her emerge from the back, dressed in her regular clothes, her apron tossed over her shoulder. One look at her pale, drawn face answered his question. Catching his eye, she jerked her head, motioning for him to join her. Muttering an apology to the bored girl that had been trying to wait on him, he squeezed through the crowd to get to her.
“Let’s go to your place,” she said in a low, scratchy voice that sounded like she had been crying. “We need to talk.”
Sensing that she wouldn't say anymore until they were alone, Soul walked along beside her in silence until they got back to his place, observing out of the corner of his eye that she was shaking slightly, a line of blood on her lip from where she had bitten through the skin.
“I take it it’s true, then?” He asked, once she had settled onto the couch, her movements stiff, as if she wasn't quite fully aware of her surroundings.
“I can't believe it,” she whispered. “I just.....it should be impossible!”
“Did you know her?”
She shook her head. “No. I mean, I sort of knew who she was, but I’d never met her. I know someone that does know her, and they say she’s devastated. Not that I can blame her. Having your power stolen! How can we stop whoever it is? How do they do it? Why do they do it?”
“The why part is pretty obvious. Stopping them......that's gonna be a little harder to figure out, until we know how they actually steal the powers. Something tells me this isn't their first time doing it. Has anyone you know ever heard of anything like this before?”
Maka rubbed her head, thinking. “I don't......I don't know. I haven't thought to ask. Everyone’s pretty much been in shock, you know? You’d think there would be rumors at least. Maybe there are, and I just haven't heard them.”
She was looking pretty pale, so Soul got up and went to get her some juice, waiting for her to take a few sips before he spoke.
“Maka, are you gonna be alright?” He asked. Their stupid feud aside, he was worried about her.
“Hm?” Then seeming to snap herself out of it, her voice firmed. “Oh. Yes, I’ll be fine. I just have to be careful, and I'm always that.”
Now probably wasn't the time to point out that no, no she really wasn't--he'd had a front row seat for some of her recklessness. But he figured she was trying to reassure herself more than him with her answer.
“Look, I know I'm sort of an outsider in this situation and it doesn't affect me like it does you, but I’ll, you know, do what I can to help.”
Maka looked up, and seemed to focus on him for the first time that evening. “Even with all that's been going on, with....” she trailed off, making a circular gesture in the air between them.
“Well, yeah? Why would you think I wouldn't?” He wiped some orange juice from the corner of his mouth. “I mean, I know that things have been......kinda tense lately, but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't help you if you needed it.”
She fidgeted with the glass, rubbing her thumb over the slightly faded image of an old Hanna-Barbara cartoon character. “I know. And I also know that......i've been a little stubborn on the subject....”
Don't snort, Soul. We’re at a critical point in negotiations, and snorting would be suicide. Suck fricking juice through your nostrils if you have to, but don't snort.
“And I’m--I'm sorry, alright? And I’m not saying you're right, but maybe I should try to give you the chance to prove me wrong.”
He raised his free hand, feeling more hopeful than he had all week. “Hey, that's all I ask. So, a truce?”
She gave a short laugh, although her smile stayed in place only for a moment. “Sure. I won't slip any more surprises into your food, if you won't suffocate me in homework.”
“I can do that. I think everyone who shared classes with you was ready to kill me, anyway.”
They shared another small, awkward laugh before the seriousness of the situation settled over them again.
“Is there anything specific I can do to help, or should I just do what I can on my own?” Soul asked.
Maka’s forehead wrinkled slightly as she thought over his question. “I.....I really don't know. I’m not sure what anyone can do, I guess. Not until we know more. I suppose maybe if everyone asks around, maybe dig through old files to see if anything like this has happened before.....but I guess you wouldn't have access to anything like that.”
About ten minutes ago he would've took that as a dig, but the way she said it now was more a statement of fact than an intended insult. “You'd be surprised. For one, you're not the only super I know, and I've got a friend who has access to things he probably shouldn't, and would love an excuse to dig for more. I’ll let you know anything I find out, if you don't mind doing the same.”
Her lower teeth jutted out as she bit down on her upper lip. She released it with a gusty sigh, and Soul fully expected to be hand a line about ‘classified, not info given to non Supers, yadda, yadda, yadda.’ He was surprised to be completely wrong.
“You know identity protection is a pretty big thing, and normally not something we share with outsiders--or even each other sometimes. But a few of my friends have wanted to meet you, and I think one of them could be a big help with this. I’ve known you for awhile, and I think I can trust you. Especially since even through all of this, you've never threatened to out me.”
Well, he hadn't even thought of it to be honest. Sneaking into her house and Saran Wrapping all of her toilets? Yes. Snag the last of her favorite soup in the cafeteria before she could get to it? Also yes. He could be petty, but he wasn't a complete bastard.
“Not something I would've considered, even without knowing you'd crumble me like bacon bits.”
“True. Anyway, would you like to come? If you're not busy tomorrow.”
Mentally, he ran through his calendar. “Any time after ten should be good. Where do you wanna meet?”
“Do you know that park on the corner just before you get to The Yews?” She asked, naming a neighborhood so exclusive in contained one mansion on a tract of land that could contain a small town.
Holy fuck, was he going to need to wear a suit? Was she actually luring him there so the local equivalent of the Justice League could ‘take care’ of him and leave his body buried somewhere in the grounds? He shook off these scenarios that were probably unlikely. Probably.
“Uh, yeah. That area’s a little fancy, isn't it? ‘Cause I don't really wanna show up there dressed like this,” he gestured to his jeans and t shirt, “and stand out even more than I already will.” Not that he wanted to wear a suit, either. He’d draw the line at a tie.
“What? Oh, you're fine! It’s not like it’s a major event or anything--there probably won't be more than seven or so of us.”
The tension slid down his spine, his body slumping into the couch along with it. Good. He wasn't all that big on crowds--especially when he was supposed to meet them.
“Okay. So, ten-thirty, at the park gates?” He asked.
“That should work. If it doesn't, I'll call to let you know. And you still have my number in case you can't make it, right?”
They had exchanged numbers several months back when Maka had had several homework related questions, and even after Soul had been able to answer them, they would exchange the occasional text.
“Yeah, still got it. Are you gonna be okay tonight? I know you didn't know her, but still.”
Maka raised her eyebrow.
“No! That's not--” Soul waved his hands, his eyes going wide. “I was just askin’ if you had family or friends nearby to stay with, or if you needed a ride or anything!”
Apparently choosing to believe that he hadn't tried to use the situation to hit on her, Maka answered, “Papa is out of town on business, although I expect he’ll be back as soon as he hears. I've got some friends nearby I'm staying with. It’s not that far, so I should be fine if I leave now before it’s dark.”
He almost offered to walk with her, since two sets of eyes were better than one, and this wasn't a typical situation, like an ordinary perv that he knew she could easily handle herself. But he could tell by the way she challengingly tilted her head that it wouldn't be welcome, so he just nodded.
“Good. That you have someone to talk about it, and stuff. I’ll try to get my friend to start digging around tonight, maybe he can find something out before I see you tomorrow.”
“Alright; I hope he manages to find something. I should probably leave now, since it’s getting dark earlier,” she said, putting her empty glass on the table and standing.
Soul walked her to the door, wanting to lock it behind her so he could call Ox. Just as she was crossing the threshold, she turned and gave him a very quick, and more than slightly awkward hug.
