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Wild Fire

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All things considered, it shouldn’t have come to any surprise that the day would end tiring and bruised. But, that didn’t stop the boy from being any less confused and surprised whenever the usual routine came along each day. It always started innocent enough and ended with a new bruise.

Yet he was always surprised.

Even now, sitting under a park tree with his knees drawn up to his chest, he couldn’t shake the confusion of why this happened.

Kids were mean. They always became mean when playing and he couldn’t understand why. Was it because he looked different from them, acted different? Was that reason enough for them to be cruel? It was a kind of mindset that just made his head spin.

Sure, he looked different from them; he had scars, more so than any other kid in the small town. Over his lip, across his cheek, all over his arms and legs, his stomach and back. His hands didn’t have the same softness to them as the other children, they were rough, his teeth too sharp for them. Even his hair was too different for them; white. Weird.  He couldn’t understand why the color of his hair mattered so much, but it set him apart from all the blondes, brunettes, redheads and ink colored hair of the other kids.

They didn’t like the name that he had either, said it was wrong of him to have his name when he wasn’t a part of the culture. He was something called ‘Asian’, not ‘Hawaiian’—he didn’t know what either of them meant. (I like my name, mama gave me this name)

He didn’t understand a lot of things.

The other kids saw it as more reason to be mean. He didn’t know what most of the stuff they talked about were, struggled to understand them when they spoke fast—words too foreign for his ears, a language he still struggled to grasp—and they couldn’t understand him that well either with his limited vocabulary.

Reading was difficult and he had trouble talking; words spoken in slow slurs, broken and butchered until their meanings could barely be discerned. If he couldn’t remember the right word, he would throw a different one in expecting the others to understand. The kids usually ignored him because of it. If they couldn’t understand him, why even pretend to listen to him?

But mama understood. She always understood whatever he had to say, even if his words didn’t make sense to others. She always nodded and smiled and understood him, and she’d even teach him more words so that others would understand him.

But that didn’t stop the other kids from being unnecessarily cruel to him.

Maleko flexed his small fingers, stared at the forming bruises that were creeping slowly across the skin of his arms, and knew there were more forming under his shirt and shorts.

Playing was fun. Maleko liked playing, he liked roughhousing. Even if the other kids were bigger than him, and even if it was three kids against just him—it was fun. But when they started saying things and he couldn’t understand the words, but understood the venomous bite to them, when they started pulling his hair and hitting him harder than a play-fight called for—it wasn’t fun.

David was mean, too. But that wasn’t a surprise; he’d always been mean ever since Maleko had first met him.

But, he was cool, too! David, the leader of the towns kids, was strong and confident and really smart! Smarter than Maleko, more well-liked than Maleko. The other kids always followed his lead and listened to him. He was the one who always invited Maleko to play, was his friend, even. Mama didn’t like David, didn’t like it when Maleko played with him. She said that he was a bad kid, but she didn’t stop Maleko from playing with him, because mama knew that they were friends. Even if David was mean, was the one who would get the kids to be cruel, he was still Maleko’s friend.

And he wanted to be a hero, so there wasn’t any way he could be a bad guy! David wanted to go to a place called the DWMA when he got older (Whatever that was) and he was going to fight all the bad guys in the world. He said he was going to pair up with a really powerful weapon, make a Death Scythe before he graduated and become the strongest meister out there.

Maleko thought it was cool to have a dream like that.

Though… at the moment he found it hard to picture his friend as any kind of hero.

In the cartoons that he watched with mama, the heroes always protected people no matter what. They were good and kind, like Superman! Maleko knew that they couldn’t all be Superman, cause Superman is… well, Superman! He was the best and the greatest of heroes, and the others could at least try to be a good and kind hero like him, too.

David just wanted to win and beat up the bad people. It wasn’t as though Maleko thought there was anything wrong with wanting to beat the bad guys, but wasn’t David also supposed to protect people if he was going to be a hero?

(Not all heroes think like that)

Maleko frowned as mama’s voice rang through his head, remembering what she had told him shortly after David first told him about that dream. When he had told mama about David wanting to go to this ‘DWMA’ place, she had this face like she bite a lemon, face all scrunched up, brows furrowed and frowning like she didn’t like it. He didn’t think much of it, mama got that face a lot when David was brought up. She said that not all the heroes that came from the place were good people.

He didn’t get it.

If it was a place that taught and trained heroes, then that meant that there were plenty who were good and just, and Maleko wanted to believe that his friend would be one of those good heroes when he got to achieve his dream. He was sure that David would be one of the best, cause no one was as determined, smart or strong as David.

With those thoughts still in his head, Maleko wiped some dirt from his face and pushed himself onto his feet.

If David didn’t want to become the kind of hero that protected people as well as fought the bad guys, then Maleko could be the one who protected people in David’s place. David could fight all the bad people in the world, beat them up, and Maleko could help him by keeping the good people safe in his place! Maybe he could go to this DWMA place with him, too.

Stretching his limbs, Maleko squinted against the sun in his eyes. It was halfway across the sky, almost time for food, mama would be done with her afternoon shopping in the market street and he could meet up with her. They could walk home together and talk about this and that. She’d fix them up some sandwiches and juice, they’d watch cartoons and play until the sun went down and it was time to sleep.

The park was empty, which wasn’t common around this time of day, usually there were kids playing. But the other kids probably didn’t want to get David angry by being around after his outburst at Maleko earlier. Maleko had said he wanted to play the hero and not the kishin egg today. He always played the kishin egg while the others were the heroes who fought and beat up the evil monster. Maleko had wanted to be the good guy today, and David hadn’t liked that. If David didn’t like it, the other boys didn’t like it either.

They left Maleko soon after the fight finished up to go play somewhere else, while the smaller boy had laid, bruised and battered, on the cool grass.

He could have won, could have won easily. But mama didn’t like him doing the things he could do when she want there—magic, she called it. She said he can’t use it unless she was around. Even if she hadn’t said he couldn’t use them, he didn’t want to hurt the other kids. David always got mad whenever he didn’t fight back, but David would surely understand that it Maleko fought back, then David would get really hurt.

So long as his friends were happy and weren’t hurt, then Maleko would be fine. Besides, he’d gotten hurt far worse than a few bruises before, he’d gotten hurt lots before he met mama, so he could take what the other boys dished out. Mama wasn’t going to be happy when she saw the bruises, though.

He was brought out from his thoughts when he picked up a familiar scent and the sound of determined steps kicking at the ground behind him. Turning around, Maleko found himself facing his angry looking friend.

“’vid!” Maleko greeted, perking up at seeing the boy, bigger despite the same ages, or maybe Maleko was just smaller? Malnourished, he remembered a funny looking man who smelled of lizards said once to mama when she first brought Maleko across the ocean to the islands with her. He said he was small cause he hadn’t eaten enough, or something. He wasn’t sure, the man used a lot of big words that Maleko couldn’t understand.

His smile faltered as he looked at David, “Why here? You… you’ll miss food,” he said slowly, making a face to try and force the words out. They slurred together, broken and heavily accented, but the worry was still there. Whenever David skipped a meal, he got really cranky, and then he’d start being mean again.

“I can be here if I want to,” David barked, his eyes as intense as ever. “I came to get you and bring you back to the others, those stupid extras can’t play a good kishin! You’re the only one out of them who knows how to act like an evil monsters,” he explained impatiently, as though it should have been obvious to Maleko. “Come on.”

Maleko pouted and stepped back a little, “D’wanna monster.”

(I’m not a monster)

David frowned and then he threw his hands into the air. “Okay, fine! You can be the damn damsel in distress next time! Come on, I don’t have all day!”

“Don’ wanna play!” Maleko responded firmly, digging his fingers into the shorts he was wearing. He was dirty, tired and hungry, he wasn’t in the mood to play with the other kids in the warm sun right now, he wanted to find mama and go home, eat something and relax. Maleko had played with the other kids enough for now.

But his friend only glowered at him for that, “Come on, you stupid weirdo!” David yelled and roughly grabbed onto Maleko’s wrist, starting to drag him across the park to where the other kids probably were on the other side of the small hill. His grip was tight, and his merciless fingers dug so deep into the bruises he had that it hurt.

“Le’go!” Maleko cried out, grabbing at David’s chubby wrist to try and pry him off. For a moment, he considered using his magic. He could use it and then David would let go of him right away. But then David might get hurt, he might have Maleko and never play with him again, and so he refrained from using magic. “Le’go! Do’wanna play!”

David turned around, brown eyes wild with annoyance and anger. He always had temper issues and it was clear that Maleko had pushed the wrong button as the boy lifted a fist. “Can you just shut up already, you’re so annoying!” he tried to punch Maleko, but the boy ducked out of the way and pushed hard against David.

His grip on Maleko’s wrist hadn’t let up, and so when David tumbled onto the ground, he dragged Maleko down with him. It was only when they both hit the grass that he let go of Maleko.

And it was as he laid against the cool grass that Maleko could feel power coursing through him, whispering into his ears. His body felt hot and his nails wanted to dig into something, twitching and driving him crazy. With a sharp breath, Maleko dug his fingers into the soft earth beneath him, digging up clumps of grass as he tried to calm his itching claws.

Pushing David had been a bad move. His friend didn’t like it when Maleko refused to fight back, but he hated it even more when other kids did fight back against him, as though they were challenging his dominance.

So when David got up, angrier than ever, he didn’t even hesitate to lunge at Maleko, pushing him down against the ground. Maleko threw his hands up, curbing around his face to shield it from the oncoming punches, ready to take the brunt of the blows from David.

But nothing came.

Maleko opened his eyes and saw terror and fear on David’s face. The boy was looking at something in front of him, something Maleko couldn’t see from where he laid. But he could feel all the tremors and trembles coming off of David and seeping into him, could see the sweat start to form on his sun kissed neck.

“A’vid?” Maleko asked, the concern obvious in his face, but he knew he should have stayed quiet when David turned to face him, red gaze full of anger and fear.

“You’d make a lousy monster, anyway!” David spat, pushing himself off of Maleko and scrambling away, back to the safety of the other kids on the other side of the small hill, leaving Maleko sitting on the grass to watch him go.

He almost reached out to David, almost launched himself after his friend to ask him what was wrong. But a shadow fell over him and he found himself frozen in spot.

He turned his head, expecting some kind of threat, something scary and dangerous, because it must have been if it scared David off. He cursed himself for not having noticed the approach sooner.

But as Maleko turned around, instead of some fearsome creature, he saw a young slim woman with short brown hair with dyed blue tips, the same bluish shade as her eyes.

“Mama!” Maleko cried out in glee, stumbling to his feet and throwing himself onto her, his small arms wrapping around her legs in a hug. He could smell the various meats and vegetables in the shopping bags she carried, could smell the salty ocean clinging to her. She smelled like home.

Her expression was soft when she looked at Maleko, and brought a free hand to run through his messy white hair. “How’s my little boy doing?” she asked him with a smile. She didn’t bring up David, didn’t bring up that David was close to throttling Maleko and would have if she hadn’t shown up. Maleko never made a big deal out of the beatings the other kids gave him, and until he did want her to step in, she’d let it slide.

At her question, Maleko started purring as he buried his face into her stomach, making the fabric of her shirt wrinkle up a little. He relished in the cold that radiated off of her. Mama was always cool to the touch, her hands cold, her whole body cold, the perfect kind that would soothe the excess heat that Maleko produced.

The other kids were scared of mama, not that he could really understand why. They always backed off when she was around, never did anything particularly mean to him and never roughhoused too much with him if they could see her. He wondered why.

“Let’s go home. We’ll get you all cleaned up and I’ll make us some lunch; how does that sound?” mama asked.

Maleko just nuzzled against her more, still smiling wide.

-0-

The day went on and eventually it came night time.

Kai sighed as she sat on the faded grey couch, her expression irritable and thoughtful in equal measures.  Running a finger over the rim of her bottle of Heineken, she let her mind wander around, thinking mindless thoughts. Of this, of that, of consequences and actions.

Wordlessly, she tipped the bottle back and waited a few seconds before righting the bottle out and listening to the liquid slosh inside against the glass, seeking out its equilibrium.

She was laid across the couch, the TV droning on in front of her as it played some late night cartoon about a team of heroes. Though most of Kai’s attention was actually on the floor, listening to the chorus of squeaks and growls, of unintelligible words as Maleko played and spoke in a language only he could understand.

He had gotten cleaned up after she picked him up from the park, all the dirt and grass washed off him and his bruises treated as best as she  could. He was dressed in clean pajamas; a simple flannel set. Pale pastel pink with a bunny printed on the front of the shirt, and little white puff designs along the pants, his favorite pair. Though Kai was still dressed for the day in jeans and a plain grey long-sleeve.

Maybe she should speak to Mrs. Kaiwi about David’s behavior; it honestly made Kai livid whenever she saw the bruises the brat gave Maleko. It bothered her even more that Maleko didn’t mind at all. Sure, they may be children, eight and nine-year-old’s, but even they ought to know when they were going to far. And even Maleko ought to know that he shouldn’t have to take that kind of bullying and abuse.

But he took it anyways, he always took what the other kids gave him with a smile and a laugh like it didn’t bother him.

It didn’t help that the boy was so oddly infatuated with David. Kai couldn’t understand what was so great about the kid, and maybe it was just regular idolization because from a child’s perspective David was ‘cool’. She hoped that he would grow out of that soon, but so long as he cared so much for the brat, Kai couldn’t do much to him without upsetting Maleko. Her son would throw a fit if he found out that David just so happened to have drowned under mysterious circumstances, he’d be crying and so upset that the heartbreak that would give her would be worse than what she felt now.

Not that it would be hard for her to drown David in the first place. She was a witch and water was her domain. Maleko might catch on if she tried, though. He wasn’t nearly as dumb as many people seemed to think he was, he just had a different way of thinking and seeing, and he was just knowledgeable in a different way than the others.

He had a good sense for danger and he’d probably recognize her magic, too. If he did figure out it was her who drowned David, he’d be mad. As much as she hated the brat, she hated the idea of loosing Maleko’s affection even more.

And right now, Maleko was happy. He liked playing with David even if it got too rough and the playing became bullying. He was so obnoxiously happy and innocent, didn’t see anything wrong with the people around him.

Kai couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of envy for her son.

He was so happy, so innocently happy all the time. And he was still young, his age left him untouched by the destructive sway that magic held over their kind. He wasn’t trapped by the pull of magic that drew witches and sorcerers to destroy. He only ever destroyed when his playing got too rough or because he didn’t know any better, not because he was under the impulse of his magic.

It’s why, for his own safety, that Kai had prohibited him from ever using his magic outside of her supervision. The last thing she needed was the boy to unleash some fire spell with innocent intentions in the middle of a public space only to draw in every meister and weapon on this island after them.

Not that there were too many around. For all of the few-hundred some years that Kai had been alive, her home, the Polynesian islands, had always had few meister-weapon pairs. It’s made the islands feel safer, as though she didn’t have to feel as though a meister was standing behind her all the time. Because of that, no matter how often she left the islands for this or for that, she would always return home when she got bored or felt the mainlands were growing too dangerous for her.

Plus, Kai liked the isolation and privacy the islands gave her. She could go out and use her magic on the sea and no one would know, she could release all the pent up stress and urges her magic gave her without causing any scene or draw in the attentions of threats, be them witches or witch-hunters.

She just wanted to stay out of the war between Death and witches.

However, even though she wanted to stay out of it all, she would on occasion still attend Mass with the other witches. She had taken Maleko to a couple after taking him in, and maybe, deep down, it was because she wanted him to know more about his own kind, to let him meet others like him. Maybe it was because, even though she wanted to keep him away from the rest of the world so he wouldn’t get hurt, she also wanted to lift him up to the world and say ‘this is mine’ with a sense of pride that words couldn’t describe.

