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Feb 12 17 3:02 PM

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A scream in the night.

Shattering glass.

Terror and adrenaline pounding through veins.

In a world full of fear, hope can come in many forms.

A mask.

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.”

“Got it.”

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.

  1. 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, 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 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 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 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--”

“Kid Death?”

“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' 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 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 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 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 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.....”

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Feb 12 17 3:03 PM

Super Ordinary Chap. 2

The room was dark, save from the cool light of the computer screen, the gentle clacking of the keys a steady counterpoint to the song he half hummed under his breath. Noah gazed at the spreadsheet in satisfaction, He always relished these moments, before the hunger for a new hunt set in.

It hadn't always been like this. No, as a child, he’d been merely content to catalogue the powers of various superheroes he heard about, writing them all down in an increasingly battered notebook. The variety had always fascinated him, as did the possible uses those powers could be put to. As he got older, that began to frustrate him. Were they really so simple minded and unimaginative that they could be happy limiting themselves, content with using those powers only for the so called good of others? It seemed like such a waste. He began to think how he would use them--and from there, the jealousy that had taken root in his heart flourished and grew, until he became consumed with the need to have those powers for himself. All of them! There were so many, and he couldn't bear to think of one slipping through his fingers, like a blank slot in a coin collection.

His chance came completely by accident. Pyro, one of the cities leading super heroes, was making a public appearance for charity. Unable to resist seeing a display of those powers up close, he had gone. Being a quiet, rather thin ten year old, it had been surprisingly easy to work his way to the front. While the crowd around him babbled and cheered, he had become entranced with the shiny, polished apple color of Pyro’s costume. In a trance, he had reached out to touch it--and had brushed against the exposed strip of flesh between glove and sleeve as the man bent his hand. There was a jolt; a warm, fiery sensation filled him from head to toe, and he had let out a breathless cry of delight. It was broken as Pyro yelled, staggering forward and nearly collapsing.

He had been pushed away as the crowd rushed to help their fallen hero, and he had ran all the way back home, unsure of what had changed, but knowing quite firmly that something had. He had gone into the garage to sit and think--it was usually quiet out there, and his younger sisters wouldn't bother him--so he had crouched down among the tools and half finished projects, the stack of deflated pool toys and can of gasoline for the mower. There, in the quiet, dimly lit building, with the familiar scents of warm plastic and chlorine from the stack of pool toys, he closed his eyes and tried to call back the feeling he had earlier. It started in his chest, a warm tingling that spread into his arms, and down to his hands--

And with an audible whoosh, flames shot from them and began to consume everything they touched, the acrid odor of burnt plastic filling the air.

He had barely managed to get outside, staring numbly as neighbors yelled, and a fire engine screamed up the street. They’d been able to save most of the structure, but he had been grounded for playing with matches--he hadn't bothered to try to explain, wanting, for some reason, to hold the secret of his new power tightly to him.

No one ever heard anything about Pyro after that day.

It took time, but he eventually discovered how his own, strange, original power worked. And as he gathered more, each one made him stronger, more able to easily acquire the next. He had always been an avid collector--cards, model cars, anything labelled ‘collector edition.’ But this was a new thrill; truly being able to experience each addition, instead of only gazing at them through protective plastic. Of course, he had reaped other benefits as well; money, influence, the ability to live his life where and how he pleased. All of those things might be enough for some, but for Noah, they were merely tools--enjoyable though the were--to getting what he wanted, to fulfill the urge to drain every last Super dry. Every power that someone else possessed was one that he did not, and it cut through him with such intense pain that it bordered on the physical. And now, years after his......unfortunate setback, he had a lot of catching up to do.

“Master? I have the list for you!”

His reverie broken, he looked up to find Gopher hovering obsequiously in the doorway, a sheaf of papers clutched in his hands. Noah masked his annoyance at being interrupted. Dealing with Gopher was tiresome, but the little toady was useful. And he had long ago learned that the best way to get results was to inspire slavish devotion.

“Bring it here,” he commanded, holding out his hand.

Gopher bounded across the room, his eyes alight; sometimes, Noah thought he might have done too good of a job with him--but as long as the results were what he wanted......

He took the papers, running his eyes down the first, and doing some mental calculations. “There’s what, about fifteen or so possibilities on here?”

“Twenty-two,” Gopher answered with great pride.

“Is that all of them?”

“I don't think so. But I have people working on it, and I should have another list for you soon, Master. But I thought you would want to get started on these as soon as possible.”

Noah smirked faintly. Supers might take measures to guard their identities, but they were still human, and humans were creatures of habit. This list detailed locations, times, and observed powers of several of them; for him, it was like reading a menu and deciding what would be his first course.

“Excellent work, Gopher,” he said softly, his eyes flicking up to see his underling swell at the praise. “You may go. I’ll call when I have further need of you.” He ignored the way Gopher pouted at his quick dismissal.

“Yes, Master.”

He waited for the exact moment that Gopher had the door halfway open before calling out, “And Gopher? Be ready tomorrow night. As a reward for your efforts, I’ll select a target that allows you to accompany me.”

“Yes Master! Thank you, Master! I won't let you down!” The young man burbled, nearly tripping over his own feet as he backed out of the room. As the door click shut, he missed the sly smile on his master’s face.

So pathetic. So easy.

Soul didn't get to see Maka the next day; several people were sick at the coffee shop, so she had been called in to pull overtime. He didn't like to bother her too much at work, since he didn't want to get her in trouble, and it sounded like she’d be too busy to talk anyway. So he’d spent most of the day trying to catch up on his sleep--he was going to need to be sharp if he was going to watch out for anything tonight. It felt like he’d just fallen asleep for a few seconds, when his phone rang, jerking him awake. Without opening his eyes, he felt around for it under his pillow, his thumb flicking across the screen to answer it.

“H’lo?” He said, turning his head to cough.

“Soul? You awake? I got some info on what you wanted,” Ox said, sounding excited.

Shaking his head rapidly to clear it, Soul flopped around to untangle himself from his sheets and sit up. “Yeah, I'm awake; whatcha got?”

“Not a lot, unfortunately, but I plan to keep looking. I thought you'd wanna know what I have so far, though.”

Soul bit back a snort; even if he said he didn't need anything else, he knew Ox would keep digging to satisfy that curiosity of his. “That’s fine, anything is good at this point.”

“Thought so. Aaaaaanyway, the younger crowd was a bust, but I tracked down a few of the older people that might know something, and some of them remembered hearing about something like this about thirty years back. Technology wasn't as good as it is now, and Supers were a lot more secretive, so it’s hard to tell exactly what happened, or how widespread it was. Enough to make people nervous, though.”

“So it has happened before,” Soul said, almost to himself. Then louder, “Thanks, Ox. Let me know when you--”

“There’s more, hold on! One thing they all agree on is that it happened suddenly, right after one of the biggest Supers in this city--in this country in fact--had a run in with him. No one knows any details, though.”

A prickle went down Soul’s spine; that could only be one person. “It’s weird you sayin’ that. I think I met his son, not too long ago.”

“Really?” Ox asked, his voice spiking with interest. “I haven’t met him, but I've heard good things. Mainly, that he's a lot more willing to work with those of us who aren't Supers--so stay on his good side, and if he ever needs anything in my department.....”

“I’ll be sure to let him know you're available.”


“Ox, no one says that anymore.”

“It'll come back around. And when it does, I'll be ready.”

“Yeah. that. Okay, if that's all, I'm gonna hang up so I can get somethin’ to eat.”

“That’s it; I’ll call you when I get anything new.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate this, man.”

Soul ended the call, and dropped his phone back on the bed. He leaned back, staring at the far wall of his dimly lit room, the sun barely coming through the heavy shades he had put up. Kid hadn't acted like he knew anything about this, and Soul didn't think he was lying. He was also a little confused on the timing--maybe Ox had meant his grandfather? But no, it would fit with his dad being......he wasn't sure what, just that he wasn't well. He’d need to ask Maka and see if she knew anything about it before they went to see Kid. He checked the time. She’d still be working, and it would just frustrate her if he called now and she couldn't do anything about it. With a grunt, he heaved himself out of bed and staggered towards the kitchen. He’d get something to eat, and get ready to go out for tonight. If Maka was still awake when he got in, he’d tell her then.

The streets were surprisingly quiet as Soul bounded from building to building, pausing to take in the area before moving on. Aside from the usual traffic sounds, it seemed like very few people were out tonight--he’d even spotted fewer supers, although he supposed that, at least, made sense. It was what he would have thought of early on in his nocturnal career as a boring night, back before he realized exciting meant that people usually got hurt, or worse. Now, except for the blanket of unease which covered the city, he welcomed the boredom.

Someone screamed.

He leaped from a small apartment building to the roof of a neighborhood market, which looked like it had been closed down, sprinting across the roof and looking down into the alley, seeing two people struggling. Soul paused long enough to figure out which one was attacking, before landing on the ground beside them, broken glass and empty containers crunching under his boots. Grabbing the arm of the slightly larger woman, he pulled her away, her arms tangling in her shiny blue jacket.

“What the hell?” She screamed, twisting and turning like a cat in a sack, “Get offa me! That bitch has my money!”

The shorter, thinner blonde with the teased hair and and neon green hoop earrings glared, carefully patting her split lip as she edged away on a pair of spiked high heels, one severely lacking in the heel department.

“I do not! We had a deal that we’d split this one!”

Soul held on as the woman tried to lunge again. “That’s a lie! I did most of the work, so if you think you can--”

“Most of it, honey, but not the dirtiest! I earned every damn penny, and you aren't taking it!”

“Um, can you both just....hold on--ouch! Damn it, just hold still a minute!” He growled, and both women faded into a sulky silence.

“Why don't you just dump us at the station and spare us whatever you're gonna say,” the one he was holding sneered.

“Look, I don't see a reason to get the cops involved right now, alright?”

They both looked at him suspiciously. “You mean, you’ll keep your mouth shut, if we......” she made a few hand gestures.

“No! Just.....Here’s the deal. I’ll stay here with you,” he jerked his head at the woman who stood stiffly in his grip, “while you get out of here. Once she's far enough away that you can't catch up, I'll let you go. Then later you can sort this shit out without hitting each other.”

“That’s it?” The blonde asked.

“That’s it.”

The two women looked at each other and shrugged.

“Fine,” said the blonde, turning and hobbling a few steps before she bent to remove her shoe, then walking quickly out of the alley.

“Alright, now that she’s gone, what do you really want?” The taller woman asked, the smell of stale cigarettes carried on her sigh.

“Just what I said. Oh, except maybe--”

“Yeah, yeah. Do you at least have a condom?”

“I just wanted to ask if you'd seen anyone strange hanging around lately,” Soul asked, ignoring her question.

She barked out a laugh, sounding so much like a seal he was caught by the urge to toss her a fish.

“Baby, I see strange every damn night. You're gonna have to be more specific.”

She probably had a point.

“Okay, stranger than normal. Someone new. Someone who doesn't feel quite right. Anyone like that?”

There was silence, and he felt her tense before she answered.

“Not that I’ve seen, no. But there’s a weird energy out there. Like someone’s watchin’, you get me? But every time you turn to look, they're gone. And for some reason, that doesn't make you feel any better.”

Soul pondered that. People that made their living on the streets generally had a good sense about that sort of thing; they didn't spook easily, so if she said there was something wrong, there probably was.

“You gonna let me go yet? Because any longer, and I’m gonna have to start chargin’.”

He blinked, mentally cursing for letting himself get distracted. “Yeah. Be careful, alright? Want me to walk you somewhere where there’s more people?”

She stepped away, giving him an odd look. “Thanks, but your kind tends to scare off clients.”

“Oh. RIght. Well, like I said, be careful.”

With a nod, she strolled out of the alley, her shoes clicking across the asphalt.

A rustling sound behind him, so faint it took his sensors to pick it up, had Soul whirling around, scanning the darkness.

“Come out!” He ordered, flexing his arm in preparation of shooting a fireball.

“Easy, big guy! I'm not a threat!” The words were placating, yet the tone was insulting, as was the smirk across the face of the speaker.

Tense, Soul watched as the man, maybe closer to a boy, stepped out of the shadows, into the dim light of the streetlamp from the corner.

“What were you doing back there?” He asked, scanning him for weapons.

“I heard someone scream, and thought I would see if I could help.” the stranger said, widening his eyes in innocence.

“Didn't get here very fast, did you?” Soul asked, not buying it.

“Not all of us are.....blessed with enhancements,” the little creep replied, making it very clear by tone and expression that he looked down on Soul’s unnatural means of power.

Behind his visor, Soul raised his eyebrows. Even without his Suit, he could easily take this kid--it was lucky he wasn't a hothead like Black*Star.

“Yeah, well, everything’s taken care of, so unless you want something.....” Soul said, shifting his weight just in case. Whoever this person was, he hadn't done anything wrong, but he gave Soul an uneasy feeling.

Condescending eyes raked Soul up and down slowly, and with a toss of dark hair greasy from too much hair product, he said, “Not from you. You're not what I'm looking for.”

There was something about that statement that didn't sit well with Soul. Quietly, he started to follow, half formed ideas of figuring out where this guy belonged forming in his head.

“And you're not the police, so I doubt any real law enforcement would take too kindly to you harassing an innocent citizen.”

Soul stopped, gritting his teeth. The relationship between heroes with and without powers and cops was politely tense at best. They worked together, but Soul knew that, if given the excuse, they would ban as many heroes as they could--especially those who weren't Supers. And the prick was right; he didn't have even the barest authority over private citizens who weren't in the act of committing a crime.

But he’d streak through the quad naked if this little shit was anything even resembling innocent.

He stood still, listening for the sound of footsteps for as long as he could; they seemed to be heading west, towards the nicer part of town--which was surprising, because Soul didn't get the impression that he fit into that area. Then again, who was he to talk?

With a nasty taste in his mouth, he turned away, and flew up to the roof of the store. He debated a moment, then set off to the coffee shop, deciding to wait outside for Maka, since she should be getting off soon.

It took him longer than expected since he stopped on the way to prevent what he thought was a break in, but turned out to be a drunk who was trying to get into his own house--but had stopped one short of the right one. After leading him to his door, Soul managed to get to the shop and into the alley by the back door, which he knew Maka usually left by so she could fly. He stepped back into the shadows of the dumpsters, wishing this Suit was more comfortable--it wasn't exactly designed for lounging.

As he stood there, shifting positions to get comfortable, an odd, prickling sensation passed over him, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. He looked around, unable to shake the feeling he was being watched. But there was no one at either end of the alley, aside from a few passing cars, and there was no movement when he looked up to scan the roofline.  

“Thanks for closing up for me, Tony!” Maka called behind her as she stepped outside, letting the door slam shut behind her.

She started to go in the opposite direction, and without thinking, Soul reached out and grabbed her arm. Before he had time to brace himself, he was flying through the air to land on his back, the air pushed from his lungs.

“Damn it Soul, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Maka managed to somehow scream in a whisper.

“And you nearly gave me a snapped spine. Ow! Shit. And no names, remember?”

“Oh, please; you're fine,” she said unsympathetically, reaching out to give him a hand up.

“What’s with the overreaction?” He asked, wishing he could actually rub his back, settling for feeling for any dings and chips that Ox would murder him for.

She crossed her arms, her backpack swinging heavily. “Gee, I don't know, S--you. Someone I can't see grabbing me in a dark alley, maybe? Or possibly the fact that there’s someone on the loose who apparently has the ability to steal powers?”

“Both valid,” he reluctantly agreed. “Sorry for scaring you--I’ve just been waiting to catch you, since I learned a few things.”

Maka leaned forward in anticipation. “What is it? Did you figure out who it is, or how they’re doing it?”

He glanced around uneasily, then pointed to the roof. Maka nodded in understanding, and they both took to the air. Maka with a silence and grace that made him feel crude and clunky in comparison, but current science could only mimic nature so far.

“What do you know about Kid’s dad?” He asked, looking out onto the sea of flickering city lights.

“I know he definitely can't be the one doing this, if that’s what you're thinking,” Maka told him, nonplussed.

“I didn't think he was, but he might know something. Ox told me that this has happened before, and it ended when one of the big name Supers tangled with whoever this is. The timing seems strange, but if there’s anything about his dad’s health that isn't explained by a normal illness.....”

Maka looked stunned, her pigtails swinging down to block her profile as she leaned forward. When she sat back up, she was frowning deeply.

“I don't know all of the details, since it happened before my time, but I do know that my dad has worked for him forever......and so did my grandfather.”

Soul opened his mouth to say that was impossible, then realized he was talking to someone that flew up here under their own power.

“Do you think Kid would tell us anything?”

She stood up and paced around the roof, her shoes scuffing in the grit. The light from a nearby neon sign made her face glue blue as she turned to face him.

“Maybe we should go ask.”

“Right now?”

Maka lifted off, hovering a few feet in the air, her toes pointed slightly downward. “Why not? It’s not that late. And if it gets us any closer to figuring out what’s going on, we should do it.”