“Thanks, Soul. You've been really great about this. See you tomorrow!” She said, spinning around to dash down the hall.
He stared after her, feeling rather stunned; the contact had been brief, but there was a warm, almost Icy Hot sensation where they had touched. He shook himself like a wet dog, and turned to go back inside.
It had obviously been too long since his last date.
The next day, Soul cursed whoever it was that was supposed to be working on his bike’s gas line--it had been in the shop for over a week now, and he’d been having to rely on the bus. Which was erratic at the best of times, so he shouldn't have been surprised that, today of all days, it was running late. If they moved any slower, Soul thought he might as well ask them to stop so he could send a telegram--it would reach her faster. Once they finally reached his stop, he was about ready to dive off the bus when he was slowed by a woman pulling out a stroller and trying to unfold it before getting off, which, as he could have told her, wasn't going to work. After several people helped her pull it through the doorway, he slid out before anyone else could cause a blockage, and jogged up the street, the strap of his messenger bag with the lesson plans he'd been given (he qualified to sub, just barely) digging into his neck.
There wasn't anyone standing in front of the large, ornately twisted iron gates when he got there, but looking inside, he found Maka sitting on one of the benches under a tree, wearing a dark plaid skirt that exposed her knees, a matching green jacket, and some worn black boots. She was engrossed in the book she was reading and didn't notice his arrival until he accidentally blocked some of the light; her cross expression when she looked up changed once she realized it was him.
“Sorry ‘bout that; I thought I was gonna have to get out of the bus and carry it myself,” he apologized.
“Don't worry, I got a call from my friend saying they were running behind, so we’ll make it in plenty of time,” Maka answered, tucking her book into the black leather crossbody bag she wore, various keychains dangling from the strap.
“Oh, good. I was afraid they were gonna think I was so incompetent that I couldn't even show up on time,” Soul sighed, some of the earlier tension he had been feeling lifting off his shoulders.
Maka bit her lip, her eyes dropping to stare fixedly at the grass. It reminded Soul of their earlier argument, and he realized what he said could have been taken as an insult, since she had no way of knowing that he hadn't been able to reach Ox yet, and was feeling more than a little useless for not having much to contribute.
“That’s not.....I mean......Um. I'm ready to go, so......”
But she shook her head. “Not yet. There’s something I probably need to tell you, and I'd rather do it out here.”
Reluctantly, Soul sat down beside her, letting his messenger bag dangle between his knees. “What’s up?”
Maka took a deep breath. Instead of looking at him, she kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, but Soul could tell she wasn't seeing anything in front of her.
“When I was little,” she began, “A group of us in our neighborhood used to play together. Nearly all of us had powers, or came from families that did. We were young, and we weren't as......careful as we should have been about keeping those powers hidden. One of the boys didn't have powers. He was always going on about how he would get some someday--how he ‘felt them coming in.’ Sometimes he’d try to put together a bunch of junk to compensate. No one made fun of him or anything, but we told him it was impossible.”
She stopped, the nervous energy rolling off of her in waves. Soul wasn't sure where this was going, but he could tell, somehow, that whatever it was, it was bad.
“One day, he put together something like you'd see in an old Wile E. Coyote cartoon, saying that now he could fly. No one really thought anything of it--and we didn't know until it was too late--he decided to prove it.......by jumping out of the window.”
Soul felt his stomach drop, the scrambled eggs he had eaten for breakfast rolling in nauseous waves. He knew, from personal experience, that kids could pull some pretty boneheaded moves and get hurt. But to watch something like that happen, when you're a kid yourself.......
“”He didn't die,” Maka continued, her voice shaking as she brought up a hand to wipe away the tears in her eyes, “But he was paralyzed, and there was some brain damage. It all......it all happened so quick! Any one of us could have saved him, but we just.....froze. And it shouldn't have happened! If he had just--if he had just been content to be what he was.......”
He opened his mouth, then paused. Whatever he said here, he needed to do it carefully. Like him, he knew Maka didn't put herself in positions of vulnerability with other people that often. He needed to find a way to make his point while respecting that.
“Maka.....that.....what happened, was fucked up. I mean, I can't imagine having to watch something like that. And I know I'd feel guilty too, even if there wasn't anything I could have done about it. And even if you had tried, there wasn't a guarantee he wouldn't have done it later when he was alone.”
“I know. I know that; I just.....I just wish I <i>felt</i> it.”
Soul nodded, and risked giving her arm a squeeze. When she didn't pull away from his hand, he left it.
“And now I realize that this whole, <i>thing,</i> with you being against heroes without powers, is just because you're afraid someone’s gonna get hurt when they don't have to, right?”
She didn't answer, but gave a short, jerky nod.
“Okay. I can understand that. I can respect that. To be honest, that fits better with what I know about you. But.....the thing is, he was a kid. It was an awful thing to happen, I’m not arguing that. But there’s a difference between a kid not knowing better and not really thinking something through, and an adult making choices, you know? I know that what I do is dangerous. Trust me, I go over it often enough to try to figure out all the things that can go wrong.”
“But you do it anyway,” Maka said, her shoulders slumping.
“Yeah. I do. It’s not--I'm not doin’ it because I want something to brag about, or because I think it looks cool. I mean, I admit, some parts of it are freakin’ cool,” he smirked at her, and saw her lips twitch reluctantly. “Still, that's not why I do it. I just......I feel like this is the right thing for me to be doing. I can help people, Maka. I'm not exactly......very social. I don't get involved in much. Doing something as me, and having to interact with people constantly--I can't keep that up. Doing it this way, I can make a difference but still stay sort of removed.”
“I suppose I can understand that,” she answered, her voice still slightly watery. “And I have to admit, you are good at it. And I’ll try not to be so.....uptight about it. But it’s not something I can just get over.”
He shrugged. “Not askin’ you to. And since I know where it’s comin’ from, I can even cut you some slack if you freak out a little. All I ask is that you at least try to just say when you're worried, instead of acting like I'm too stupid to take care of myself.”
She fiddled with one of the keychains on her bag. “I’ll try. I will. I’ll still probably mess up sometimes, though. And for the record, I'm sorry if I came across that way--like I think you're stupid.”
He gave another shrug; he'd never been very good at knowing how to take an apology or a compliment. “Thanks. So, you think it’s about time to go?”
Looking grateful for the change of subject, Maka nodded. “They should be ready for us now. It’s not that far, do you mind walking?”
“It’s.....just up the street, right?” Soul asked, wondering if he had gotten something wrong.
Maka started for the gates. “Yes, technically. But the main house is set back pretty far on the property.”
“I’ll risk it. You can always carry me if it gets to be too much.”
She snorted. “I'm not sure whether to be happy that you don't go in for false macho crap, or to be appalled at your laziness,” she joked, sounding more like herself.
“Don't limit yourself. Be both.”
Farther down the street, they came to a larger, even more ornate set gates. These were different, being manned by security guards on the inside, allowing them to pass only when Maka showed her I.D. Soul had been expecting something like a gothic mansion, so when he was confronted with the vastly different reality, he stopped in midstep, jaw sagging. It was, as far as he could tell, a small, functioning town. No, maybe that was overstating things. Modernized feudal village? There weren't any chain stores or restaurants (that he could see), but there was a scattering of homes and businesses.