That had been a mistake. She took him to Mass with her, attended a bit more frequently, enough so that it got a little attention. Enough so that people noticed.

That Medusa noticed.

Her grip on her beer tightened, the liquid inside rippling and crashing against the glass like a stormy sea. Personally, Kai had hoped that, what with Medusa' infiltration of the DWMA and her ultimate failure at reviving the Kishin leading to her death, that no one would have to deal with that woman ever again.

Then the snake witch herself, in the body of a child, had come to her front door.

The woman was every bit a snake, she could sense someone's weakness, attacked just the right parts to make her opponent putty in her hands. She was awful, even for a witch she was awful, and she cared only for her own plans, didn't care if she risked the rest of the world, the rest of their kind.

Blackmail and coercion. That's how Medusa managed to get Kai to agree to working alongside her. The threat of Maleko's safety, she couldn't risk it, and so she ended up risking her own peaceful solitary life instead. The boy wasn't able to protect himself from serious threats yet, she needed to keep him safe.

Safe from threats like Medusa.

So if doing the snakes dirty work meant that Maleko would be a little safer, then she would throw aside her wants for privacy and isolation.

Even if it angered her. Even if it left a bitter taste in her mouth that couldn't be washed out no matter how much she tried. Like a static in her brain. Her body tingling, violent urges she'd never felt before crawling all over her, a need to hurt, a need to wring the snakes neck just to see her squirm.

She felt a weight fall over her lap, not so heavy that it bothered her, but enough so that it drew her from her thoughts and brought her back to the present.

Kai looked down and there was Maleko, sprawled out across her legs and smiling innocently up at her, his big green eyes full of stars, of affection and happiness. She couldn't help the small smile as she reached down and ruffled his hair.

She had never felt these kinds of things, these happy, love filled emotions before meeting the boy. She couldn’t remember ever feeling anything her whole life before him. All she could remember was a feeling of emptiness.

For centuries Kai had tried to make herself feel something, anything. Love, hate, anger, remorse, joy. She formed relationships, destroyed relationships, created cults and tore down temples, and yet nothing she ever did brought an ounce of feeling to her heart.

But now? She felt anger and bitterness, she could feel joy and warmth and love. All of these budding feelings brought to her by Maleko.

It as funny that a single child was able to let her frozen heart thaw and to feel. All these new emotions, they were genuine. And so new. To think she had only met him a year ago, had only started to feel a year ago, and yet it felt as though they had been together for eternity.

Kai could still remember it clearly, a simple excursion into the jungle in search of a variety of venomous creatures and poisonous plants—a favor she owed to a longtime associate of hers—and how she had come across the child in that same jungle. A boy who was in many ways the real life Mowgli and Tarzan. Naked, dirty, more animal than human in nature.

And yet within that jungle she found herself feeling affection for the child. He made her smile and laugh, something she had always had to force herself to do in the past. She hadn’t wanted to lose these first emotions that had begun to grow, and so she took him from the wild into civilization.

Maleko had learned slowly at first, it was hard for him to shed his wild, feral nature. But once he started to get an understanding of the basics, he started developing quicker, and in that one year he had learned enough words to hold a conversation, and understood enough social norms to get by, and he was still improving.

Of course, his vocabulary was small, and he still only knew how to read a handful of words, but he had progressed so much in such a short amount of time that all Kai could feel was pride for him.

“Come on,” Kai said softly, putting her beer  down on the coffee table beside the couch and wrapping her arms around the boy, dragging him farther up so she could cuddle with her son. He was always so warm, which was to be expecting since the young sorcerer was born of fire magic, but she always relished the way the heat of his body soothed the chill in hers. "Did you have fun out with the other kids, today?" she asked, choosing to have some idle chatter.

Maleko smiled and nodded his head furiously. "Lots!"

She smiled warmly and laughed when the boy bopped his head against her collarbone, "How about we have a picnic tomorrow? Go somewhere nice, eat lunch outdoors and relax? Does that sound fun?"

"Oooh! Ye!"

"I'll make sure to pack your favorites, then," she had tuna for the sandwiches, right? She should, if not, she could buy some before making lunch for them. She continued to run her fingers through his messy hair as she spoke. "Maybe we can even do some camping, would you like that?"

Maleko yawned and nuzzled against her, "Ye," it was a bit sleepier now. Right, the poor kid wore himself out playing and fighting with David earlier, and it was getting late. Probably best to tuck him in for the night, she could play the rest of tomorrow out while he slept.

The boy didn't off too much resistance as Kai scooped him up in her arms and rose from the couch. He wrapped his smaller arms around her neck and buried his face in her shoulder, breathing hot puffs of air against her cold skin. She smiled as he mumbled something she couldn't quite make sense of, carrying him up the stairs of their house to his room.

His bedroom had originally been a workspace for Kai, cluttered and messy, with half-finished potions and ingredients scattered about, papers everywhere in no order. She never really took to potion making, and was never quite organized to deal with paperwork and research, so most of the things in that room had begun collecting dust. It was actually an improvement when she turned the room into a bedroom, with most of the things she kept in there thrown out or moved to the basement.

Right now it wasn't too cluttered. Maleko's bed was pressed up against the wall with the window on the other side of the room. Pale blue painted on the walls, glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. There was a small chest for all his toys and a rug on the floor for him.

It took a little bit of effort to get him to let go of her when she placed him on the bed, with Maleko grumbling 'Maaamaaa' and 'do'wanna sleep' but she was able to pry his tiny hands off her shirt and pulled his blankets up to his shoulders. Giving him his stuffed teddy, she smiled as her son drifted off to sleep in a matter of seconds.

So innocent, so small. Kai continued to smile, hand on her cheek as she watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, a warm expression on her face, just finding peace in the restful, peaceful face Maleko made as he slept. She waited a few moments, before getting up and walking out of the room, closing the door gently behind her.

Her smile stayed as she returned to the living room, bending over to gather up the toys that the boy had left on the floor.

Her phone pinged on the coffee table and Kai paused, toys in arm. Not many people knew her number and already there was a list of suspects in her mind as she made her way over to the device and lifted it, hoping that it was just some spam she could ignore.

But as she skimmed the message and read the contact, she had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. Well, it was typical of him to call her late at night, that way Maleko was already asleep and safe in bed, he wouldn’t notice her being gone for a couple of hours.

“Alright, Kom,” she muttered as she replied to the reptilian sorcerer’s text. “Maleko is a pretty heavy sleeper so he won’t notice I’m gone, I can spare a few hours to help you out with whatever bullshit you need.”

Well she couldn’t be too angry at him for calling her up for a favor; he was one of the few people who stood by her side no matter what. Plus, if he hadn’t asked for her help and sent her up to Asia for some animal catching, she never would have met Maleko.

And right now? He was helping her develop a poison of sorts to finally get rid of Medusa without her knowing what was going on. If they could discretely poison medusa with something not even she could cure in time, without her knowing who was responsible, then maybe Maleko wouldn’t be in so much danger.

Grabbing her coat and slipping it on, she glanced on last time behind her before smiling and closing the door behind her. Just a few hours, she’d be home before Maleko woke up.

-0-

Yet Maleko did wake up.

He woke up and the hairs on the back of his neck were stiff and his fingers were twitching. A low rumble escaped his chest as he curled his fingers into the sheets of his bed just to give them something to do.

Something felt wrong.

He always had a good sense of danger, the years before meeting mama had taught him how to pick up on threats. If he wasn't prepared, he would die. He didn't want to die. So he had to be prepared. Always prepared. Simple as that.

He didn't feel threatened or danger often when mama was around, she always warded away anything bad. This was the first time in a long time that he had felt this sense of foreboding.

But he woke up, it was dark and late and the little machine next to his bed said 1:37 in bright, glowy red numbers. His body felt on edge and the air felt heavy. Maleko didn't like it. Didn't like the nervous feeling it gave him.

He pushed the blankets off and rolled off of his bed, landing on all fours before standing up and arching his back. The heavy feeling of the air didn't go away, it felt suffocating, like it was crushing him. He didn't like the bad vibe it gave off, it made him feel like something terrible was about to happen.

Slowly, Maleko creeped out of his room, pushing the door open and stepping into the hall. The lights were off, but he could see fine, the dark never bothered him. He couldn't hear anything, though, nothing but the outside world, the owls and bugs and raccoons. He couldn't hear mama. Was she asleep? It was late, she usually as asleep right now, if he woke her up, this bad feeling would go away and they'd be safe again.

Not wanting to be too loud, Maleko slowly walked down the hall, each step careful, his hand trailing along the wall as he headed towards mama's room. She kept the door open a crack, she always did in case Maleko needed her, or in case something happened and she could hear it better. Mama didn't have as good of hearing as Maleko, her senses weren't as sharp so she needed her door open.

But, when he pushed her door open and let out a low whimper to get her attention, he didn't see the familiar body under a pile of blankets. The bed was made, like no one had been in it since last night. It was cold to the touch, too, he noted when he approached it. Mama hadn't gone to bed yet; her body heat wasn't there at all. He worried his lower lip between his teeth and looked around.

It's okay, mama might just be downstairs, she could have fallen asleep on the couch. No, he would have heard her, she always left the TV on if she fell asleep down there. She must have gone to the store! That's it. He'd go downstairs and wait for her.

He slipped out of her room and glanced out the window that was beside her door in the hall. He could see the moon high in the sky, grinning, why did the moon grin and why was its mouth always bloody? Maleko didn't know, it was as silly to look at as the sun and its laughing face. Maybe he should ask mama when she got home?

Turning around and taking a few steps, the boy paused.

He could smell smoke.

Lots of smoke, different kinds, not right. Not from fire.

He could smell the awful smoke from those tiny burning paper things he often saw grownups have in their mouths that they'd suck on and breath out smoke, it always smelled awful, unnatural.

But he could smell another kind of smoke too, from fire, but not the kind of fire that got produced from a flame. Kind of ragged, disruptive. Like when mama and him went in one of the metal car things and the engine thingy began coughing. But not quite the same smoke.

Was there laughter? His ears twitched and he could just faintly hear laughter in the distance. But it felt like it was getting closer, the smoke felt like it was getting stronger, too, though he couldn't see it yet.

There was a nervous twitch to his fingers again, sweat starting to drip down his neck.

Something wasn't right. Nothing about this was right, was normal.

Something was wrong.

The next instant, Maleko heard wood and bricks cracking and crumbling, a loud noise that had his sensitive ears ringing as his body hit the wall. He smelled fire, could feel it as flames started to creep across the floor.

Did he start something on fire?

No, not him. Maleko knew how to start a fire, he knew how to not start one, too. This wasn't his fire, not his flames. Someone else's. They tickled on his skin, like warm kisses. His head felt dizzy.

Someone was laughing, someone else was yelling, was that a creaking noise he heard? His vision was too blurry to try and see. But someone was breaking stuff, why were people trying to break his home? The loud noises that had his ears hurting didn’t stop, either.

Maleko pushed himself to his feet, there were flames on his arm from the fire these people started. The ceiling groaned and bits of drywall crumbled. Had something crashed into his house? The house kept shuddering and groaning with each bang.

The voices were more clear now, too. The laugh was coming from a woman, he didn't recognize her, she wasn't mama. He couldn't make out much else. He heard steel. He heard explosions. Was she a witch? Mama's friend? But mama didn’t like many of the witches or sorcerers that she talked to, she only really liked Kom. This wasn’t Kom, he didn’t do this kind of magic.

Maleko’s body felt weird, his head felt sticky. Was that blood he smelled? He hit his head on the wall during the first explosion, maybe he cut his head somewhere along the way? Mama was going to be mad when she saw what was going on, saw the damage these people were doing to their home. The smells and sounds were overwhelming for him. He should stop them, before they got hurt, before they went too far and mama got really mad, before they—

He didn't know what happened, not really.

One moment he was trying to stay standing, his legs trembling under him and his head feeling all stuffed and messed up. The next he was stumbling backwards, crashing through the hallway window, breaking through the glass with his head and heading down to the ground below.

He was plummeting to the ground two stories below, broken glass raining down on him, and he wondered if it had been one of the explosions going on inside or the shuddering structure that knocked him back.

About halfway to the ground he realized he should try to stop himself from falling, mama would be sad if he got hurt. He twisted in the air, reached out with one hand, claws extended, but this wasn't like a tree where he could dig his claws into the trunk and slow himself down. The best he managed was grabbing onto the gutter and pausing his fall for a moment before it broke off and his descent continued.

He hit the ground at a slightly slower rate than he had originally thanks to his attempt at stopping the fall, with the gutter piece falling beside him. But the impact still rattled him right to the bones and forced the air out of his lungs as he sprawled out on the grass, feeling his head make another hard collision. But, he was on the ground now, that was good, better than being in the air. Now he just had too—

(When did I end up on the ground?)

He thought, confused, feeling shards of glass pressing uncomfortably into his face and into his arms. He could feel blood, too. Had he fallen? When did that happen?

Maleko tried to stand, or even sit up, but that was too much effort for his body at the moment. His eyes felt heavy and his brain felt all kinds of confused. Was it because he crashed through the window face first? Wait, did he go through a window? His ribs hurt, too. Something flew from the window and crashed into him, his vision was too blurry to make out what it was, but it felt like wood, and he felt it dig into his stomach, his ribs creaking under the pressure.

The smell of blood was even stronger than before, was it his blood? His hair felt damp and he felt something sticky and warm running down the skin of his belly. 

The screams and sounds of fighting going on inside his house seemed to die down with one desperate, terrified scream. It fell quiet. He couldn't see, were his eyes closed? He wasn't sure. Where was mama?

Why was he on the grass again?

Someone approached him, he felt hands pushing him up to sit after knocking away the chair leg that was on him, someone swatted at his arm repeatedly why were they—oh right his shirt was on fire, they must not like fire. They were talking, too, but he couldn't make sense of their words, it felt like water between him and them.

"Hey, kid, try not to pass out," someone said and he could smell that awful papery-stick smoke on their breath, who were they talking to? Oh, right, him. Someone else pressed a hand to his face, he felt glass being pulled from his cheek. What was going on again.

All Maleko could do is mutter something not even he could quite understand as his consciousness faded away to the tempo of the throbbing of his skull.

Chapter Text

She ran, breathing heavily as she dashed through the streets, wishing desperately she had some kind of flight magic or teleportation magic. But, alas, her domain was the ocean and she was at her weakest on land. The meister-weapon pair right behind her had cut her off from the sea.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. It wasn't supposed to end like this, her life wasn't supposed to end like this.

All she ever wanted was to have some fun, to live life where she was most comfortable and where she enjoyed it the most. So what if her living life to the fullest involved hurting others and destroying things. The shark witch did well to avoid any detection or confrontation during her bout of mayhem.

Until now.

How did this even happen? She wasn’t supposed to get cornered liked this. Weren’t the islands supposed to be vacant of Death’s agents?

That horrid creaking was audible, that blasted hammer in sight. She had to keep running, throw a few of her explosive shark-bombs at the pair in hopes of slowing them down or, best case scenario, blowing them up to smithereens.

She didn’t want to die. Not here, not now.

She needed help.

“Kai! I just need to reach Kai!” she panted desperately. Sure, she and Kai never really spoke enough to be considered friends, she doubted the older witch even knew her name or would recognize her face. But the woman was just that; a fellow witch, and one bound to the sea a much as she herself was. They were comrades, she would help her, she would be saved if she could just reach where the water witch lived.

The house wasn’t too far away now, and she felt like her bombs were doing a good job at keeping the man at a distance. Just a little more now, just a little more and she would be safe.