He shrugged, rising into the air himself. “Alright then, you lead the way. I haven't been there from this angle yet.”

It was a short flight; one of the beauties of travelling this way meant there was little traffic to deal with--as long as you kept an eye out for the odd flock of duck, which he had learned the hard way.

They touched down near the front door, and Soul casually scanned the area as Maka knocked. It should be a safe neighborhood, but they didn't know who they were dealing with, and to some people a large group of Supers in one place might look like a figurative buffet.

Once again the door was opened by Liz, who was wearing, much to Soul’s surprise and amusement, an outfit that looked like it had been raided from Catwoman’s closet. He slowly looked her up and down, trying not to laugh.

“There’s so many things I could say right now.”

Liz brought up a hand to inspect the nails, languidly flexing her fingers until the nails seemed to grow ever so slightly. “Did you know, I can secrete poison from these at will?”

“Aaaaaand ten very good reasons to not say anything at all.”

“Is Kid in?” Maka asked, ignoring both of them. “It’s important that we see him.”

Stepping back to let them in, Liz shrugged. “He should be, since he said he was probably going to stay in tonight. The only reason we’re back so early is I found out Patty hadn't finished her project for art tomorrow.”

“Like you don't have two papers due that you haven't even started on!” Patty yelled from somewhere inside.

“Anyway, you're looking for Kid!” Liz said loudly to change the subject. “He’s probably in the library. Patty decided to arrange everything by color this morning, and Kid got all pissy because he can't find anything.”

Soul didn't know Kid very well--barely at all--but as much as he liked Patty, it would take a saint to live with her. She had once done the same thing with his record collection, and he’d nearly had a heart attack thinking he had lost some of the rarer ones.

Kid, as it turned out, was in the library. Sitting in a large, comfortable looking, deep red armchair, he was going through stacks of books, and sending them floating to the correct shelves. He was muttering to himself under his breath, clearly irritated but with the resigned look of a man who was used to this type of situation.

“Hey, Kid? Soul and Maka wanted to talk to you,” Liz said, snapping her fingers to get his attention.

Kid blinked, and the books still in the air sagged for a minute as his attention wavered. “Oh! Sorry, didn't hear you come in. Please, have a seat--and excuse the mess. And Liz, if you're back for the night, it would help a lot if you’d-”

“Sorry, I've got a couple of papers I need to write!” Liz called, evaporating from the room like a slinky black Cheshire Cat.

“If I actually thought she meant that,” Kid sighed. “So, what was it you two needed? And Soul, you can take the helmet off and get comfortable if you'd like. I hear those things get hot.”

Maka leaned forward to speak. It hadn't been verbally decided between them, but it was implied that she would be the best one to broach the subject, since she knew Kid. So Soul sat back and disconnected his helmet from the rest of the suit, resting it on his lap and enjoyed the feel of cooler air on his sweaty skin.

“Kid? We--well, Soul--heard something that might be important about the stolen powers. has to do with your dad.”

Two of the books dropped completely as Kid froze, his eyes going wide. With a shaky breath, he gathered himself together, letting all the books come to a rest and giving Soul and Maka his full attention.

“I’m not sure what possible connection there could be, but it sounds like you have questions. I’ll answer them, if I can.”

With a nod from Maka, Soul cleared his throat.

“Well, it might not even have anything to do with him. I....really hate to ask such a personal question, but about your dad’s you know for sure what’s causing it?”

A spasm of pain crossed Kid’s face, there and gone in the blink of an eye, like a ripple over a still pond. “It’s interesting that you ask that. The short answer is, no, we don't. He just seems to be.......wasting away. He wasn't always like that, you know. It’s only gotten really bad in the last two or three years. Before that, he could move around the house pretty well for about ten, and before that, he was almost completely normal. He’s never talked about it much, but from everything I’ve gathered, he began to notice something was wrong after a fight he had with--I’m not sure who it was. Now that I think about it, I don't think he knew, either.”

Soul and Maka exchanged looks. They were clearly onto something.

“What were your dad’s powers?” Soul asked.

Kid’s hands gripped the armrests tightly, before his eyes slid shut and his head slumped forward. “Oh shit,” he said, his voice barely rising above a whisper.

“What’s wrong, Kid?” Maka asked, half rising to go to him. “I thought they were just like yours--maybe a little stronger.”

With a humorless laugh, Kid sat back, waving to Maka that he was alright. “Stronger is putting it mildly. And that would be bad enough, but.....Do you know how he got the name Lord Death?”

Somehow, Soul thought the answer, ‘too many comic books, same as me,’ might not be best right now. “No. How?”

“Father, as far as he could ever tell, was immortal--or near enough. It takes quite a bit to damage him, and until the past twenty odd years or so, he never seemed to age.”

The implications struck them at once.

“If someone managed to steal those powers, even partially--”

“We’re super screwed,” Soul finished.

“Most of us, at least. I think the idea of being able to put on and remove your powers at will like you do is going to become pretty appealing.”

Soul turned his helmet over in his hands, running a thumb along the edge of the visor. “I know I’m not personally affected by this, but I’d still like to help.”

Kid seemed a bit surprised, then gave him a small smile. “Thanks, I’m pretty sure we’re going to need it. Although I’m sure you're aware that not everyone will be pleased. Most aren't ready to forgive your kind  for.....being less than accepting of those born with powers, shall we say?”

“Yeah, sorta noticed that. I've always wondered when that would die down.”

With a shrug, Kid replied, “Honestly? I doubt it fully will. Father’s been around a few thousand years, and from what he says, it’ll swing the other way again once there’s a large increase of the more dangerous villains.”

“Well, that’s uplifting,” Maka groused.

“Well, nothin’ I can do about that now,” Soul sighed, giving himself a shake. So what can we do about this threat with the information we have?”

Soul and Maka watched while Kid sat back to think, several books rising up in the air between them to float in a lazy juggling pattern.

“I'm thinking it’s safe to assume he can use the powers he’s stealing--there wouldn't be a point to it otherwise, and given his connection with my father, it fits. That also means it’s going to be exceedingly hard to take him on. By this point he could have an entire arsenal of powers at his disposal.”

“It also explains why we haven't been able to track him by psychic means,” Maka put in. I know people can't keep shields up all the time, but he seems to have very strong defenses.”

“And it takes a lot of energy to get through those. Although I think those of us that can should keep trying. And I’ll make an attempt at getting Father to talk--sometimes I’m able to reach him, and he might have more information. Or ideas of what to do. Soul? Could I ask a favor?”

“Sure,” Soul answered, trying not to seem overeager. He was willing to help, but he drew the line at being a kissass.

“You're in a unique position. Right now, you have the powers without the risk. It’s still, as far as we know, safe for you to be out. Do you think you could keep an eye out? I'm not asking you to try to stop him, but our only real description is that he’s a tall man.”

“That's what I had planned, actually. Oh! And that's the other thing I was gonna tell you about.”

“What?” Maka asked, turning so fast her pigtail slapped her in the face. “You didn't say there was anything else!”

“Sorry! I'd just been physically assaulted, and--”

“Give it a rest and tell us what it was!” She demanded, her cheeks puffing out as she punched his shoulder.

Soul was smugly glad that his Suit took the force, but he was smart enough not to show it.

“Anyway, as I was saying......I ran into this guy tonight, and I think he might be involved. Something just......didn't set well with me.”

“Do you think he's the one?” Kid asked before Maka had the chance.

But Soul shook his head. “No. This guy--he was like, almost a bad cliche of a sidekick, you know? A, what’s the word....”

“Lacky?” Maka put in, showing the benefits of years of lugging around a thesaurus.

“That’s it. He’s one of those greasy little brown nosers that’s always lurking in the shadows. The nasty, weak kid that hangs out with the school bully.”

Kid tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. Yes, I know the type. Was there anything in particular that bothered you?”

Soul considered that for a minute before answering. “I guess there’s not much to go on. But he knew I didn't have any powers, and kinda looked down his nose at me for it. And the way he said that I wasn't what he was looking just felt wrong.”

At that, Kid sat forward. “That does sound concerning. In fact, it almost sounds like he’s acting as a scout, which fits in with people feeling like they’re being watched. Whoever this is, they're clever. Sending someone else out could muddy the waters. Can you describe him at all?”

“I got a fairly good look, when he stepped into the streetlight for a few minutes. And my visor can pick up a lot more in the dark than you'd think.”

“Excellent!” Kid picked up his phone from the small table next to him, his thumb flying over the screen. “If you don't mind, I'd like you to describe him for Patty. She can do amazingly accurate portraits, with enough details.”

“She kept that up? I mean, I knew she was pretty good at art, but I wasn't sure she was listening when I said she should take it seriously.”

Kid laughed. “Patty’s definition of serious is different that the rest of the world’s. Most of the time it looks like she’s just goofing off, but in the end, somehow the work is always done. I'm slowly getting used to her unusual methods.”

“I guess that way’s better for your blood pressure.”

“That’s what my doctor told me, yes.”

“Alright! I'm ready!” Patty said brightly, marching into the room wearing a set of green pajamas with pandas tumbling in all directions.

She carried a large pad of paper and a pencil case, and she came over and plopped down on the large leather ottoman in front of the sofa.

“Shoot,” she said, pointing a pencil at Soul.

Soul spent the next twenty minutes trying to describe every physical detail he could remember, while Patty constantly erased and resketched, her face screwed up in fierce concentration.

“That’s it! That’s him! He said, when she turned the pad around after another set of readjustments.

“You're sure?” Patty asked, looking at the portrait with an odd expression, almost one of distaste.

“Yeah, why? What’s wrong? I think you did a good job on it,” Soul asked, confused why she wasn't happier about it.

“That’s not the problem,” she said tightly. “I know him. Well. Sort of. Just a sec.”

“That’s strange. Patty usually doesn't react like that to people,” Maka muttered to him as Patty went to the door and called for Liz.

“Unless he messed with Liz. But then she's usually more.....violent about it.”

“What is it?” Liz asked, coming into the library with wet hair, tying a silky, rose colored robe around her.

“Sis, do you remember this guy?” Patty asked, thrusting the pad at her.

Liz looked at it, then jerked back, her lip curling. “Why the hell would you want to draw <i>him?”</i> She asked.

“Do you know who it is? A name would be really helpful,” Kid asked.

Liz and Patty exchanged a look, then shook their heads.

“We don't know his name,” Patty said.

“Or if we ever did, we’ve forgotten it by now. He wasn't someone we really talked to. Not that he ever talked to all that many people; I think I only ever heard him called Gopher.”

“Then why the reaction?” Maka asked.

“There was something really wrong about that guy. He liked to watch people getting hurt.”

“Soul said he got the impression that he was like a weak kid at school that hangs around the bullies,” Kid put in.

Liz nodded. “That’s exactly what he was like. He had this weird sort of--of <i>intensity</i> about him. This really creepy smile as he watched someone get beat up. Now, I admit, Patty and I got a little physical with people from time to time, but they were usually the ones starting it. This guy......he liked  to watch <i>anyone</i> being hurt. Kids. Little kids.”

“And animals,” Patty added. “But the thing is, he always watched. He never actually did any of it himself.”

“That fits with what we’re looking for, then,” Maka said, turning the pad so she could get a good look.

“What does? You can't think he’s the one going around stealing powers--I don't think he could do something like that.”

“No,” Maka answered, “But we think he's helping whoever it is by tracking down the people with powers, possibly even flushing them out.”

Liz nodded. Now, that I can see him doing--not actually getting his hands dirty, but enough to take some credit, and get a front row seat to watching someone being broken.”

“Charming. I think I’ll recommend that people start doing their rounds in pairs or even small groups until this is over,” Kid said, his face grim.

“Oh, come on! We can take this little weasel!” Patty scowled, throwing the pad down on the ottoman to cross her arms.

“Of that, I have no doubt. But whoever he’s working for is another matter. And I can't control whether or not everyone takes my advice, but since your parole is dependent on obeying my orders, and I’m responsible for your safety....” Kid let it hang, but his tone meant business.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m not gonna do anything to mess it up. But I still think it’s stupid.”

“And I’m sure you'll find various, maddening ways of letting me know how you feel. But I’m not changing my mind, and I’m not asking anything of you that I'm not willing to do myself.”

“Really?” Patty asked, a challenge in her voice. At Kid’s nod, her aggressive stance relaxed. “Alright, then. We’ll go with it. For now.”

“Liz? Is something wrong?” Maka asked, going over to stand by her friend.

Liz snapped out of whatever thoughts had held her attention, and shook her head, rubbing her arms. “Nothing. I just think I’ll go take another bath--thinking about him again made me think past there for awhile, I guess. What I was. What I could have been.” She shook her head, standing up straighter. “Never mind. I'm going upstairs.”

As she was leaving, Soul heard himself call after her, “Liz?”

She turned around, raising one eyebrow.

“Not <i>that.<i/> You were weren't ever that.”

The corners of her lips turned up in the shadow of a smile. “Thanks, Soul. That actually means something, coming from you.”

“Thanks for saying that, Soul,” Patty said quietly, once her sister had gone. “She really does feel bad about how things went down with the two of you. She did like you, you know? And she was hoping that things could be alright between you now.”

To his right and slightly behind him, Maka shifted, making an odd, choking sound in her throat.

“Although, she wouldn't actually date you!” Patty said quickly. “Well, not date, date. She probably wouldn't mind being fu--”

“Aaaaaaand I think it’s time to leave!” Soul said loudly, edging for the door. “Glad we could get everything cleared up. I’ll let you know if we find out anything else,” he said over his shoulder to Kid. “You coming, Maka?”

“Are you staying with Soul?” Patty asked Maka, smiling widely.

“No! I mean, we just flew over together, so--”

“Oh. But if you aren't going with him, that means you have to go part of the way home alone, right?” Patty asked, her smile fading to concern. “Why don't you just stay over tonight?”

Soul thought that was a good idea, and an even better one for him to stay out of it.

“I don't know, Patty. I should probably--”

“You could help Liz with her papers,” Patty wheedled. “I'm worried about her grades if she doesn't get them done.”

“Yes, it would be a shame for her to fall behind,” Kid added, hiding a smirk.

Maka weakened, as everyone pretty much expected.  

“Well, alright. I wouldn't want that to happen if I could help. Let’s see, I think I have some cards in here for notes, and.....” She began to mutter, rooting in her backpack.

“Then I’m gonna go ahead and leave. See you later,” Soul said.

“Bye, Soul. I’ll call you, okay?”

His heart gave a happy leap at her words, but he smacked it down with a metaphorical hammer, telling himself not to read anything into it; they were both trying to solve this mess that was going on, and she’d say the same to anyone that was helping.

Once she had left the room, he turned to Patty. “You do know Liz is gonna murder you for that, right?”

She gave him a wicked grin. “She's going to try. But we wouldn't want her reflexes to get slow from all this soft living, would we?” With a loud cackle, she skipped from the room.

“Looks like I’ll be needing to put the important breakables away,” Kid sighed. “And I'd just gotten them back out.....oh well, they're doing better than when they first got here.”

“Just don't let them try to get you to choose sides,” Soul advised.

“No, I learned that lesson the hard way. Anyway, I wanted to thank you again for stopping by. I know Maka will keep you informed of anything I might learn while she’s here, but would you mind if I call you with anything else?”

Soul blinked. “Uh, no, that'd be fine. I would've come to you with this myself, but since it was about.....”

Kid nodded. “Thanks, for that. Maka and I have been friends for a long time, so it did make it easier to hear that. Still, I appreciate what you're doing to help. You're welcome to come by yourself in the future.”

That was a mark of trust Soul hadn't expected; he wasn't used to Supers being so accepting. “Thanks. If I hear anything, I will.”

“Oh, it doesn't have to be about anything serious. I expect we’ll all be seeing a lot of you in the future,” Kid said with a small smile, his eyes sliding in the direction of Maka’s laugh ringing out from another room. “Won't we?”

“Ah. Um. Yeah--sure. Well, I’ll be going now, bye,” he said, stumbling backwards towards the door, knowing his skin was flushing to match the shade of his eyes.

He darted from the room, belatedly remembering that Kid had psychic abilities, and wondering just how much he had been broadcasting without knowing it. Kid seemed like a decent guy. He wouldn't go blabbing things he shouldn't, would he? There had to be some sort of code of ethics that covered that.....

“There is!” Came Kid’s yell from the library.

Soul thunked his head against the front door.

“Fuck. Me.”

The next morning, Soul sloshed some milk over his bowl of cereal as he punched in Ox’s number with his other hand. Ox answered on the second ring, and Soul, who had been expecting it to go to voicemail, choked on a mouthful of Frosted Flakes as he tried to talk.

“Just wanted to let you know you were right; it was Kid’s dad. Apparently he’s never said exactly what happened, but it looks like he was stripped of a lot of his power.”

Ox whistled. “To have any to spare means he must have been the equivalent of a power plant. What was his power, specifically?”