And a huge-ass, fucking castle.
“It’s really been converted into a sort of school,” Maka said, catching him staring. “Kids with powers can't always control them, and don't always do very well in public schools. Don't worry, that's not where we’re headed.”
“I guess that lowers my chances of being dragged off to the dungeons,” he muttered, looking around as they walked. He knew several Supers who lived in regular houses or apartments, so even though this looked like a pretty good sized community, it was probably only a fraction. Which reminded him of something he'd been meaning to ask.
“So. Am I gonna know anyone here?”
“Probably? I'm not sure I should tell you, though. I mean, revealing someone’s identity is a big ‘no,’ but on the other hand, you're going to meet them anyway.....”
“Aw, come on!” He wheedled. “Maybe I already know some of them! You're not the only one, you know.”
“Weeeeeeell,” Maka dragged out, obviously weakening. “Alright. I’ll tell you one. You know Black*Star, right?” I know it’s hard to believe--”
“Maka,” he gave her a flat look. “Black*Star. Really? You don't think the fact that he can lift a car by himself isn't a dead giveaway?”
“He's never been very good at the whole ‘secrecy’ part,” Maka admitted. “He won't even choose another name. He says people can either call him Black*Star, or God.”
“Nice to see someone with a healthy dose of self esteem,” Soul replied, only half joking. “Can you at least tell me who lives where we’re going?”
“Might as well, since I know they, at least, were going to. The house is owned by Kid Deathe’s family--”
“No, Kid Deathe. There’s a silent ‘e’ you aren't pronouncing.”
“My mistake. Wait, I think i've heard of them--sort of the wealthy recluse type?”
“You could say that. Kid’s dad has been ill for......I don't know how long now; no one really sees him anymore. Kid takes care of most of the business now,” she added, as they turned down a narrower lane.
Soul tried to recall if his family had ever mentioned them; he thought he remembered something about some charity work, but he wasn't sure. As he was trying to see if more would come to him, he realized that they were headed straight for the gothic mansion he had originally pictured--yet somehow, it seemed updated? Cleaner, at least. There wouldn't be any rats or spiderwebs here. Still, it was a huge place.
“So he lives here alone?” he asked Maka, as they walked up the drive, which was bordered by very precisely cut hedges.
“And his father and medical staff, of course. And.....there’s also another slightly unusual situation which I should probably mention before we go in. As you know, not everyone uses their powers for good. Sometimes because they're just horrible people, and some because they can't see another way out. Kid tries to keep an eye out for the second, and help them get out of trouble. About a year ago, as part of a special probation, he took in Liz Thompson and--”
“Liz <i>Thompson?”</i> Soul screeched at her under his breath. “Sister to Batty Patty? Why didn't you <i>warn</i> me?”
Maka paused with her hand raised to ring the bell, confused. “Warn you about what? Do you know them or something?”
“Or something,” he replied shiftily, backing away. “I kinda sorta dated Liz--”
“Just three dates! Before I started to wonder why I was suddenly attracted to someone who wasn't really my type. Plus, she brought her sister along every time, and Patty is.....well, actually fine most of the time, but when she’s not....”
“I know Patty, you don't have to tell me,” Maka said dryly, recalling some of Patty’s escapades.
“And it wasn't like I was really gettin’ a chance to know Liz that way. And then I realized she was using some kind of attraction power, thinking she could get money out of me......”
“Obviously unaware of your financial situation. How unlike Liz.”
“Yeah. And then I think she was gonna try it with my dad, and my brother, who was seeing someone at the time.”
“And what, it would've somehow been her fault if they couldn't keep it in their pants?” Maka sneered.
“When you have a power that doesn't give the other person a real choice, then yeah,” he growled back, not breaking eye contact.
Maka’s mouth hung open a minute before she snapped it shut, nodding. “Fair point. Anyway, that doesn't matter now; Liz and Patty have turned over a new leaf.”
Soul raised an eyebrow at her turned back. “Suuuure. The only leaves Liz was ever interested in were the ones you could peel off a roll of twenties.”
“Are you going to be polite, are am I going to have to leave you out here?” Maka asked, placing her hands on her hips.
“I’ll be polite, just don't expect me to be any more than that, alright?” He sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“Well, I wasn't exactly expecting the two of you to have a sleepover and braid each other’s hair in the first place,” Maka barely had time to say before the door opened.
The woman that opened the door couldn't have been more than a year or two older than him and Maka, but she gave the impression of having years’ worth of more experience. She was wearing a close-fitting, black dress, and her hair was longer than it used to be-and Soul noticed that the hard, closed off look had mostly faded from her eyes.
He still wasn't letting his guard down.
Liz broke out into a slow, wide smile. “Maka! Glad you could make it. Kid’s waiting in the back. Soul, didn't expect to see you after all this time. I hope there’s no hard feelings?”
He wasn't quite sure what to say, so he just grunted what he hoped was an acceptable answer.
“Well, that’s more than I expected,” she laughed, turning away. “Come on, follow me. A few people are already here, and I need to track Patty down.”
Soul let Maka go ahead of him, unashamed to use her as a buffer. She must have known what he was thinking, because she rolled her eyes at him as she passed. Not that he cared; past issues with Liz aside, he was in a strange place with people he didn't know, and wanted to keep as clear as a path to the exit as possible.
He kept one ear on Maka and Liz as they chatted, and took the chance to look around him as he followed. In a lot of ways, it was the type of house he was used to from his childhood. Tateful. Expensive. Lots of trendy black. But unlike the more traditional, ‘classy’ art, many of the paintings and sculptures were a bit off beat and, in some odd way, almost disturbing. There were a few of the family portrait style pieces you would expect, but those were marred by the wildly stylized mustaches someone had painted over them. It threw him a bit, until he remembered Patty lived here, too. Nearly everything looked clean and orderly, everything positioned precisely in its proper spot. Every once and awhile, though, there was the contrast of other items that proved this house was lived in; a few bottles of nail polish and magazines spread out on a table. A lone rollerblade and a hockey stick left on the stairs.
The pounding of running footsteps behind him had him spinning around, cursing under his breath when he remembered that for the sake of politeness, he had come unarmed.
At the sound of the loud bellow, along with the sight of a compact blue blur hurtling towards him, Soul sighed and braced himself. He was in danger, but only from Black*Star’s overenthusiastic back slapping.
“Man, I didn't expect to see you here--you're the last person I’d expect to be a PseudoSuit! I nearly snorted up a lung when Maka told us.”
“Glad I could provide some amusement,” Soul said blandly, through gritted teeth as he lurched forward under the impact of Black*Star’s hand.
“Aw, c’mon, don't be like that!” Black*Star protested, his shock of blue hair falling into his eyes briefly as he shook his head.
Soul might be what they called-either dismissively or as an unintentional insult-a PseudoSuit, but most Supers would at least admit that a Supersuit was somewhat necessary, in ways ranging from protecting your body from the results of your own powers, to at least providing anonymity. Black*Star, of course, prided himself on being a glaring exception. He was currently wearing his usual outfit of basketball shorts, sneakers, and athletic department muscle shirt. Most would assume it was just a poor fashion choice; Soul knew that while he owned other clothes, he was usually exercising in one form or another so it didn't make much sense to wear them. Maka may have tried to act like his powers were hush-hush top secret, but pretty much everyone that knew Black*Star knew he was a Super. For any on campus who may have had doubts, they were dispelled the day he casually lifted off the heavy, metal front doors that someone barred as a prank when they saw him coming.
