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Thick as Thieves

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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.

 

How tragic.

 

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.

 

“Yes, but—”

 

“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.

 

“Your debts?”

 

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.

 

“Yes.”

 

“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.

 

“Oh.”

 

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.”

 

“But why?”

 

“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.”

 

“We?”

 

They’d reached the base. “Yes,” Daroach replied. “We. Now, come and meet the rest of the Squeak Squad.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Meta Knight rocked back on his heels and looked almost guilty. Daroach, who lay sprawled over the loveseat, slowly tipped his scarlet hat up to get a better look at the child. The rest of the Squeaks were at the market, doing a bit of buying and a bit of petty thievery. Although the Squeak Squad mostly focused on daring, profitable heists, they weren’t above swiping a few coins from a careless aristocrat.  And the Squeaks had gleefully insisted that Daroach, himself, abstain from any thievery for the next month.

 

Bonding time, they called it.

 

Daroach pretended to be irked merely out of principle. He’d even feigned a dramatic collapse onto the loveseat, a dramatic collapse which was somewhat ruined by the large, golden bell jingling from his choker. But the Scarlet Magician’s arrival had been accompanied by bell chimes for years, and Daroach wasn’t going to rethink the motif now. “What’s the matter?” Daroach asked.

 

“I want to borrow thread,” Meta Knight replied. “I need to repair my trousers.”

 

The boy bent his knee, a patch of skin clearly visible through the torn fabric. Daroach narrowed his eyes and realized, really for the first time, that Meta Knight’s trousers were practically falling apart. The fabric over his knees and between his legs had been patched up multiple times, some more elegantly than others.

 

“What did you do in the mines?” Daroach asked, trying to piece together what could’ve worn Meta Knight’s trousers that way.

 

The boy’s shirt wasn’t in great shape, but it wasn’t that bad either.

 

“I was a hurrier,” Meta Knight replied. “I was...passable at it.”

 

“I’m not familiar with hurriers,” Daroach said, sitting upright and patting the space beside him.

 

Meta Knight hesitated before perching very awkwardly at the edge of the loveseat and as far from Daroach as he could possibly get. The poor child’s posture was horrible, probably from crouching in low, cramped spaces all day. Or was it his posture? What if working in the mines had caused Meta Knight irreparable harm to his spine? What if it caused him trouble later in life? What if it hurt? Meta Knight needed to see a doctor. A good doctor. Not the...doctor Daroach often used.

 

“Hurriers pull the carts,” Meta Knight explained. “They put a belt around your waist, and it has this chain that goes between your legs and connects to the cart. So you get on your hands and knees and pull it.”

 

That explained it. Daroach thought of Meta Knight clambering around in the dark like that, and his heart ached. It wasn’t like Daroach could put an end to a completely legal coal mining practice, and it wasn’t like he could singlehandedly save every single child in those mines. But what a terrible way to spend a childhood.

 

“Like some sort of animal?” Daroach asked quietly.

 

No, like someone who is very small and can fit in narrow places,” Meta Knight replied.

 

Daroach held his hands up in surrender. “I’m not going to argue the point with you,” he replied, climbing to his feet.

 

But what sort of terrible parents would abandon their child to such a fate? Daroach grimaced and tried searching Meta Knight’s face for clues. The boy was unquestionably of Halcandran heritage, but his blond hair indicated there was a fair bit of Dreamlandic in him, too. Daroach had a similar background. His mother had been Dreamlandic and his father Halcandran, but Daroach looked more the former than the latter. He could even pass as Dreamlandic if it wasn't for his eyes.

 

Nothing about Meta Knight was especially distinctive, though. Nothing stood out as particularly strange. Aside from Meta Knight’s glowing eyes. That indicated at least one of his parents had held potent magic, but there were so many magic users in Dreamland that it would be nearly impossible to narrow down even a list of candidates.

 

“But I think we ought to procure some new clothes for you,” Daroach said.

 

“Oh. Are we going to steal them?” Meta Knight asked.

 

Daroach reached out and gently tapped the tip of Meta Knight’s nose. “I think we’ll buy you your own, actually,” Daroach replied. “Because I’m not just a regular thief, if you’re going to stay with me, I need you to be a little more gentille.

 

“Gentille?”

 

“A gentleman,” Daroach replied. “The best way to complete a great heist is to get close to powerful, wealthy people, and you’ll have the best luck if you can play the part. Maybe you’re the illegitimate son of a distant nobleman. Maybe you’re a gold heir. Maybe a socialite or a foreign prince. You don’t realize how gullible people can be, child.”