“Well, he’s got some pretty strong psychic abilities, but the worst part is, he had what sounds like some sort of immortality--that or he ages a hell of a lot slower than normal people, and can take more damage.”

“I can think of several ways this might be a problem, and none of them good.”

“Ya think?” Soul asked, tapping his spoon against the rim of his bowl. “Kid’s gonna try to find out more from his dad, but I don't think we’ll get much out of him--he seems to be in pretty bad shape.”

“I’ll keep an ear out as well, although I doubt anyone would know more than his own son. In other news, your annoying friend is making a pest of himself, constantly calling me up and asking for improvements to his suit--I’m a scientist, not a magician! I can only do so much with the materials and budget I have.”

Soul sighed. “Do what you can. You know I’ll cover it.”

“Huh. After all these years, I've been going about getting my research funded all wrong. I should've just appealed to your well hidden philanthropic nature.”

“You're a riot. Listen, do what you can on his, and you might need to be working up some more models--I have a feeling more Supers will be needing your services.”

Ox grunted. “You make me sound like some sort of seamstress mechanic hybrid. I’ll see what I can do.”

Soul hung up, and, after swallowing the last bite of cereal, leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. He hadn't gotten much sleep last night, between worrying over the recent developments, and his mind struggling to slip its leash and wander off in directions it shouldn't go. He was just debating going back to bed, and maybe even calling in and taking a few personal days, when someone started pounding at his door.

“I know you're in there, you albino rat! Open this damn door before I break it down!”

“I'd recognize those dulcet tones anywhere,” he muttered, lumbering across the room to answer the door, swallowing back a yawn when Maka pushed her way inside, eyes glittering and teeth bared.

“I knew you could play dirty, but this is low--really low!” She seethed, not giving him time to answer. What, did you think you were protecting me or something? Or that I'd be happy about it?”

He stepped back, wondering if he had time to go slip into his Suit, but doubting he could outrun her to the door.

“Maka, you're gonna have to run that by me again, because I didn't catch it. What is it I'm supposed to have done?”

She thrust a crumpled paper into his face, but jerked it back before he had more time to register anything other than that it looked like a class schedule.

“You changed my schedule so most of my classes are in the evenings--you knew that with homework on top of that and work, I’d barely be able to go out at niglt!”

He reached out and snatched the paper, scanning it quickly before handing it back. “I don't know what’s going on, but it wasn't me.”

She tossed back her head with a sarcastic laugh. “Ha! With your influence, I'm sure you could--”

“Could what, Maka? Make your professors dance for a twenty? They aren't that hard up,” he snapped, too tired to deal with this.

“Oh yeah? Who else has the power and means to--” she stopped, her eyes sliding closed, the muscle in her jaw jumping. “I've made a critical mistake in my assumption.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, deciding it was safe enough to flop down on the couch. “Who do you think--HA! I get it--your old man!”

Maka slumped, the energy draining from her as she joined him, her arm brushing against his when she landed on the other cushion. “Yeah. I swear, I'm gonna murder him! I mean, I love him, and I understand where he’s coming from, but I'm still going to murder him.”

“Before you do something to get yourself arrested and cut off a promising career, why don't you check and make sure it was actually him? I've seen a few of those classes change schedule before, so it might not have anything to do with you.”

“I doubt it, but fine,” Maka agreed, pulling her phone from the pocket of her dark green hooded sweatshirt.

After a few minutes, she clicked it off and put it away. “Surprisingly, you were right. It doesn't look like Papa had anything to do with it--or else he was even sneakier about it than I've given him credit for.”

“See? Now aren't you glad you didn't commit patricide?”

“To be honest, mostly I’m embarrassed about acting like a complete idiot--before noon, even.”

He shrugged, trying to lighten the mood. “Don't worry. Stick around and you’ll see that I can do the same before even getting out of bed.”

As she slowly turned to stare at him, it dawned on him what he said. With a drawn out moan of mortification, he dropped his head into his hands.

“Or very soon thereafter. At least we’re even now.”

“Kid’s going to try to talk to his dad today,” Maka mercifully changed the subject. “He says he’ll call us once he knows anything.”

“Good. Maybe since his dad managed to keep some of his power, he knows of a way to stop it.”

Maka stood up. “I hope so, but I think we should still keep looking, just in case. Right now, though, I need to go to work and see if I can get my shifts changed on short notice.”

“I don't have a class till two, so I think I'm gonna catch up on some sleep, so I can go back out tonight. Wanna come?”

She paused, her eyes narrowing briefly before her face cleared. “Alright. What Kid said makes sense; we’d stand a better chance together than we would alone. I’ll meet you on the roof once it’s dark.”

Although he was surprised she agreed so easily, he gave her a nod and waved as she started to leave. From her pocket, her phone rang, and she pulled it out. While he couldn't make out the words, Soul could clearly hear yelling, and he sat up straighter.

“What? Black*Star--Black*Star, slow down! I can't hear what you're--oh! Oh no! We’ll be right over, hold on!”

She snapped her phone case shut and turned around, and Soul knew what she was going to say before she even said it.

“It’s Tsubaki, isn't it?”

Maka nodded, giving a pigtail a frustrated tug. “Yeah. Black*Star woke up a few minutes ago, and found her crying out on the balcony. Although to be honest, I think he’s taking it worse than she is. Will you come with me?”

Soul was already on his feet, gathering his shoes and phone. “Yeah. She probably feels like shit, and ‘Star isn't gonna be any help until he calms down.”

“I'm afraid that at this point, he’s going to try to track this person down, even without his powers.”

“Well, at least he’ll be easier to stop if he does,” Soul pointed out as he joined her at the door.

“I really, really doubt that.”

He sort of did, too.

They made the trip in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. As they climbed the stairs to Tsubaki and Black*Star’s apartment, Soul felt his feet become heavier as his pace slowed. It was always the same; no matter how much he wanted to help someone, there was always a weight of reluctance that pulled at him--the part of him that couldn't stand to be around someone in pain when there was nothing he could do to fix whatever was wrong. Ignoring the feeling, he shoved his hands in his pockets as Maka knocked on the door, and listened to the heavy footsteps that pounded across the floor on the other side. The door was thrown open, and Soul was glad he wasn't the only one that took a small step back. Soul had seen plenty of descriptions of ‘dark, burning looks’ in the stacks of english papers he had graded--faced with the real thing, he doubted he'd be so quick to roll his eyes next time.

“Are ya standin’ out there, or are ya gonna come in?” Black* Star growled.

“We’re coming in,” Maka said, stepping on Soul’s foot as they both edged through the doorway.

Black*Star slammed the door, and followed them into the living room, where Tsubaki sat on the sofa. She was quiet, and her eyes slightly swollen, but she managed a small, shaky smile of greeting before it slid off her face.

“Tsubaki! We came as soon as we could! Are you alright?” Maka asked, going to sit beside Tsubaki, taking her hand and squeezing it.

“Of course she’s not alright! What kinda fuckin’ question is that?” Black*Star yelled from behind them.

“You know she doesn't mean it like that,” Tsubaki said quietly.

Black*Star snapped his mouth shut and looked away.

“How did it happen?” Soul asked, knowing it was another stupid question, but wanting to fill the silence.

“I couldn't sleep very well last night, and when I remembered a few things I’d forgotten at the store, I decided to run out and get them. I figured a quick trip, just there and back, wouldn't hurt.....”

“Well, you figured wrong, didn't you?” Black*Star asked, his voice tight. “What the hell were you--”

“Why don't you go get everyone some drinks, Black*Star?” Maka cut in, glaring at him as she put an arm around Tsubaki.

“Whatever,” Black*Star answered with a grudging shrug, before swinging around in the direction of the kitchen.

Soul raised his eyebrows slightly and shook his head when Maka jerked her eyes for him to follow Black*Star, but gave up with a shrug when she started mouthing something suspiciously like ‘I will kick your ass, so <i>help</i> me’ at him.

He trudged after Black*Star, finding him banging cabinets and pulling out glasses.

“What the hell is your problem?” He asked, figuring he might as well go all the way.

Black*Star turned a look on him that reminded Soul of a junkyard dog spotting a fat cat. Shit, he was gonna be murdered.

“What’s my problem? What’s my<i> problem?</i> What the fuck do you <i>think</i> my problem is?” Black*Star snarled, poking Soul in the chest.

Soul grabbed his finger and bent it back until Black*Star jerked away--something that never would've happened if he’d still had his powers, but Soul hated to be poked that way.

“Fine, I get it--but you don't have to make her feel stupid about it, especially when she's kicking herself enough over it.”

He expected Black*Star to fire back at him, or to punch him. Anything other than slump backwards against the counter, all the fight leaking from him.

“That’s not what I meant. ‘Course she ain't stupid--how can I say that, after I was the one that went lookin’ for ‘im? It’s just that.....I hate to see her this way, alright? She loves to run, and I know what it feels to have that taken away. And on top of everything else....”

“What do you mean, everything else?” Soul asked, dumping some ice into the glasses to give himself something to do.

Black*Star rubbed at his face, looking tired. “Did you know that Tsubaki comes from a family that sort of specializes in being sidekicks?” He asked.

“Yeah, she mentioned it before. She said you actually encouraged her to be a hero in her own right, that she didn't have to stand in anyone else’s shadow.”

“Which probably sounded strange comin’ from me,” Black*star managed a brief, rueful smile. “But Tsu....she’s good, ya know? Anyway. Her parents weren't so big on it, at first. Her older brother, he sorta went.....wrong. So when Tsubaki decided she wasn't gonna follow tradition either, they were worried, I guess.”

So why is that a problem now?” Taking the bottle of Coke that Black*Star handed him from the fridge.

“I dunno. I'm just afraid that when they hear, they're gonna say somethin’ to make her think it’s her fault, that it happened because of the choice she’d hurt her real bad.”

“You think they’re likely to?”

Black*Star shrugged. “Not on purpose. I've met ‘em, and they’re pretty cool. Just, sorta, you know, old school.”

“Maybe we can get things fixed before she has to tell them. But even if we don't, it’s not like she's the only one--so I don't see how they could make it sound like her fault.”

“Yeah, well, I'm not exactly optimistic about our prospects. Maka called us last night about what you learned, but I don't think it’s gonna help us much.”

Soul took a drink, before picking up one of the other glasses to take to Maka. “Maybe, maybe not. At this point, we don't know what will help and what won't, so we need all we can get.”

“One thing I do know,” Black*Star said, some of his earlier darkness returning, “Is that I'm gonna crush this guy’s skull like a cheap beer can for this.”

They didn't stay for much longer after that; Tsubaki was still upset, of course, but she was feeling better than when they had gotten there, and Black*Star had settled down enough to help her get through it.

“I don't suppose she managed to get a good look at him?” Soul asked as they walked down the street.

Maka had pulled her phone out, and her fingers moved rapidly as she texted. “Surprisingly, she did. At least, as much as there was to look at. He wears a mask that covers his entire face. Tsubaki said it was black, with what looked to be gold scrollwork. As for the rest of him, all she could say was that he was tall, and wore dark clothes, including a long, leather duster.”

“So, what? Harry Dresden at a masked ball type thing?”

“It does sound a little over the top, but I can't honestly say it’s the strangest outfit I’ve ever heard of.”

“Should be easy to spot. Although it sounds like once you've seen him, it’s too late.”

“Hold on,” Maka said, stepping off the sidewalk onto a small strip of dead grass between two buildings. “Kid just sent a message.”

Soul leaned on the wall next to her, his eyes cutting around to make sure no one could overhear them. “Is it about his dad?”

“Yeah. Get this--he says his dad was really upset, and managed to warn Kid that this man is dangerous. Which, I mean, we already knew, but if he says he is, then....”

“Anything else? I suppose it’s too much to hope for a weakness.”

“No, but it seems like he’s able to take the powers by skin on skin contact--which is helpful to know.”

“I'm guessing high necklines will be in this season,” Soul commented as they began to walk again.

“I'd think they would be until this gets fixed, at any rate. Especially since we don't know yet if there’s any way to reverse it.”

Soul didn't want to say what he was thinking; that if there was a way, it was doubtful that Kid’s dad would be wasting away somewhere in that big mansion of his. By the expression on Maka’s face, he was pretty sure she had already thought of that herself.

“I think that’s probably all we’re going to learn today. I still need to go into work, so I’ll leave you here. You still up for tonight?” Maka asked.

“I don't know. Do you think it’s really a good idea? I know there’ll be two of us--”

She scowled at him, and he wondered if any of her psychic abilities were wearing off on him, because he knew exactly what she was going to say.

“If you don't want to go with me, that's fine. But I’m going, even if it means going by myself.”

“And I’m guessing there isn't anything I can say to change your mind, so I guess I shouldn't waste my breath trying,” he said flatly, not bothering to hide the tinge of bitterness; why couldn't she see she had more at stake, and it wasn't worth the risk?

Her expression shifted, and she reached out to touch his arm. “I appreciate you being concerned. I know I might not act like it, but I do. I'm just not the type to sit out on the sidelines; you know that.”

“I know. I'm just kind of afraid of what that might cost.”

“So am I,” she admitted, and Soul knew how hard that was for her. “And to be honest I’d like it better if you were there. But I’m not going to hide in my room if you're not--maybe it’s stupid, but I can't live that way. Can you understand that?”

The damned thing about it was that he did. If the situation was reversed, he'd be doing the exact same thing; sometimes you had to make a decision even though you knew it could turn out badly.

“Yeah,” he sighed, resigned. “I do. Just promise that you'll at least come straight over first?”

“I promise, and I’ll look both ways before I cross the street, an--”

“I'm serious! I know you're gonna do what you want anyway, but could you just.....not make it worse than it already is?”

Maka cocked her head to the side. “You're really worried, aren't you?”

“Yes!” he practically shouted, ignoring the stares he drew from people passing by.

She nodded slowly. “Okay, then seriously. I’ll meet you on your roof. I won't go off looking for trouble until I have backup. Is that good enough?”

“Thanks. That's all I wanted,” he lied. He’d be much, much happier if she stayed low until this died down, but this was the next best thing.

“Then I'm going to go ahead and leave now, and you should get that nap; I plan on covering a lot of the city tonight.”

He watched her leave, wondering exactly why they were going to be moving around so much--some supers were pretty territorial. He hoped that she wasn't actually planning on looking for this guy......

“Oh, who the hell am I kidding. Of course she is,” he muttered, turning for home. He pulled out his phone and messaged Ox to let him know to do whatever he could to help Tsubaki, then began to mentally go over what he needed to do to get ready for tonight.

He wasn't going to be getting that nap.

The horizon was a hot pink crack in the sky, the last gasp of the dying day as city lights flickered to life. Soul was already on the roof, not wanting to give Maka an excuse to go off on her own by being late. He had barely made it home in time to get ready, after his trip to see Ox. Normally he only went in if there was a problem with his suit, or Ox called about some enhancements he wanted to try. His worry over tonight had driven him to bringing Ox a list of things he wanted checked out, some tweaks here and there......maybe a bit more firepower than was strictly necessary. Ox had been a bit irritated at the rush job, and he had shot Soul several accusing looks as he repaired some of the cosmetic damages, but in the end, he had come through. Soul had spent the last hour getting used to the adjustments and figuring out how everything worked, not wanting to be caught cold in the middle of a fight.

On his improved radar, he picked up Maka arriving, and turned to meet her, mentally giving a thumbs up to Ox at the boosted level of night vision. Before he had been able to make out shapes pretty well, but now he could actually see some of the details on her costume.

“Are you ready?” Maka asked, her boots tapping softly as she landed in front of him.

“I guess. Where are we headed first?”

“I thought we’d start by the park, and work our way up to the abandoned mall, then see what looks good after that,” Maka said, just a shade too casually.

“Why there?” Soul asked, suspicious. That entire area had more than enough Supers to cover it. Wouldn't it make more sense to cover some of the places that had lost some of their protection?

Then it clicked.

“You're actually trying to run into him, aren't you?” He accused her.

She shrugged, guilty enough not to be able to look him in the eyes--or maybe she just couldn't, in this light. “It’s going to happen at some point. The Collector--”

“Wait, who?” Soul cut in.

“The Collector. Kid managed to get a little more out of his dad, and he passed it along. I told him I was seeing you tonight and I’d let you know. “Anyway. The Collector is just what he sounds like--he collects powers. So it would only be a matter of time before he tracked me down. I’d rather have the advantage of being on the offensive.”

Soul considered asking how well that had worked for some of the earlier victims, but knew he would have as much luck arguing with the bricks beneath his feet.

“So, that's his motive? He just wants everyone’s powers, for......what?”

Maka shrugged impatiently. “Why does anyone collect anything? Yes, this is an extreme and creepy level, but it makes about as much sense as collecting small squares of colored paper.”

“How is it the same? Those are at least worth something!”

“So are powers. Just the ones I have make some aspects of life easier for me; imagine what he can do with the powers of hundreds of Supers!”

Okay, that was a fair point.