This meister wouldn’t stand a chance against Kai. Couldn’t stand a chance against two witches working together, and together they’d be able to get rid of one of Death’s Death Scythes and one of his top meisters in one night.

Almost there, just a little more…

She quite literally crashed through the wall to get in, not caring if she woke up the witch, in fact that was what she needed to do. “Kai!” she called out desperately, readying her magic for the human who would be following her in soon after.

Except, no one called back. There wasn’t any hint of the witch inside the house and the shark witch felt her blood start to run cold.

She hadn’t considered the possibility that Kai might not be home.

The man stepped through the hole she left in the wall, twisting that awful screw in his head, giving her a horrid smirk. She felt her heart pounding so hard it bruised her ribcage. She didn’t want to die, she didn’t want to die, she didn’t want to die.

Readying another explosive spell, she launched it at the meister. She didn’t care if she had to tear down the entire house. She didn’t want to die.

But, in the end, she did die.

-0-

“So, mind explaining what exactly happened?” Spirit asked as he ran a hand through his hair. He hadn’t been there. That had been a mission Stein and Marie had been sent out on, it had been their witch to hunt and kill. At the moment, the Death Scythe felt like he was pretty much in the dark on some crucial details pertaining their current 'guest'.

All he knew was that they went out to hunt a shark themed witch and came back with a badly injured kid. Questions had been raised. Not all questions had been answered.

“The witch hunt wound up bringing some new things to attention, the boy included,” Stein answered simply. Not exactly the concrete answer that Spirit wanted, not a concrete answer at all.

“He’s a sorcerer, right?” Spirit asked and felt something in his chest twist as he thought of how injured the kid had been, wrapped in so many bandages and looking so sickly. “He’s pretty young,” couldn’t have been older than nine, and even then he was pretty small for that age. “Were there any others? Besides him and that shark witch?”

Stein pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his lab coat, sticking one between his lips and fishing around in his other pocket for a light. “I assume a guardian, who was coincidentally absent at the time. Possible another sorcerer or witch. I didn’t get a good look at the house at the time during the fight and by the time the fight ended, we chose to deal with the child’s injuries over investigating the home,” he pulled out a lighter and got to work lighting his cigarette. “I’ve no doubt that Lord Death will send someone to do a full investigation of the remains of the home to try and track down any other witches or sorcerers.”

It'd be stranger if Death didn't send someone to investigate. 

It was unlikely that the boy was living on his own, he was far too young to do so. He likely had his parents or a relative taking care of him, and if that was the case that meant a witch or sorcerer and Death would likely be placing an execution order out on them once they collected enough evidence and proof. Best case scenario would be that the shark witch was the guardian, though by the sounds of everything it was unlikely to be true, or that he was living with a human who wasn’t on the Death’s list.

This just felt like a mess that he was being put in.

“What about the injuries? How did he even get them if he wasn’t fighting?” The kid had come back as mangled as some of the students during a particularly brutal hunt.

Stein shrugged, “He was unintentionally dragged into the middle when the witch quite literally crashed into his house when fleeing from Marie and I. I don’t think she realized there was a child in there when she started setting off all those explosive spells of hers. One of the explosions sent him flying out the window on the second floor, and he got impaled by some of the flying chunks of the house,” he breathed out a stream of smoke. “I was forced to perform an on-the-spot surgery to close up his stomach wound so he wouldn’t bleed to death on his way to the hospital.”

And then he and Marie had brought the boy back here to the academy with them, where he’s been asleep in the infirmary for almost two whole days. That much Spirit knew.

“Even though he’s a sorcerer, the boy didn’t deserve to go through that and likely doesn’t even know why he got hurt when he did nothing,” Marie placed a hand on her cheek, “the poor thing.” It was hard to feel the usual distrust or disdain they had for sorcerers and witches when the one in question was a little kid.

Spirit agreed with that sentiment. Even though he hadn’t been at the scene like Marie had, hadn’t seen the small boy crumpled on the ground, arm twisted in an unnatural way, glass digging into skin, dying the tan colored skin a vivid scarlet, the gash across his head, the dazed, unfocused look in his eyes, the sharp wood that had embedded itself into his stomach…

It wasn’t something any child should go through.

“His vitals have been stable since surgery, and despite the injury, the surgery itself wasn’t as serious as you might think” Stein said in what could be assumed to have been assuring. “He’ll make a full recovery in time, though he will be physically weak for a while. If he moves around too much his recovery will stall and he might open up his stitches, so we’ll need to keep an eye on that.”

“It was a close call with him, wasn’t it?” Spirit asked.

Stein began turning the screw in his head with his free hand. “It was hardly the worse I’ve seen, but it was bad. The hole he got in him wasn’t lethal, it missed anything vital, so I’d say he had Lady Luck on his side for that,” Stein explained and then paused a moment, “the concussion has me worried though. He took two bad blows to the head; through the window and when he hit the ground. There’s a chance his memory may have been damaged and we might not be able to find out who it is he had been living with or get any lead on them.”

“I know it’s important to get the jump on any potential threats, but, don’t you think we should wait a little bit instead of questioning him as soon as he wakes up?” Marie asked them with a frown. “He’s still just a child, he’s going to be confused and frightened enough when he wakes up, we should give him some time before putting more stress on him.”

Spirit sighed and closed his eyes as he shook his head, “I actually agree,” he put in, “we don’t know how the kid is going to react when he wakes up, and if we just jump into interrogating him, we could cause more damage.”

Stein watched them both for a few moments before looking away, “We can decide when we see what state he is in. He should be waking up soon,” Stein said, hand reaching for the door to the infirmary.

-0-

When he first woke up, he felt awful.

His head felt like it was full of lead, and his body felt like a semi-truck had crashed into him while going at full speed. Everything had an ache to it, an unending throb that grew stronger the more he woke up. His throat was dry and he weakly tried to swallow but could barely muster up enough spit from his tongue to sooth himself. His ribs hurt the worse, though his head was trying hard to surpass them.

There was a faint beeping sound echoing close to his ear. It was irritating, agitating, too loud, way too loud. It hurt his ears.

Slowly, Maleko forced his eyes to open a crack, bright lights quickly entered his blurry vision and blinding him. He closed his eye tightly shut again for a moment before trying to open them again. He blinked a few times against the light that shined down on him. Eventually, though, his eyes adapted and, though his eyes burned a little, he found himself staring up at the ceiling. It took a few moments but it clicked; the ceiling was void of the stars he and mama glued on it.

He turned his head, wincing at the slight pain it evoked, and frowned in confusion. This wasn’t his room, his home. Further inspection showed that he wasn’t even wearing his pajamas, instead some kind of flimsy gown thing that he knew he didn’t own.

Where was he? Where’s mama?

Mama!

He swallowed again, hard, it scratched at his throat. Panic was bubbling up inside of his chest, making it hard for him to breathe, making the pain in his ribs worse. Where was he and why was he here?

What happened?

His memory felt fuzzy but… focus… what happened… smoke… he remembered smoke. And a lot of stuff breaking. Was there a fight breaking out in his home? Who had it been between, again?

It was no use; he couldn’t make sense of the jumbled mess of his mind.

Attempting to push himself up, Maleko grit his teeth as his body screamed in protest as a flash of sharp, hot pain erupted across his stomach. Flopping back onto his back, the boy let a hiss of air out through clenched teeth. He attempted to rest his arm on his stomach, to see or feel what kind of damage it took, but when he tried to move his arm there was a bit of resistance.

He looked over and found several wires and cord things attached to what little skin wasn’t covered in bandages. What…

What were these?

He could feel more bandages around him, around his stomach, on his head, on his other arm and itching on his legs. If his mind had fully regained its clarity, he would have considered just switching from being a sorcerer to a mummy since he was already halfway there.

With Maleko’s mind a puddle of confusion, he just laid on the bed. Maybe if he waited, his body would stop hurting and he could go looking for mama. She was probably looking for him right now, right?

He wanted to jump out of bed and start searching for her, but he just didn’t have the energy for that, for anything.

Just what little he had moved had drained him, and the boy found his eyes drooping shut again despite how much he wanted to stay away. His head rested against the pillow, his consciousness drifting off once more.

When he came too again, he could faintly make out the sound of conversations, choppy, nonsensical. His mind was still fading in and out so he couldn’t understand what was being said, but he was able to distinguish at least three different voices.

His body still hurt and his limbs were still asleep because he couldn’t quite move them yet, it was like his body wasn’t sure if it wanted Maleko to be awake or asleep.

Then he was acutely aware of a warm hand coming up to his face, brushing strands of hair from his face, careful with the bandages wrapped around his head. He dimly noted that this was the same hand from last night, the one that had gently pulled glass shards from his cheek. He’d been too dazed and messed up in the head at the time to noticed the warm and comforting scent that came with the hand before now.

For a moment he wondered if it was mama, but, no… the hand was too warm to be hers. Mama’s hands were always cold, and he liked it that way because it gave him an excuse to hold her hands to try and warm them up in his own warmer ones. But the hand was just as comforting as it it continued to brush and stroke his head, a woman was talking, too. Was it a woman who this hand belonged too?

As he was continuously petted, fingers running through his hair in a soothing motion, a familiar feeling bubbled up inside of him, warming him, a sense of safety and comfort. He knew this woman wasn’t mama, but he couldn’t help but feel as though she had the same presence as mama did, the same gentleness. He couldn’t stop the low purr rumbling deep in his chest and he instinctively pressed his head further into her hand much like a pleased kitten.

That must have been a mistake because the woman stopped and the conversation stopped. The hand was withdrawn and Maleko let out a low whine at the loss of contact.

With that, his body must have decided that, yes, it did want to wake up, as he slowly forced his eyes to open and blinked against the sunlight. Then he looked at the three adults staring back at him and felt fear start to replace that pleasant warmth.

His eyes hit the smoker first, his nose scrunching up a little at the awful scent that covered him, the gross, unnatural smoke. The large screw in his head was also discomforting, it made his stomach squirm, and the stitches he was covered in didn’t help that feeling.

The other man, a guy with red hair, was standing beside Screw Man, hands in his pockets and watching Maleko carefully. Then there was the woman, covered in gold and black and a warm smile on her face, she was the only one smiling. She brought her hand to his head again, brushing a few of his white strands of hair from his eyes. She was pretty like mama, even with an eye-patch.

He decided that he liked her the most out of the three, she was the only one that was warm.

“How are you feeling?” Gold asked him, voice soft as she spoke to him, bending over so she wasn’t towering over him as the boy laid in bed.

Maleko tried to shift himself to sit up so that he could talk to them better, but a jolt of pain ran through his abdomen and he whimpered, one hand coming to clamp over his stomach.

That must have been a good enough answer because Screw-Man gave a nod. “You’re going to be in pain for a while, so don’t move too much or you’ll reopen your stitches,” he warned and Maleko didn’t really understand what he was getting at. Why did he have stitches? Why would they reopen? “That was a pretty nasty fall, does your head feel okay? Your cognitive capabilities may have been damaged, so does anything feel off?”

What was he even saying.

“Give him some space,” Gold scolded as she reached over and handed Maleko a glass of water from the little wheeled-tray that was beside the bed. How did she know that he was thirsty? Either way he took the glass and happily downed it to the last drop.

“Are you sure it’s going to be okay if he just stays here in the academy?” Mr. Red asked and jerked a thumb to Maleko. “I mean, either he’ll be a threat to the students, or we might get a few bullheaded students who end up being a threat to him. Plus, the kids are going to be on edge having a sorcerer around.”

“He’s in no condition to fight,” Screw-Man responded evenly, “Physically he’s at his weakest and I doubt he would be dangerous at his healthiest, given his age, it’s likely his magic isn’t matured enough to be a threat. We just need to keep the students away from him.”

The three started talking and suddenly it was like Maleko wasn’t even there anymore, even though he had the feeling they were talking about him. He hadn’t a clue what was going on, what they were saying, and couldn’t help but feel insulted that they were ignoring him. He wanted to ask questions, he wanted to know what was going on.

But, this was a good thing, wasn’t it? If the three were focusing on each other then he could go and find mama. She would be here, after all, why wouldn’t she be? He was hurt, she was probably somewhere else in the building waiting for him to be let out.

Though, why should he wait for them to let him out if he could just go to her himself?

As the group continued talking to each other, Maleko started fidgeting on his bed. Every movement hurt, everything he did sent a new wave of pain through his body. Throbbing like a pulse and sometimes so strong it made him want to curl up. But he couldn’t let pain stop him, he had to go find Mama. He’d suck it up and toughen it out.

He tugged the blankets off of himself and looked to the side. The window was open, probably opened by one of the adults when they came in to get some fresh air in the room. It’d be the perfect escape route.

In all honestly, he was acting out on half-thought out impulses produced by a brain that was still really messed up from the injury and whatever was being pumped into his body by the tubes in his arms, so it wasn't exactly the brightest idea he had going on. Certainly not something he would have decided to do if he was in a good state of mind, that was certain.

Gritting his teeth, he grabbed all the wires and tubes that were stuck to him and with a deep breath, not sure what would happen next, he ripped them off. A long beep came from the device on of them had been attached too.

That got their attention and all three faces swiveled around to him.

“Hey—wait!” Gold yelled out, reaching for him as he tumbled out of bed. He faltered for a second, but shook it off and dashed to the window. “Don’t, you’ll get yourself hurt, come back!” She tried, her and the others running towards him but it was too late.

Just as they were about to grab him, Maleko leaped out the window.

And regretted it instantly.

In hindsight, he should have waited to see how high up he was before diving out a window, because so far his track record with them wasn’t so good. As it turned out, he was really high up. The ground was rushing towards him, air wooshing around him as he fell. This wasn’t going to be like when he fell out the window at home, if he hit the ground here, he’d go splat.

Not good. Not good. Not good.

It was hard to focus with his pain growing more and more intense, and he could barely move one of his arms. But he had to focus. Focus, Maleko, focus.

This isn’t any different from the tall trees you played on before meeting mama.

You fell from them lots of times.

Right, this was just like the tall trees back in the first home. They sometimes grew to be just as tall, or felt just as tall. Just treat this like he did with them and he’d be fine.

Closing his eyes, he concentrated and felt his magic burning inside. He had to focus it all in his hands and feet. Feeling his claws form and grow, he drove his good arm into the wall as hard as he could, followed by his feet. It hurt, but he forced his bad one to grab the concrete, to, despite how much the limb screamed at him for it.

Long gashes were going to be left in the wall, but his fall was being slowed. It was a simple spell, even for him, but his body had been tired from the start, didn’t have the energy to keep the spell up for long, but he had to.

The downside was that the wall wasn’t as smooth as wood, concrete didn’t cut as easily as a tree. His fingers and toes were starting to burn, and the seconds felt like hours.

When he finally reached a height he could land at, he let go and tumbled to the ground. His legs gave out right away and he tried to catch himself with his hands. Big mistake because his bad arm flared up and he let out a sharp cry of pain. This had to have been his worst decision and he wondered if it was because of how foggy his head still felt that he hadn’t thought this through at all.

His fingers and toes were bleeding, nails cracked and chipped or broken off completely. His body felt like it was on fire—not in the good, actually on fire way that he liked—everything hurt, every part of him was asking why, oh God why did he jump out a window? In what way was that a good idea when he just recently fell out a window?

More importantly, where even was he?

Pushing himself up, he shrunk back right away. This place wasn’t familiar at all, it wasn’t home, it wasn’t anywhere in his town. It felt big, too big. So big that if he didn’t move, it might swallow him whole.

He tried to move. He tried to push himself to his feet but his legs were like Jell-O and he toppled over again. Groaning, he brought his arms to his stomach, what was that smell? He could feel something warm and wet dripping down on his front, the scent of blood growing more obvious. The gown he was wearing was turning red, too, and the pain growing more intense.