Black*Star, as Soul’s grandma used to say, didn't believe in hiding his light under a bushel. No, he believed in shoving his strobe light, flashing batsignal right up against your eyeballs. All of this sounded like he was your typical loud, arrogant frat boy--and while he did have that potential, Soul had seen how angry Black*Star got when people were pulling actual harmful shit, and he’d seen how careful and considerate he had been when his girlfriend had broken her leg.
Unfortunately, he didn't seem to consider Soul worthy of these qualities today.
“Sorry, Soul. He has all of the delicacy of a truck going downhill,” Tsubaki said with a fond weariness as she came in.
Soul glanced up at the tall young woman who was joining them. Tsubaki was from Japan, and she still had a slight accent, although her English was usually better than his. She was on the track team, and looked like she had come from practice; tight fitting running pants, zipped up jacket, and her long, shimmering black hair pulled into a high ponytail.
“Tsubaki, your grades are amazing, your the school’s track star, I’ve said before that while I might not murder someone for your cooking, I’d at least maim......but your taste in men sucks.” Soul shook his head, not very surprised to figure that if she was here, she was a Super as well.
“Her taste, just like everything else about her, is fuckin’ spectacular,” Black*Star glared at him, before turning a bright smile on Tsubaki.
“Are you all coming?” Liz asked impatiently, tucking a strand of honey blond hair behind her ear.
They followed her through a few more rooms, and down a set of stairs. Soul was a little disappointed when he saw that it was a fairly ordinary looking lounge, with several large, squashy leather sofas and chairs around the room. On one wall was one of the largest flat screen tvs he'd ever seen, and along another one was a bar, although the cabinets were closed.
“What's wrong? Were you expectin’ the Hall of Justice?” Black*Star asked him, eyes twinkling.
“No, that’d be stupid,” Soul grumbled. He had been picturing something more like the Batcave, to go along with Wayne Manor here.
He looked around, hesitating in the doorway when he saw that a few people were already there. He’d seen Kilik around campus--he was an exchange student from Africa, and while he seemed friendly enough, he was usually busy. Today he was wearing jeans and a faded StreetFighter shirt with the sleeves ripped off. When he saw Soul, he gave him a small finger wave before adjusting his thick framed glasses.
Soul didn't recognize the pink haired girl girl sitting in one of the chairs. She didn't acknowledge him, but he could tell she was aware of his presence. She had a closed off look, but her eyes darted around the room, taking everything in. It reminded him a little of how Liz used to be.
At the end of the room, in a chair slightly larger than the others, sat a thin man about his age. He was dressed in a black suit, with what looked like silver skull shaped cufflinks and matching rings. He had dark hair with a few odd white stripes around his head, and he was so pale that Soul felt someone should take his pulse.
He bit back a scream as someone tackled him from behind, staggering slightly under their weight.
“Sis said you were coming; we haven't hung out in a long time!”
His heart slowed from its racing pace to a more steady beat once he recognized the voice. Patty slid from his back, and stood grinning up at him. She was wearing cut-offs and some type of brightly colored anime T shirt, with mismatched thigh high socks. Patty was a couple of years younger than Liz; bright and bubbly, she never seemed to let much upset her, and could be rather loud with a deceptively innocent disregard for the rules. As annoying as she could be, you couldn't really stay mad at her for long. For as much delight as she could take in getting on your nerves, she was just as likely to do something to cheer you up--or, if you were someone she cared about, and someone else hurt you, she would take them apart.
“Yeah, it’s been awhile. We should hit the arcade or paintball field sometime,” he said, ruffling her hair between the fuzzy pair of cat ears she wore perched on her short blonde bob.
Playfully, she bared her teeth at him and pretended to bite at his hand, before turning and twirling off to the other side of the room, to flop onto the seat beside Liz.
“Isn't anyone else coming?” Maka asked, moving over to a longer sofa and tilting her head for him to follow.
“No, some weren't.....able to make it today,” The man Soul assumed was Kid answered, his voice quiet, but carrying.
Soul froze, not sitting down between Maka and Black*Star.
“Um, if it would be better if I left, I don't mind. I didn't really think you'd want to talk about it with--”
But Kid shook his head. “I won't lie, there were a few who were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about you being here. But most simply couldn't make it, mainly because of their jobs. If you weren't welcome here, you wouldn't have been invited, so please, have a seat. I see you know most of those here, and I don't go in much for formality, so just call me Kid,” he said, with a strained smile.
Soul nodded, watching him as he sank onto the couch. It wasn't the kind of strain of someone trying to be polite and not meaning it--it was the strain of someone who was sick and trying not to show it. His suspicions were confirmed when Liz stood up, stalked over to the bar, and came back with a glass of ice water, which she then set down on the table in front of Kid.
“Stay hydrated, you idiot. We can't have you ending up in the hospital or something,” she said, sounding harsh, but the quick, worried look she cast over Kid belied her words.
“Man, you're gonna drain yourself dry if you keep usin’ your powers like that,” Kilik spoke up
“Couldn't be helped,” Kid said with a shrug, rolling his eyes at the combined, stern gazes of Liz and Patty, before picking up the glass and taking a drink.
“Kid has really strong psychic gifts. We were hoping he’d pick something up about this,” Maka explained.
“Unfortunately, it was like flinging myself at a brick wall, which I suppose tells us something. They’re blocking those of us with that particular talent, so it tells us it wasn't an accident. Did you give it a try, Maka?”
She nodded, glumly. “Yeah, I didn't get anything either, but I thought that was just me.”
“Wait, I thought you could just fly? And some extra strength,” Soul turned to her, confused and a little nervous. Surely she couldn't have been reading his mind, right? With two people in the room that seemed capable of such a thing, without his Suit, he was feeling as naked and exposed as a hermit crab caught changing shells.
“Ah,” Maka looked mildly embarrassed, “That’s because it’s.....sort of new? Or at least it’s gotten strong enough that I can tell I actually have it; I’m not so good at controlling it. And don't worry, I can't read minds directly, at least not yet. I just mainly get impressions.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s nice an’ all, but what about why we’re here in the first place? All I've heard were a few rumors so far,” Black*Star butted in, having been quiet for too long.
“I'm afraid it’s more than just rumors,” Kid said heavily, setting his half empty glass down on the coaster he had precisely centered in front of him. “I'm not sure if any of you know Aqua Girl?”
Everyone shook their heads, looking around to see if anyone else had.
“I knew who she was, but never really talked to her. Anyway, I've spoken with her parents. It seems that she isn't very coherent, and was only able to say something along the lines of, ‘he took them! He took them!’ Which we can only assume refers to her powers. She’s having to stay under close watch, since she keeps trying to stick her head in any type of water container she can get to--the nurse found her the first time at the sink. We think she might be in shock, and trying to force her powers to come back.”
A grim silence followed his news, and Soul scowled down at the floor. It sounded like the poor girl had been driven half out of her mind at the loss.
“So we don't have any idea who did this, or why?” Tsubaki asked, her face creased in a concerned frown.