“And you still wanna do this, even if it’s like feeding time at the shark tank?”

“I've already thought of that. I’ll be bait, that’s true, and I’ll have to move fast and smart to keep him busy. But we’re ahead of the others--we have you! He can't take your powers from you, so you have a chance of taking him out while he’s distracted.”

That would be an ego boost, for anyone less cynical than Soul happened to be. As it was, All he could see in the future was the guilt and blame when it failed.

“Maka, I gotta say, I'm not really sure I can take him--no, scratch that, I'm pretty sure I can't. And what if he’s managed to pick up on your plans? He has his own psychic abilities.”

“I have shields,” she huffed.

“And he has more power and experience! Look, I’ll do this if you really want to, but only if you aren't going into it thinking I can stop him from.....doing what he does.”

She turned away from him, walking closer to the edge. “I know that, alright! I'm not expecting you to save me. I just think this is our best bet--and if the worst happens, I don't want it to be without a fight.”

His Suit felt heavier than it had only a few moments ago as he walked up behind her, to lay a hand on her shoulder, even though he couldn't feel her. “Then it won't be. I'll do the best I can.”

She reached up and gave his hand a squeeze, blinking when she realized that she was gripping mostly rubber and metal. She looked up at him with a small smile. “That’s good enough.”

He nodded, knowing that wouldn't be any comfort to him if they failed. He motioned for her to go ahead, and he lifted off a moment after her, following a few feet behind and slightly to the right, scanning the sky for any threats.

The slight ringing in his ears made him shake his head, but he knew he would have to get used to it. Not knowing if The Collector had a range on how far away he could read minds, or if he was capable of controlling others. Soul had asked Ox to fit his helmet with a way to block someone out. The result was something like those antivermin gizmos that people stuck in their lawns to get rid of moles and mice, but as long as it did the job, he wouldn't complain. Well. Not much.

The park was unusually quiet. There were always at least a few people on the lighted basketball courts, a few kids out past their bedtimes playing in the sand of the volleyball courts. There weren't even any teenagers making out behind the bathrooms.

“Is this the point in one of your books where a character says that it’s quiet, <i>too</i> quiet?” Soul asked as they walked by the pool, empty, yet still smelling heavily of chlorine and the echoes of sunny days.

“No, because my writing isn't that damned cliched,” Maka said tartly, peering in to see if anyone was lurking behind the counter of the snackbar.

“Maybe not, but it’s true, isn't it? There should be at least a few people out--there always are, as long as it doesn't dip below thirty.”

“Maybe it was a good night for TV; who knows?”

He stopped at movement on his peripheral vision, relaxing when he saw it was just two cats playing on top of the wooden fort. “It’s not just that. Haven't you noticed? There aren't any other Supers, even though this area hasn't really been hit much yet.”

Maka flew up to the top of the metal swingset, sitting on the main bar. “It could be that they’re too nervous to come out right now. Some might not have anyone to patrol with.”

“That could be part of it. Still, it doesn't give us very much to do, does it?”

“Not yet, but we haven't been out very long. Let’s work our way over to the old mall,” Maka suggested, rising into the air.

Soul followed, the leaves at his feet crumbling to dust from the force of his takeoff. They flew slowly, looking for any sign of trouble, but the worst thing they saw was someone dumping their personal trash into a private dumpster behind one of the Chinese restaurants. It didn't take long to get to the mall--the one that had been popular when Soul was a kid, but had started to die by the time he hit his early teens, and shut down completely when they built the new one a few years ago. They circled in from above, and he saw the cracked concrete plantholders that sat outside of the entrance to the foodcourt, where all the teens used to hangout. It had been a lively place once, but now it was dead--stark and somewhat depressing, like a cemetery for retail.

They landed by the arch that lead to the outdoor eating area, empty except for some faded trash and a few turned over benches.

“Mom used to bring me here for school clothes,” Maka said, looking into a window. “It’s weird to see it falling apart like this.”

“I'm surprised they haven't completely torn it down and built something else yet,” Soul answered, walking along beside her.

Maybe the ease of the early part of the night had lulled them into a false sense of security. Or perhaps both had fallen too deeply into that murky nostalgia that empty buildings from your childhood elicited. Either way didn't matter, as neither noticed the moving shadow on the ground as they turned into the loading area until it was too late.

“And here I thought tonight was going to be a bust,” A quiet, amused voice greeted them, as he stepped forward, his duster smacking against his legs quietly. “But it looks like a two for--oh, no. Just one and a pretender. Ah, well; one is better than none.”

Maka and Soul had both dropped into defensive positions, circling as he came nearer, trying not to put their backs to a wall.

“Stay on him,So--Burn. Remember, he has Shooting Star’s speed.”

The Collector paused. “What, no speech? No telling me I won't get away with this? How refreshing. It gets tedious after awhile--especially once it’s clear that I am, in fact, going to get away with it.”

“That’s not always the case is it? Lord Death almost took you out,” Soul said, injecting as much snark as he could, trying to goad him into making a mistake.

The eyes behind the mask glittered like a cat. “Lord Death. Now, that takes me back--taking his power was like grabbing the sword by the blade. He was smart enough to realize what was happening, and poured as much of his power into me as possible. My body couldn't take it, and, well, it was almost like exploding.”

“No one could survive that!” Maka spat.

The Collector chuckled. “I wouldn't have, if I hadn't had a fortuitous run in with a Super who could regenerate, something like a starfish. And with the power I absorbed from Lord Death......took me years to heal, though.”

Soul’s eyes darted around, not trusting the casual, conversational tone of the encounter. He had to be planning something. Or was he just that arrogant?

“That just means you can be defeated--we just have to finish the job,” Maka stated, the muscles in her calves flexing as she crouched.

“Now, now, not that tired old spiel. You have good shields for a beginner, but I can tell you don't have any backup coming. If this,” he gestured one gloved hand at Soul, “is all you have, you both know I’ve absorbed too many powers by now for you to stand any chance.”

“Powers that you stole, and that we intend to take back.”

Soul stayed quiet. It wasn't that he couldn't do the witty banter bit, but he wanted to stay focused in case The Collector made a move.

“Really? You're prepared to kill me, then? Not very heroic of you,” The Collector sighed.

At that, Maka balked. “I--well, surely there’s another way--”

“Not one you'll ever find out.”

He had just barely finished speaking when he made a move, lunging at Maka.

“M-Zephyr! Up!” Soul shouted, barely getting between them in time as Maka took to the sky.

“Flying, hm? You're not who I expected to be in this area, but you'll do. Would you believe, after all this time, that flight is one of the abilities I'm missing?”

“Looks like you won't be adding it to your list tonight, either,” Soul told him, trying to turn his attention from Maka.

The Collector turned to look at him, and even though the mask covered his face, Soul had the sense that he was smiling.

“I can't fly, no. But do you know what I can do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Soul didn't even have time to blink before The Collector phased out of sight in front of him, barely visible as he streaked through the air. Maka saw him coming, but instead of flying away, in her shock, she stepped back. Soul launched himself into the air after them, reaching out to grab an ankle, his fingers closing around the low, black boot. He tried to hold on and pull him back, wincing as he was kicked in the head.

“Clingy little bastard, aren't you? Worthless without power, though.”

With his other hand, Soul prepared to launch a fireball, but before he could, he was kicked with surprising force (which really shouldn't have been, knowing this freak had stolen Black*Star’s power) into the side of the building, pain lancing through his shoulder as his arm twisted wrong in an instinctive effort to brace himself. Loose bricks fell away under him, the ones above him landing on his head, messing up the wiring as his suit’s systems flickered. Heart pounding, he pulled himself out of the small crater and flew up to the roof, hoping he wasn't too late.

He breathed a short sigh of relief when he saw that Maka still had her powers, although that was short lived when he realized she was fighting instead of getting away. She stayed in the air, using short, fast, hummingbird strikes; darting in to land a punch or a kick, then away again before The Collector could touch her. She seemed to be holding her own, but it wouldn't be too long before it started to take a toll on her and she would slow down. All it would take was one slip....

Sprinting across the roof, he lunged, timing it with one of Maka’s kicks. He wrapped his arms around the larger man’s waist, taking him to the ground.

“Why are you doing this?” He found himself asking, knowing even as he did that the answer didn't really matter.

The gold scrollwork on the masked face glittered in the moonlight, reflecting off the feverish eyes behind it. “You know why. <i>You know.</i> All these wasted powers--powers that they sneer at you for not having, but refuse to share! But I, I can have them! I can experience them. I can gather them in one place, instead of letting them be scattered and forgotten. Even in your pitiful attempts to mimic them, it shows that you're just the same as I am.”

“He is not!” Maka bellowed, landing beside them to deliver a kick in the Collector’s side. “He’s never taken anything that hasn't belonged to him! He hasn't <i>hurt</i> anyone! All he's done is <i>give,</i> but you wouldn't know anything about <i>that!”</i>

White teeth, the corner of one slightly chipped at the corner, flashed in a grin. “I don't know; after all, he’s given me something, too.”

“What?” Maka asked, shaking her head in disbelief.

The Collector answered, his voice barely a whisper. <i>“An opening.”</i>

Before either one could react, he had gripped Soul and flipped himself up, swinging Soul’s body around to collide with Maka, who yelped in pain at the speed of impact. Soul tried to get out of his grip, but the momentum was too strong; he barely saw Maka drop from the blow to the head, before he was engulfed in fire that sprang from the Collector’s hands, and hurled into the air. His body spun over and over, and he probably would have gone a greater distance if it hadn't been for the two story department store having a restaurant on top. He burst through one of the large windows, rolling across the floor. Luckily, that helped put out the fire, which hadn't caused as much damage as it might have, since Ox had foreseen a similar situation. He hit the opposite wall with a snap that he couldn't tell if it was his spine or his Suit, because just as he registered the sound, everything went black.

His brain felt like it was being stabbed by jagged glass, and he barely had time to roll his body to the side before he was vomiting, continuing to dry heave once his stomach was empty. Weakly, he pushed himself into a sitting position, his head still spinning. He wasn't sure how long he had been out, but it was still dark outside. Leaning against the wall, he pulled himself up in spite of his body’s protests. He was hurt, but if his suit hadn't taken the brunt of the impact, he’d be dead.


At that thought, he was nearly sick again, and he lurched across the room, tripping over the debris. He looked outside, but without his night vision, he had trouble making anything out. He squinted, and thought he saw movement down on the ground.

“Maka!” He shouted, and the blurry figure moved, but didn't answer.

“Damn it to </i>hell,”</i> he muttered, looking around for the exit.

Trying to get out of here would take too much time. Hoping he still had some functionality, he tried to take off. He was surprised when he rose off the floor, although with not nearly with his usual force. He decided to risk it cutting out on him and aimed himself outside, descending towards (what he hoped was) Maka in what was more of a controlled fall than flight. As he got closer, he saw that it was her, hunched on the ground and shaking. He let himself drop the last few feet, and ran shakily over to her.

“Maka! Are you--”

“He took them,” she said, her voice dull and lifeless, not even turning to look at him.

He froze, his cracked visor breaking off at the corner and dangling. He had known. Known before he saw her. Known, in reality, that this was going to happen even before they had come out tonight.

“I--” he started, but didn't know how to finish. He was sorry, but that seemed weak and useless. He wanted to help--but hadn't been able to when it really mattered, so what did he think he could do now? Instead he let his words trail off, ragged and straggling as the ribbons dangling loosely from her hair.

“You what, Soul? You told me? Is that what you want to say? Is it? IS it?” She asked, breathing heavily.

“That’s not--”

“Then SAY it! Say it, say it, SAY IT!” She screamed, before breaking down into sobs.

He wouldn't. It was true, he had told her. But what was the point of rubbing it in? It wouldn't change anything. It wouldn't make him feel better for her to say he was right--how could it, while she was sitting there, crying like her heart had been ripped out?

Instead of speaking, he took the last few unsteady steps to reach her, and dropped down. At first, she didn't even acknowledge that he was there, and he knew better than to say anything or to reach out. She was stiff beside him, but as she wore herself out, she eventually slumped against him, her tears leaving tracks in the dust and grime covering the front of his Suit.

“I thought it would be different,” she said, her voice cracking. “I thought we could......I thought I would be alright, if you were here.”

Soul flinched at her words; they struck him harder than his crash into the restaurant above. All of his shortcomings and failures were wrapped up in that one, short sentence.

“Maybe if I'd actually had real powers, you would be,” he said bitterly, the dark voice in his head once again whispering how worthless he was.

“No,” Maka said, surprising him. “It wouldn't have mattered. The bastard was just playing with us--your powers being natural or not wouldn't have changed anything. The only difference is, you’ll get your Suit fixed, and you'll be able to be right back where you were before tonight. And I......I’ll never fly again.”

“You're just gonna give up?” Soul asked, not believing what he was hearing.

“Why not?” She snapped. “It’s over for me! If I couldn't beat him tonight, how can I now, when I’m like this?” She looked down at herself with disgust, before pushing herself to her feet, her knees and shins caked with drying blood. “Come on, we should go.”

It had to be shock, he thought. Even her voice didn't sound right. Which was understandable. Trying to argue with her, or even encourage her right now, would probably only make her mad--he knew it would if it were him. So he simply pressed his palms against the ground and levered himself up, releasing a loud hiss through his teeth as one of his hands shot to his side.

“Are you alright?” Maka asked, the first hint of inflection creeping into her voice.

“I think so,” he croaked. “It doesn't feel like anything is punctured--more like a couple of ribs are out of place.”

“Oh? I thought the Suit would prevent that.”

He let out a short, wheezy laugh, but stopped when it hurt. “I think it did pretty well, considering. Even in a tin can, the contents can shift.”

She didn't laugh, but then, he hadn't really expected her to. Both of them were weak and tired, and after bumping into each other every few steps, they slung an arm around the other and leaned together, silently making their way back into the main part of town. They were about five blocks away from Maka’s place when they heard sirens and loud voices, and a few screams piercing the other sounds before being cut off. Looking at each other, they quickened their pace as much as they could, going two streets over to find the source of the commotion. A small crowd had gathered, and they pushed themselves through, recoiling at the sight that confronted them.

Blood. Everything was covered in blood. And......bits. Bits of what, their horrified brains told them, used to be a person.

Splattered across the brick walls, still dripping slowly; the sicking, soft smack of meat hitting the ground. The pavement was soaked, but the most crushing thing, the one item that their eyes couldn't turn away from, was the bent and blood covered eye mask lying beside a small pool of blood.

Policemen and ambulance workers shoved people aside, yelling for the crowd to get back. Soul and Maka stumbled aside, caught on the current of surging people. Stunned and horrified, it took them several moments to realize someone was calling their names.

“There’s Kid,” Maka said, nodding to a long black car, idling a short ways down the street.

Kid was waving them over, so they hurried to the car, almost falling into the backseat to join him.

“Get in. What’s going on? I didn't hear that you two were involved,” Kid said, motioning for the driver to go, and rolling up the dividing window.

“We weren't. But we heard the noise, so we went to look. What the hell happened back there?” Soul asked, fighting to not be sick.

“He’s escalated. What you saw......that’s all that’s left of Lady Lynx. We had one of our.....well, I suppose you'd call them an informant, call in to let us know they had witnessed the attack, or at least the beginning.”

“Couldn't they have tried to help?” Maka asked, closing her eyes as she swallowed back a heave of her own.

Kid shook his head, looking out the window. “They were going to go back--Lady Lynx went down, but he was fine, at first--still moving. So they backed away to make the call, hoping some of us could get there in time, but when they went was too late. He was dead.”

“But why did The Collector bother to kill him?” Soul wondered. He never has before.”

“I don't know,” Kid answered, smacking the door handle in frustration. “It doesn't fit with any of his earlier attacks--maybe there’s something special about tonight--”

“No. Whatever it is that made his change, it happened in the last few hours.”

“What? How do you--Oh,” Kid looked at them, taking in their appearance. “Oh, Maka. Did he.....”

She nodded, her hands tightening into fists on her lap.

“I never met him, but was this Lady Lynx guy very powerful?” Soul asked, feeling Maka start to slip back inside herself.

“Hm? Ah. No, barely more than an average person, to tell the truth. Why?”

“Because tonight, he made it sound like killing him was how we could get the stolen powers back. So I thought that maybe this guy was a threat who might be able to do that.”

“You're wrong,” Maka said, giving herself a shake as she rejoined the conversation. “I mean, not completely. He did say that. But......I got the feeling that even though that might be true, that was what he wanted us to think--that there might be another way, but he doesn't want anyone trying.”

Kid spun the skull ring on his finger a few time, his brows furrowed in thought. “And maybe it was something simple enough that Lady Lynx was able to do, or nearly do, by accident. Damn! If only--but I still don't know what he could have done while lying on the ground. Still, it makes sense.....I'm going to ask Father again. He had a bad spell earlier, but he was trying to tell me something. I’ll let him rest until morning, then try again.”