“I told you to be careful or you might reopen the stitches,” Screw-Man said as he stepped into the courtyard. Gold bolted past him, with Mr. Red standing behind the other man.

She was at his side quickly, kneeling beside him and letting him rest against her side, “are you okay?” she asked, her face contorted in worry as she saw his bloodied fingers, then she tugged his arms aside and pulled his gown up to examine his belly.

Wrapped around his tanned flesh, the bandages were dyed a deep red, blood dribbling down as it seeped through the fabric. Oh, so that’s why Screw-Man said to be careful. It hurt, that’s what mattered, and Maleko felt his head getting even more fuzzy than it’s been. Had his head been clouded up enough times for him to be able to start ranking how fuzzy it was now?

A wave of nausea washed over him and the boy weakly whimpered as Gold applied a bit of pressure to the injury.

“It’s okay,” Gold assured him, “It’s nothing serious. We’ll get you patched up again”

Maleko fought back weakly as Mr. Red walked over and scooped him up into his arms, apparently uncaring if the blood stained his suit or that Maleko was trying to paw him away. But his blows were too soft; his magic had depleted what energy he had left and now the exhaustion left him with no strength left in him. He ended up resting his head against the man’s shoulder, trying to just stay away.

A lot of people stopped to watch, all eyes falling on the group as the three carried Maleko back into the building.

He was barely conscious as he was brought into the first room, his bandages removed, cold water run over his stomach to wash away the blood. Screw-Man had injected some needle into him at some point which left him feeling numb in the belly, and Gold and Mr. Red kept his attention on them, so he didn’t know what Screw-Man was doing.

His sense of time got blurred too, and he wasn’t sure how much of it had passed before his mind regained its sense of clarity. Enough so that he was dressed in a new, blood-less gown and his wound dressed again. Even his fingers and toes had been bandaged up following the bloody mess he made of the tips.

“Try not to run off again,” Mr. Red ordered in a tone that mama sometimes used when he did things he shouldn’t. His expression softened, “Look, kid, we’re trying to help you, you can trust us. We don’t want to hurt you.”

Maleko glared at him weakly. He didn’t know them, mama said not to trust strangers. “Home.”

“Ah, so he speaks,” Screw-Man said dryly.

He slammed his tiny fist into the bed, disrupting Gold, who had been in the middle of reapplying the weird things to his bad arm. “Home!” he growled, glaring at Screw-Man. “Home, home, home!” Tears were pricking at the corners of his eyes. Maleko wanted to go home, he wanted to see mama. He wanted something familiar in this unfamiliar world.

I want mama!

Mr. Red shook his head, “We can’t just take you back there, a lot’s happened,” he looked like he wanted to say more but didn’t know how.

All that Maleko knew was that it wasn’t the answer he wanted and he felt himself growing more upset. The air around him was growing warmer and dryer as he started to cry. “Home! Wanna go home! Wan’ mama!” he wailed, falling into a tantrum despite how tired he felt. What little magic he had left was seeping out of his small body, heating up the air since it didn’t have the power to do much more. But it was still effective.

And it was because of how upset and scared he was that he slipped back into his old behavior.

I have to be loud.

Mama will hear me if I’m loud.

He took a deep breath, forcing as much air as he could into his lungs. He had to cry out to mama, so that she could hear him and come get him. “Aaaaaoooooh! Aaaaoooh! Aaah! Aaah! Aaaoooh!” he was howling as loud as he could, jerking from the bed, ignoring the pain it ignited as he howled, his hand gripping the sheets and tear running down his cheeks.

Mama! Mama please where are you?

Aaaoooh!

“Jesus Christ!” he didn’t know who yelled that, but all three adults reeled back as though they had never heard a howl before in their lives.

Maleko continued to howl, broken by hiccups and eventually dying down as his sobbing cut in, making it harder to keep howling. His throat had an unpleasant burn to it by the time he stopped, his sounds having become hoarse. “Aaaoooh! Aaaaoooh!

Arms wrapped around him, cutting him off completely as he was pulled into a warm hug. Gold rested her chin atop his head, holding him tight in the same way mama would. It was familiar and brought over a wave of feelings he wasn’t sure what to make of. He started crying harder as he clung to her.

“It’s okay,” Gold assured him, rubbing his back soothingly. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to calm down. We’re not going to hurt you, you’re safe here.”

He wanted to fight back, keep howling, but he was tired, he was tired and sore and everything hurt and she was warm and comforting. Maleko found himself relaxing to her touch, his body started to cool down and he continued to cry, letting out a low whine, sniffling as he pressed his head against her, seeking out whatever warmth she could offer.

“I’m not surprised he listens to you,” Mr. Red mumbled in the background.

Maleko continued sobbing, time slipped by further and further. He was scared, he was a scared little kid in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces and all he wanted was mama. But, his crying began to calm and he struggled to catch his breath.

Gold pulled away and gently wiped away some of the tears on his face, “I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot,” she said gently, “do you know who we are?”

He shook his head. No, they were strangers. Was he supposed to know them?

That seemed to surprise them to some degree, but Gold quickly put back up her smile and reached out to pat his head. “We’re part of the DWMA, or Shibusen as some call this school. I promise you we’re not going to hurt you and you’re not in danger here.”

Shibusen…? Wait, this was Shibusen? Wasn’t this the school that David wanted to go to, the one that trained people to fight bad guys and protect others?

“Shib’sen… hero?” his tongue felt so dry, it was harder to talk than normal, was it because he howled so much when his throat was already so dry? Probably.

Mr. Red stepped forward with a smile, “That’s right, kid. We’re the good guys,” he said, crouching so he was at the same height at Maleko. “So you can trust us here, okay?”

He looked at them and then at himself. If they were part of Shibusen, and they had patched him up when he got hurt, then, there really wasn’t any reason to be mad or distrust them. They were the heroes, after all, and this would be a safe place. Mama would be able to rest easy knowing he’s somewhere safe.

So he gave a nod, “O’ay… okay,” there they go, he was starting to get a little more control over his tongue again.

Gold smiled wider, pleased by his answer, “I promise we’ll take good care of you,” she told him and placed her hands together. “Though calling you ‘kid’ won’t be good at all, do you mind giving us your name?”

“Mah… Male…ko,” his face scrunched up, “Maleko P-Pa...la...kiko,” there, he got it out.

Screw-Man hummed and turned the screw in his head, which made Maleko wince, didn’t that hurt his brain? Did his brain have a big hole in it too, now? “Your speech, I take it must have been because of the double concussion that you’re having so much difficulty.”

“N-nah,” Maleko shook his head and looked down. “T-talk… hard… al-always been hah-hard.” He’d only learned how to speak the English language (or any language for that matter) a year ago, it was still hard to catch on. But he felt like he made a lot of progress from going from growls to words in that period.

The two men made a ‘huh’ sound but Gold just brushed past that topic. “Maleko? That’s a nice name,” she complimented, earning a smile from the boy. “My name is Marie Mjolnir; can you say that?”

He scrunched his brow, his fingers playing with the sheets on the bed nervously as he attempted to do as asked. “Ma…ree? Mull-ner? M’yol… M’yol… nir?” he growled, shaking his head rapidly as he struggled to sound it out. Her last name was a lost cause. “Maree… Marie!”

“Very good!” Gold—Marie—said with a pleased smile as she reached out to ruffle his hair a little. “Yes, Marie, good job, Maleko,” she praised.

This place wasn’t too bad, he decided. The people were nice, at least. “Marie? Where mama?” he asked innocently.

There was a silence and for a moment no one answered. Maleko felt worry start to eat away inside of him, wasn’t mama here? Marie opened her mouth to say something, but Mr. Red beat her to the punch.

“Your mother is, well, missing actually,” he said it slowly and Maleko felt that worry turn into anxiety as he began pawing at the bedsheets so that he had something to do. The man must have noticed his discomfort because he shook his head quickly, “Don’t worry, we’re looking for her. I’m sure she’s safe and looking for you as well. But for the meantime, we’re going to need your help to find her.”

“My… help?”

Mr. Red nodded and reached out to place a hand on the boys’ shoulder, “Yes. We need you to stay here and get better, but we also need you to tell us anything you can about your mother. It’ll help us find her more easily if we know who and where to look. Can you do that for us? Anything at all will be of help.”

Maleko stared at them. They wanted him to talk about mama, they wanted to find her and they needed information on her. Mama didn’t like it when people talked about her, mama didn’t want Maleko telling other people things about her, whether they were good or bad, she liked her privacy, she didn’t like people knowing things about her if they weren’t things she told them herself. Gossip, she called it, she hated gossip.

And a part of Maleko wanted to keep silent. (She wouldn’t want you telling these people anything.) and even though they were Shibusen, the heroes, there was still some apprehension in him, (Mama hates Shibusen, so there has to be a reason, right?) but… even so… Even so…

If they could find mama…

Maleko fiddled with the bed sheets, his his bandaged fingertips having started picking apart the threads, he felt twitchy, anxious, like he needed to keep moving, but his body wasn’t in any state for that.

Then, taking a deep breath, Maleko started talking.

Chapter Text

Her fingers felt twitchy.

Twitchy, twitchy, twitchy. Like she just needed to dig them into the flesh of her arms until her warm blood ran down her skin. Her body was shaking, trembling as she paced anxiously back and forth on the sand of the beach. Kom was silent as he sat on an upturned log a little ways off, but she could feel his eyes on her.

The beach was a small tuft of sand outside of the town, away from the public eye. Right now she couldn’t afford to be seen by anyone.

Kai shook, a vicious tremble rushing through her. It wasn’t from the cool air, but from the unbridled rage that she felt flowing through her, the frustration and fury. Her mind felt like it was full of static, a sickening feeling that rose up deep within her—oh she was absolutely pissed.

Bitter. Bitter, bitter, bitter. It tasted so bitter.

Kai could deal with her home being completely wrecked, she didn’t give a damn if some witch fleeing from certain death had met her end at the hands of a meister and weapon. Didn’t care that their fight destroyed her home to the point it was never going to be repaired and would most likely be demolished and scrapped to have another built atop it’s grave. She didn’t care about property damage or all the lost possessions.

No, what she couldn’t stand for, what she absolutely couldn’t fuck accept was that, was that, was that was that was that—!

Maleko was gone.

He was gone.

Maleko. Was. Gone.

They took him. The fucking meister and his weapon that killed that useless no-name witch in her home had gone and run off with her child. Back to Death City, most likely, back to that accursed DWMA.

What little information she had been able to glean while staying hidden among the crowds wasn’t any better. Maleko had been severely injured during the crossfire between the two, had nearly been killed and was saved by an emergency surgery when the meister and weapon rushed off with him.

It was hard to breathe. Just thinking about it made her struggle to breathe, to think clearly.

Kai wanted to lash out. She wanted to hit something, someone. She wanted to destroy until her rage was calmed, but knew that she couldn’t take the risk no matter how much she needed to find some way to let loose this anger of hers.

Just the thought of Death and his subordinates, his brainwashed army of adults and children in possession of Maleko set her blood boiling. They didn’t even deserve to be in the same room as him, they didn’t deserve to be anywhere near someone so genuine and innocent, so kind and sweet.

They would never be able to understand him, be able to appreciate how pure and good he was. Wouldn’t be able to give the child the kind of care that he needed, that he deserved.

They’d ruin him. They’d taint him with the same poison that was rotting the rest of society.

(They’ll probably kill him the moment he acts out of line)

(If they haven’t already)

The ocean beside her rumbled, the waves crashed violently against the sand in response to her thoughts. Kai clenched her hands into fists, feeling the sting as her nails dug deep into her palms and blood began dripping down.

No. No. No no nonono!

That wasn’t going to happen.

He wasn’t going to die, Maleko wasn’t going to get killed. He couldn’t. Kai wasn’t sure she’d be strong enough to survive him dying—what point would there be to the world anymore of he wasn’t in it?

Soft footsteps approached her, sand crunching under boots. Kai glanced over, trying to maintain her angry expression, but realized that she looked more exhausted. Her anger was still going on strong, but her heart felt tired, worn out from the fear and stress and rage.

“We shouldn’t stay here,” Kom warned softly, placing a hand on her shoulder and not appearing to mind as she roughly shoved his hand off. “We don’t know if there are still any meisters or weapons around—the town is probably going to have a lot. They’ll be looking for you.”

He had a point, but she didn’t want to accept it. Running away like a coward.

“Whatever happened, it’s going to be worse if the DWMA gets you,” Kom urged again, being the voice of reason. “We should find someplace to hide, to lay low until we can figure out what to do next.”

(We?)

Since when was this a ‘we’? Kom had nothing to do with this. His only involvement was that she had been with him when word of what happened reached, that he had come with her back to her town to survey the mess. Why was he acting like this was going to be a joint effort, that they were in this together?

Kai turned around, eyes narrowed as she stared at him, at his copper skin, his damp brown hair and his eyes—her expression softened when she saw his eyes. Green, just like Maleko’s. But she forced herself to harden her eyes once more. “And what do you say ‘we’ do then? Where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do?” she challenged.

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t know!” Kai snapped, using all her willpower not to hit him for even suggesting something. But as she raised her voice, Kom flinched back. “You want me to be a coward, to slink back like some scared little kid—while they have Maleko!” Maybe if she was a different person, a better person, she might have felt guilty over yelling at him. But what point was there in wondering what someone else would have done?

She backed away from him and continued packing the beach in anxious fury, saw Kom reach for her only to draw his hand back to himself.

“He’s right, you know.”

Kai stopped as the voice reached her. Her breath caught in her lungs and she had to force an exhale just to keep breathing. She could hear Kai jolt, a low growl as the sand shuffled under his feet. But Kai didn’t turn around to look, knowing too well that if she did, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from tearing her intruders face off. Instead, she felt the ocean reach out and coil around the witch who had arrived, trapping her in the salty water.

“Kai?” Kom asked, his voice an unspoken question; What do you want me to do?

She breathed in and then out once more, struggling to stay calm, to keep her anger in check as the frenzied storm grew worse within her. A few seconds passed and she allowed herself to turn and face them, her expression cold as she stared at the child’s face, at the unmistakable yellow eyes.

“You’re quite brave showing yourself here when you’re in part responsible for what’s happened,” Kai said slowly, feeling through her link the waters pressure start to increase around the trapped witch. (You could kill her right now. Easily) a faint thought echoed in the back of her head. It wouldn’t be hard to kill Medusa; drown her in sea water or crush her under the pressure. It would be child’s play befitting the child’s body that Medusa now wore.

No one would miss the snake, no one would care, and it would give Kai and outlet to let this rage be unleashed upon.

“Oh, it’s my fault?” Medusa asked with a smile, as though this was none of her concern.

It pissed Kai off more.

Of course it was her fault. If she hadn’t been blackmailing Kai, then Kai wouldn’t have been needing to leave Maleko alone at night to meet up with Kom to find a way to discretely get rid of Medusa without risking the boy. If it hadn’t been for Medusa, she wouldn’t have had to be leaving Maleko alone, unprotected.

She could have been there when it all went down, protected him, kept him from being kidnapped.

Because that’s what the academy had done. They kidnapped Maleko, they’d stolen him away. No matter what kind of pretenses they used or claimed to be working under, they can claim its for his protection, for societies protection, whatever myriad of reasons they might have up their sleeves, it wouldn’t justify what they did. Nothing they claimed was going to justify taking Maleko away from her and placing him somewhere dangerous and foreign.

He must be so terrified.

Maleko didn’t know what the DWMA was beyond being ‘heroes’ like David claimed. He thought they were good people, didn’t know they hunted his and her kind for sport. That the school brandished them all criminals and monsters just for being born. Those meisters were the real monsters.