 

“And what if I don’t want to be a gentleman?”

 

Daroach frowned and considered the question. “Well. As your fath—guardian, I suppose it’s my duty to support you no matter what you choose to do, with a few exceptions, of course,” Daroach replied.

 

That sounded like good, fatherly advice.

 

“Exceptions?”

 

“I would prefer you not return to the coal mines,” Daroach said.

 

“I wouldn’t want to return,” Meta Knight replied, shifting uneasily.

 

“Excellent!” Daroach said. “Then, we’re going to pay a visit to one of my dear friends. If only it was nighttime! I’ll have to wear something boring to visit her in.”

 

Daroach would rather be dead than boring.

 


 

 

Daroach had dressed himself in a burgundy coat made of velvet and his second-favorite black hat; in a bit of flamboyance, he’d let his long silvery hair fall loosely over his shoulders. The overall effect was that of an eccentric gentleman who had, perhaps, a bit more money than he needed. Meta Knight looked very out of place, aside from the cane-sword he carried. Sure, Meta Knight didn’t actually know how to use a sword, but adolescent boys loved swords, right?

 

They arrived at Madame Sectonia’s private residence, and Daroach produced his calling card for the waiting parlor maid, who returned seconds later to escort them in.

 

“Sectonia,” Daroach said, sprawling over a sofa, “Is the most powerful woman in Dreamland. She’s a lovely lady but has a bit of a temper.”

 

Meta Knight awkwardly sat a few feet down from Daroach. “How do you not anger her?” Meta Knight asked.

 

“Oh, you don’t need to worry,” Daroach replied. “She likes children. She saves most of her fury for me. By some strange twist of fate, Sectonia is completely immune to my many charms.”

 

“The problem, Daroach, is that you’re convinced you have more charms than you truly do,” Sectonia said as she entered.

 

Daroach stood, and with an awkward, startled squeak, Meta Knight copied the action.

 

Sectonia, wearing a navy and gold-trimmed dress, strode to the seat across from them. Her night-black skin, violet eyes, and long, sleek hair made her an unquestionably striking woman. She had a nice, regal face, too. There were whispers that Sectonia was part of the rising rebellion against the Nightmare Wizard, although Daroach had never asked much into her business. Daroach had a few connections in the rebellion, and those people generally operated under the philosophy of the less you knew the safer you were.

 

Sectonia’s eyes landed on Meta Knight, and she froze. “Oh, no,” she said. “Please, tell me you didn’t steal someone’s child.”

 

Daroach grinned and ruffled Meta Knight’s hair, drawing a scowl. “Nope! I paid off his family debts. Now, he’s my child!”

 

Sectonia sank into her chair, while Daroach bounded back on the sofa with an inappropriate amount of eagerness. After a long, awkward moment, Meta Knight slowly sat, too.

 

You,” Sectonia said. “A father?”

 

“I’m doing great!” Daroach declared. “Anyway, Meta Knight might be my apprentice. Or maybe something else. We don’t know yet, but I know that you have a great seamstress. The boy has to wear clothes!”

 

“Not expensive ones, though,” Meta Knight said.

 

What?” Daroach asked.

 

“I’ll just outgrow them,” Meta Knight replied. “There’s no need—”

 

“Then, I’ll buy you more,” Daroach said, adding a dismissive wave. “You’re a child, Meta Knight, and children are supposed to be taken care of. Don’t care what anyone says. Children shouldn’t even be mining coal. It’s too dangerous.”

 

“Well, I am behind on my charitable work this year,” Sectonia mused, cupping her cheek in one hand. “I might even be willing to offer some etiquette lessons.”

 

“Hm. What do you think, Meta Knight?” Daroach asked.

 

Meta Knight shrugged, and Daroach inwardly frowned. When the thief thought about it, he realized he had no idea what interests Meta Knight actually had. That was probably something Daroach needed to learn very soon.

 


 

 

Five hours. Five hours and poor Meta Knight was still struggling to unlock the handcuffs around his wrists, and Daroach tried very hard not to smile or laugh. It wasn’t that Meta Knight’s attempt was abnormally bad or anything. It was just that Meta Knight hadn’t, thus far, shown much emotion at all. Even when Sectonia had pulled out bolts of luxurious, expensive fabrics, Meta Knight’s face had remained blank and stony. He’d scowled once or twice, but mostly, he remained impassive. It was...nice to see Meta Knight with his eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed, very focused and determined.