“So far, nothing, which in itself is surprising. You now how the typical villain is. Can't help leaving at least a cryptic message. But this time........”
“Then I'm guessing no one knows if this is going to be permanent or not, either,” said the pink haired girl, her eyes drilling into Kid like lasers.
“No, Kim, they’re still trying to figure that out. But unless we can find someone who knows of a precedent for that kind of thing, we might not know for a very long time.”
“What about your dad? Have you been able to ask him?” Black*Star asked, his voice unusually serious.
Kid looked pained, his eyes widening slightly as if shocked by the question, before a wave of resignation seemed to wash over him. “No. Father hasn't had a spell where he could speak for several weeks. He opened his eyes a few days ago, but......nothing else. If he’s strong enough when he next wakes I’ll ask him, if we haven't solved it before that.”
“Papa’s still away on business, but I’ll call him tonight and see if your dad might have ever mentioned something like that,” Maka offered.
Soul thought it was strange how gentle and almost sad she sounded, but it seemed like something that was best left unsaid, at least by him. From the way everyone else looked, he was the only one that didn't get it--something that might have irritated him, except he knew what it was like to have private things you just didn't feel like talking about with just anyone.
“I'd appreciate that,” Kid thanked her, then took a deep breath. “I know you were all hoping for something more definitive, but without any more to go on, I'm afraid that’s impossible. All anyone can do right now is ask around, and see if anyone has ever heard of this happening before. And we don't know if this was directed at Aqua Girl herself, or if it’s an attack on all Supers. It may very well be a one time occurrence--it wouldn't be the first unexplainable case we’ve heard of. That’s the option I’m hoping for, at least.”
There wasn't much anyone had to add to that, so the meeting broke up soon after. Kilik had a pair of twin cousins he needed to go babysit, and Kim had left the room as quickly as a coyote escaping a trap.
“Were you surprised to see us here today?” Tsubaki asked as they all walked back through the house.
“Not really,” Soul said honestly. “It always looks like you hang back just enough to stay in the range of normal when you're running, but you're never out of breath. And Black*Star, well.....” He looked over to where Black*Star and Patty were mock fighting, the pair of them using enough force to rattle the room.
“Hard to believe he had a stealthy ninja stage, isn't it?” Tsubaki laughed.
“Hey you two, watch it!” Maka called, as one of the crystals from the large chandelier overhead came unattached and began to fall.
Before any damage could be done, Maka had snatched it out of the air, and flown up to put it back in place, doing a graceful backflip away from it before gliding down to land beside him.
“Showoff,” he muttered with a smirk.
Maka smiled at him, her cheeks glowing. “I can't help it; I love flying.
They all made their way for the front door once again, but Soul couldn't help sneaking looks at Maka. She hadn't been exaggerating about loving to fly. The expression on her face, the way her eyes lit up--he rarely saw that look, although he’d seen fleeting glimpses when she was happy with how one of her stories turned out.
It was, he thought, a good look on her.
For several days, it seemed as if Kid’s hopes might be true--that Aqua Girl might be an isolated, if tragic, incident. Things seemed to go back to normal. Better than normal, since the frustrating rivalry between himself and Maka had been put to rest. They still ran into one another from time to time, but now either the second person to arrive on scene would either leave, or take a backup position. And even though he could tell Maka still worried, she was true to her word, and had kept any comments to a bare minimum. They were getting along much better--enough that whenever he got ready to go out for the night, he would catch himself hoping he’d run into her. Ox had never gotten back to him (not too surprising, since when he was on a research binge, he cut ties almost completely with the outside world), but Soul didn't consider it a problem, since it was starting to look like it wouldn't matter.
And then the whispers started.
At first, it was people feeling like they were being watched, followed on their nightly rounds. They never caught more than a fleeting shadow out of the corner of their eye, no matter how fast they moved--and some could move pretty damn fast--so there wasn't any real evidence to go on, just a mounting sense of unease. Then, the disappearances. Not abductions, not deaths.......at least as far as anyone could tell. But with no warning, another friend in the Super community would stop returning calls. Not showing up to work. Each time, those with family would report that they would come home one night strangely quiet, and go straight to bed. Sometime the next day, they would be gone, as well as a number of their clothing and special belongings.
And then, finally, another confirmed case; Prehistoria could no longer communicate with reptiles. She had isolated herself in her small base in the sewers, but had sent a message out to warn people. She hadn't gotten a clear look at the man that had done this to her; she only saw a glimpse of a tall, broad shouldered man in a black mask covered in gold filigree. It didn't match any known description of any villain, and there were already some suspicious rumors flying around about a hero that had turned.
Some, of course, brushed the whole thing off--at least so far as it concerned them. They didn't think whoever was doing this was much of a threat to anyone with more than the most basic of gifts--they were confident that they could fight him off and catch him easily. Or, if not catch him, then at least protect themselves. And even when one or two of them stopped making statements filled with bravado (or even any statements at all), those that remained just considered it to mean that they had finally found an adversary worthy of testing their strength.
Which, in the end, was what brought about Black*Star’s downfall.
Soul was sprawled on the couch, clicking through Netflix and trying to decide what to watch; he hadn't been sleeping well lately and his head ached, and he knew better than to go out when he was feeling like this. He had in the beginning, but after a few needlessly close calls, he’d decided he wasn't doing anyone any favors if he ended up as a grease spot on the side of a building. Just as he had narrowed things down to comedy or horror, a rapid knock at his door distracted him.
“Who’s there?” He called out, not wanting to move.
“Soul? It’s me, Maka. I need to talk to you,” Maka’s voice came through clearly. Which it should, since the door was barely thicker than cardboard.
“C’mon in, it’s unlocked,” he answered, sitting up and giving his hair an attempt at a comb with his fingers.
Maka entered, giving him a look that spoke volumes about her opinion of his lax security habits. He shrugged, shooting her a ‘what can you do?’ smile, to which she rolled her eyes and sighed.
“What’s up? Didn't you have a writing group tonight?” Soul asked, wondering if he had his days mixed up.
At the reminder of why she was here, Maka sobered, two worry lines forming between her eyebrows. Soul sat up a little straighter, frowning.
“It’s Black*Star. Tsubaki called me just a few minutes ago. He was out the other night, and--and it happened!”
Soul shot to his feet, ignoring the throbbing of his head. “What the hell? I knew he wasn't taking this seriously enough--is he alright?”
“Physically, he's fine,” Maka assured him, her arms held together as if she were hugging herself. “But Tsubaki says he isn't taking it well, although I suppose we should be grateful he hasn't disappeared.”
He ran both hands through his hair, leaving it flopping every which way. “Yeah, but she should still probably keep an eye on him. Knowing ‘Star, he's likely to go out and try to fight like he is.”
“I don't think she plans to leave him alone. But she was hoping we could drop by; she thought we might be able to cheer him up a little.”
Sitting back on the arm of the couch, Soul scratched his leg. “Me? I can see how you might, since you've known him since you were kids, but I doubt I’d be any help.”
“Please, Soul?” Maka tilted her head imploringly. “He really likes you. I think it would help--you know I’m more likely to scold him.”