When Kai thought of all of that, all she could imagine was her little boy placed in some cold, dark dungeon under the school. Barely fed, all alone, the bare minimum of necessities, such inhumane conditions.

Just thinking of it and imagining what kinds of things he might be going through right now, how scared and hurt he might be—her hands were shaking again, trembling, twitchy. Oh God, she needed to do something, anything.

Or she might just go insane.

“I heard what happened and wanted to offer my condolences, one mother to another,” Medusa said, coughing a little after accidentally swallowing some of the ocean water.

Oh, that was just hilarious. Medusa offering some comfort? What, was she finally going insane or something? Kai might have believed it if she didn’t already know what kind of woman this witch was. Not even Kom looked to believe her, standing to the side, arms crossed over his chest.

“Funny,” Kai said dryly, stepping closer to Medusa. “Tell me the real reason you’re bothering me. If your answer isn’t completely useless, I might not kill you.”

he wondered if Medusa understood just how much power Kai had over her. She may have age and experience over the water witch, more experience than Kai could ever hope for, being more than twice as old as the brunette, but their magics had distinctive differences.

Water was the key to life.

That meant that Kai had control over the life in front of her right now.

She could be just as cruel as this filthy, disgusting world that they lived in, and maybe it was time for Medusa to learn that. To learn just how bad Kai could be when someone took what was hers.

The snake gagged and her face was twisted in pain as the pressure continued, she could easily crush her bones right now under the pressure of the sea. She wondered just how painful it must be. She wanted to cause more pain, more agony on this snake. Wanted to see her begging for mercy, for her own life.

"What if I help you get him back."

Kai stared at her, the water easing it's pressure on the snake witch as she stared at her. She would… help her get Maleko back?

Bullshit.

“Be careful, Kai,” Kom said softly as he drew closer to her, “She’s a snake; you can never trust what they say.”

“Like I don’t know that,” Kai shot back, but allowed the pressure of the water to increase as she gave Medusa her attention. “Is that so? What do you want in return, then?” she asked, her frown not going away, nor did the suspicious tone she had. “You’re not trustworthy, as Kom stated, so forgive me if I doubt you’d help me if there is nothing for you to gain.”

Medusa was squirming, it would have been entertaining if not for the toxic taste in Kai’s mouth.

“The Acolytes,” Medusa managed to get out.

Kai stared at her completely dumbfounded, and even Kom was surprised by that simple two words.

The Acolytes…? What was Medusa even talking about—Wait… was she really insinuating that… no… no way, no fucking way. This had to have been some kind of never ending joke from the Heavens. Kai almost wanted to laugh.

“They got annihilated by Death two hundred years ago,” Kom reminded, having caught on around the same time as Kai. “What, you want us to ally ourselves with ghosts?”

Medusa chuckled, despite the pain flashing across her features. “You didn’t know?” Kai frowned, waiting for further explanation, "Really now. I figured you of all people would have been keeping tabs on them. No, Death and his little soldiers didn't kill all of them, the Acolytes are very much alive, waiting for the moment to show the world that they're still here, that Death couldn't snuff them off."

She'd jumped off the whole 'Acolyte' wagon back in the late 1700's and stopped paying attention to what those zealots were doing soon after. Then sometime in the 1800's the last she heard of it was that they tried to go on a full-fledged war against Death and got their asses handed to them. Each and every member had been on Death's list for different crimes, usually involving murder in some way, shape, or form, and each one got killed. Or so she thought. But Medusa was saying they survived, and somehow kept the group running for two hundred years without anyone knowing.

Surely if that was true, Death would have caught on.

Honestly, Kai never really cared for the group too much and she couldn't even remember a single name or face of the members she knew back when she associated herself with them. They were just not that impressionable to her.

But, if they were still around… if they were still thriving and if they still had the same values and code as they had when she left them. Then…

A hand was on her shoulder, “It’s your call,” Kom said softly, “whatever you decide to do, I’m going to go with you, okay? We’re going to get Maleko back one way or another, whether you decide to team up with Medusa, or go another way.”

So trusting, so loyal. He was earnest and genuine in every word he had said and Kai almost felt bad about him coming along with her. Instead she just shook her head, shrugging off his hand, “You are an idiot,” she muttered, before turning her attention back to Medusa and her watery prison.

The water dispersed and Kai let Medusa drop to the sand, the water returning to the ocean as she found herself chuckling darkly. The Acolytes, while never being too interesting, had their uses, they had always been good tools. "Well, if that's the case, I'll be glad to keep this alliance of ours going for a little longer," Kai decided as Medusa stood back up. After all, Medusa knew how to get to get in touch with the current Acolytes and Kai couldn't risk exposing herself to the public just to get their attention.

If she wanted to get Maleko back, she had to do this smartly or she might lose him forever.

Medusa had that awful snake like grin on her face, the kind that left a sickening feeling in Kai (You're playing right into her hand and you know it) as she held a hand out to the taller woman, "We've got quite a bit of work to do," she said.

-0-

If there was a limit to just how bored a child could get, then Maleko had surpassed it. He had hit 'bored' sixty miles back on this nonexistent highway.

Days had passed since he had woken up in Shibusen and they were halfway through the first week of his stay here, and all he had done was stay in an infirmary bed while the three adults took turns watching over him. They said it was to make sure that Maleko didn't run off like he had on the first day, and so he wouldn't do anything that slowed the recovery of his inured stomach or broken arm.

But it was boring!

He was a child, he needed stimulation, he needed physical activity to keep him occupied and entertained. Just laying in bed for days with nothing to do, he felt like he was going to go crazy!

All he wanted was to get out of bed and move around, stretch his limbs and do something, anything. He tried sneaking out to play, even if he didn't have any toys in here, he could play make-believe easily, but, he'd gotten in trouble with the grownups because his version of play tended to be a bit rough when other kids weren't with him, and he almost tore his stitches again.

When Maleko had agreed to stay and work with the grownups, he hadn't thought it would take more than a day until they found mama, but it was proving to be taking longer than he had anticipated. They apparently had no idea where she even went, and even the information that he had given them must not have been as helpful as he had hoped it would have been. Though they seemed interested when he started describing her magic to them, he wondered if they thought her magic was as cool as he thought it was. Mama had the best magic after all, she was the strongest witch out there!

He frowned, tapping his fingers impatiently against the bed as he thought of the questioning session the grownups put him against when he agreed to talk to them, the memories dancing across his mind.

Marie was holding his hand, his good one, but it still stung with his fingers mangled after his escape attempt. He felt small under the gaze of the three adults and found it hard to meet their gazes with his own.

"What can you tell us of your mother?" Screw-Man said as he took a seat at one of the chairs in the room. "Is she like you? A witch?"

Maleko struggled to find his words, he was sure if he had a tail it would be tucked in. "Mama is… mama witch…" that meant she was like him, right? Since Maleko was a sorcerer, and she was a witch.

Someone hummed, he wasn't sure who.

"I see, does she possess magic like yours?" Screw-Man asked and Maleko looked up to see a glint in his eyes, a kind of look that sent a chill down his spine, made him feel like one of those frogs in a science room. "And would you mind giving us the specifics of your own magic?"

Wasn't his magic obvious? He thought so at least.

"I… fire… talent is fire a—and I can," he stumbled, making a face as he found it difficult to find how to explain his power to these people. "Claws… teeth… senses… good."

Marie rubbed her thumb in circles on the back of his hand in comforting motions, "A kind of bestial secondary magic then," Marie said out loud with a nod of her head. "Well, you're young, your magic is still developing, I wouldn't be surprised if there's more to it than that. But your magic sounds really cool."

Maleko allowed himself to feel some pride. He'd never told anyone about his talent outside of mama and the women at those meetings she'd take him to. Mama said people would be scared and angry if they saw it, but these adults seemed interesting. Maybe mama had been wrong, or maybe these people were nicer than the ones she meant.

He wanted to show them some of his talents, but didn't have the energy for it. Besides, they wanted to know about mama's talents too, right?

"Mama has water," he said finding excitement bubbling up as he started talking about what she could do. "Mama strong—strongest! Water do w-what mama says. Any drink, mama control. Really cool!"

Mr. Red groaned, a hand on his head, "Great, she's got hydrokinesis," he muttered to himself, "because that is exactly the kind of power a witch should have."

"That is troubling," Marie mumbled.

Maleko could sense the discomfort in the room and let out a low whimper, did he say something wrong? He thought mama's power was cool, but it didn't seem like these adults felt the same way about it as he did.

But soon enough Marie was smiling at him with that comforting smile of hers, "It's okay," she must have noticed his own growing worry, "it's nothing to worry about. Can you tell us what kind of women she is?"

"Mama nice, an pretty, an… an good," Maleko finished firmly. "Mama found me, an, an gave me home—a home, didn't have to. Mama gave me name, an, an always care for me, get hurt she takes hurt away."

The questions continued. Did he know any friends mama might go to, any places mama might hide at, any enemies mama might have had. Did he have any idea of any place that she might have gone to get away from others. He couldn't answer any of them.

It made him realize he didn't really know a whole lot about her.

He forced himself out of his thoughts with a vicious shake of his head. No, don't think like that. He knew what kind of person mama was, he knew the important things. Just because he didn't know where she might have gone didn't mean he didn't know much about her!

(She never tells you why she leaves home for hours at a time)

Maleko grimaced as that thought invaded his mind. Of course mama never told him, cause it wasn't important enough for him to know. She said so herself when he first asked that it wasn't anything he had to worry about.

And his recovery felt like it was taking too long. He'd gotten hurt before. Back before mama found and took him in, he would get scrapes and cuts all the time. He never got impaled on things before or broke his bones as badly as this before, but he'd gotten hurt a lot of times, badly, too (Tiger bites and claws are painful!) and he felt like he got better quicker out there than he was in here.

But they assured him that they were doing their best to make sure he had a quick recovery, they just needed him to rest so his body could repair itself.

Honestly, mama would probably be telling him the same thing as them, that he need to rest if he wants to get better. That thought was what helped him quell a bit of his restlessness and bring a smile to his face. He wondered if mama was okay, maybe she just got lost and needed help to find her way back home. He could understand that, he got lost easily.

But still… he missed her. He really missed her and he wanted to be with her again.

Maleko had grown used to being at her side every day that he had forgotten what it was like when she wasn't around, he'd forgotten what it was like before he was introduced to that warmth and love, before he was shown what a family was and what it felt like to be cared for by someone else.

The adults he was with right now were nice, but, it wasn't the same.

He hoped they found her soon, that way the two of them could go back home. He wanted the familiarity and comfort home provided. That she provided.

But, at least he'd have some stories to tell the other kids when he got back home. Maleko bet that David would be excited to hear about what Shibusen was like, he hoped his friend wouldn't be jealous. Maybe Maleko could bring back something from the school for him, this was Davids dream school after all. He was sure the boy would be glad to have some souvenir.

He wanted to be out and playing with the other kids again. Even if they got mean sometimes (oftentimes) it was so much more fun being with them than being confined to a bed for days at a time. He'd even play the kishin egg without complaint and let the other kids hit him like they always did during those games because even that would be more fun than this right now.

And sometimes Maleko couldn't help but consider the idea of sneaking out and running off. Take matters into his own hands to find mama. He might have better luck finding her than the school.

But, even if he did sneak out of the school what point was there? He had no idea where he was, they spoke the same language mama was teaching him, so maybe he was on another part of the island, or maybe mainland? He'd never gone mainland before. But mama said the rest of the country was really big, he'd no doubt get lost if he tried to run from the school.

Then the school would have to waste time finding him and waste people looking for him when they could be using that time and effort to find mama.

The city looked scary, too. He'd never seen a place that had so many buildings clumped together like this town. It felt cramped, too confined like there was no freedom for anyone, it felt claustrophobic.

He didn't like it.

Mr. Red… Spirit the man had told him, shifted in his chair in the corner of the room, it was his turn to watch the boy and honestly, Maleko liked him more than he liked the Screw-Man, Stein. He wasn't as scary looking. Marie was still his favorite, though.

"It's about time for lunch, should start thinking about getting you some food," Spirit commented after taking a look at the watch on his wrist and then looking over to the boy.

At the mention of food, Maleko perked up, cocking his head to the side to look at Spirit. "Chic?" he asked with a hopeful look. He was really in the mood for chicken right now, but, then again, he was always in the mood for chicken. Though, he was a fan of meat in all its forms.

The red haired man just smiled, chuckling to himself, "Yeah, yeah, chicken, I'll see if there's any when I stop by the cafeteria," he said and stretched his arms over his head, "no promises, though. I can't guarantee that the cooks are serving any chicken today."

Either way, Maleko just smiled, producing a small rumble deep in his chest to show his appreciation as he nestled back into the pillows. His stomach still hurt, but it wasn't even something he could call pains anymore, more like a dull ache. That meant it was healing, right? Stein had said something about how his magic might be speeding up the healing process.

There was a rustle from the chair and he turned his head to look over at Spirit again, the man was putting down the magazine he had been reading and lifting himself up from his chair.

"I'm going to go use the restroom quick then grab us both some food," the man explained as he adjusted his tie and rested his magazine on the small table by his chair. "I'm sure you can take care of yourself for a little while, I trust you wont get into trouble while I'm gone," he said and headed towards the door with a 'be back in a few' being his departing words.

The door shut quietly and Maleko was alone in the room, not something that happened too often or for very long.

He glanced to the window, it had been left open to let in some fresh air. They probably thought he'd learned from the last time that jumping out the window to run off was a terrible, terrible decision. Plus, Maleko thought as he looked down to his fingers, still wrapped in bandages, his nails hadn't recovered yet so it'd be more harmful for him to try that trick again.

But, at least the window was open, he hated it when it was closed. It made the room feel stuffy, made him feel like he was caged. It left Maleko feeling anxious and twitchy, Marie had noticed that and had taken to opening the window whenever she came by and found it shut. It wasn't like the cold nights would bother him any, his affinity for fire caused him to always be warm.

He could escape right now, if he wanted to. Spirit wasn't around, he could sneak out somehow and find his way out of the school.

But he didn't want to.

He had to be the good boy right now, he had to sit by and behave until they could find mama. He promised. He had promised that he would work with them and behave so that they could do their job.

Though, at the very least they could have done something to provide him with a little bit of stimulation. He was dying of boredom here. At least he had a nice view of the sky, could see the starts when the sun set.

"Come on, let's hurry before he comes back!"

The sudden shout from outside the room caused Maleko to give a jolt in surprise, his head snapping forward to face the door as he pushed himself up on his bed, careful of all the ivs in his arm. Someone was running in the hall, someone loud, a voice he didn't recognize. He could barely make out the sound of someone else running after the first one, softer footsteps drowned out by the loud boy.

"Blackstar!" it was a girl, by the sounds of it. "I told you—this isn't a good idea!" she snapped at the first one, not as loud as this 'Blackstar', but loud enough that Maleko could hear them clearly. "I understand how you feel about this, but, Lord Death is allowing it so we can't just jump in and fight. Besides, what are you going to do with Tsubaki not here?"

"She's sick, I'm not dragging her into this fight when she's not in her best condition!" the boy snorted, "Besides, are you trying to imply that I can't beat some witch on my own? Did you forget I'm the one who's going to surpass God? I can handle this on my own without any help!"

Feeling a moment of fear and anxiety, Maleko scrambled off the bed and crouched behind it, wincing as the ivs tugged at his bad arm. He'd just barely managed to duck out of sight when the infirmary door was slammed open with enough force that it gave a loud crack as it hit the wall. It was a miracle that it didn't come flying off the hinges altogether, but the boy suspected that something broke nonetheless.

