Daroach knew he’d been pick-pocketed, so he’d pick-pocketed his pick-pocketer and botched it just enough that his pick-pocketer would catch him. It was just a street urchin, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. Nothing worth lashing out at. The boy was trying it again. The poor creature had no idea who he was trying to steal from. There was something admirable about the boy's tenacity, though.
Daroach grabbed the boy’s thin wrist and pulled him off-balance. The boy squeaked, the noise sharp and bat-like, and tried to free his wrist. “Let go, or I’ll scream,” the boy said, trying with both hands to pry Daroach’s off.
Daroach felt his face soften. The boy’s face was thin, his cheekbones and jaw too prominent, and dark circles lingered under his too wide, gold eyes. Those eyes glowed faintly, clearly the sign of some magic; he could probably see in the dark. His hair was so dirty it was impossible to determine if the actual color was blond or brown. “Go ahead,” Daroach replied, “But don’t expect anyone to intervene.”
The boy defiantly tilted his chin up, a gesture which might’ve had more impact if he hadn’t suddenly launched into a fit of coughs.
“This isn’t a good part of the city for a child to be wandering unaccompanied,” Daroach said, once the coughs had subsided.
“Apparently, I’m not unaccompanied,” the boy said, futilely trying to tug his arm free.
“Children are to be seen and not heard,” Daroach replied.
The child wrinkled his nose, seemingly unable to find a good retort. Strange that he would want to retort, anyway. When most boys like this were caught, they denied the deed or begged for mercy. This child did neither. He was all fire and sharp remarks, a bit like Daroach had been at that age and sometimes still was.
“Do you want me to show you what you did wrong?” Daroach asked.
“What I did wrong...?”
“So you aren’t caught next time,” Daroach replied.
A hesitant nod. Daroach released the boy’s arm, and seeing that the boy didn’t immediately bolt, Daroach put a hand on his shoulder. “Stay close,” Daroach said, “And I’ll show you how it’s done.”
The boy had been following him. Daroach had pretended not to notice; instead, he’d cataloged the times and days. The boy only followed at night. Where was he during the day? Daroach doubted the boy had a family. If he did, they certainly wouldn’t have let their child wander in this part of the city at night.
So when the boy gave up around midnight, Daroach decided to follow him. The boy was good at keeping to the shadows and remaining unnoticed, but Daroach was an expert at what he did. The boy headed towards the edge of downtown, past the river where the debtor’s prisons and asylums were. Finally, the boy arrived at a large white building. The air around the boy seemed to shimmer like quicksilver, and a pair of large, bat-like wings sprouted from his back. With a quick, fierce flap of his wings, the boy rose into the air and lighted into the second-story window. Convenient.
A children’s home. Poor boy.
Daroach, who didn’t have the benefit of wings, picked the lock of the front door and swept inside. The home looked benign. It opened into a small, open space with a staircase to the left and an open doorway—probably leading into a parlor—to the right. Daroach smiled. Parlors were the best room in any house because they had pianos, and Daroach had—more times than he would like to admit—paused his heists to play a few notes. Sure, this often drew attention to him, but thievery wasn’t as enjoyable if you weren’t being caught in the act. Especially if the would-be victim was very wealthy, as they often were.
But now, silence was key. A pity.
Daroach climbed the stairs, which opened into a long hallway, and he spent the next hour slipping in and out of rooms. Everything was very plain and sparse. There were several rooms with children sleeping in narrow beds. It wasn’t ideal, but Daroach had, admittedly, seen homes in worse conditions than these. He found the boy by his coughs and his faintly glowing eyes. For a few seconds, Daroach watched the child, who sat in his bed with a ragged blanket pulled over his shoulders.
Daroach cleared his throat. The boy jumped and slowly looked to the door. When their eyes met, the boy slipped out of bed and padded to the door. “You can’t be here,” the boy hissed. “Get out!”
“You’re following me,” Daroach replied, leaning against the doorframe. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t be allowed to do the same.”
“I have to go work soon. I need you to—”
Daroach glanced outside the room’s small, single window. It looked like it was one or two in the morning. “I see,” Daroach said. “It’s probably the coal mines, isn’t it?”