 

Endearing.

 

Now, if Daroach could just figure out how to make Meta Knight happy. Originally, Daroach had thought that he really couldn’t mess this up. Who wouldn’t prefer this to coal mining? But now, Daroach thought that—maybe—being better than coal mining wasn’t a high enough goal. No, Daroach needed to be the best father in all of Dreamland.

 

“You have to feel for the tumblers,” Daroach said gently.

 

“I can feel them. They just aren’t opening,” Meta Knight replied.

 

Daroach realized that making a twelve-year-old sit around and play with handcuffs was probably unusual parenting, but the golden rule of thievery was that—no matter how good—everyone got caught eventually.

 

“I have a question,” Meta Knight said. “I expected you to tell me the answer, but you haven’t.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“What do I call you?”

 

Daroach hummed and tapped his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose you call me whatever you want,” he said. “I won’t be offended if you don’t want to call me Father or Papa or something. I realize this was...sudden. Simply Daroach is fine. Unless you had something else you wanted to call me?”

 

“I like Daroach,” Meta Knight replied.

 

“Well, I am pretty great.”

 

There was a burst of noise as the Squeaks returned. Daroach immediately made a show of being bereft and spread over the loveseat, leaving just enough space for Meta Knight. “Oh, I’ve been wasting away and dying of boredom all day!” Daroach whined.

 

When Meta Knight paused and looked at him, Daroach grinned and winked to assure Meta Knight that it was all just a game.

 

“Oh, you poor thing,” Spinni said. “How dare we insist you spend time with the child you brought home?”

 

“Need some help with those, Meta Knight?” Doc asked.

 

This drew the other Squeaks’ attention to him. Spinni, Storo, and Doc crowded around Meta Knight, offering a stream of advice about how to force them open.

 

“Let him figure it out himself,” Daroach said. “He’ll never learn if you—”

 

A handcuff finally clicked open.

 

Daroach scrambled forward, inches away from Meta Knight. “There you go! You got it, you brilliant boy! Keep going!”

 

“Isn’t that enough, boss?” Storo asked. “We were invited to dinner, remember?”

 

“Right, right,” Daroach replied. “Hyness. I forgot.”

 

Daroach plucked the lockpick from Meta Knight’s hand and opened the remaining cuff with ease. “Well-done! We’ll try again later. Have you ever met a priest?” Daroach asked.

 

Meta Knight shook his head.

 

“I don’t know if I would call him a priest,” Spinni muttered, crossing his arms.

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Meta Knight asked.

 

“Oh, you’ll see,” Daroach replied. “You’re going with us! We can’t just leave you here alone.”

 

Maybe they could. Daroach had no idea what the proper age for living a child at home alone was, but because he was determined to be a good father, he wasn’t taking any chances. And it wouldn’t hurt for Meta Knight to meet some powerful people, even if Hyness wasn’t exactly the most patient of men.

 

 

Chapter Text

Meta Knight de Brillante Armadura had a soft and gentle childhood. He was one of those fortunate aristocratic children whose primary residence was a sprawling country estate on the outskirts of Dreamland’s borders, far enough that the Nightmare Wizard’s doings were only whispers and dark fairy tales but near enough from the kingdom’s outer walls to avoid the frequent fights between the Nightmare Wizard’s soldiers and the rebellious Galaxy Soldier Army. It was an idyllic childhood, until the day it all came crashing down.

 

The Nightmare Wizard’s knights burst in without warning. Meta Knight hid under his bed as the servants’ screams and pounding feet filled the air. No one seemed to notice him, and Meta Knight remembered feeling vaguely offended at being forgotten. He was the son of a knight and a lady! How dare the household servants all panic and spare him not a second’s thought in the face of the terrible disaster unfolding? That was, until he was found by a stony-faced knight who dragged him out kicking and screaming. Then, Meta Knight wished he’d been forgotten.