Standing in the doorway was someone he'd never seen before. A boy much older than Maleko, yet younger than the grownups he'd been with so far, maybe a student here? He looked strong, and he reeked of pride. The boy strutted into the infirmary, looking like he was the one who ruled the whole place.

"Are you scared yet? Cause the great Blackstar is here!" his intruder announced loudly, a gigantic grin stretched across his face as he pointed forward, "This is the end of the line for you, but now you get to die at the hands of the man who will surpass God!" he puffed his chest out in pride.

Maleko stared at them, peering over the edge of the bed with wide, nervous eyes, not quite sure what to make of all of this.

A girl quickly dashed into the room when Blackstar finished his entrance, giving him a good whack to the head, "Idiot!" she snapped harshly. "We're not supposed to be here, are you trying to get us in trouble?" she grabbed his arm to try and tug him out of the room, "Blackstar! I'm serious, you can't just fight everyone you meet just because they're a witch! A…" he eyes trailed over to Maleko and her tugging stopped. "…witch?"

She trailed off and stared at Maleko in confusion and he, in turn, stared back at her. Then, slowly, he raised his good hand up to offer her a shy wave. Even the boy looked startled when he finally took a look at the so-called threat he had been planning to fight.

"Wait, who even are you? You're not the witch, are you?" Blackstar asked, ripping himself free of the girls grip and hopping onto the bed and crouching so that he could look down at the boy. "I thought we were supposed to be having some big dangerous threat here, but you're a pipsqueak. Maka, this can't possibly be the witch the school is keeping, is he? I thought witches were girls."

The blonde sighed, "Witches are generally female-only," she said and took a few steps towards them, "His soul matches, though, so I'd guess he's a sorcerer? I guess they never specifically said that it was a witch that they had brought in, I had only assumed so because witches and sorcerers souls tend to have the same kind of wavelength."

Blackstar grumbled and shifted from a crouch to seating himself on the bed, arms crossed over his chest. "Man, this sucks. No way I'm fighting a kid," he muttered defectively. "Every time I go to fight a witch or sorcerer, they end up being kids, what the Hell."

Maybe they weren't as dangerous or scary as they first seemed. Slowly, Maleko peeked more of himself out from behind the bed. "Who.. you?" he asked cautiously. They were Shibusen students, sure, but they had come barging into the infirmary in a scary manner.

Blackstar looked over to him and grinned, jabbing a thumb at himself. "Why, I'm Blackstar, the best meister in this school and the strongest person you'll ever meet," he boasted and then shrugged at the blonde, "and that's Maka. She can be a buzzkill so don't mind her too much."

That earned him another whack from the girl and a displeasured noise. "Shut up," Maka grumbled and then looked at the boy, her expression softening. "I'm Maka Albarn, a meister as well. What's your name?"

"Maleko."

"This really is a drag, I was really hoping you'd be some grown witch that I could fight," Blackstar complained as he shook his head.

Maka sighed, hands on her hips. "Even if he was a full grown witch, you wouldn't be fighting him. Lord Death hasn't issued any sort of execution order on him and we'd both get in trouble for you're bullheadedness."

Now Maleko didn't really get what she was talking about, who's 'Lord Death', he could have swore the adults mentioned him a few times, and what even was an execution order? He also didn't get why they'd get in trouble fight fighting him, but the boy crawled up onto the bed beside Blackstar, "Fight," he said simply.

Both looked at him.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Maka asked.

He made a face, toying with the tubes and wires still hooked up to him, ready to rip them out. "Fight," he repeated, looking at Blackstar now. "Fight you. Wanna fight you, beat you, too!"

Now it was dawning on Blackstar what he meant, thought Maleko thought it was obvious, because the student had this smirk on his face, "Oh, you sure you can beat a big man like me?" he asked, cracking his knuckles and getting off the bed to stand, "then, let's have at it, you and me!"

Maleko crouched, grinning himself. He hadn't gotten to do anything exciting, and a play fight was just the sort of exercise that a growing boy needed, and it sounded fun. Blackstar seemed fun. They both ignored Maka who was insisting that they both stand down, waiting for the other to make a move first.

He had his legs ready to spring himself forward, and was just about to do so when the door opened.

"There won't be any fighting between you two."

Maleko just about fell face first off the bed.

Standing in the doorway was Spirit, with an expression that was like he was trying to say he was too old to deal with stuff like this. He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, "I leave for a few minutes and you nearly start a fight," the scythe said in disbelief. "What did I say about behaving?"

The boy, after regaining his balance, looked down in embarrassment. Blackstar looked a bit annoyed to have the fight stopped but didn't make any move to reinitiate it. "Sorry," Maleko mumbled, feeling guilty for having broken his promise with the adult.

Spirits expression softened and he stepped further into the room, "Don't give me that look, it's not entirely your fault," he assured the boy and glanced at the students, his expression stern. "You two aren't even supposed to be in here. Blackstar, I'm not surprised you would sneak into here, but Maka?"

"We heard you were keeping a witch in here," Blackstar defended himself with his arms thrown into the air, "after what happened with Medusa just recently, can you blame us for not wanting to take that risk?"

But Spirit sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as though to keep himself composed, "So you both decided to confront what you thought was a witch, who could have been a dangerous threat… without your weapons?"

Now it was Maka's turn to step forward, gesturing to the blue haired loudmouth, "I was only coming along to try and stopBlackstar, I didn't want to come here or start a fight," as though she was offended that Spirit was insinuating that she'd do the same thing as the boy there. "Besides, you're keeping him locked up in the school infirmary, do you really think students aren't going to come in here? What are they supposed to do if they get hurt during training if they can't come in here?"

Oh, she had a point, Maleko realized. If people weren't allowed to come in here because he was here, and if this was the nurses office, then he was in their way of getting better if they got hurt. He kind of felt bad about that.

"We plan to move him once his injuries are healed enough, and the infirmary is only under lockdown until we can guarantee that there won't be any problems for either sides if we let him and the students come into contact," Spirit explained with a sigh. "Like you said, Medusa had only recently made her attack on the school, students are going to be on edge when it comes to witches and sorcerers alike. We don't want to let him roam around the school and a student panic and hurt him, or for him to panic and lash out at the students.

Now it was Maleko's turn to feel offended, his offense towards the assumption that he'd hurt the students here just because he got scared. Well, he probably would if he was scared and felt threatened, but that would mean the students had to lash out at him first! It'd be justifiable self-defense then.

He may have also began tuning out the rest of the conversation between Spirit and the two students, having been distracted by a butterfly he saw flying outside the window, catching only bits and pieces of the conversation that followed. He only snapped back to attention when he noticed Spirit walking up to the bed, turning his head to look at the adult again.

Then he noticed something else that he had been too preoccupied to notice at first. The distinct lack of food and even the scent of it on the man. "No… food?" he asked slowly with a tilt of his head. Hadn't Spirit said he was going to grab them some lunch? Did something happen or did he just stop here on his way down there?

Spirit gave an awkward laugh, "Yeah, about that," he said slowly, "The line in the cafeteria is way too long, and I got called in to a sudden staff meeting. Was stopping by here to let you know what's going on. I would have seen if Marie could get you some food when she stops by to drop some clothes off for you, but she has to go to the meeting as well, and we know you're not comfortable being alone with Stein."

"So… no meal?" Did that mean he was going to have to wait until dinner to eat next? Well, it wasn't like this would be the first time he only had one meal a day, or even one meal every few days. But, he'd grown used to having three meals a day since living with mama, so he wondered if his body was prepared to go back to how things originally were.

He must have been making a pretty dejected expression because he saw guilt flash across Spirits face for a moment, and then; "Why not let him join Soul and I for lunch?"

Both he and the adult turned to Maka, who had her hand raised like she was volunteering, stepping forward towards them. "Soul and I don't have afternoon classes today so we were going to go out to eat, and he's a growing kid, so he shouldn't skip meals like that," she explained as she lowered her hand, "I'm sure Soul and I can handle him while you're occupied."

Spirit had a look of relief on his face when she offered, "Really? Thank you Maka, knowing you it shouldn't be any problem," he said and then turned back to Maleko. "Looks like you're going to get to spend the afternoon with the DWMA's brightest student, how lucky."

For his part, Maleko just looked at Maka and tilted his head to the side, "Maka?" he asked slowly, and when the blonde nodded, he smiled brightly, "Maka! Maka ah f-friend, wanna be with." And then he turned to the other boy, "Star, too!"

Spirit laughed and ruffled his hair a little, "Seems you're on board for this arrangement," he removed his hand but was still smiling, "The meeting should only take a couple of hours so we'll be back to spending time with you this evening, alright?"

As Maleko nodded, Blackstar walked back over to the bed, bending over so he was eyelevel with the boy, "You and me, kid," he said, grinning as he gave him a light punch in the shoulder in a playful manner. "We're going to have that fight once you're given the A-Okay, alright? Then we can see if you really can beat me."

Puffing out his chest much like Blackstar had when he had strode into the room, Maleko nodded with a toothy smile, "Maleko win!" he claimed, earning a laugh from the boy.

"We'll see about that," Blackstar retorted as he began walking towards the door, looking over to Maka before he left, "I'm going to hit the store and pick up some cold medicine for Tsubaki, you have fun with the kid," he said as he left.

Maleko watched him go and even continued to stare at the door long after the blue haired boy was gone. Then he turned his attention back to Spirit and Maka, still smiling from ear to ear, he felt his face heating up just from the excitement he was feeling.

"Alright," the weapon said looking at Maleko as he sat on the edge of the bed, "let's go over some rules for you while you're with Maka, okay?"

"Aight!"

"First of all, you're to behave for her, do as she says and don't cause her any problems," Spirit began, holding up a single finger and Maleko nodded to show he understood. "Second, you're injuries should be healed enough for you to walk around a little, but you have to reign in your energy. Your arm is still broken and you can still tear your stitches if you're not careful. If you start feeling pain, stop and rest, and make sure you let Maka know. If you start bleeding, come back here and get Nygus—you remember who Nygus is?"

"Nygus… Ms. Mummy!" Maleko chirped and Maka gave a soft little laugh at that in the background.

Spirit chuckled but nodded his head, "Yes, that's her," he confirmed, a smile ghosting his features. "But if you feel any pain around your stitches, stop what you're doing and don't strain them any further. No running off, either. You have to stay with Maka at all times, and if you run off; trust me she will find you," Spirit explained and glanced at the girl, "You don't want to get on her bad side either, so don't do anything you know will upset her, and you better not do anything to hurt her or make her cry, because then you have to deal with me."

The boy just nodded again, "Aight. Maleko behave," he promised.

Reaching over, the man ruffled Maleko's hair once again, "I'm sure you will, I'm putting my trust in you, okay?" he said while standing up. "Think of this as a test, too.. If Maka has nothing but good things to say about you when you come back later, then you might be allowed more freedom of mobility, which I'm sure you'd prefer over being stuck in bed all the time, right?"

Between being in bed, bored out of his mind, or being able to get up and walk around, he certainly preferred the one where he could move, and if all that he needed to do was to stay out of trouble to get that freedom. Well, he was going to be on his best behavior for Maka. "Ye, ye!" Maleko grinned, nodding his head.

Another smile found its way to Spirits features. "Good, now, can you repeat the rules to me?"

"Maleko behave, behave for Maka! Ms. Mummy if Maleko hurt!" he began counting off on his fingers, "Maleko stay by Maka."

"Right," Spirit agreed, "I'm sure this wont be hard at all for you."

Spirit took the iv's and wires from his arm and after that they just needed to wait for Marie to arrive, which didn't take too long. A few minutes passed and a faint knock echoed on the infirmary door before it was pushed over and the familiar bright gold and deep black came into sight. Maleko perked up on his bed when he saw warm smile he liked so much.

"I thought you might like something more comfortable than a hospital gown," Marie said as she carried a bundle of folded clothes in her arms. "I wasn't sure what kind of clothes you liked, so I hope these are okay."

What she held out were clothes from home, something she must have been salvaged from the wreckage. A grey button up shirt, black trousers and boots and some suspenders. It wasn't the complete outfit, but it was what he wore when he went to those Mass meetings with mama, a kind of outfit he only wore for formal occasions with witches and sorcerers.

Yep. He liked them.

The boy was quick to tug off his gown and found Spirit helping him to get his clothes, which he had appreciated when he found himself struggling to button up the shirt.

While that was going on, Maka and Marie hung by the wall watching the two before the student turned to the weapon. "How old is he?" Maka asked, glancing over to Maleko, a frown finding its way to her face when she saw the scars littering his tanned skin, all of them looked old, but there were far more scars on him than she felt any child should ever have. "He's really small."

Marie nodded and brought a hand to her face, "I'm not sure, we don't think he's that old, maybe eight or nine?" she said thoughtfully and shook her head, "It's hard to tell with how undersized he is, and I don't think he even knows for sure."

Maka nodded with an 'ah' noise and she turned her attention back the boy who was squirming and struggling with Spirit in getting the suspenders on his pants on, though the child wasn't all too helpful as he was mostly wiggling and crawling out of the Death Scythes grip, giggling like this was a game. Spirit was smiling too, enjoying this. She wondered if she had been like that when she was little and Spirit had to help her get dressed. Watching the two, it was an innocent scene and it made it hard to believe that the boy was a sorcerer, one of the main enemies of the DWMA.

"Eight or nine sounds about right," Maka agreed softly as she placed her hands behind her back, glancing back to Marie, "If you don't mind me asking, what happened? How'd you guys find him?"

There was a pause of silence before Marie gave a sigh. "You know how Stein and I had gone to Hawaii to dispose of a witch out there?" Maka nodded, "Well, we followed the witch, and she led us to the home of another one, probably hoping to seek assistance. Except the witch was absent, the house empty save for the boy who got caught up in the fight. Since he hasn't done anything wrong as far as we know, and because he's young, we're keeping him in our protection and hoping he can lead us to the Water Witch Kai."

"Is she the one he was living with prior to coming here?"

"We believe so."

Before either of them could say more, Maleko bounded over, standing before them with a proud smile on his face as he wore his clothes, looking to the two of them for approval.

Marie smiled warmly, "You look so handsome, Maleko, she complimented, crouching down to his level to fix some buttons on his shirt that he and Spirit had missed. "This suits you so well. If we get you a suit jacket and a bowtie, then you'd look like a member of the elite."

The boy's eyes sparkled as he gave her an open mouth smile, making chirping noises that could only be taken as him being happy.

Standing back up, Marie fixed Maka with a sterner expression, like a mother might face a brand new babysitter with. "You're going to be able to take care of him right? I know its only for a few hours, but, are you sure you can handle this?" she asked.

Maka reached over to take Maleko's hand in her own, just so she wouldn't loose him once they left the room, "We'll be fine, I promise," she said with a smile, "if we run into any trouble I'll bring him right back here."

And the womans expression softened, "Alright. Them, you guys get out of here and have some fun.," she said, gesturing towards the door. "Make sure you give Soul the rundown of what's happening, and make sure you guys all stay out of trouble."

And the two began heading towards the door, Maleko happily hanging onto Makas hand, eager to see what the rest of the school might look like while Maka assure the adults that they would be fine. He had to say, this day wasn't nearly as boring as he originally thought it was.

Chapter Text

It was a very real challenge for Maka to keep the small boy from darting off into every room they passed by and to keep him from bothering any of the students they walked by. He was young and excited and was clearly happy to finally be out of his room for once. Once or twice while Maka was taking him back to the classroom to meet up with where Soul was hanging out in detention, she wondered if she should have asked for a leash for the boy.

But it was kind of nice seeing how his eyes sparkled with innocent joy, it was hard to believe he was a sorcerer. He was clearly so pure and innocent minded it was impossible to put him in the same category as the destructive and selfish beings that filled the ranks of magic.