Soul didn't know Black*Star as well as he knew Maka. They’d talk sometimes, and they would meet every once and awhile to shoot some hoops, nothing that Soul could see rating Black*Star caring much about him one way or the other. Then again, would he be upset as he was if he didn't consider Black*Star a friend? Sure, he could be loud and obnoxious, and sometimes exhausting to be around, but oddly enough those were the very reasons he was so fun. And Tsubaki mentioned him specifically, right? Maybe it actually did matter if he went.
“Alright, let me change real quick,” he said, motioning to his sweatpants.
“Thanks, Soul. I know it probably sounds horrible, but I was a little afraid of seeing him like this. I don't want to bring him down, so it'll help if you're there to distract him.”
“Yeah, well, this isn't actually a situation I'm very good in, so you might be the one needing to distract,” Soul warned over his shoulder as he went to his room to change.
When he came back, he found Maka staring out the window, an odd look on her face.
“You okay?” He asked, when she didn't seem to notice he had come in.
With a start, she turned, letting the curtain fall back into place. “Yeah. No. I......I don't know. I was just thinking how even though I’d nag at him, it seems almost impossible that this happened to Black*Star, of all people.”
“I know. He always seemed so invincible,” he gave himself a shake. “But we should probably try to stop talkin’ like he's dead.”
“Crap! You're right, I didn't even think how that sounded. Okay, hopefully I've got it out my system. Positive, I need to stay positive. Are you ready to go?”
Soul wiggled his foot to settle it into his shoe, and patted his pocket to make sure his wallet was there. “Ready. Are we walking, or do we need to take the bus?” He asked.
“Bus. there’s a stop right at the end of their block,” Maka answered, already headed for the door.
Soul followed her, glancing at the sky, which was already darkening. Normally he didn't mind walking, and knew Maka didn't either. He watched her as she briskly descended the stairs, her pigtails swinging, and the graceful way she hopped over the two busted ones. And then he thought of Black*Star, who had probably walked along with the exact same confidence just hours before he was attacked. For Soul, it didn't matter all that much........
But he was suddenly very in favor of taking the bus.
Tsubaki let them in, her face tight with strain.
“Thanks for coming,” she said in a low voice. “He’s.......really down. I’ve never seen him like this. I don't know what to do, so I’m hoping your visit helps.”
Soul shuffled in after Maka, ignoring the muffled yapping coming through the ceiling from the apartment upstairs. In the middle of the room, in stark contrast to the cheap but clean pieces of furniture arranged around the rest of the room, was an old, grody, beaten in recliner that looked like it had first seen the light of day during the Hoover administration. Its mossy green......fur? Was matted in some places, and balding in others--much like a child’s overly loved teddy bear. Draped over it, in a picture of abject misery, was Black*Star, a half eaten bag of crunchy Cheetos partially spilled around him, the orange stained fingers of one hand hanging down to the floor. A listless, blue gaze travelled up their bodies, dropping back to the bag before he reached their faces.
“Go away,” he ordered, his voice monotone.
“Why? We were worried about you,” Maka said, ignoring him and coming farther into the room.
“I don't want anyone to see me like this,” Black*Star answered, swiping his non orange hand through hair that looked like it hadn't been washed in a few days--neither Soul nor Maka could ever remember seeing it droop like this.
“You don't understand!” Black*Star wailed. I’m......” he turned his head away, flinching as he choked out, “delicate.”
“Black*Star, don't be ridiculous!” Maka said briskly, placing her hands on her hips. “You still look like you could benchpress a truck, so I’d hardly say you were <i>delicate.”</i>
“The fuck do you know?” He snarled, sitting up and spilling Cheetos all over himself, the chair, and the floor. “You don't know what it’s like! I’m <i>normal</i> now!”
Soul snorted, digging his hands into his jacket pockets. “Think again. There’s nothin’ normal about you.”
“Thanks, but you're just sayin’ that,” Black*Star sighed, sinking back down with a crunch.
“We’re going to find who did this to you,” Maka said more softly than before, looking troubled by her friend’s unnaturally subdued state.
“Don't,” Black*Star warned, sounding serious. “It’s not worth it. I don't know what this guy is, but I don't think you can beat him just by chasin’ after him. I’m pretty sure that’s how he’s gettin’ some of us.”
“I think he’s right,” Tsubaki said, joining them with a a tray of tea glasses. “We don't know who he is, what his motivations are, or how long this effect lasts. As many of us as possible needs to keep our powers until we know what we’re dealing with.”
“Thanks,” Soul said, taking a glass. “It’s frustrating, but there aren't many other options. I think we should do some digging around, try to find out if this has ever happened before, or even if it’s happening anywhere else. We still aren't even sure if this is one person, or a group.”
“Fine,” Maka huffed a sigh. “We’ll be cautious. Maybe Kid can contact some of the people with various mental powers, see if they can get a bead on this guy.”
“......Yeah. And I’ll keep tryin’ to get Ox on it, too; he loves tryin’ to figure this kind of stuff out,” Soul added, while eyeing her with suspicion. He would lay money that Maka was going to try to do her own mental poking, and he was determined to keep an eye on her; he couldn't stand the thought of her winding up like Black*Star, all deflated and depressed.
“And perhaps we should have Kid make it clear that no one is to act on their own, until we have more information?” Tsubaki suggested with a deceptively gentle smile, sharing a quick look with Soul; obviously she knew Maka well enough to know what she would do.
“Sure! Of course!” Maka agreed, too quickly to be entirely genuine.
“Maka, seriously. Don't end up like me--I thought I’d be able to take him, too, and now look at me--wait, don't, but you get the idea.”
“For heaven’s sake, you act like you’ve turned into a noodle-armed twelve year old! No one can tell just by looking at you. And I wish you all would have a little bit of faith in me.”
“That’s exactly what we have,” Black*Star shot back with some of his former sassiness. “A <i>little</i> bit of faith!”
“Alright! Just spare me the nagging,” Maka muttered. “Tsubaki, I think we’re going to go now and get started. Is there anything else we can do to help?”
Tsubaki shook her head. “We’ll be fine. Black*Star just needs some time to adjust. If you can drop by sometimes to keep us in the loop, that would be nice.”
“Of course we will; and you know you can always call if you need something.”
Soul wondered, amused, when Maka had started referring to them as a ‘we,’ but he decided not to point that out for now. He’d always been used to getting by on his own, but it felt strangely nice to be included.
“He looked horrible,” Maka said as the doors to the elevator shut behind them.
“Really? He looks pretty good; I mean, he didn't need to go to the hospital, no visible signs of--”
“I know, but that’s not what I mean.” She started to lean against the wall, then seemed to think better of it after glancing at the unidentifiable stains. “I’ve known Black*Star since we were little. I’ve seen him mad, and I’ve seen him clam up so you can't tell <i>what</i> he's feeling. But I’ve never really seen him so.....<i>sad</i> before. It’s like that bastard stole a part of him, a part besides his powers.”
Soul shrugged. “Maybe he did. You guys use those powers all the time without even really thinkin’ about it. Losing them must be like losing a limb, so I think it’s only natural he’d react that way.”
Maka looked at him, her expression softening into something unfamiliar. “Maybe you're right,” she said quietly. “Thanks. For coming, and....everything. I know we’ve been sort of, well, hard on you before--”
“Forget it,” Soul cut in, his shoulders jerking in an uncomfortable shrug. “I haven't really done anything. “Anyway,” he cleared his throat, “Did you wanna swing by Kid’s place now?”