The boy’s coughs suddenly made sense. Daroach had never worked in the mines, but he knew that children who did often had a variety of respiratory problems. And accidents. Daroach furrowed his brow.
“They get to save a candle,” the boy quipped, although he didn’t smile when he said it.
“Where are your parents?”
The boy’s face fell, but he regained his composure quickly. This child was accustomed to hiding his pain. “They had debts,” he replied, “So they sold me to settle them.”
So had Daroach's parents, but they would've never sold him to clear their own debts. “How unfortunate,” Daroach said.
And the beginnings of a very, very impulsive idea began to form.
Daroach swept into his hideout with as much drama as he could muster. Wind burst from the room and caused Daroach’s sweeping, long coat to spread out behind him. For a moment, the master thief stood there to let the impact of his incredible entrance sink in.
Spinni, Storo, and Doc sat on a velvet loveseat, taken a couple years before as payment, and they slowly turned to face him. The Squeaks’ faces showed different levels of amusement. They were well-accustomed to Daroach’s flair for drama, and nothing much fazed them anymore. Daroach probably could've come in on fire and received little more than a few raised eyebrows.
“I want a child!” Daroach declared, putting his hands on his hips and tilting his chin upwards.
Spinni burst into uncontrollable laughter.
“What’s the punchline?” Doc asked, returning to a paper filled with equations.
Storo lumbered from the sofa and playfully punched Daroach in the arm. “Nice one, boss.”
Daroach stared at the three of them. The Squeaks were his partners in crime, who Daroach had known his entire life. Somehow, he’d expected them to take his declaration more...seriously. In hindsight, that’d been a very foolish thing to assume.
“I’m serious,” Daroach said.
The three Squeaks looked at one another. Then, back to Daroach.
“You...uh, you know I’m the master of snap decisions,” Spinni said, running a hand through his dirty-blond hair, “But a child, boss?”
“From a logistical perspective, it simply isn’t logical,” Doc said. “Someone would have to remain at our base to tend to this child. We’d have to find someone to nurse it—”
“An older child,” Daroach said impatiently. “He’s twelve. Thirteen. Practically an adult.”
“That is not practically an adult,” Spinni said.
“Why do you want a child?” Storo asked.
“I think I can help him,” Daroach replied. “He’s had a difficult life, and I can make it better.”
“So he told you a sad story,” Spinni said, twisting around and looking over the back of the loveseat, “And you’ve decided that the best solution is to make him your son.”
“I’m technically old enough to be his father,” Daroach said.
“Only if he was born when you were eight,” Doc pointed out.
“And you’re not exactly fatherly material,” Spinni replied.
Daroach swept over the back of the loveseat and took Storo’s vacated place between Spinni and Doc. “Considering he mines coal, I don’t imagine he has high standards,” Daroach said. “I’ll easily exceed them.”
“You’re really set on this, aren’t you?” Spinni asked. “You realize you can’t save everyone, right?”
Daroach leaped to his feet and grinned. “Of course, I do,” he replied, “But I can save this one. And come on! It’ll be an adventure! An investment! I’ve seen him pickpocket, and with some work, I’ve no doubt we can make him into a master thief.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to be a master thief?” Spinni asked.
“Then, he’ll be a good connection,” Daroach said. “I’ve been your leader for how long? Do you really think I’d just decide on a whim to take in a child that wouldn’t be an asset?”
“It sounds like you’re experiencing your mid-life crisis at twenty,” Doc replied wryly.
“I keep urging him to find a nice woman,” Storo said.
“But,” Daroach said, “I’m not hearing an objection!”
“It doesn’t matter if we object or not,” Spinni replied, sighing. “You always do what you want anyway.”
“Exactly!” Daroach exclaimed, grinning. “I have great plans already! We’ll put him in the loft!”
Of course, they would have to clean it out first; the Squeaks’ hideout was in a converted warehouse, so a lot of the space was covered in debris or rubble. This would work, though. This was a wonderful idea. Besides, it couldn't be that hard to be a decent father, right?