He chatted on, some words that she didn't understand, some that might not even be real words, and some that she could decipher. Even if it was difficult to understand, and half the time she didn't have a clue what he was saying, Maka did her best to keep smiling and nodding along to him as he talked as though she understood him as if he were speaking perfect English.

It was almost like what you'd do with a babbling baby.

At one point, he grabbed on to her hand and started walking so close that he may have been clinging to her. She took a look at the hall and the way several of the students were watching them warily, she could assume they were students who had been developing Soul Perception and could recognize him as more than just a child. She didn't blame them at all for being distrust him, it was only a few months since their own school nurse revealed herself to be a witch and attacked the academy.

It was pure luck that they were able to stop her in time to prevent the resurrection of the Kishin. Maka didn't want to think of what might had happened if they hadn't made it in time, if the Kishin had been revived. What kind of chaos would their world have been thrown in? Would Death have been able to stop him? Would any of them have been capable of beating something that was essentially a god in its own right?

Just the thought of how close they had been to losing, it scared her.

No, it was best not to think about. They had won, after all. Asura was still sealed under the school, never to be revived. Medusa was defeated. There was nothing to worry about, they just had to do their jobs as they had before; hunt down evil humans and witches and keep the world safe.

She closed her eyes and took in a breath to calm herself when she realized she had began to grow agitated. Then she turned her attention to the child at her side.

"So, Maleko," the boy snapped his head over to her, looking at her with big eyes and a curious expression. Maka smiled, what an innocent face. "How are you liking the academy so far?"

The boy gave her a wide toothy smile, and she had to note that his teeth were pretty sharp, they reminded her of Souls, but not quite as shark like. He giggled a little before answering, "Really cool!" Maleko decided. "Can see—'avid wanna join!"

His way of speaking was a bit hard to understand, but, Maka felt like she could make sense of it, so long as he didn't start talking too fast. When he did that, it just sounded like babble. She assumed that this David person was probably a friend of Maleko's from back home, one who apparently wanted to become a student of the academy.

"You'll be able to see a lot more once you're all better," he was no doubt limited in what he could do or see while under constant watch, "I'm sure you'll like it even more when you can see more of the school!" she smiled enthusiastically, it was best to help cultivate a positive relationship between the school and the boy. If he had respect for the academy, wanted to be a part of it, than he was less likely to be a threat when he grew up.

Though, Maka felt worry in the back of her mind for what might happen when the boy realizes that hunting down witches and sorcerers—his own kind—was part of what the DWMA did. She couldn't imagine he'd take that well at all.

They had to make sure he didn't learn it any time soon.

"The school is really great. We help maintain order in the world, kind of like superheroes, you know?" Maka explained with a grin, feeling Makelo watch her excitedly as they walked the halls of the school. "Though the DWMA isn't just this school building, did you know that?" Maleko gasped and then shook his head. Ah, he probably didn't know much about the school, then. "Well, there's the school here which you can consider as the main part. But there's branches all over the world led by top officials in the DWMA.

Maleko had his mouth open, "Aah?" he asked curiously and slight amazement. "'eally?"

That got another smile from the meister, "Yes, really. Marie for example? She's the Death Scythe that oversaw the branch over in the Oceania region," Maka brought up, knowing that the boy would really like knowing that with how fond he seemed of the woman. "Some things happened, though, so she's working as a teacher here for a little while."

"Marie really cool!" Maleko cheered, throwing his free hand into the air.

Maka laughed a little, "She really is," she agreed. A lot of things had happened in such a short period of time. Medusa's failed invasion had forced several Death Scythes to come to the DWMA to discuss how to prevent this from happening again. Marie had chosen to stay while the others returned to their posts, and now she was part of the investigation in Maleko's mother.

A part of her wondered if Marie was going to leave once things settled down again. She hoped not, she had taken a liking to the kind teacher.

When Maka finally reached the classroom, she chuckled a little as Maleko walked into her leg, stumbling back before looking up at her with a smile. She ruffled his hair a little before pushing the door open and stepping into the room with the little sorcerer at her heels.

There weren't any teachers in the room and the only other person inside was Soul who was resting his head on his arms and snoring lightly, a thin trail of drool coming out of his open mouth. Looking at him, a bit of irritation flashed through Maka's mind and she took a deep breath.

What part of detention involved sleeping?

Maka started up the steps to the row he was seated at with Maleko following behind him. She could feel the boy watching her intently as she grabbed a closed textbook from beside Soul and lifted it into the air. Her mouth was curled into a frown and brows scrunched up.

Then she brought the book down quickly and hard down onto Souls head. The sound the connection made echoed in the room and she felt a bit of guilt when Maleko flinched back, but when Soul jerked up, howling in pain, the boy leapt back, landing on all fours and watching in fear.

"What the Hell, Maka?" Soul demanded, rubbing his head and glaring at her.

Maka just put the book down and gave a huff, "You're not supposed to fall asleep in detention," she answered as though it was obvious.

Soul grumbled something and stood up, "You didn't have to hit me," he muttered as he took his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. As the boy pushed his chair back into it's spot, he finally noticed the child who had scampered up to hide behind Maka's legs, raising an eyebrow at the boy and then looking back up at the girl.

"Um, who's the kid?" Soul asked, pointing a finger at Maleko, "You didn't go and adopt someone while I was in here, did you?"

She could tell he was joking there and chose to ignore it, instead, stepping to the side so that she wasn't quite between Soul and Maleko. "This is Maleko," she introduced, placing a hand on his shoulder. "He's the one everyone has been talking about, the sorcerer that's currently in the schools care."

"Wait, what?" Soul crouched down so that he was level with the child, "You're the sorcerer? You don't look like some big bad person."

"That's because he's not a 'big bad person'," Maka pointed out as she looked at Maleko, who was holding onto her legs like a shy child. "Since the teachers are going to be busy for a little bit, I offered to watch over him for today," she added so that Soul knew what was going on. She turned her attention to the child, "Maleko, this is my partner; Soul."

Maleko tilted his head to the side as he looked at him, "So… Soul?" he asked.

The scythe gave a nod and an easy smile. "Nice to meet you, Maleko," Soul said, pushing himself to stand back up onto his feet.

Maka was glad that he was taking the situation so well. Well, it was Soul, after all. She hadn't been worried at all that he might respond negatively to hanging out with a sorcerer today. He just wasn't that kind of person.

"I'm surprised you've been able to last this long with Maka, most would have died of boredom by now," Soul added, "she's not exactly the queen of fun."

"Soul!" Maka chided, shooting him a glare.

"Just telling it as it is."

"I can be fun if I want to!"

"Keep telling yourself that."

The two went back and forth with banter, only coming to an end when Maleko broke out in laughter, bringing both hands to cover his mouth, muffling his giggles only a little. Maka felt herself clam back down and offer the child a gentle smile, an expression that she noticed Soul had as well.

Bringing his hands into his pockets, Soul trudged forward past the two, "Well, I don't know about you guys, but I am starving. How about we go catch some lunch now?" he asked them pausing as he reached the door, "I'm in the mood for pizza."

Before Maka could answer, Maleko chirped and darted forward to where Soul was waiting at the door, and she gave a light laugh.

"I think that answers your question," she said, hiding a smile behind a hand and then went down towards her partner. "Come on, let's go eat," she held a hand out to Maleko who took hold, practically bouncing as he walked. However, the moment they set foot outside of the DWMA's property, a new challenge arose:

Keeping Maleko from running off into every shop he came across.


It was something else to be able to be outside for once in what felt like forever, to feel the fresh air from more than just a window and to feel the sunlight directly on his skin. It felt amazing, no, it was beyond amazing! Maleko felt like he was being rejuvenated just by being outdoors once more, and the joy he felt couldn't be contained. He babbled excited as they walked, with him between Soul and Maka, holding his and Maka's joined hands with every few steps.

A few times Soul chuckled, nodding his head and giving simple responses as though he could understand what the boy was saying as clearly as if he was saying English. Though he was speaking actual English half the time so it wasn't completely terrible in Maleko's opinion. He couldn't help it, though, he was just excited and found it harder to focus on his words when he had so much he wanted to say in such a small frame of time.

The only reason Maka was holding his hand as they walked and he was placed between her and Soul was because the boy had darted off in an eager exploration to see as much as he could, completely forgetting about the promise to stay by Maka's side no matter what with his curiosity. The two had to run after him over and over again, catching up rather quickly and giving him a brief scolding on not to do that again.

But he was still curious and excited—he was a child after all, and everything was new and different—and had kept wandering away from the two to look at every little shop and group they passed. Eventually Maka got tired of having to go after him and steer him back in their direction so that she just took his hand to keep him in place, and Soul just took to his other side just to grab him in case he managed to slip out of her grip and dash off again.

Though he was perfectly fine with this, he liked holding hands,

"Still going to the same place, right?" Soul asked as they walked, his hands in the pockets of his black jacket, his stride lazy.

As they turned a corner Maleko was hit with a wave of scents of various foods. Were they close to where Maka had said they'd go and eat at? He hoped so, all the different smells were making his mouth water and his stomach growl.

Maka gave a nod, "Yep. Unless you wanted to eat elsewhere?"

"Nah, I'm good."

Quickly after, Maleko was steered by the two into a small shop full of dim lighting and red cushiony seats that were easy to slid off of if he wanted to. He would have liked to say that was the first thing that Maleko took in when he entered the little restaurant, but that would be a lie.

Instead, the moment that Maleko had entered through the doors with Maka and Soul, he was hit with an intense wave of scents. Different foods, different drinks, so much more intense than he was used to at home. It all smelled greasy, kind of off. Maybe some of the scents would have been really nice if they weren't all merged into something awful. It was so overpowering and hitting him all at once that it made his head spin a little. It wasn't even the food, the scents of the people themselves were just so different and some of them so overpowering.

"Oooaah," Maleko mumbled, head down and feeling just a little queasy at the rush of scents. It was moments like these that he really hated having a sharper nose than other people. He lagged behind the teens a little, a tad uneasy about going deeper into the wall of not entirely pleasant scents.

Maka paused and looked at him, was that concern in her eyes? "Are you okay?" she asked softly.

His first instinct was to say no, to ask if they could go somewhere else. If he stayed here too long he felt like he was going to die, it was certainly making his head hurt. And his headaches made his stomach flip and flop in unpleasant ways. But, no, Maka was taking him out to eat with her and her friend, and this was where they had wanted to go. He didn't want to be rude, they might not like him if he asked to go someplace else.

"Uh-huh," Maleko answered with a smile, shaking off and hiding his queasy feeling as best as he could. It was all a lie, of course, he was good at pretending to be fine. He pretended all the time after playing with David so mama wouldn't be upset.

It worked because Maka didn't press it, instead she smiled and turned to talk to a lady who had come up to greet them. Maleko kind of tuned her and Soul out, trying to find a way to mentally shut off his nose, and so he completely missed Soul grabbing some crayons and a coloring sheet, and would have missed Maka walking off if she hadn't nudged him forward with their still interlocked hands.

He didn't really want to follow her, not really. Because as they went to their table, a little booth by a wall, the scents only got stronger in the worst way possible. He could barely distinguish any specific food from the mess. Maybe some tomatoes, but they didn't smell right. His stomach was churning, but he hid it behind a smile, the anxious way he was looking around the restaurant being mistaken for excitement.

Maka took a seat at the booth and Maleko slid in next to her, with Soul taking a seat across from them. It was only then that the boy noticed what Soul had brought when the weapon slid the coloring sheet and crayons across the table to him.

"Knock yourself out while we wait," Soul had a lazy grin when Maleko shot him a curious look.

It'd be a good distraction, and the boy liked coloring. His eyes sparkled as he looked at the colorless turtle under a sea, just waiting for Maleko to fill its world with color. He shot Soul a toothy smile as he reached out to swipe a green crayon from the pile and got to work.

Coloring was one of the few activities that the boy was still allowed to do in the infirmary room because he wasn't at 'risk of straining himself' or whatever as the grownups had put it. And it was an activity that he enjoyed, there was so much freedom to it, he could give things colors that they normally didn't have, and mama always taped them to the fridge or put them in a folder to keep safe. Though, Maleko would always get in trouble when he tried eating the crayons—he'd yet to find a color that tasted good—so mama always watched him when he was coloring.

The image of the turtle and the sea, it was impossible not to think of mama as he worked on it, and it was even harder not to feel homesick. But, no, he couldn't show how much it bothered him, not in the company of such nice people. So he just forced himself to keep smiling as he worked on giving the sea of the coloring page a nice blue color. Maleko was going to keep this, it'd be a perfect present to give to mama when they found her.

He was so engrossed in his drawing and his own thoughts of mama that he didn't notice Maka and Soul talking to the waitress and ordering, or the woman leaving. He'd just finishing up the blue sea of the turtle picture when he was startled by a tall glass of orange juice being placed in front of him. His head snapped to the side and the waitress offered him a gentle smile as she gave Maka and Soul their own drinks, sodas, a smile which he readily returned as the woman left.

The more that the boy focused on his coloring, the easier it was to ignore the overwhelming scents in the building. He couldn't completely block out the scents, but it was easier not to notice them when he was focused on something else, so it helped ease the churning feeling of his stomach and soothe the dull throb in his head.

"That's looking pretty good so far," Soul commented as he glanced at the coloring page and giving an approving nod.

Maleko beamed with pride at the praise, "Kawela," he answered as he pointed to the turtle on the page, "Kawela turtle," coloring it had made him remember all the stories that mama would tell him of the mythical creature.

"Kawela?" Maka asked slowly like she didn't understand what that was, but then her expression eased up, "Ah, Kauila, from the turtle myth, right?" she asked and Maleko nodded his head quickly, glad that she knew of the myth too, or at least knew of it. "Well, I think you've made her look beautiful, I'm sure that if she saw it, she'd appreciate it."

Maleko grinned, chirping happily as he began coloring with more enthusiasm, finding a green crayon from the pile to go to town with the turtle. He'd never met Kauila before, at least he didn't think he had. Mama said that she could turn into a girl and watched over kids playing at beaches, so maybe he had met her without knowing. That'd be super cool, he might have met a mythical turtle woman and never knew it!

Kauila was the mother of all turtles too, if he remembered what mama said at least. He had to be super nice to turtles, treat them with respect. There were lots of turtles who were magical, mama told him all about them. Like Kauila's parents; Honupo'okea and Honu'ea. He didn't understand why they named their daughter after a tree, though. Though, mama said that her full name was 'Ka Wai Hu O Kauila' so it wasn't like she was named after a tree entirely.

He liked it when mama told him stories like the ones about Kauila. She knew lots of good stories, like Maui and Pele and of Kamupua'a who could turn into a hog. Even David's mom had said that his mama knew more stories than anyone else! Well, that wasn't her exact phrasing, but, it was close enough.

Maleko had just gotten to coloring the finishing touches on the coloring sheet when the waitress had returned, and with her was a face full of the very scents he had been trying so hard not to notice. It took every bit of willpower not to make a face at the food he was presented with, not wanting to offend his new friends.

The woman had slid a small steaming pizza and a basket of breadsticks onto the table. Of course he'd had pizza and breadsticks before, mama had made them a few times at home, but they never smelled like, well, this before, and it made him a little worried.

The waitress asked if there was anything else she could get for them, which Maka said no, and when the young woman left for another table, the teens began placing slices and sticks onto their plates like it was nothing. There were a lot of slices even though the pizza wasn't that big because of the weird square shape that they'd been cut into.

He stared at the food warily, watching the two taking bites from their portions.