 

The handcuffs were too large, so they bound his wrists with rope instead. The knights insisted that he ought to be grateful as he rode to the capital in a tiny, cramped carriage. And Meta Knight remembered being, at first, relieved. Yes, they had invaded his parents’ estate and taken the servants away. Yes, they had broken things and screamed and taken him to the Nightmare Wizard’s castle, but they were knights! In fairy tales, knights were good, and Meta Knight’s own father had been a noble knight. Surely, these knights were just pretending to imprison him as part of some great plan, and when the time came, one of them would nobly champion him before the terrifying Nightmare Wizard. And maybe they kept his wrists tied together, but some of the knights spoke very gently to him. One even slipped him a piece of candy once or twice. They weren’t so bad. This was all just a formality, and Meta Knight would soon be released, a release accompanied by an apology for the terrible misunderstanding that had occurred.

 

But then, Meta Knight was left alone with the most feared man in all of Dreamland. The Nightmare Wizard was a tall, skeletal man with bone-white skin and sharp angles. The fashionable men’s suit looked far too commonplace to clothe his strange form, and despite the Nightmare Wizard being so sharp and strange, there was something alluring about him. Looking at him was like watching a dangerous animal, knowing it could destroy you but being unable to look away. The wizard lowered his dark glasses, revealing cold gray eyes, and gave Meta Knight a sharp glance, but the wizard didn’t move from the sofa upon which he lounged. “Shouldn’t you kneel?” the wizard asked, his voice deliberate and gentle. “Surely, you now who I am, little bat.”

 

Despite his appearance, he sounded trustworthy. Like a caring adult who realized that he was dealing with a small child and was willing to make allowances. Meta Knight still didn’t trust him. Father hadn’t liked the Nightmare Wizard, so Meta Knight resolved not to either.

 

Meta Knight trembled and sank to his knees. He didn’t even really know how to properly kneel. His parents had never taught him. Even as he sat back on his heels, Meta Knight kept his gaze on Nightmare. That wasn’t something you were supposed to do, but Meta Knight didn’t know that either. He had cut his teeth on fairy tales, and he knew that heroes and knights, with their shoulders back and their chins up, stared monsters straight in the eye. Meta Knight’s greatest misfortune was, perhaps, that he was too young and had too much admiration for courage.

 

“How old are you?” Nightmare asked.

 

Despite his desire to be brave, tears burned in Meta Knight’s eyes. He wanted his parents. “Five,” he replied, trying not to sniffle.

 

When the Nightmare Wizard laughed, Meta Knight’s face twisted with confusion. “A pity,” Nightmare said. “You’re a very ugly child. Had you been younger, you might have had hope for growing out of that.”

 

Meta Knight had never considered that he might be an ugly child, and he felt a hot sense of indignation mingling with his anxiety. “Perhaps, you have a poor sense of aesthetics,” Meta Knight replied.

 

He didn’t know what aesthetics were. But Meta Knight had heard his father say that once, and his father was said to be a very witty conversationalist.

 

The Nightmare Wizard’s lips quirked into a small smile, and Meta Knight, who had no experience with cruelty or dishonesty, melted with it. Perhaps, the Nightmare Wizard wasn’t so bad as the whispers had always said. “You’re mine now,” Nightmare said.

 

But that wasn’t nice.

 

“I don’t belong to anyone,” Meta Knight huffed.

 

“You’re a very precocious creature,” Nightmare mused.

 

Meta Knight had never heard the word ‘precocious’ before, but Nightmare had sounded friendly when he said it. And yet Nightmare was insisting that he owned him. As if someone like Meta Knight, who came from a very wealthy family, would ever be owned by anyone.

 

“But you do belong to me,” Nightmare added gently. “Your parents owe me a very large debt, and it’s time that they repaid it.”

 

A cold flash of fear shot through Meta Knight and seemed to curl somewhere in his chest. He had heard of debts and the terrible things that happened to people who didn’t pay. Had his parents been sent to a debtor’s prison? Had they fled to avoid such a terrible fate?

 

The wizard rubbed his chin and tilted his head. “Your parents can’t repay their debt, but you can. I think that’s fair, don’t you?” Nightmare asked softly.

 

A debt. Meta Knight had never heard of his parents having debts. Surely, it was all just some terrible mistake. Meta Knight’s parents were good, honest people. They’d just forgotten to pay the Nightmare Wizard something or other, and once Meta Knight’s parents paid, he would be returned to them. “My parents always repay their debts, my Lord,” Meta Knight replied, his voice quavering only slightly.

 

Nightmare’s face became very soft and genuine, as if he truly was moved by Meta Knight’s plight. “It’s a pity you don’t come from a better lineage. I could’ve had a use for someone like you,” Nightmare said. “What a clever little thing you are.”