Daroach waited outside the children’s home. He wrinkled his nose and tugged on his ill-fitting waistcoat. He’d have preferred his usual coat or the red one he wore as the Scarlet Magician, leader of the infamous Squeak Squad and the master of expensive heists, but the better Daroach looked, the wealthier he looked, the better his odds of getting the child he wanted.
These clothes had been stolen from a man who was much taller and thinner than Daroach, but he doubted anyone else would notice. Except for himself, that was.
“We have several lovely children here,” the matron continued.
Daroach feigned interest by nodding every few words. He’d purposefully arrived around the time the boy should be returning from work, assuming the child only worked eighteen hours a day. That was the usual amount, but Daroach knew some children worked longer hours. It wasn’t as if the Nightmare Wizard or his cronies cared much for protecting children. Or anyone, really.
The matron continued talking about how structured these children’s lives were and how many rules they were supposed to obey, and it all sounded utterly dreadful to Daroach, who remembered long days of playing and exploring Green Grounds before it'd been ravaged in one of the Nightmare Wizard's attacks.
Daroach’s gaze slowly drifted to the window. His eyes glazed over. This woman had all the charisma of a dry piece of burlap. He doubted the children liked listening to her very much either.
“Shall we move on, Mr. Maus?”
Daroach blinked rapidly, pulled from his thoughts. “Ah, yes,” he said.
He spied a figure outside the window and immediately brightened.
They walked downstairs just as the boy, still smudged with coal dust, walked in. Daroach grinned and peered over the railing of the second floor.
“I want that child,” Daroach said.
“That one?” the matron asked. “No, I insist. You don’t. That child...needs work. He’s very cold; he’ll never love anybody.”
If Daroach had to wake at two every morning and mine coal, he imagined that he would be very cold and wouldn’t love anyone either.
“Besides, Meta Knight is here because of his parents’ debts,” the matron added. “They’re dead now, but the amount they left was substantial.”
“Is that his name? Meta Knight?” Daroach asked.
“Meta Knight!” Daroach shouted.
Meta Knight jumped and looked up. Once he saw Daroach, his eyes widened.
“Sir, you won’t want to pay—”
Daroach cut the matron off with a sweep of his hand. “Guess what, Meta Knight?” Daroach shouted. “You’re coming home with me!”
Meta Knight had gathered his small, tattered bag of belongings. It wasn’t much—another shirt and pair of trousers, a single silver earring, and a thin, nearly threadbare pair of socks. Daroach heard the boy’s soft footfalls a few steps behind him. Daroach reached behind him and beckoned for Meta Knight to walk closer.
“How much was it?” Meta Knight asked tentatively.
A lot. But Daroach had stolen baubles that cost more. And the first rule of thievery was to sell fast, buy what you needed to be comfortable, and save the rest. Daroach had never encouraged extravagant expenses that would draw attention; Meta Knight was his first.
“A trifle,” Daroach lied. “I’ve stolen necklaces worth six of you.”
That part was true and didn’t give Meta Knight an accurate idea of how much he really had cost. Daroach didn’t want the boy to feel guilty.
Daroach smiled. “I’m not just any thief. I’m the Scarlet Magician. You don’t need to fret. I can afford you.”
“The Scarlet Magician?” Meta Knight asked, his voice awed.
“The one and only,” Daroach replied, “And I’m going to take excellent care of you.”
“Because I like you,” Daroach replied. “You have the potential to be a great thief. You just need a good instructor.”
“You’re going to teach me?”
“Mmhmm,” Daroach said, throwing an arm across Meta Knight’s thin shoulders. “With your skills, you’re going to be great. You just need a little polish.”
“No one has ever told me I would be great at anything before,” Meta Knight said.
“Then, you’ve never met anyone with taste before. I’ll make a gentleman of you yet!”
“A gentleman?” Meta Knight asked.
“Just because you’re a thief doesn’t mean you need to be the common rabble,” Daroach answered. “We’re better than that.”
They’d reached the base. “Yes,” Daroach replied. “We. Now, come and meet the rest of the Squeak Squad.”