An almost guilty looking flush spread across her cheeks, and her eyes darted around the elevator. “Um. Well. Yes, but I was going to go alone; I wanted to talk with Liz about.....something. Sort of private.”
“That’s not suspicious at all,” he laughed, cocking his head at her. “Fine, there was something I wanted to take care of myself, anyway. Drop by my place when you're done?” He asked as they hit the ground floor with a jerk and thud, the doors creaking open behind him.
“Yeah, if that’s alright? I can stop by the deli and grab us some soup and sandwiches.”
“Sounds good; I might have headphones in, so just come on in when you get there.”
Maka frowned, pausing at the door. “You really should be better about locking your door, you know. It’s not safe.”
Soul took a deep breath of fresh air; the apartment building had a muggy, almost stale odor that made your lungs feel heavy, and it was good to get outside. “Maka, I don't exactly live in a place that people think is worth robbing. Besides, I have a little extra in the security department, so I’ll be fine.”
“I’m not even going to ask what kind of weird, over the top system you have rigged up,” she sighed. “Is it a guy thing to ignore simple precautions, and then overcompensate for it?”
“I wouldn't know; I don't have a need to overcompensate,” he leered jokingly, surprised when she turned a brilliant shade of red, and squeaked a reply before turning and hustling down the sidewalk.
He watched her leave, wondering what had gotten into her. He shrugged, unable to figure it out. Maka had been a little strange, recently--not all the time, just short, random flashes. Maybe she was more worried about this power stealing nut than she wanted to admit, and it was spilling out? Somehow that didn't feel like it, but he didn't have time to worry about it, at least not right now.
Cutting through a few alleys and side streets, he made it home in about fifteen minutes, avoiding the elevator when he saw that it was full of the ladies from the weekly mahjong game that was held on a rotation basis among the members; most of them got the floors mixed up, and it could take forever to get to your own, waiting for them to shuffle in and out. He jogged up the stairs, nearly gagging when he stepped into his hall; the older couple was having cabbage tonight, which meant the smell would linger for days.
Reminding himself to do something about the smell later, he unlocked his door and went in, grabbing his laptop and flopping into a chair. He logged onto Skype, hoping that Ox would notice his call--when he got into something, he could be oblivious to anything else. Luck was with him, since Ox answered almost immediately, his cheeks bulging as he dug into a bowl of.....Soul squinted.....of what he hoped was some kind of pasta with lots of herbs.
“What the hell is that?” He asked, wondering if he saw something just wiggle.
“Dunno,” Ox shrugged, swallowing loudly. “I was hungry, and it was in the fridge.”
“The specimen fridge, or the fridge, fridge?”
Ox rolled his eyes. “The fridge, fridge. Come on, are you going to hold a perfectly natural mistake over me forever?”
“Once is a natural mistake. Twice is an hilarious, “I can't believe that happened again” situation. More than three times......I have to start questioning whether it was ever really a mistake, or if maybe you're lyin’ about a few of those IQ points.”
“Did you need something, or did you just call to insult my eating habits?” Ox asked testily.
“Hm? Oh, yeah! Listen, do you think you can dig around, and try to find something about......well, if there’s ever been cases of Supers having their powers stolen? If they ever figured out who did it, if their powers ever came back; stuff like that.”
“Stolen powers? Iiiiiiinteresting. You know, I think I might have heard something about that, a long time ago. Lemme look into that for a day or two, see what I can find.”
“Thanks. And one other thing. Do you.....do you think that you could come up with anything to replicate a Super’s lost powers? Specifically, strength.”
Ox blinked, the two oddly pointy bits of hair on his otherwise bald scalp practically quivering with interest. “I’ve never really needed to, but I don't see why not. But it would be interesting to get a perspective from someone who’s had natural powers, and see if they notice any difference between them and what I suppose would be, to them, prosthetics. Did you say strength? I think I could have something ready by Saturday, if you at least send me measurements.”
“Great. They might not be exact, but you can tweak them later. I’ll send you the info in a few minutes. And Ox? Be careful about who you talk to about all of this, alright? Whoever it is might not take too kindly to someone poking around about them.”
“Got it. I’ll be discreet. Smooth. Bond-like. I’ll--”
“Maybe you should just let Harvar do it?”
“......Or that. I’ll contact you when I have something. Later.” And with that, he disconnected with his usual abruptness when his attention was focused on a new project.
Soul logged into his email, and put down what he thought were close enough to Black*Star’s measurements. He added a few features that he thought would be best, then sent it on to Ox, hoping it really would be done by Saturday. After he sent it, he checked the local news sites, scanning for articles that might have anything to do with the stolen powers. There didn't seem to be any new missing person reports, and while that might be good news, it was also possible that they just hadn't been reported yet. Even though he'd done it the other day, he did a quick Google search, but nothing came up that he didn't already know. Not that he really supposed it would; anything before internet was common probably wouldn't be on here--Supers tended to hide themselves more in the past, so it would've been stupid to make any weaknesses their community had public.
He closed his laptop and set it aside, wondering how much longer Maka would be. Not that he was particularly hungry, although that was the excuse he’d give if asked. And while it was true he did worry that something might happen to her while she was out, there was more to it than that. He stood up, and paced uneasily. He had feelings for Maka. He’d been trying to avoid admitting it to himself--every time he'd started to notice the attraction before, he'd stop going in for coffee. But now that they were spending more and more time together (and the less pleasant parts were behind them), it was getting harder and harder to ignore. It wouldn't be difficult to see why he liked her--she was smart, pretty, and funny (at least when her sarcasm wasn't aimed at him), and those were just the more obvious things. He admired her drive and determination. He also admired that despite the fact that she could be tough as nails, she was also warm and compassionate. She was also one of the very few people whose cheerfulness didn't set his teeth on edge, probably because it wasn't fake, and she didn't try to pretend that things were alright when they weren't. He liked how comfortable it was to be around her, and how easy it was to just.....be him.
She wasn't some weird idea of perfection, but she was great as she was, and just what he was looking for, and.......probably not interested.
Maka didn't date a lot, and she didn't get out much to the bigger parties. She did a lot of stuff with her friends and a few others, but she preferred to focus most of her energy on school and her writing--and of course, flying around the city and kicking criminal ass. And it wasn't like he had a very enticing track record; he’d dated several that were only trying to use him for his family’s reputation and money, two that thought he was a ‘bad boy’ fixer-upper they could reform (those ended quickly, when they realized that sarcasm and a resting bitch face was about the extent of his depravity, and they got bored), and a couple of genuinely nice girls that he just......didn't really click with, even though that wasn't anyone’s fault. Not exactly a pattern to inspire a woman to invest her time. Plus, as odd as it might sound, he was actually looking for something serious. Not, you know, getting married and poppin’ out kids, but something steady and committed.
Even if he wanted to (and he did), he really couldn't say anything right now. It would look too much like he was being helpful and supportive to get something out of her, which wasn't the case. Even though he didn't have powers that could be stolen, he genuinely cared for those who did, and wanted to do what he could to help.
All in all, it was piss poor timing, and he just needed to realize it wasn't going to work out, and to let it go.
Someone kicked his door--just as he reached for the baseball bat behind his couch, it popped open and Maka came in, juggling a couple of paper sacks and a cardboard drink holder.