“What if he decides to keep killing?” Soul asked.

Kid clenched his jaw. “I've already considered that. The city is now under a type of quarantine. No one with powers are allowed in--that includes your dad, Maka, so you probably shouldn't--”

“Tell him about me. No, you're right; Papa would go after him himself, and I can't have him ending up like what we saw tonight.”

“Okay, but what about everyone already in the city?” Soul pointed out.

“People are being screened and let out, at least the ones that want to go. Most people are too afraid, or unable, to leave. So I’m renting out the Serenity, and once the sun is up, having everyone move in there, at least for now. I'd like you both to come as well.”

Maka made a strange noise that might have once been a laugh. “Why? He’s already taken my powers. What else can he do?”

“He could decide that letting you live was a risk. You, and everyone else who’s powers he’s already stolen. He might decide to track each of you down to kill you, if he thinks there’s a way you might get them back,” Soul said bluntly. “You should go. Me, I'd only be taking up space, so I’ll just--”

“If you don't mind, I think you could be of help,” Kid said, studying him intently.

“Me? What the hell can I do? I already fucked up tonight, or didn't you notice? It’s my fault that Maka--”

“It is not! Soul, just--don't do this, please,” Maka said, her voice weary. “I can't right now. I should say that you--” She stopped, shaking her head. “Not tonight. Anyway, Kid’s usually right about these things. If he thinks you can help, then you should come.”

He gave a reluctant nod, unable to meet her eyes. “Alright. But if someone needs the space, I'm leaving.”

“Maka, we’re almost to your house,” Kid said. “Do you want me to wait while you pack a bag, and bring you back to stay with Liz and Patty, or would you rather be alone tonight?”

She took a deep breath, her fingers absently flicking away the dried blood from scrapes on her arms. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I'd rather be alone.”

Kid nodded in understanding. “I thought you would. We can pick you up on the way tomorrow, sometime around noon.”

“Fine. Call when you're on your way, and I’ll be ready.”

The car pulled to a stop, and Soul looked out at a nice looking house in a nice looking neighborhood, and he wondered if all that normalcy was going to comfort or smother Maka once she was inside and alone.

She opened the door, and he shifted beside her, but she put a hand on his shoulder to keep him in place.

“Don't. I can make it to the door, and I know it hurts you to walk. I’ll be fine.”

“Liar,” he mumbled, but did as she asked. “Look, I know you wanna be alone, but if you need to, you can call me, alright?”

“Maka bit her lip, bobbing her head. “I know. I will, if I need to.”

He knew that was a lie as well, but there was no sense calling her on it. When you need to be alone, you need to be alone; someone pushing at you, even if they meant well, sometimes just made you pull away more.

So he and Kid watched her until she entered the front door, the light flicking on briefly before it shut behind her.

It’s not your fault, you know,” Kid said as the car pulled out of the drive.

“I thought it wasn't ethical to read minds,” Soul attempted to deflect the subject.

“Yes, but I didn't have to--reading your face says it all. You couldn't have talked her into anything she didn't want to do, and you couldn't have stopped her once she had made up her mind to do it.”

“Doesn't make me feel any better about it.”

“Maybe not, but it’s true. And she’s going to be miserable for a few days, and maybe even snap your head off, but she won't let it stop her for long. So you might as well enjoy the brief period of piece, because it won't be long before you're having to try to hold her back from hunting him down herself.”

“Is that why you asked me to come along to the hotel? Because if it is, I gotta say I don't think I’ll be much help.”

“I think you sell yourself short, but no, that's not why I asked. I think you're in a unique position to help us--if you still want to.”

Soul sat up from leaning against the door, trying to shake himself out of his depressed state.

“I'm not sure how I can, but yeah, I do. I’ll try to be over later tomorrow after I get my spare Suit set up, if you're sure.”

“Good. I have a feeling it’ll take everyone that’s coming some time to get settled in--and some are sure to change their minds and come even after saying they won't. I suppose with all of the panic, it’s a good thing we’re at a truce with the city’s villains, for now.”

“Seriously? Is he even going after them?” Soul asked. He hadn't thought of that, but it made sense.

“Apparently so. Luckily, they have their own accommodations, since I’m sure things are going to get heated enough already, living in the confines of a hotel.”

“I do see one problem, though,” Soul thought out loud.

“What's that?”

“Doesn't holing up like that make everyone a target? If he gets in.....”

Kid shook his head. “I don't think so. He seems to prefer to pick us off one by one--no one that has gone out in groups larger than two so far have had problems. Actually, I think only you and Maka.....”

“He didn't exactly take me seriously, so I doubt he considered I counted,” he admitted.

“Hm. A foolish decision. Hopefully he's getting arrogant enough we can use it against him.”

“After tonight, that better be sooner rather than later.”

Both went quiet at this.

“Hey, this is the end of my street. Go ahead and stop here,” he said, his hand already on the door.

“Are you sure?” Kid asked, signalling to the driver. “You look like it hurts to walk.”

“It does, a little, but some people get nervous when a car like this cruises the neighborhood. Thanks for the ride; I’ll be in tomorrow when I can.”

He got out of the car and hobbled carefully down the street and into his building, glad that it was late enough that he could take the elevator without meeting anyone. He leaned on the wall all the way up to his floor, and once in his apartment, stripped out of his Suit and left it in a heap in the living room to take to Ox the next day. On autopilot, he took a hot shower, standing under under the water until it went cold to try to ease his sore muscles. He was trying to distract himself from everything that happened tonight, but it wasn't working very well. Maka had lost her powers. Someone had been murdered. And he'd been able to do fuck all to stop it.

The more reasonable part of his brain told him that there was nothing he could have done--Maka wasn't the only one that had been overpowered, and he wasn't any stronger than a regular Super. No one had expected him to be some kind of savior, and even Maka had only thought that he would only be helping in the two against one sense. For a few moments he alternated between being mad at himself for failing, and mad at Maka for putting them both in that position. That lasted about as long as it took for him to dry off and slip on a pair of boxers; by the time he had rubbed some pain relieving cream into his muscles, he he realized that that wasn't very fair. What they did on a nightly basis required risks even at the best of times. Not everyone was willing to accept those risks, and those usually kept their powers quiet, and only used them for small things in their personal lives. But for the ones like Maka, they knew the cost. They might fall apart for awhile, but most would pull themselves back together and move on somehow, Like Black*Star and Tsubaki. Soul knew Maka had what it took to do that.

It was just the stretch between point A and point B, he thought as he laid down, that worried him.

The arm of a bronze goddess snapped off as it hit the wall, leaving a large gouge in the woodwork. The room looked as if it had been vandalized, but the yells of rage had prevented anyone checking to see what was wrong. Which was good, because the mood he was in, he was likely to kill them.

Rage surged through him like a wave of fire, hiding the spark of panic that had ignited it. He had slipped up tonight; he’d been so careful about his one weakness for so long, that he still wasn't sure how it had happened.

To give him his due, it had only happened twice before. Once he had made the mistake of sleeping with one of his victims afterwards; they hadn't realized what had happened, and he he took an admittedly twisted pleasure in pretending to console them, after he had been the one to break them. In the heat of the moment he hadn't noticed it, but when they woke him excitedly the next morning to say their powers had returned, he had immediately snapped their neck. It was that day that he had discovered that while his gift made it easy to steal powers, it made it just as easy to lose them. There just needed to be skin on skin contact once more for them to get them back--something he took precautions against, hence the mask and long coat, and almost always wearing gloves.

The second time had been with his run in with the ironically named Lord Death; although technically, there was no way for him to realize what trying to take in a power of that magnitude would do to him. As most of his body had been destroyed, he had lost many of the newer powers he had acquired, and they hadn't returned even when he was fully healed, forcing him to seek out duplicates.

And then, tonight......tonight shouldn't have happened. He had enjoyed his game of cat and mouse with the flying girl, and her souped up yet ineffectual partner. The night being young, he had decided to seek out another target, who was also dispatched smoothly. But, just as he was walking away, the young man had reached up to grab his leg.....his hand sliding up his pants and finding bare flesh.

He had seen red; all of his efforts once again seeping away, which couldn't be allowed. In a frenzy, he had torn the Super apart, leaving when he thought he heard people coming.

Now, back in the safety of his own home, he flung himself down in his chair, making a decision.

“Gopher!” He snapped, knowing his servant would be waiting on the other side of the door.

Instantly, it popped open, and the young man entered, coming to stand before him. “Yes, Master? What can I--are you hurt? Do you need hel--”

“Shut up, and listen.”

“Y-yes, Master.”

“There’s been a change in plans. My goal is still the same; however, in future, there will be no survivors.”

Gopher’s eyes lit up with feral glee. “Yes, Master! Will I be allowed to help?”

“Yes. From now on, you'll be going out with me during my hunts.”

“Yes, Master! Is there anything else?” Gopher asked, his hands clenched with excitement.

“No. Just be ready. I’ll be picking up the pace.......and correcting a few mistakes I let slip away.”

Soul didn't bother getting up early the next day; his body needed the rest, and there wasn't much else he could do, anyway. So after waking around noon, he had taken his old Suit to Ox to see if he could fix it, or at least scrap it for parts, he had grabbed a bag and his spare Suit and had gone to the Serenity.

The Serenity was one of the swankiest hotels in the city, but it was also one of the largest, and Soul figured the latter had more to do with Kid’s choice than the former. They might not fill it to capacity, but with that many people, things were bound to feel confining, and people would want somewhere to go off and be alone, while still being safe. Apparently he had been expected, and once he’d been cleared by security and dropped off his things in his room, he had been put to work helping people move in--some seemed to think they were going to be there for awhile. At about sunset, he’d pretty much had his fill of people; he knew he’d be found easily if he went back to his room, so he had wandered off into one of the unused sections, enjoying the quiet.

Or enjoying it until he heard a noise.

No one was supposed to be here. What if The Collector’s little spy had managed to sneak in? He crept over to the door of what was labelled as a supply room, and threw it open, just as he considered it might be a couple that had snuck off to be alone somewhere private, yet public enough for a thrill.

His relief that it wasn't was short lived when he saw that it was Maka-it took several moments to register, since he hadn't even seen her here today, and hadn't even been sure she hadn't changed her mind about coming. But there she was, sitting by an industrial supply of paper towels, hunched into herself as she cried.

“Maka?” He asked, closing the door, his concern rising when he realized she was wearing her Suit.

Her head snapped up, before she let it fall forward against her knees again. “Go away,” she hiccuped.

“Not till I know why you're sittin’ in here all alone like this. Did something happen?”

She glared up at him, tears glittering on her eyelashes. “Last night happened, or did you forget? Maybe you did, but it’s not as easy for me as it is for you!”

He approached her slowly, crouching down by her to reach out a tentative hand. “Maka, you know I didn't forget--I know it isn't the same, but I promise, I'm going to do everything I can--”

“What the hell can you do?” She snarled, slapping his hand away. “You can't fix this! There’s nothing you can do!”

“We don't know that, yet,” he tried to reason, dropping his hand. “I know things look bad right now, but--”

“You don't know <i>anything!”</i> She pushed him away, using one hand to smack his shoulder. “You don't know--you can <i>never</i> know what this feels like! I'm never going to fly again, Soul! Never! It hurts as bad as if I'd had real wings, and someone tore them out! How can you act like you know what that means? You haven't lost anything!”

Her words stung, and a younger version of himself might have tried to argue that just because his experience hadn't been exactly the same, it didn't mean he didn't know what it was like to lose something, or to be confused and afraid about how to fill the hole. Instead,  he stood up and walked out, closing the door behind him. From his back pocket, he pulled out his phone, and texted a few numbers, then leaned against the wall to wait.

Less than ten minutes later, two people turned into the small hallway.

“She still in there?” Black*Star asked, nodding to the door.

“Yeah. Sorry if you guys were busy, but there wasn't anything I could do, so I just thought.....”

Tsubaki patted him on the arm. “You did the right thing, Soul. Sometimes, you just need to hear from someone who’s already gone through whatever it is that’s happening to you.”

He stood aside and let them go in, then slid down and sat against the door to wait. He sat there for what felt like hours, hoping he’d done the right thing. Exhaustion was catching up with him, and he was half asleep when the door opened, and he nearly fell on his back, barely catching himself in time.

“Have you been out here this whole time?” Maka asked, her voice scratchy.

“Uh, well, yeah,” he said intelligently, scrambling to his feet. “I just wanted to make sure you were alright. As much as you can be right now, that is.”

Behind her, Black*Star began to cackle, but Tsubaki elbowed him in the ribs, leading him out of the room by the arm.

“I hope you start feeling better, Maka. I think we’re going to go back downstairs, but call us if you need us.”

“Yeah, anytime,” Black*Star wheezed, rubbing his side.

“Thanks, guys, I'll see you later,” Maka said with a watery smile as they walked away.

“I'm sorry I blew up at you like that,” she said quietly, turning back to him. “I don't know what happened--I just.....I just heard everyone talking about what they might be able to do to stop The Collector, and when I went to my room to get away for awhile, I saw my Suit, and.......I guess it all just hit me again.”

“Don't worry about it. I know it wasn't personal, or anything. But.....I was thinking. I know this is really bothering you, so maybe if you went to see Ox--”

“No!” Maka cried, a note of panic in her voice before she made a visible effort to calm down. “I mean, no, thanks. It just wouldn't be the same. So thanks for the offer, but....please don't bring it up again.”

Soul shrugged to hide his disappointment. He thought it would help her to at least have that much, but it was her choice. “Alright. Just wanted you to have the option.”

They both stood there awkwardly, shuffling their feet.

“I, um, guess I’ll head back down, too. I forgot my room number, but you can always call me if you need anything.”

Maka bobbed her head, reaching up to wipe her damp cheeks. “Okay. And Soul? Thanks. For getting Tsubaki and Black*Star, I mean.”

He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling stupidly pleased. “Well, I knew I couldn't help, so.....I thought I could at least find someone who could.”

She reached out, her fingers barely brushing his arm before she let her hand fall to her side. “You did help. More than you know, and after I....wasn't all that nice about it. It means a lot, so again, thanks.”

Not sure what to say, he muttered something unintelligible, and scuttled down the hall to the elevator, so flustered that he missed his floor twice. Once he was in his room, his phone vibrated, and he fumbled and almost dropped it as he tried to see who it was. It was a text from Kid, letting him know there would be a meeting in the main ballroom this evening, where he planned to lay out a few ground rules for everyone staying, and to address some of the rumors that had sprung up--most of them completely inaccurate.

Feeling drained just at the thought, Soul ordered a sandwich from room service, and then slipped on his headphones, trying to relax. He tried to focus on what might be done about The Collector, or where he might strike next. He thought about how Ox would carry out his threat to murder him, if he brought back another suit in the same condition as the first. But as important as these things were, and as much as he wanted to contribute, part of his mind just wouldn't cooperate.

It kept thinking of the look on Maka’s face when she had thanked him earlier......

Lights from the ballroom flashed, and the temperature of so many bodies moving about in the room made his thin, ancient Stones t shirt stick to his skin; he flapped the black and red plaid shirt he was wearing over it to try to create some air, but the relief was minimal. He grabbed a bottle of water from one of the coolers filled with ice, and drank about two thirds before pouring the rest on himself to cool off.

Soul wasn't sure when the meeting had turned into a party; he suspected it was when Black*Star had slammed down some of the liquor bottles he’d found behind the counter and shouted, “Open bar!” that had done it. It wasn't really the best timing, but he figured that the stress was probably getting to people, and they needed a night to relax and forget everything that was going on before they exploded. So he’d designated himself the Drunk Wrangler, wandering around and making sure no one did anything over the top stupid--which was difficult, since quite a few still had their powers, and drunken superheros were a force of nature unto themselves. He was busy enough that he hadn't caught more than a glimpse or two of Maka, which he figured she needed, after earlier. Even though she shouldn't, she was probably feeling embarrassed about being seen in such a vulnerable moment. He’d already felt like he’d pushed enough, though, so he’d give her space until she felt comfortable enough to talk to him herself.

Things had finally quieted down enough that he felt he could sit down in an out of the way corner, his back against the wall as he scanned the room. A loud whoop from Patty was enough to distract him so that he didn't have time to avoid Maka as she pirouetted into him, plopping down on his lap gracelessly.

Soul jerked back, then had to wrap one arm around her waist while his other hand gripped her thigh, to keep her from falling off. The filmy, loose material of the off the shoulders shirt she was wearing kept getting tangled in his hands, and he mentally cursed as it pulled her neckline slightly lower. He looked around for a place to deposit her, but aside from dumping her on the floor, there weren't any other options.

“Uh, you doin’ alright there, Maka?” He asked nervously, pulling his head back as the alcohol fumes from her breath hit him. If he lit a match, she’d go up like a tableside flambe.

“I’ve made up muh mind, Sharky boy,” she giggled, twining her fingers through the hair at the back of his neck.

“Oh really?” He asked, glancing over her shoulder to see if any help was coming. It wasn't.