 

Meta Knight was too young to realize what that comment really meant. He hadn’t known what it meant to work for eighteen hours a day underground, scrabbling around on his hands and knees in the dark. He hadn’t known what it was like to breath in coal dust and mold or what it was like to never see sunlight or to never have enough food. He’d never been screamed at or beaten before. And working in the mines until he was sixty—although no one working in the mines lived past twenty-five—hadn’t seemed so bad when he thought his parents might still rescue him. Then, once he’d realized his parents weren’t coming, he’d tried running away, only to realize how easily he could be caught and how harshly he could be punished. If he didn’t try and run away, the owners of the mine let him have a bed in the orphanage. If he did, he was locked up in debtor’s prison, which was worse.

 

In debtor’s prison, he couldn’t steal to fill his belly, and even though he was always hungry, any few scraps of food were better than none at all. The owners of the mines didn’t particularly care about the state of their employees; there were always more people in debt to replace them.

 

And Meta Knight remembered it all with sharp, horrific clarity, and more than anything else, he never wanted Daroach to find out. Because if Daroach found out just who that debt had belonged to, he would take Meta Knight back to the mines, and Meta Knight would once more lose having enough food and soft blankets and attention.

 


 

 

After a couple of months, Daroach realized that Meta Knight had no birthday and set to remedy the situation. Meta Knight had begun working in the coal mines on his fifth birthday. Or so the children’s home had said. Children had to be at least five-years-old to work in the mines, but Daroach wouldn’t have put it past the children’s home to lie and add a few months or even a year or two to Meta Knight’s age. And because Meta Knight vaguely remembered his birthday being sometime in the winter Daroach had determined that Meta Knight was twelve and born on the Winter Solstice, an easily memorable date.

 

Then, there was the matter of Meta Knight’s education. When asked, Meta Knight had only shrugged, seemingly apathetic to the idea, but Daroach knew this boy—his boy, such a strange thought—was brilliant and would benefit from a good education. The best one Daroach could buy. While Sectonia was the madame to the most elite and upper scale brothel in Dreamland, she also ran a charm school, designed to teach young women skills which might grant them a profitable marriage or—if not that—a position in Sectonia’s brothel. It was not a curriculum designed for small children. Nevertheless, Daroach was determined to give Meta Knight a good, proper education, and of all the people Daroach might entrust Meta Knight to, Sectonia was the most educated. She was smart, and had she been a man, Daroach was sure Sectonia would have been a successful alchemist or astronomer. Maybe even an inventor.

 

So three times a week, Daroach took Meta Knight to private tutoring in manners and the arts with Sectonia. Meta Knight’s other days were spent learning from the Squeaks. Spinni taught Meta Knight how to throw shruikens and scale the stone buildings on the outskirts of the town, all the ruins of temples and stately manors that had been destroyed in Nightmare’s conquest and left to rot. Storo taught Meta Knight how to lift heavy objects and how to box. Doc taught Meta Knight all a manner of sciences—medicine, astronomy, physics, and algebra. The rest of Meta Knight’s time was spent with Daroach, who had endeavored to teach Meta Knight how to be a gentleman thief.

 

And really, life went on. It was remarkable how easily Meta Knight fit within the Squeaks’ lives. When Meta Knight was thirteen—or maybe fourteen—Daroach decided it was time for his new, young son to learn something of the family business.

 

“Not to—uh—doubt your parenting skills, Boss,” Spinni said, when Daroach brought it up to the rest of the Squeaks, “But don’t you think Meta’s a little young?”

 

The Squeaks were outside their hideout, sheltered from the ice and late autumnal winds by several sheets of metal. They had returned from a rather grim meeting with Sectonia; one of her acquaintances had disappeared. After the detectives were called and found no evidence of the missing woman, Sectonia called for Daroach, but he and the Squeaks didn’t have any better luck than even the Nightmare Wizard’s incompetent knights. So the Squeaks returned and began talking of other matters, namely their upcoming heists. Daroach’s mention of Meta Knight kept them outside. The Winter Solstice was approaching, which meant many of the kingdom’s wealthiest denizens would be away from home, their valuables left unattended. This, of course, required a ton of planning. It wasn’t just a matter of if Meta Knight would be joining them; it was also a matter of which heist.

 

“Young?” Daroach asked.