“I told you that was so flimsy anyone could get in,” she said with a smug smile, looking altogether too pleased with herself as she bumped the door closed with her hip and came into the living room.
Soul let the bat drop back to the floor, and couldn't keep from grinning as he went to help her set things down--ignoring the way both of them gave a slight jump when their fingers brushed together when he took the bags.
“That’s your sandwich in this bag,” Maka said, not looking at him. “Grilled four cheese, and here’s the tomato soup to go with it,” she handed him one of the cups from the carrier, the heat from the soup seeping through the styrofoam.
He licked his lips; this place made everything themselves, and their bread was outstanding; grilled cheese and tomato soup, just like his Nana used to make him on cold days. He quirked an eyebrow at Maka. He hadn't told her that, had he? He knew she had some gifts in the psychic area, even if she couldn't read minds outright.
“What did you get?” He asked, peering over at her bag--he wouldn't be adverse to finishing of whatever she didn't eat.
“Turkey and avocado club. I would've gotten us the same thing, but I know you're allergic to avocados, and the girl who waited on me today was the one that never listens to orders with diet restrictions.”
Damn. “What kind of soup?” All wasn't lost, yet.
“Low sodium squash bisque,” Maka said virtuously, as Soul made a gagging noise.
Her exemplary eating habits were dashed when she pulled out a large container of fried mushrooms and spicy dipping sauce. Soul snaked a hand out to snag one, popping it into his mouth with a biteful of soup.
“Feeling better?” He asked, when they were about halfway finished.
Slowly, she dragged her spoon through her soup, the thick, orangey yellow liquid oozing closed over the trail she left. “I don't know. I think so. It’s....a lot to take in. I keep trying to distract myself, and then it pops back up. I keep worrying about what’s going to happen to everyone that’s had their powers taken. What happens to them now? Do they just......keep waiting? Do they try to move on, and forget they ever even had powers to begin with? And then I worry about who’s next--because I don't believe this is over.”
“We’re gonna find him, Maka. A lead’ll come up soon,” Soul said, knowing that neither of them fully believed that--horrible things went unsolved all the time.
“Yeah. I guess,” she muttered, trying to muster a smile.
Soul crumbled up his napkin, and pulled out his phone to check something--this wasn't going to solve the problem, but a change of pace might help.
“C’mon, let’s go,”
Maka looked up, surprised by his sudden movement. “What? Where? Do you have an idea or something?”
He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. “What I have is a craving for popcorn--and the theater downtown is having a special on their endless bucket with every two tickets you buy.”
“You just ate!” She protested. “And if you want some that bad, why don't you just go in and buy a small tub?”
“Because they’re also getting ready to start an all night movie marathon of classic horror movies.”
That was one of her few weaknesses, and he could see it working as she chewed her lower lip, her right hand absently tugging at the end of her pigtail.
“We really shouldn't. We need to try to think of ways to--”
“Maka, we’ve been trying! But until we have something to go on, there’s really nothing we can do. I know it sucks, but we’re just gonna have to wait--maybe Kid or someone he’s contacted will have one of their visions or something. For now, I think the best thing we could do is to put it down for a few hours, then come at it fresh. Isn't that what you do when you hit a block in your writing?”
She gave a grudging nod. “It is, but with this.....I sort of feel guilty, for having a good time while this is happening.”
“Don't. It’s not like you're tryin’ to forget it for good. You just need to regroup.”
Head tilted back, her eyes on the ceiling, she answered, “Alright. But just for the first movie! After that......well, we’ll see.”
He turned away, not letting her see his sly grin. He had her; he knew once she got into the first one, she wouldn't leave until the end credits on the last--Maka was a horror fiend, and even though she generally preferred books, she enjoyed picking apart or praising the writing and things like how the scene was set. Hopefully after a few hours of doing something she enjoyed, those tense knots he could see at the base of her neck would relax.
“........and that’s why I enjoy the variety! Slashers can be fun for a quick, in your face thrill, but I’m also drawn to the way the older ones build up the tension, and then leave something to the imagination--which in my case is pretty gruesome, although I suppose the effect isn't the same for people without one.”
Soul nodded along, his mind slightly fogged from being up for almost twenty-four hours, but he couldn't help smiling slightly at Maka’s enthusiasm. Her eyes were bright, and she practically skipped alongside of him, full of energy. Every once and awhile, he noticed she’d start to rise slightly above the pavement, before remembering where she was. After about the fourth time, he offered his arm for her to stay anchored, and she took it with a sheepish smile.
“Thanks. Sorry about that; sometimes it happens without me knowing.”
“No problem. At least you don't shoot fireballs, or some shit like that,” he joked.
Maka laughed, her pace slowing as the sound trailed off into the early morning light. “Hey, Soul?”
“Yeah?” He asked, glancing down at her, then back ahead of him as they walked down the street that was just starting to be active with the city’s early risers.
“Thanks. For tonight. Well, last night, I suppose--you know what I mean. It helped.”
“Feelin’ any better?”
She took a deep breath, her cheeks puffing out as she exhaled. “Surprisingly, yes. I feel less......tense, I guess. Things are still pretty awful, but we’ll figure it out. As long as we don't give in to panic. You were right, I just needed to step away from it for awhile. Once I get some sleep, I should be ready to start again with a clearer head.”
And hopefully less likely to go off half cocked, he thought silently, but figured it was smarter not to say out loud.
Maka narrowed her eyes at him. “I'm sensing your doubt, you know.”
“Sorry, I just--wait, that's not fair!”
She shrugged and continued walking, pulling him along. “I wasn't doing it on purpose. And I couldn't actually tell exactly what you were thinking--just a general idea.”
“That’s dangerous enough,” he muttered. “I’m gonna have to ask Ox to figure out a way I can block that without my Suit.”
“Do you really think he’ll be able to find out anything? About whoever it is stealing powers, I mean,” she clarified.
He stepped over a slug, oozing slowly across a broken section of pavement. “You don't know Ox. If there’s something to find, he will--or at least figure out who would know. Between him and Kid, something’ll turn up.”
“I hope so. We still need to work on plans for if they don't, though.”
“Don't worry, we will. Hey, are we close to your place? I just realized I’m not even sure where I’m going.”
Maka stopped, looking around her in surprise. “Oh! Yeah, we’re actually pretty close. Um, I don't want this to sound like--well, I'm not sure if Papa’s home yet, and I'd rather not deal with him this early, if he sees you....”
Soul shrugged. “No problem. If he gets as hysterical as you say he does, I'm too tired for listening to him wail. And it should be light enough now that whoever it is won't bother you even if you're alone--too many people are starting to move around. I could at least walk you to the end of your street, though.”
“No, that's alright,” she shook her head. “You should go home and get some sleep--I’ll be waking you up later, since I only have half a shift today.”
He groaned, his opposite hand coming up to rub at his eyes. “Damn, I didn't think this out very well. Yeah, give me a call or just drop by later. But don't be surprised if I sleep through the first few rings or knocks.”
She nodded and slowly let go of his arm, the cool morning air feeling harsher against where they had been linked.
“Alright. And.....and thanks again. It was......it was really nice of you.”
He watched her until she was out of sight, and then pulled out his phone, dialing a number he’d just been given.
“Tsubaki? It’s Soul. I’ve got an offer for Black*Star.....”