“I want the sex.”

His retinas nearly snapped, his eyes popped out of his head so far, and the jangle of alarm bells that had been faint before, blared in his head now.

“Ah. Um. Oooookaaaaay, good luck with that,” he stammered, his voice climbing in pitch as he tried unsuccessfully to untangle her arms.

“I wan’ the sex with <i>you,”</i> she insisted, swaying so her lips were dangerously close to his ear.

He shuddered, his mouth going dry as he pulled away. Did she even know who she was talking to? He’d never seen her drunk before, so he didn't know if this was normal for her, or if she was actually hitting on him. “I don't think that’s the best idea right now,” he said uneasily.

“Why?” She asked, glaring blearily at him. “Am I not attrrrrractive enough for ya?”

“No, Of course no--”

“‘Cause lemme tell ya,” she continued, jabbing him in the chest with her finger, “I might not be as shexy as Liz, but I can still get some! I’ve don't it with.....” she held up four fingers, squinted at them, then used the other hand to push one down. “With this many,” she said proudly.

“That many, huh?” Soul asked, unable to help being slightly amused. “Givin’ the pros a run for their money, are you?”

She nodded, her head flopping back and forth. “Uh huh. An’ now, I wan’ to have the sex with you.”

“I still don't think that’s such a hot idea.”

“Her eyes began to water up. “Not hot? Y-you think I’m hiiiiiiideous!”

Soul panicked as she got louder.

“No! No, I don't! Look, let’s--not here, okay? Let’s go upstairs.”

“Ooooooh, you wanna get me all to yerself,” she said sly, trying to wink but only managing to blink really hard.

“Yeah, that’s it. Here, can you stand--I guess not,” he noted, as she started to slide down his body. “Here, I’ll just carry you.”

Thank God she was light, he thought as he put one arm under her knees to lift her off her feet, wincing slightly as she whacked him in the throat when she went to put her arms around him.

“Bye, everyone!” She called, waving over his shoulder. “We’re gonna go have the sex now!”

“Shut up!” he hissed, walking faster. It didn't look like anyone had heard, but this was something he did <i>not</i> want to try to explain!

She nuzzled her head against his shoulder, and he almost thought she was asleep by the time he got her up to her room; he stood staring at the door, wondering how to get in.

“Ya turn the handle,” she muttered helpfully, his thoughts probably having seeped into hers.

“I know. Stop doing that. You got your key?”

“Mhmm. S’in my pocket.”

“Could you hand it to me?”

“Why don't ya get it yerself?” She sang, fluttering her lashes.

“Oh for the love of.....fine! I swear, when you sober up.....” he muttered, gingerly reaching into the pocket of her skirt, which seemed to grow tighter by the second. Or was that his jeans?

Trying not to drop her, he managed to slide the card key, twisting the handle when the light blinked green. With a sigh of relief, he staggered over to her bed, and dumped her as gently as he could onto the mattress. Maka stretched out, her shirt riding up just under her breasts, and looking at him coyly.

“Well, nothin’s gonna happen if you don’ get down here,” she said, patting the bed beside her. “Don’t ya wanna see how pretzel-able I am?”

Exactly, he thought, backing away. And what the hell was pretzel-able? He was afraid she’d show him if he asked, so he kept his mouth clamped tightly shut as he backed towards the door.

Maka tried to sit up, a frown of confusion replacing her flirtatious smile. “Where ya goin’?”

“I'm, uh, just gonna get ready. Wait right here, okay?” He said, not wanting to upset her.

“Alright,” she agreed, flopping back against the pillow. “But hurry up, or I’ll start without ya.”

He froze for a moment at the mental image, before hastily scurrying out of the room, making sure that the door locked behind him. Once safely in the hall, he made it around the corner before he leaned against the wall, closing his eyes in the dim light. He sure as hell hoped she forgot this when she woke up tomorrow. It was going to be hard enough that he remembered, but if she did, things would be downright awkward. As his heart rate began to return to normal, his thoughts wandered down paths he usually avoided. Was Maka actually interested in him? If so, was it just for a quick fuck, or something more? Was it <i>him,</i> or would she have settled for anyone? He shook his head. It was just wishful thinking--useless and ultimately painful. The only way she’d ever be interested in him was if she was too drunk to think straight, so he just better forget the idea completely. It was already hard enough......

“I’m a little surprised to find you here,” said a voice just beside his ear. “Glad, since I would’ve had to have killed you otherwise, but still surprised.”

He cracked one eye open in a glare. “Whaddya want, Liz?”

She shrugged, her shoulders moving fluidly under the sleeveless, metallic gold shirt  shirt she wore. “I was just Making sure Maka was alright. Nothing personal, since you're really not the type, but you can't be too careful.”

“Look, I didn't do anything, alright? I just carried her up here and made sure she got into her room.”

“Oh, I saw which one of you had octopus hands!” Liz cackled, a wicked smirk on her face, before turning more serious. “Maka’s not really used to drinking that much. I think I’ve only seen her like that maybe....twice before?”

He pushed against the wall, taking a step away from her. “Doesn't matter. S’not like I hold it against her, or anything.”

“Hmmm. But something tells me that if our dear Maka had been sober, you'd be holding quite a lot against her right now,” Liz said, her brown eyes piercing.

“Lay off, Liz. It’s not like that.”

She sighed heavily, crossing her arms, one hip jutting forward. “Alright, telling you this might not be exactly <i>ethical,”</i> she began.

“When’s that ever bothered you?” He cut in nastily, knowing he wasn't being fair.

Her eyes flashed at him, the irises glowing brightly. “Listen,” she snapped, “I've done a lot of things I’m not proud of when I was going through a bad time in my life--it’s not an excuse, but I <i>am</i> trying to be better. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what I almost did to your family--and I'm glad you stopped me. And I'm sorry for how things were between us; I'm glad it didn't go further than it did.”

Soul shrugged uncomfortably. “It's fine. Nothing really happened in the end, so I'm sorry for ridin’ you about it.”

They stood there for a few tense moments, before Liz continued where she had left off.

“Anyway, about Maka. It wasn't just the booze, you know? She likes you. A lot.”

He snorted.

“No, seriously. Maka.....she doesn't let people in easily, especially men. She's not used to feeling like this, and it's scaring her; she's not sure what to do. I mean, she sort of had a thing for you before all this, but it was different then. You were at a safe distance. Now you're not, and there's the real possibility she could get hurt.”

“I know you're probably trying to be nice by telling me all of this, but......I don't think you're right about that. I'm not really Maka’s type; she can do better.”

“I still think you should talk it out with her once she sobers up,” Liz countered.

He just shook his head.

“Alright then, it's your choice. Say,” her voice dropped to a purr. “If you aren't interested in Maka, there's nothing to say we can't have a little fun ourselves. You look like you need it,” she added, her eyes dropping to the front of his jeans.

He was horny--there was no denying the obvious evidence--but somehow, the offer just wasn't appealing.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Why not?” She demanded. “We’re both consenting adults. No one else needs to know.”

All true enough, but.......he didn't think it would be enough to get what--or who--he wanted out of his head.

“No, really. I'm not.....I'm not in the mood.”

“Liar,” Liz said quietly, a smug grin forming. “You're in the mood alright, but not with me. I knew It! You like her, don't you? You really, truly like her, and for more than just a lay!”

“You don't take no gracefully, do you?”

“Oh, this is one no I'm happy to take,” she assured him gleefully. “And don't  think I'm going to let the two of you be stubborn enough to ruin things. You'll thank me for it later, wait and see!”

He wasn't able to answer before she spun around and darted down the hall. He stared after her, before turning in the opposite direction and heading for his room.

What he needed, he decided, was a shower.

A cold one.

Breakfast was quiet. Not due to any embarrassment on Maka’s part--mercifully, she seemed to have forgotten last night almost entirely, and he wasn't about to remind her. But she, and a good many of the others, were suffering nasty hangovers, and conversations around the dining room were reduced to grunts and low mutters. Even Black*Star was forced to keep his voice down to keep his headache from getting worse.

Since Soul hadn't drank last night, he was feeling well enough for seconds, ignoring some of the green faces around the table at the sight of his food. At first, he thought that was why Maka was just twirling her spoon through her cereal bowl, but when the others drifted off, she let it fall against her bowl with a click.

“Soul? Can I ask you something?”

“You just did,” he said automatically, falling back on a stupid joke he and his brother used to use to drive each other crazy. “Sorry. Yeah, go ahead.”

Maka took a deep breath, the beginning of a word leaving her throat--and she stopped. She gave a frustrated sigh, and started again. “Okay. I just wanted to ask--well, no, I actually don't want to ask, that’s the problem, but I am anyway--”

A forkful of eggs froze halfway to his mouth. Please don't ask about last night. Pleasepleaseplease.

“I know I said yesterday that I wouldn't even think about it, but I did, and........couldyouaskyourfriendtomakemeasuit?”

Crisis averted. Maybe. “What was that?” He asked, unsure if he’d heard what he thought he had.

“I said,” she said, slowing her words in exaggeration, “Could Ox make a suit for me, like he did for the others?”

Soul choked on his eggs, holding up a finger while he washed them down with some juice. “Are you sure? You were pretty clear that, um, you were against the idea. That it wouldn't be the same.”

Maka gave a short, jerky shrug, her eyes fixed on the table. “It won't be. But what choice do I have? Wait for someone else to find the answers? To sit back while everyone else fights for me? The others said that it isn't the same as having their own powers, but at least they can do something! If I'm going to get my powers back, I can't just turn down an option because it isn't exactly what I want.”

Soul stared at her, surprised that she had come to this point so quickly. Maybe Tsubaki had been able to say something that helped--as someone who was in the same boat, Maka would've been more open to listening to her. Whatever the reason, he was glad; seeing her so......broken, almost, and unlike herself had worried him.

“Actually, I’ve already had him working on it. Just in case this happened and you decided you wanted to try.”

“You did?” Maka asked, looking at him with an expression he couldn't quite read.

“Yeah,” he shrugged, picking up a piece of toast and picking off the crust, “I wanted you to at least have the option, even if you decided not to in the end. It should be ready for you to try on later today, if you want.”

“I’m surprised you didn't have him give up, after the way I fell apart yesterday,” she said, a bitter edge to her smile.

“Why? I think everyone hits a point where they give up, at least for awhile. But I didn't think it’d last for long--you're too stubborn, for one thing, and I've never known you to not go out and get what you wanted, even when it’s hard. One of the things I like about you,” he said, more honestly than he had intended.

“One of the things, hmm?” She asked, her eyes sparkling even as she smirked at him.

“Uh. Yeah. I'm gonna go and make a few calls--why don't you see if any of the others wanna come along if they have any adjustments they want Ox to make? Or ask around if anyone else is interested in getting a suit or somethin’.” He asked, scrambling to his feet and carrying his tray to the trash, the back of his neck turning red under her gaze.

When Soul had pictured this, he had expected that it would just be him and Maka, making a quick trip. But somehow word had spread, and Kid, using the excuse that he wanted to make sure they were safe (and then finally admitting he was curious as well) had offered to drive them. This meant that Liz and Patty were along as well, and since Black*Star and Tsubaki both needed adjustments on their Suits, it meant the entire herd was going. Soul was just glad that they had gotten out before anyone else had decided to tag along; hopefully Ox wouldn't mind being descended on en masse.

“Patty, if you break that, you buy it,” Kid called, an admonition which barely slowed Patty down.

“Look, I’m just sayin’, the boys need a little room to breathe. Can't you loosen this part?” Black*Star whined.

“Maybe I should've stayed back at the hotel,” Soul muttered, feeling a headache coming on.

“If we have to suffer, so do you,” Harvar answered, not looking up from his computer screen. “Besides, you're paying for it, so you might as well see what you're buying. And talk that two legged menace out of nukes, if he asks for them again.”

“Do. <i>Not.</i> Give him any firepower. I thought that was clear the first time?”

“For us, yes, but I'm not sure his little brain was able to retain that.”

Soul looked away from Kid chasing after Patty long enough to glance at Harvar. “You sound more irked than usual. Has he been over here a lot?”

Harvar sighed. “Yeah, but it’s not just him. He’s just the loudest issue at the moment. I’ll be fine once I catch up on some of my work.”

“Soul? Maka’s asking for you,” Tsubaki said, adjusting the neck of her new Suit.

It was a dark, shimmery purple, with shooting stars along the thighs and across the chest. She had a pair of goggles, and Soul could tell that most of the enhancements were in the legs.

“What? Oh! Okay. Yours is lookin’ good, by the way.”

She smiled, looking down at herself. “Thanks. It’s been taking a little getting used to, but it actually works quite well. I'm not as fast, and it doesn't feel as natural, but it’s a relief after not having any of my power at all.”

He left her as Liz came over to admire the Suit, heading in the direction of the room Maka had gone into to change. He knocked on the door, and waited to open it until she called for him to come in.

“What do you think?” She asked nervously, standing in the middle of the room, twisting and turning to see herself.

He’d asked Ox to base it on her original Suit, and he’d come through. The boots were bulkier, and obviously enhanced, but Ox had even managed to paint the wings on the sides. Her skirt was pretty much identical to the one before, and he figured there was the same sort of white leotard type of thing underneath. The top part was made out of the same material as his, only white; again, it looked much the same as her old one, but it was definitely thicker. But it was the expression on her face that drew him into the room; the look of hopeful excitement, instead of the despair that had been there yesterday.

“You look....great,” he finished lamely, letting the door close behind him.

Her cheeks flushed, but she looked pleased by his answer.

“I doubt <i>that,</i> but I think it’s going to work. He already let me test it a little. Tsubaki was right. She said earlier that it wasn't the same, but it’s so’s close enough that it can hold me until I get mine back.”

“Ready to get back out there and kick that bastard’s ass, huh?” Soul asked with a grin.

Maka laughed. “I am! I didn't think I would be yet, but I am.”

Before he could tell her that he knew she would be, she had bounced across the space between him, and thrown her arms around his neck.

“Thank you for this,” she whispered, her words a hot puff of air that raised goosebumps on his neck.

He tried to come up with a reply that wasn't cheesy, but found himself at a loss; instead, he put his arms around her waist, ignoring the way her Suit was stiff against his fingers.

“Hey, are you two decent in there?” Black*Star called, followed by a yelp that said his comment hadn't gone unpunished.

They sprang apart, giving each other embarrassed smiles.

“We’d better get out there before he busts the doors down,” Maka said.

“It might be worth it, just to see what Tsu does to him,” Soul mused, but went to the door and opened it, anyway.

“Maka, that looks great--Liz, come look!” Tsubaki said from the doorway.

Soul stepped out of the way while everyone came over to ooh and aah over her Suit, Ox asking if everything felt alright, or if he needed to change anything--and beaming proudly when she said that so far she thought it was perfect.

“If you're making the offer, then I wouldn't mind gettin’ a bit of air out of mine,” Black*Star commented, nearly knocking a table over with his unaccustomed bulk.

“Black*Star, I don't think yours was designed for speed,” Kid commented, stepping out of the way.

“It’s not, but I’ve been surprised by how quickly he can move in it,” Tsubaki said, looking over her shoulder.

Ox adjusted his glasses, giving Black*Star a bland look. “The bumblebee, being too stupid to realize it can't fly, does.”

Black*Star glared at him, but seemed to think better of making anything of it, even as Patty guffawed loudly.

“Fine, I’ll settle for the Hulk approach,” he pouted. It might not be like before, but it still gets the job done.”

Soul jerked around to look at him, something clicking in his brain. “‘Star, you glorious bastard, I think you've hit on something!”

“Are you sure he didn't hit you in the head?” Liz asked, pausing in her admiration of Maka’s Suit.

“No, seriously, I think it might work!” he said excitedly.

“Well, let us in on it,” Maka said, stepping over to stand by him.

“It’s what he said--he doesn't have his powers, but he can still do what he needs to. Get it?”

“Nooooo, you're going to need to give us more than that.”

He waved his hands at them. “The thing about fighting The Collector that made him so dangerous before was that he could take your powers.”

“But he can't now,” understanding began to dawn on Maka. “He can't take anything, because we don't have it--”

“Except you do,” Kid added, his eyes darting around. “Soul’s right! Those of you that have already lost your powers are perfect for this--with these Suits, you've negated his worst threat. Anything else he throws out can be countered.”

“And if you were all to work in tandem, he’d have an even harder time,” Ox put in.

Soul looked at Kid. “We’d also have the element of surprise, at least the first time. It might take a day or two, but I think we could come up with a plan while Tsubaki and Maka got more used to using their Suits--I think Black*Star has been using his pretty often already.”

“Yes. Yes, this might be exactly what we need. We should go back to the hotel, and start planning, if everyone’s ready.”

“Just let us change, and we should be,” Tsubaki said, already walking towards the other room.

“Go ahead, Soul. Say it,” Maka said, amusement lacing her voice. “I know you're dying to.”

“I don't know what--”

“I'll let you say it this once, without laughing.”