 

Daroach had gone on his first heist when he was twelve, under the watchful eye of his master, a thief of great renown. When Daroach thought of his childhood, though, his stomach lurched; his master hadn’t been kind. Maybe sending Daroach out so young had been just another symptom of neglect, another instance of abuse that Daroach hadn’t recognized.

 

“It’s your call, Boss,” Storo said. “The truth is none of us really know anything about children.”

 

Daroach hummed. “Perhaps, we ought to purloin some child-rearing manuals,” Daroach mused. “I’d wager Delilah has a few. She’s seems like she’s good with children.”

 

“Statistically speaking, you would need a larger sample size to determine if she’s good with children,” Doc replied.

 

“True,” Daroach replied. “Maybe I should take Meta to a party instead. Let him feel out the waters. I could introduce him as my new adopted son. Wealthy people love those stories of the rescued poor. I’m sure they would think I was wonderful if I told them I had adopted a little coal urchin.”

 

The Squeaks looked at one another. “I think that might work,” Spinni said. “He wouldn’t even necessarily have to do any thievery. He could just enjoy the party, and you’d have back-up in case something went awry.”

 

“You could, uh, what’s the word?” Storo asked. “Ease him into it. The stealing bit.”

 

“I like this!” Daroach exclaimed. “It’ll give him the opportunity to use all those manners Sectonia taught him! Perfect!”

 

Without any further discussion, Daroach sauntered into their hideout, leaving the rest of the Squeaks to trail him.

 

“You’re rather enthusiastic about this,” Spinni said wryly.

 

“Of course, I am! Meta Knight!” Daroach greeted in a sing-song voice. “Your favorite dashing thief has returned!”

 

Meta Knight’s gold eyes flashed from the loft, and the child quickly climbed down. He’d grown a few inches and put on some weight since Daroach had found him, and Meta Knight looked a bit more how Daroach thought a young adolescent should look.

 

As Meta Knight approached, Daroach bowed and swept his hat from his head. “We had a good night out. How was yours?”

 

Meta Knight shrugged.

 

Daroach ruffled Meta Knight’s hair, drawing a scowl, on his way to hang up his hat and coat. “Come, now! You must have done something all evening,” Daroach said.

 

“We went out in the snow and scaled an icy rooftop,” Spinni said.

 

“Did you get anything good?” Meta Knight asked.

 

The boy still wouldn’t say what he’d been doing in their absence, but that was nothing new. Lately, Meta Knight had seemed very secretive. Even more than he normally was. Daroach suspected something was amiss, but Meta Knight was a good child and would surely tell Daroach when he was ready.

 

“No,” Daroach said. “We were returning a favor for Sectonia. One of her acquaintances has disappeared.”

 

“Disappeared?” Meta Knight echoed.

 

“Sectonia has no reason to worry yet,” Spinni said. “She’s just being cautious.”

 

“She’s always been careful,” Storo added.

 

“She has to be,” Doc said, “In her line of work.”

 

It was true that Sectonia had no reason to worry yet, but Daroach also knew that Sectonia had many enemies. There was the Nightmare Wizard’s disdain for her as well as her long-standing hatred of the wizard Necrodeus. Daroach liked to be optimistic, but—like Sectonia—Daroach suspected that, if her missing friend was found, she wouldn’t be alive. And if Sectonia wasn't careful, she might disappear someday, too; those who opposed the Nightmare Wizard often vanished without warning, and while Sectonia herself might not be directly involved with the rebellious GSA, the gossip swirling around her was very condemning.

 

“But don’t you fret over it!” Daroach exclaimed cheerily. “Let’s talk about you, Meta! The Squeaks and I think it’s time that you got your feet wet, so to speak. How do you feel about joining me at a ball?”

 

Meta Knight blinked a few times, appearing taken aback. “Would I be stealing?” he asked.

 

“Not unless you feel comfortable with it,” Daroach replied. “I just think it would be good for you to get some experience. You can meet some of my connections. I know all sorts—the aristocracy, the GSA, knights—and I’m quite popular with them.”

 

“I suppose I wouldn’t mind,” Meta Knight replied.

 

“That’s my boy!” Daroach declared, playing up his enthusiasm to distract Meta Knight from thinking too deeply about Sectonia and favors.

 

Meta Knight was a sharp boy, and he was far too young to be worrying about the sort of crime that ran rampant under the Nightmare Wizard’s reign. There were monsters in Dreamland, and Daroach was determined to protect Meta Knight from that reality for as long as he could.