“.......Fine. To the Batcave!”

It took two days for them to come up with what they thought might be a decent plan; two days of arguing back and forth, picking over any details that, if missed, might trip them up. Two days of Maka, Tsubaki, and Black*Star getting used to their Suits, with tips from Soul. They had decided to keep the group small, since it reduced the risk of errors, and it also put as few people as possible at risk. Aside from those four, Kid, Liz, and Patty were also included, although they wouldn't be fighting directly if things went as planned. Liz and Patty were furious about this at first, but finally came around to the reasoning. It wasn't due to lack of skill, but Patty’s powers of illusion, (not even mentioning her boosted strength), and Liz’s attraction and poison claws, were wonderful assets, but could cause problems if turned against them.

Kid had volunteered to be glorified bait--they all agreed that the son of the one person to ever really damage him would be a juicy target for The Collector. They had even managed to ‘leak’ out that he would be going out alone, confidant that his powers would be enough to protect him.

Finding a good location had been fairly easy; they had wanted something far enough away from civilians and other Supers that no one else would get hurt, but still close enough that it wouldn't look like an obvious trap. Soul was the one to find the best location, since he’d heard stories about if from his grandmother, who had stayed there as a little girl. The old Imperial Sands hotel was, after years of abandonment, being given a makeover in an a attempt to draw in visitors to the city who had an appreciation for historical buildings.  There was just enough activity around it to be plausible for a Super to check out, and none of the construction workers would be on site during the night, keeping them out of danger. And, as an added bonus, the foreman was only too happy to take a bribe to let them slip in during the day to add a few of their own ‘alterations,’ with the promise that they would leave things just as they had found them once they were done. (They felt slightly guilty about the possible collateral damage, until Kid said he’d pay for any needed repairs.)

Time, unfortunately, was against them. Three more Supers had died (two villains, which didn't really make anyone feel better), and it seemed clear that killing had become his preferred method. Soul and Kid, and to a slightly lesser extent, Maka, thought they would benefit from having more practice, but they had all eventually agreed that it just wouldn't be possible. Which was probably why, Soul thought, they sounded like a troupe of performers putting on their very first play.

“I still think it’d be more fun to be up top with the rest of you,” Patty grumbled, spinning around in her chair, her reflections mirrored in the screens from the monitors.

“People pay attention to the puppets, but the puppeteer is the one pulling the strings,” Tsubaki soothed her, securing her hair in a tight ponytail to make sure none of it got in her eyes.

“Hey, I'm not anyone’s puppet!” Black*Star complained, slipping on the gloves that helped to keep his hands from slipping on his arm controls.

“Maybe, but it still sucks,” Patty answered, spinning back to fiddle with the cameras that Ox had set up for her.

Patty would be in a special room two stories below them, specially lined to block out any technological or psychic interference. Everyone’s Suits had been fitted with special cameras, and using the information, she would construct the illusions they needed.

“I won't be in the thick of it either,” Liz said, perched on a large box. “And believe me, I’m not looking forward to my part, either.”

Liz would be well hidden among some of the materials and machinery from the construction on the roof, only coming out to lure away anyone that The Collector might bring with him (although as far as they knew, it was only likely to be Gopher), and incapacitate them until the fight was over.

“I’m hoping that we don't have to count on you for anything more than that,” Kid said, draping a high necked cloak over black pants and a turtleneck.

She flicked her hand, watching dispassionately as her nails grew and sharpened. “I know. But you still want me to if it comes down to it, right?”

If things went south and the rest of them were taken out, Liz was supposed to use her attraction on The Collector, right before slashing him with her poisoned claws.

“Normally I’m opposed to being judge and jury, but in this case, I don't think we have much of a choice. If that happens, you can only count on having a split second before he counters you--I want you to make the most of it, and finish him before you finishes you.”

Liz nodded, although she watched him carefully. Soul didn't blame her; from everything he’d picked up on, both from Maka and being around Kid himself, he’d gotten the impression that he preferred to take a pacifistic approach whenever possible. The way his eyes glittered like two hard, implacable stones as he spoke to Liz was rather unsettling.

“Do you have your mask?” Liz asked, changing the subject, referring to the skull masked typically wore when he was Death’s Shadow.

“No. Tonight, I decided to wear Father’s,” Kid replied, reaching into the bag he had brought, pulling out a weathered white mask. “I thought it might throw our opponent off a little.”

He pulled on the mask, and turned to face them fully. The room went quiet at the sight, an almost feral terror playing up and down their spines. There was something ancient about this mask--something nearly as old and relentless as time. It wasn't evil, but it wasn't quite good, either; Soul had to wonder how much the morality of the man who had originally worn it had shifted over time, and whether ‘hero’ relied more on historical perspective than accuracy. Slowly, Kid turned his head, and Soul couldn't help shuddering at the lifeless stare that the mask seemed to give off, so he turned away.

“You ready?” He asked Maka, who was making sure her boots were secure.

“I think I'm as ready as we’re going to be; it would've been nice to have a little more time, but it’s not like we’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Yeah, but are you comfortable enough with the Suit?” He asked, knowing he sounded like a mother hen, but unable to stop himself.

“The Suit’s fine; it took a little while to get used to the weight--it’s lucky I've stayed fit by being on the lacrosse team. Other than that, I think Ox did a pretty good job.”

“Is it time, yet? I'm ready to take this asshole down,” Black*Star said, flexing the arms of his Suit, which looked like an even thicker exoskeleton than it had before.

“About.....ten more minutes. We want to make sure it’s dark enough,” Tsubaki said, checking the time on one of the monitors.

“Actually, maybe you and Black*Star should get into place--Soul and Maka can fly, but you can't, and Black*Star is too heavy to really sneak up,” Kid said, his voice sounding odd coming through the mask.

“And this way, I can hold him back in case he tries to make a move before it’s time,” Tsubaki said, an observation born of long experience.

“We should get in place too,” Maka told him, and Soul paused in the act of putting on his helmet.

“You be careful out there, alright?” He said. “It was bad enough last time, but if he gets his hands on you again.....”

“We’ll keep him too busy for that. And you have to admit, we’re better prepared this time.”

“Not that that’s hard, or anything,” he pointed out.

She screwed up her face at him. “Keep on like that, and I just might let him get a few good punches in on you before I help!”

They laughed, but it was the high pitched, keyed up nervous laughter that came from fear and adrenaline, rather than actually finding anything truly humorous about the situation. As it trailed off, he leaned closer to her, raising his hand enough to brush the tip of one pigtail.

“But really. Be careful. I don't want you to--I can't--”

She raised up on her tiptoes, and silenced him with a soft peck on the cheek. “I know. Me either, so you'd better be careful yourself.”

“Is this the part where they kiss madly in atmospheric rain, Sis?” Patty asked, watching them avidly.

“No, no. That happens after, and one of them should really be wearing a see through shir--”

“Got it, thanks!” Maka snapped, stepping away. “Moving along. You guys be careful too, so I can smack you later.” She scampered over to the door, not looking back.

“You two couldn't have kept quiet for like, two more minutes?” Soul whined, snapping his visor into place.

Liz gave him a sly smile. “Consider it incentive to win, Burn Boy. Besides, you didn't want your first kiss to feel like one that meant goodbye.”

Patty nodded knowingly. “Right. You should listen to Sis, Soul. She knows a lot about romance.”

He levelled them both with an offended glare, before stalking out of the room while mumbling uncharitably under his breath.

“I wouldn't have thought of it as goodbye. More like a preview,” he sulked to himself, making his way down the hall to his assigned window.

He tried to keep from standing directly in front of the window, not wanting to be seen from the street below. The speaker in his helmet allowed him to hear when Patty told them all that Kid was in his place on the roof; after that, it was a matter of waiting. Technically, nothing might even happen tonight. It could take awhile for the rumors to fully circulate, or The Collector might decide to play it cautious and not take the bait. Soul thought it was more likely to be the former rather than the latter; at their last encounter, he had seemed fairly arrogant, and his string of grisly victories had probably fuelled that.

“He’s here. Get ready.” Patty’s tense voice crackled in his ears, and he quickly undid the window, stepping up and bracing himself on the ledge.

“He teleported from the street, with Gopher. It looks like that’s the only backup he brought,” she continued. “Which is like, having nothing at all.”

“I'm not complaining,” he said into the built-in mic. “It just means we can focus on The Collector,” Maka’s voice came through next. “But Patty, keep an eye on him anyway, just in case.”

“Gotcha. Alright, he’s trying to goad Kid........’I defeated your old man, yadda yadda, hackneyed I’ll finish you too,’ speech.....Oooh, Kid’s in a snarky mood, told him exactly where he could suck his power from......Okay! Go! Go!”

Soul pushed himself out of the window, shooting up to the roof. On the opposite side, Maka rose up as well, just as Tsubaki and Black*Star burst from the emergency exit.

“So this is why you sounded to confident,” The Collector, said, barely acknowledging that they were there. “And here I thought that you believed in your own powers.”

“Yeah, but he believes in the powers of his friends, too!” Black*Star yelled, not quite able to keep out of the center of things.

“Mother of the <i>gods,</i> Marvel has a lot to answer for,” The Collector groaned. I’ll take the bragging and moralizing, but spare me the Power of Friendship speeches.”

“The only power you're gonna be gettin’s is the power of our fists, dick nugget!” Black*Star fired back, taking a step forward.

“My master will swat all of you like you were nothing but flies!” Gopher screamed, the muscles in his neck standing out.

“Shut up! Go over there and stay out of my way,” The Collector ordered, shoving his lackey roughly aside. “I’ll let you clean up anything that’s left when I’m done.”

Soul watched as Gopher scuttled over to the side, noting that it was conveniently close to where Liz was hiding.

“Now, I suppose you should decide in which order you'll be fighting me; it's only fair I give you that much of a chance,” The Collector taunted Kid.

“Fair? Who said anything about fair?” Kid asked, his voice carrying oddly on the wind.

They didn't wait for a response; as they had in practise, they all went for him at once, careful to strike their target rather than each other. He only managed to dodge Kid, as the others rained down punches and kicks. The Collector regrouped more quickly than they would like, using some of his stolen strength to push them back, before leaping out of the center of the knot they had formed. He swung at Black*Star, but Black*Star blocked him, recognizing his own power and having years’ worth of experience in knowing the best way to counter with minimum effort. Tsubaki dropped to the ground and kicked his legs out from under him, while Maka drove a knee into his face from above. Soul jumped in over Tsubaki to cover her, grabbing The Collector’s arms and yanking them over his head as Black*Star brought his joined mechanical fists down onto his stomach.

In the background, Gopher screamed at the abuse his master was taking, but still not moving from where he had been told to wait.

With a roar, The Collector blasted them back again, from rage or power over wind, Soul couldn't tell.

“I'm going to take great pleasure in killing each and everyone of you,” The Collector said, the cultured veneer of his voice cracking.

“Kill us? Dude, you can't even manage to and a decent punch!” Black*Star hooted.

For an answer, The Collector lobbed a huge ball of fire at him, which might have done more damage if Ox hadn't prepared the Suits for such wear and tear, after having perfected them on Soul’s long before.

It continued this way, with them gaining the upper hand and doing a fair bit of damage, only for him to manage to slide away long enough to grab a breath, and pull off a long distance attack-- none of which seemed to be landing, much to his growing frustration.

Soul couldn't help but smirk. It was true that all five of them working together helped, but their ace up the sleeve was Patty. From below, she was giving the Collector the illusion that their attacks were moving slightly slower than they actually were--just enough for him to think he was misjudging them. She was also making sure that his aim was off to the side enough for his target to move out of the way. They might not be as elaborate as if she was up here herself, but she was limited by distance--and concentrating on another key illusion.

But even Patty, as good as she was, couldn't keep up with them all at once, and it only took a split second for The Collector to grab Tsubaki, who let out a scream as he threw her across the building, her eyes going wide as she passed the edge, seeming to hang in space.

Maka was off like a shot, but it was too much for Black*Star. Gone were the snarky comments and insults he’d been slinging around; the cocky grin had fallen from his face along with Tsubaki. Pushing his Suit to the limits, there was a ripping sound as he nearly tore one of The Collector’s arms from its socket.

Soul was stunned into momentary inactivity; he had known, on one level, what they were eventually coming to, but the savagery of the act was something he wasn't used to.

Spotting Maka lifting a very pale looking Tsubaki back to the roof, he called out, “‘Star! She’s alright! Maka got her!”

Black*Star let his attention be diverted, some of the humanity slipping back into his face.

“Guys, I'm not going to be able to help!” LIz’s frantic voice came through on their speakers. “I don't think my power is enough!”

“What do you mean?” Maka asked, sounding out of breath from her quick rescue dive.

“Lust is easy to manipulate--and even love, if you're subtle enough--but this guy is a level of obsessed I’ve never seen before! It’s like he hasn't even noticed me, and I can't do anything else without exposing my position!”

“Gopher!” Over here, now!” The Collector demanded, his voice cracking as he coughed. He was barely able to stand, but he didn't have to sway in place for long as the scrawny young man darted to his side, pale ankles flashing under too short pants.

They started to move towards him, but he disappeared, causing them all to spin around to look for him--just in time to see him blast a hole through the center of Kid’s chest......

The Collector began to cackle, throwing his head back as blood dripped down his neck from underneath the torn mask. “As the father, so the son! Who’s next, you little--”

The laughter died in his throat as the image of Kid flickered and faded away; rather than risking him get ahold of Kid’s powers, Patty had substituted an illusion while Kid slipped away, where he was better able to concentrate on making The Collector more suggestible to Patty’s illusions.

There was a howl of pure, hate-filled rage, and they thought he was going to attack. They all readied themselves, but were surprised when he once again disappeared.

“Where did he go?” Tsubaki yelled, spinning around until she and Black*Star were back to back.

“Over there!” Maka yelled, spotting two figures on the roof three buildings away.

She and Soul were the only ones capable of flight, and, desperate to keep him from getting away while they had the upper hand, they both took off after him. Soul tried to put on an extra burst of speed, but Maka managed to pull ahead. Seeing her chance, she spiralled into a dive, stretching her arm out just as she swooped over The Collector......and made contact with a small patch of skin at his hairline. With a shout of triumph, she pulled into the air just as he phased out of sight again.

“Maka! Did you get--”

“Yes! But we have to hurry--he can't get away!” She called, barely letting him catch up.

Soul wanted to warn her to hang back--if she lost her powers a second time, there was no guarantee that she would be able to get them back. But when she glanced over her shoulder at him and veered left, it clicked in his mind what she wanted. The Collector and Gopher had only managed to make it to the next building--his power must be fading, Soul thought. Gopher let out a screech as Maka swooped down behind him, the potion pulling him away from his master. Soul stayed on his course, driving himself into The Collector’s back. They rolled together, and pain shot up his elbow as he landed wrong, right at a weaker point on his Suit.

“You can't....beat me,” The Collector gasped through broken teeth. “You're nothing. Nothing! I can take you out, and the girl next!”

“You're not gonna--ugh! Give up, are you?” Soul asked. Even though you're this badly beaten?”


They grappled together, Soul surprised by how much fight was still left in the man. He supposed that was what happened when you had all of those powers to draw on, but The Collector had made a miscalculation. Fighting wasn't his style. Until recently, he had relied on stealth and cunning rather than brute strength, and, by association, any of his offensive abilities. The trouble with being a collector what that once something was in you possession, the thrill was off in favor for the next hunt. You didn't fully use what you acquired; you didn't tease out all of its advantages and drawbacks. And the fundamental thing he had missed was the physical energy using the strength and speed he had been drawing on all evening. Any Super could tell you how much it burnt up, and the increased calorie intake you needed, preferably beforehand if you were going to expend yourself this much. As badly beaten as he was, if he had payed attention to this one detail, he would have been more than a match for Soul one on one.

But he hadn't.

Soul hadn't known how he was going to end this--he was doing what he could to hold his own, knowing that even if he didn't have any power to steal, at this point The Collector was going to kill him out of sheer hatred. So it was almost anticlimactic when just as Soul was being pressed against the edge of the roof, the momentum of him jerking to the side sent The Collector staggering forward and over the edge, plummeting towards the small river that had once been used as an attraction of sightseeing tours up and down between several cities.

“Soul!” Maka yelled from behind him, and he turned, still stunned.

“I....I didn't mean....” He panted, unable to think clearly. He had just killed someone. Someone who had been trying to kill him. Someone who had killed several people already, and was planning to kill more.

Okay, it was going to take some time to process, but not as much as he initially thought.

“Are you alright? I thought you were about to go over!” she fussed, checking him over even though pretty much any injury he might have was invisible.

“I'm fine--what about you? You got your powers back, right? I thought I saw--”

“Yes! As soon as I touched him, I felt them--I can <i>fly,</i> Soul!”

In his excitement, he picked her up and spun her, ignoring twinges from overused muscles. They laughed as she lifted him into the air with her, both of them giddy from their close call, and her regained powers.

“Wait, what about the others?” Soul asked, his smile fading. “Shit, I may’ve just ruined their chances for--”

“FUCKIN’ <i>YES!”</i> Black*Star’s voice floated over to them, followed by a loud crash.

“I don't think that’s a problem,” Maka said in amusement, lowering them to stand on the roof.

“He did say we would have to kill him,” Soul frowned, wishing the solution hadn't had to have been that extreme.

“He was going to kill you, Soul,” Maka pointed out, her voice gentle. “It’s not something you <i>wanted</i> to do. And even right up until the end, he never so much as pretended to ask for mercy. I'm not saying you should be indifferent about killing someone, but don't beat yourself up for it, either.”

He nodded, putting an arm around her shoulder as he slid his around her waist. “I know. It’s just.....I've never done that. Killed someone. I might’ve beat a few up a little when they attacked first, but nothin’ that couldn't be.....fixed.”

“Hopefully, it'll be the last time you have to,” she shuddered. “I think I’ll be happy to go back to breaking and entering, and the odd mugging.”

“And maybe even a skunk attack or two,” Soul joked, enjoying how she leaned into him when she laughed.

“Maybe, in the right company,” she agreed.

As they had earlier tonight, both leaned towards each other; Soul was still on an adrenaline rush, his negative inner voice quiet for once as he decided to throw caution to the wind and take a risk--a much more pleasant risk than the ones he’d been taking.


“I already killed one person tonight,” Soul grit out through a clenched jaw. “He’s pushing his luck for being number two.”

“You don't mean that,” Maka said, although she shot a glare over the rooftops that look like it could cut through glass.

“.....Okay, maybe not <i>kill,</i> but still......”

“We’ll find a way to get even, don't worry,” she assured him. “Come on, we better go before he says something worse.”

“Ok--wait, where’s Gopher?”

“Who? Oh, I keep forgetting that’s what he was called.....I don't know, he was right over there--I don't know how he could have gotten away!”

They both looked around, but there was no sign of him.

“Damn. I didn't think he’d be so slippery,” Soul told her, once they had given up. “Although I guess it wouldn't have done too much good; I don't think we had enough evidence on him to get him arrested.”

“Probably not,” Maka sighed. “At least he won't be too hard to take care of if he pops up again. And it’s not like he had any powers of his own; if we do run into him again, it’ll be because he latched onto someone else.”

Soul shook off his misgivings. “True. And who knows, maybe this was enough to scare him. Doesn't look like we’re gonna find him, though, so we might as well leave.”

He waited for her to go first, grinning at the small flourish she gave to her takeoff. His body was aching, but he barely noticed it as he admired the pure joy she showed at having her powers back. Following her, he couldn't help but feel a certain joy at her use of the word ‘we’ a few moments ago. It had been slipping into her vocabulary more and more lately where he was concerned, And for the first time, he allowed himself some hope that his timing might not be so bad, after all. Maybe, just maybe, she would be receptive. And if not......well. He had helped her get her wings back.

He could be content with that, if he had to be.

Black*Star hadn't been joking about the party. Once they had regrouped at the first building, reassuring each other that everyone was okay, and enthusiastically congratulating the ones who had gotten their powers back, they had returned to the Serenity. While it hadn't been his intention, it was inevitable that once Kid had broken the news to everyone that they were safe, a celebratory mood had overtaken them. That mood only increased when several Supers who had had their powers stolen burst in, excited to show off the fact that they had returned. Later, Soul might get introspective about how tragic it was that the death of one person could bring joy instead of any kind of remorse or sadness, but for now, he was just too damned happy and relieved that it was all over to even bother thinking about it.

He had barely had time to change before going downstairs, still slapping the last couple of bandages on those of his injuries that he could reach. Things were mostly in full swing, and Black*star was loudly regaling a crowd with the story of what had happened--while Tsubaki, in a quieter voice, gave accurate subtitles to his tale. His part in the events must have gotten out as well, because he was being treated with much more warmth than he had before--which would usually be nice, but his back was in no condition for the slapping it was getting. And to be honest, things had gone much more easily than he had thought, and he was more than a little uncomfortable taking so much praise for something that felt like it should have taken more effort, after everything that had happened recently.

After escaping from another group of people that wanted to get his side of the story, he started to make his way to what he was going to call His Corner if he had to stay here too much longer. At one of the smaller tables, he saw Maka wave to him, and he paused. As he tried to see her better through the crowd, he only managed to catch glimpses. She had changed into the outfit she had worn the other night--made sense, because he doubted she had packed something for a party, in the mood she had been in. She was with Liz and Patty, and after shooting him a smile he would almost swear was flirtatious, she turned to say something to them.

Once again he was waylaid, and after politely refusing, several times, offers to buy him a drink, he looked back over at Maka, who was frowning at a wildly giggling Patty. Liz nodded her head, and said something.

“I DID NOT!” Maka shrieked, looking horrified. At their nods, she turned to look at him, her eyes as wide as a deer’s in the headlights of an oncoming mack truck, with no sign of escape.

He felt his lips curve into a grin, his sharp, jagged teeth flashing in the low light. Maka was hot, when she was in her take charge mode. She was hot when she was happy. She was even hot when she was being annoying, which just showed how far gone he was. But she was frickin’ <i>adorable</i>  when she was flustered, and for some reason, his own insecurities were pushed to the side in favor of a more predatory urge to rile her up. Not breaking eye contact, he sauntered over to her table, almost certain he knew what Liz had told her.

“Hey, Maka,” he practically sang. “What’s up?”

She closed her eyes. “I died tonight, didn't I? I died, and this is hell.”

“Whatever can you mean?”

“What do you want, Soul,” she groaned, slumping over the table.

Slowly, oh so slowly, he leaned down to whisper, taking note of her intake of breath as his lips barely brushed against her ear.

<i>“I want the sex.”</i>

She let out a chicken-like squawk, burying her face in her arms.

“Hell. I told you, this is hell. Damn it, I was going to--but now i've lost the advantage and I feel like an idiot,” he heard her mutter.

Taking pity, he nudged her shoulder. “Hey, come on. It isn't <i>that</i> bad.”

She rolled her head, one bright green eye peering up at her. “You aren't going to use this against me?”

“Not for now,” he said honestly, motioning for Liz and Patty to go away.

Mercifully, they took the hint, and he let them by as they circled around the table to leave.

“Sis, is <i>this</i> the part you mentioned earlier?”

“No, Patty,” they could hear Liz answer as the two sisters walked into the crowd. “This is the part where things tastefully fade to black.”

“I don't know who’s worse; them, or ‘Star,” Maka said, rubbing her head.

The volume of the music was turned up even higher, and both winced.

“You wanna go somewhere else and talk?” Soul asked, nearly shouting to be heard.

Maka sucked on her lower lip, before nodding and taking his offered hand.

They left by the nearest door, which meant they had to walk through a few halls to get to the right part of the hotel, but it was worth it for the quiet.

“Do you want to talk in my room, or yours?” Soul asked. “Or another room, if you'd rather.”

“Mine’s closer,” Maka said, and neither mentioned how Soul knew exactly where to go.

Everyone else seemed to have either gone to the party, or packed up and headed home, so they didn't meet anyone on their way. He waited for Maka to open the door and followed her in, suddenly not sure where to sit, or if he should.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” Maka asked, and he noticed that she didn't sit, either.

Some of his earlier worries seeped back, but he tried to ignore them. Things were getting too much between them to ignore, so he might as well know exactly where he stood.

He rubbed the back of his neck, hiding a wince as his fingers found a bruise. “I think you know.”

She shrugged. “Maybe, but I want to hear you say it,” she insisted.

“What did you mean earlier, when you said you lost the advantage?” He shot back.

Her shoulders drooped, and her eyes remained fixed on the thick cream carpet. “I....well, I was going to tell you something, or ask, but I apparently already did that without realizing it. So the only one who isn't clear on things is me.”

“That’s not true,” he said, trying to move into her line of sight--it was too hard to tell what she was thinking when he couldn't see her eyes.

“What do you mean, it’s not true?” Her eyebrows lowered in irritation. “You admitted that I really did say....what I did the other night, so you know--”

He shook his head. “I don't know anything--and before you make a joke about that, you know what I'm talking about. I mean, yeah, I know what you <i>said.</i> But I don't know what you <i>meant.”</i>

She raised an eyebrow at him, finally meeting his gaze. “I think it was pretty obvious.”

It was his turn to become fascinated with the carpet.

“Then you think wrong. I know what you said, but were you sayin’ it to me, or would anyone have done?”

When she opened her mouth, angrily, he cut in quickly, “I'm not being insulting or anything! I'm just saying I don't know!”

At that, she relaxed a little.

“Things were......there were too many wires that could've been crossed, and that's not something I wanna risk misunderstanding.”

“What is it you need to understand?” She asked, moving closer, although there wasn't anything sexual in her question.

He took a deep breath; why was this so much harder than chasing after criminals?

“I need to understand if you were asking for sex in general, or from me specifically. And I need to understand if that’s <i>all</i> you're asking for.”

“If it was, would that be enough for you?” Her voice sounded more hesitant than usual at her question.

“I think part of me would like to say so,” he answered, giving her a rueful smile. “But......I don't think so, no. Not that I want to press you for anything, or--”

“It wouldn't be for me, either.”

“Make you do anything you don't want to--what? Wait, what was that?” He asked, just in case he’d taken some damage to his ears.

Maka fiddled with the hem of her shirt, but her voice was fairly steady when she replied, “It wouldn't be enough for me, either. I talked it over with Liz--”

“Liz?” he yelped, his eyes bulging.

“Yes, Liz! She's my friend, and I didn't want--well, I didn't to step on her toes if she was still interested in you, I guess,” she explained defensively.

“Well, she isn't interested in me, and I'm not interested in her, so where does that leave us?”

She shrugged, her eyes flickering up to his, then back down again. “Right there wanting more, I guess.”

He took a step forward, and reached for her hand. “How much more?” He asked, trying to make it clear that he was giving her the lead.

Her hand tightened around his, and she shifted nervously. “I used to think you were kind of cute, in an annoying way,” she began.

Soul wasn't sure whether to focus on the ‘used to,’ or be offended by the ‘annoying,’ so he kept his mouth shut.

“And then I thought you were interesting, and annoying. And then....nice, and annoying,” she continued.

He was picking up on a subtle theme.

“And the more I got to know you, the more I liked you--and that was even more annoying, because I didn't particularly want to--and then I found out you were a Suit, and I thought that would pretty much end things.”

It was the name, wasn't it? Maybe if he had picked something a little less geeky--

“But it wasn't. Because even though I wasn't exactly kind about it, you listened to my reasons and forgave me. I watched you risk yourself for complete strangers on a regular basis, and never ask anything in return. You helped people however you could, but you were never showy about it. Whenever I was upset, you made the effort to help me, even though I know you're not always comfortable with dealing with other people’s emotions. And through it all, I got to know you even better, and I'm afraid at this point I might actually more than like you--and I don't know where that might go, but I really want to try--”

She had begun to talk faster and faster, a few tears leaking from her eyes at the intensity of her emotions. Soul was feeling much the same way--or he would be, if he wasn't completely stunned. He had started to think she might be sort of halfway into him, but this? This was more than he had hoped for--and exactly what he wanted.

“I think,” he said, as she drew in a shaky breath, “That <i>that</i> would be enough, to start.”

Her eyes lit up. “Really?”

There was no one there with them to interrupt, and this time, when he leaned forward, nothing prevented their lips from meeting. The kiss started out softly, at first, tentative brushes as they became used to one another, her hands coming up to his neck as his dropped to her waist. He pulled her closer, and she moaned into his mouth, gripping the ends of his hair.

He broke away for a breath, nuzzling her temple. “Maka?”

“Hm?” She asked, her fingers running along the inside of his collar.

“I do, you know.”

“You do what?” Her voice was slightly heavy from their kissing, not able to focus on what he was saying.

“Want the sex.”

She snorted and pulled away, but the corners of her lips were turned up. “Smooth, Soul. Very smooth. What if I don't want you to think I'm easy?”

He shook his head seriously. “Don't worry, I'm hard enough for both of us.”

At that, she did laugh, turning and pulling him closer to the bed. “You know what? Sold. I want the sex, you want the sex. Why shouldn't we have the sex?”

“Really?” he asked. Sure, he wanted to, but he hadn't really thought it would happen, and he'd been fine with it.

“Yeah,” she gave him a smile that made him nervous, pulling him down to her level by his collar. “Let’s see exactly what you're capable of, outside of that Suit.”

His shirt was yanked over his head, and everything faded to a tasteful back.

Sometime later--a mutually satisfying amount of time later--Soul rolled onto his back, his bangs sticking wetly to his forehead.

“So that’s......that’s what you meant by pretzel-able,” he panted.

“A lower level. I thought I'd start you out easy,” She gave a short snicker, twisting over to rest her head on his shoulder.

He brought his hand up to twist through the strands of hair that had fallen around her shoulders. “Take it easy on me; I'm not a Super, remember?”

Her breath was already evening out, and her eyelids were starting to flutter closed. Her voice was almost slurred when she answered.

“I think,” she said, settling against him more firmly, “that in all the ways that matter, you really are.”

Three miles away, under the old overpass, Gopher fought back tears. Everything had gone horribly wrong! They had been so close--so close! And he had nearly lost his master. Even now, his heart stuttered at the thought; he hadn’t been quick enough to catch him before he had been beaten against the sides of the building as he fell, the ornate, stone outcroppings cracking bones like tree branches as Noah hurtled to the ornamental river below. He had only managed to get to him at the last possible second, their departure causing enough of a force to leave behind a believable splashing sound. If they were followed, it was all over; he, with his pitiful excuse of a power was no match for any one of them right now, and Noah, his beloved Noah........he was a wreck of his former self. Bone protruded from skin, and even in the almost nonexistent light, Gopher could tell one eye socket was crushed. It was going to take ages to heal. If he healed. Had he retained enough of his powers?

“” Noah struggled to say, his voice thick and wet from the internal bleeding, interspersed with a whistling wheeze from the pierced lung.

Gopher hovered over him, his hands fluttering like startled birds, unsure where, or if, to light. “Yes, N--Master? What can I do to help? Should we go home? Or to a safehouse, perhaps?”

Noah’s one good eye settled on him, dilated and bloodshot. “We must........start all over again. From......the start......”

“I’m so sorry, master!” Gopher wailed. “You were so close! But don't worry; you have only to command me, and I swear, I will carry out your vengence, your every des--”

“Find me......followers. Loyal. Find one......with the.......same gift as you. I require.......someone competent.”

The betrayal was like an arrow piercing his chest, and he fell back on his heels, stunned. Was he truly expected to go out and find--find his own replacement? No! He would do anything for Noah; suffer, murder, die. But this......this was too much. To be cast aside, it was almost as if these past glorious years had meant nothing to Noah, when they had meant everything to him!

“And me, Master? What of me, then?”

The one brown eye was cold. Calculating. “Then......for your service.......You will be be the first sacri....fice.”

Gopher knew what that meant; stripped of his small power, he would become useless, even more easily tossed aside. His replacement would be given more and more of his responsibilities, until he was ultimately discarded completely. A calm settled over him, and he knew what he had to do.

“No, Noah,” he crooned, stroking his fallen master’s hair lovingly, ignoring the blood as he reached into his jacket with his other hand. “I have a better idea.”

Confusion, a hitherto unknown emotion, flickered in Noah’s eye, his breathing becoming more labored.

“I’m afraid I only have one natural gift--and nothing as special as yours. But I’ve done some reading in the texts you've collected, and although......primitive, there’s another way. With this,” he pulled out the dagger he kept in case of emergency, the moonlight glinting off of the blade and reflecting in his crooked grin, “We will achieve your goal. Together. Forever.”

Without even a chance to scream, the blade flashed down, and Noah’s confusion turned to understanding.

Understanding turned to red.

Red turned to black.

Black gave way to a new, darker night.

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#2 [url]

Feb 26 17 4:09 AM


AHHHHH!!!!! OH MAN THIS WAS GREAT! It was so much fun, cleverly plotted, great choice of characters and powers and conflict both in main and subplot and THAT CLIFFHANGER ENDING! I sure hope theres more to come! For most of the narrative I was genuinely concerned that no one was getting their powers back, though I did love the semi-solution of Soul's Super Suits (TM). For me as a chronically-ill/disabled person who hasnt always been and often relies on assistive technologies to be able to do tasks I love, I really saw a lot of myself in the heros struggles post-powers and in their "not the same but it means i can still do what i love to a decent extent" super suit solutions. That meant a lot to me. While at times the narrative got a bit telly rather than showy overall you kept characterisations, tone and emotions really clearly and cohesively represented. I loved your takes on the characters, especially Black Star, Lord Death and the evil Noah/Gopher duo. Excellent use of the superhero genre, I finished it this morning and havent stopped thinking about it all day. Love it!!!

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