Soul looked over to him, noticing that Maleko hadn't made a move to touch anything besides his juice, and pointed at him with a breadstick. "Go on, eat up. You don't need to be afraid, it's not like it's going to bite you or something," he remarked, taking a bite of the slick looking stick and then adding after a swallow. "You're hungry, right?"

There was a hesitant nod that was accompanied by a soft stomach growl.

Even though Maleko's gut told him not to, the boy reached out to grab one of the pizza slices. Several strands of cheese hung off the edges of the slice when he pulled it from the rest of the pizza, and he could feel the grease on his fingers as he held it precariously. Seeing the way the grease glistened on the cheese, pepperoni and sauce, it hardly looked appetizing and his stomach felt like it was trying to crawl up his chest just looking at it. But, looking at Maka and Soul, it looked like he was the only one who was bothered by it.

Well, nothing's gained if you aren't a little adventurous. The others seemed to enjoy it, so it couldn't be that bad, right?

Maleko took a bite, it was small and slow, and he didn't mind how hot the slice was as he chewed. It tasted… weird. But, not exactly a bad sort of weird. It was different, left a weird taste on his tongue that he didn't really like or dislike. It was hard for him to explain how he felt about the food.

But, it wasn't too bad because he quickly gobbled down the rest of his slice at record speed. He was hungry, after all. And as he started eating more slices of pizza and a few of the breadsticks, the taste bothered him a little less.

However, it quickly became apparent that he really should have listened to his body when it told him he was better off not eating the greasy food. He was onto his second breadstick when his body decided to reject his lunch and the nausea from earlier returned at full force. Soul dropped what he was eating and rushed him to the bathroom where Maleko found himself throwing up everything he ate.

Maleko never ate anything that greasy before, and he'd never vomited in a public bathroom before, either. He really didn't recommend the second one.

Soul was rubbing his back as the boy found himself on his knees in front of the toilet, crouched down beside him in the tight stall. "There, there, let it out," he said, though it sounded awkward, like he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. Maleko appreciated it anyway.

He felt horrible.

Even when Maleko had thrown up everything he could, to the point that he wasn't even puking up food anymore but just stomach juice or whatever it was called, he still felt awful. Soul helped clean him up, wiping his face clean with a damp paper towel and helping him rinse the acidic taste from his mouth at the sink. His body felt warm in a way he didn't like and his left felt like they could barely support him.

It had to have been five minutes at least that he and Soul were in there, though he wasn't sure. But when he felt like he had enough strength, and nothing left in his stomach to regurgitate, Soul helped usher him out of the bathroom. Once the door opened, the smell of pizza and other foods hit him hard.

His face paled and he put a hand to his mouth, hunching over as he felt like he was about to puke again.

"Come on, let's get out of here," Soul muttered, scooping the child into his arms and hurrying out of the restaurant.

The fresh air was a well wanted respite from that awful building, and Maleko may have gasped a little as he buried his face against Souls shoulder. He felt the teen rubbing his back still, as though to offer him some comfort, talking to him but by this point Maleko couldn't even think straight with how sick that restaurant had made him feel.

He barely noticed when Maka had rejoined them outside after paying for their meals. Soul and her exchanged a few words, he thought he heard them mention the academy, but he wasn't sure. They started walking and Maleko was glad that Soul was still carrying him, he wasn't sure he could walk on his own just yet. His legs still felt like jelly, and his stomach was still churning.

If there was anything he'd learned from this little trip was that he was never eating at that place ever again. And that he was now afraid of pizza.

At some point, Maleko found himself dozing off in Souls arms.

Chapter Text

There was plenty of laughter in the air as kids ran around, chasing each other and as parents chatted, watching their children play while bonding with other new and veteran parents. The town was lively, full of so much life despite its small size.

The Hawaiian town was situated on a small beach, despite the beautiful landscaping, it was still relatively small with not as many tourists coming through compared to other places. Most of the people he had come across were citizens of the town rather than just visiting for a nice beach trip. The people were friendly, with the kind of population that seemed to know each other or try to be friends with each other. There was a shopping district where most of the things sold were local, as well as a larger store chain for other appliances and products.

Kid had been in the town for roughly two days, staying in a quaint little bed and breakfast place with Liz and Patty, investigating the town and it’s people under orders from his father.

This was, after all, the hometown of the Water Witch Kai and the sorcerer Maleko whom was residing in the academy. If they were to catch the witch they needed to know as much as they could. She had been mostly unknown until recently, and what information they had gotten from the boy hadn’t been nearly enough to find anything concrete. From what Kid had gathered from what Spirit had given him, mostly what Maleko had said had been citing all the ‘amazing things’ he knew about his guardian.

But he had given them plenty of information on the town and certain individuals who may and hopefully could give Kid more information than the child had provided.

From what Kid understood, the people didn’t actually know Kai was a witch, and he wasn’t going to be the one to break it to them when they didn’t need to know. They believed wholeheartedly that Kai Palakiko and her adopted son Maleko Palakiko were both completely human.

A part of him wanted to tell them they weren’t, but he bit his tongue.

For the most part the information that they gave him wasn’t anything too groundbreaking, but any information would be good information.

Patty was off doing her own thing, excited over the sites and would have probably run off on her own if Liz wasn’t there to keep her in line. That didn’t stop her from going from stand to stand in the market as Kid went about questioning whoever he could on the sorcerer and witch respectively.

"I don’t know what I can really tell you,” an elderly lady said as she sorted out some of the fresh loaves of bread she had on display for shoppers. “Kai has always been a nice young lady, you know? It’s a real shame what’s happened, I do hope she and her son are doing okay.”

To protect them, or rather to protect Maleko more so than Kai, the official story was that upon a witch attack which had devastated their home, Kai had gone missing while Maleko was taken into Shibusen to recover from the attack. It wasn’t a lie at all, they were just leaving out the part where the boy and Kai were both a part of the magic community.

But Kid just gave a nod, reaching out to rearrange the loaves in a more orderly pattern, “I understand your concern, Ms. Ramos. I can promise you that the boy is okay,” he said as he worked. “But anything you can tell us about Kai Palakiko is appreciated, it can help us to find her.”

Ms. Ramos gave a hum as she wiped her hands clean on her apron. “Well, Kai’s been living in this town for a good five years or so. She never really talked much, she wasn’t much of a social butterfly after all. She liked the peace and quiet but would come out to the market place here all the time for her shopping, she was a favorite customer for lot’s of us. Always polite, respectful, had more manners than a lot of people her age,” the woman explained. “She always tried to keep her distance, but she was never a bad person.”

Well, Kid had his doubts on that.

“She got along with her neighbors, never got involved in any petty drama,” Ms. Ramos continued and brought a hand to her cheek with a heavy sigh. “But she always seemed sad, you know? I think she was dealing with some things, depression, maybe. She always remained polite and while not outgoing or peppy she was always somewhat amiable among others. Kai always had this… melancholic look to her? Like she wasn’t really complete? I always figured it was because she lived alone in that house of hers, and she never spoke of her family, except that she was on bad terms and hadn’t spoken to any of them in years.”

Years? Kid glanced over to Liz who was holding her sister by the hand, his weapon looked back to him with a knowing look. Years. That could be just a couple to a few hundred. But if she was on bad terms with any relatives, and always alone as the baker said, then that meant there wasn’t as much worry that she might be working with close relatives.

He’d rather deal with a single witch than a group of them.

“So she was always alone? Never had any family or friends from out of town come and visit?” Kid asked her patiently as he finished arranging her baked goods, satisfied with the symmetrical arrangement, not a crumb out of place.

Ms. Ramos hummed, smiled at a passerby and then let her attention fall back on the young Death God. “Well, not really. It wasn’t until she went and took in Maleko that she started socializing more. She would interact with other mothers more often, she had no experience taking care of a kid, let alone a little boy like hers, and would look to the other moms for advice.”

That made sense, it was normal for new parents to seek out advice from other parents, right? Well, he wasn’t a parent, so he wouldn’t know. “What about Maleko? He was… adopted, right? Where did she meet him?” Maybe she would have gone back to where they met, there was a possibility she had other ties to that spot.

“Yes, a little over a year ago she went on a trip oversees. Somewhere in Asia, I think? She never really specified where she went, no one asked and she never said. But when she came back, she had brought Maleko back with her. Of course she gave him that name, apparently he didn’t have one prior,” Ms. Ramos confirmed, her tone that of pity.

“The boy could hardly speak more than a few words of English when she brought him back with her,” her grandson a young man who helped run the business with her cut in after joining them from the back. “I think Kai said he came from a pretty rough background, he was pretty beat up, too. Lots of old scars and bruises, so we all kind of kept our noses out of it out or respect for his privacy.”

That sounded like Maleko, from what Kid had been told, the boy was covered in old wounds. He never said anything about where he was from, either, but, it was clear by the way he looked that, even though his skin was deeply tanned from living under the sun for so long, he was probably Japanese in descent. “Can you tell me about her relationship with Maleko?

“Oh, the woman absolutely adored little Mal,” Clementine, the grandson, said with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t blame her. Even though he has his quirks and was almost impossible to understand for the first two months, he’s a real sweetheart. He’s always willing to lend a hand and he’s just so happy its contagious. But really, Kai loved the boy, after she came back from her trip with him, it was like she was a completely different person, you know?”

“She smiled so much more often, and it was usually genuine,” Ms. Ramos added with a smile of her own, “she’d come by and ask for any recipes that’d be good for growing kids, always going above and beyond to try and provide a happy and healthy life for the boy. She was protective of him, too. She could be real fierce if someone was threatening him.”

So far there wasn’t anything Kid could say was really helpful, but he nodded appreciatively to everything they said. “Following the witch attack, do you know of any places she may have gone to hide? Anyone who might have taken her in following the incident?”

Clementine made a face, “Unless she had Maleko with her, I can’t imagine her going anywhere without him,” he admitted. “She rarely talks of her family, we don’t even know where she used to live before moving to this town, and when she goes on trips she never says to where.”

“You don’t think she’s in any serious danger, do you?” Ms. Ramos asked.

More like she was a serious danger to them, but again, Kid kept his silence on the matter. “I can’t say if she is or if she isn’t, that’s why we need to find her.”

The elderly baker wrung her hands nervously as Clementine wrapped an arm around her shoulders. It made their height difference even more striking as they stood close together like that, looking at the young teen with concern.

“Just, promise us that you’ll find her? Bring her back safe?” Kai really is a good girl and if she’s hiding, I’m sure there’s a good reason,” Ms. Ramos began, “and I’m sure that Maleko must be frightened being separated from her like this after what happened.”

Kid offered the two a faint smile, “We’re doing everything we can, miss, it’s our job to protect and to save people,” he didn’t want to tell them that it be from Kai that he’d be protecting people from.

But the pair seemed to accept his words and the young reaper bid his farewell, walking away from the stand to rejoin with the sisters.

“How’d it go?” Liz asked as he got between the two, leading them on as they started walking out of the outdoor market.

“Same as all the others,” he was sure he’d questioned virtually everyone in the market, and they all had the same answers.

Kai was a polite young woman who preferred to keep to herself, occasionally mingled with other parents when their kids played, never did anything too strange, and never really talked about herself or her past with anyone. It was hardly anything different from what Maleko gave them. In fact, he’d say the child gave them better information even if none of it gave them any leads.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair to fix some strands that came out of place. “Either way, we’re heading back out tomorrow. I’m going to comb through their home once more, you two can spend the rest of the day however you like.”

Liz tilted her head, “Are you sure about that?” she asked, “if you need us to do anything…”

“I should be fine on my own. Of course if you guys are able to gather any extra intel on the witch, that would be great.” What information they did have was scarce and, frankly? Embarrassing. “But you two go and relax and keep out of trouble,” Kid assured them.

The look on Liz’s face said that she wasn’t too sure about leaving him on his own here, but Patty was already heading off the other way and she would need to keep an eye on her sister.

“Alright, but call us if something happens,” Liz said, heading after Patty.

When both the sisters were a good ways away, Kid turned on his heels and headed towards the Kai and Maleko’s home.

There wasn’t a whole lot left of what had once been Maleko and Kai’s two story house that was still standing. The witch who had fought Stein and Marie in there had done an immense amount of damage with her explosive spells and most of everything was either destroyed beyond recognition or crumbled to the ground.

The house was beyond repair, and when the DWMA were finally done with their investigations, what was left would be demolished, the land cleared and a new house built atop it for a different family.

Just the sight of it, the disarray everything was in, the chaos of it all, it didn’t sit well with Kid. But he swallowed back that feeling it gave him and stepped over a few pieces of where a wall had probably once been, listening as glass crunched under his feet.

He could still make out parts of what each room was. There was a sink and a fridge that was fried, the food inside had gone bad a long time ago without the refrigerator working. Someone must have tossed it all out because the smell, while not gone, wasn’t as strong. Part of the stairs was still standing, but the upper half of the stairs had fallen. As had a good chunk of the second floor. A kids bed was lying broken and on its side in a pile of drywall and wood.

There was a lot of blood on the wall and ground, too. Probably Maleko’s and the witch who died here.

It was probably too much to ask for, especially with how often and thorough the place had already been searched, but Kid was hoping he could find something. Maybe a postcard, a letter, a journal, something of Kai’s that could tell him where she went. But as he rummaged through what remained of desks and closets, there was nothing he could find.

There were toys. Maleko’s. The basement had several old unfinished potions and reagents, as well as a few recipes. Kais. But nothing concrete. He’d even found a few photos, almost of all them had Maleko in them. None of them looked older than a year.

“Where did you go,” Kid muttered as he stared at a shattered picture frame which had a picture of Maleko and Kai together on the beach, his eyes on the woman.

There was a creak farther behind him, followed by a small crunch of broken glass under a boot. The sound of someone scrambling to get across the wreckage. Kid put the photo back down and turned around.

Standing behind him was a boy with curly brown hair and fierce red eyes. He looked no older than nine, but his expression and posture was as though he was trying to look bigger and older than he was. He had a mean face, too, one that said he didn’t put up with what others did or said, an aggressive air to him.

“You’re the guy from Shibusen, right?” the kid demanded, crossing his arms across his chest as he glared at Kid with a scowl. “The ones trying to find Kai and figure out what happened here?”

“That’s right,” Kid answered as he approached the child, most people in the states didn’t call it by that name, impressive. The boy wavered but refused to back away. “I’m Kid, and what’s your name?” he tried to have a friendlier tone as he spoke to the boy, to try and not scare him, but he doubted he would scare the kid either way.

The boy hesitated, like he was remembering being told not to give his name to strangers, and then, “David Kaiwi.”

Ah, so this was David. He was listed among the people that Maleko told the others about. Someone the kid considered a best friend, though much of what he said about the boy, and how David treated him, sounded more like bullying to Kid. “I see, Maleko’s talked about you a bit,” he said and saw David’s expression change into something less angry for a short moment.

“You’re… you’re keeping him safe, right?” David asked, and before Kid could respond. “When we heard of what happened, everyone was saying that Maleko got hurt really badly, and then that he got taken in to the Academy for his own protection because the witch attacked his home and Kai’s missing. But, he’s going to be okay, you guys are keeping him safe?”

“Well, of course,” so far Maleko hasn’t shown any hostility or made himself a danger to the students. Plus he was still a child himself, there was no reason Kids father would issue an execution order on him. “We’re doing everything we can to keep him safe and healthy while we try and solve this issue.”

David stared at him, as though trying to find some kind of lie, something that would let him say that Kid is wrong. But after a few moments of finding nothing, his body relaxed and he kicked at some broken chunk of wood.

“Good,” David breathed, head hung low. “Good. Maleko, he’s… he’s not a bad kid. He’s a really good person. Extremely stupid and way to trusting, if he doesn’t have someone looking out for him there’s no way he’d be able to make it, he’d end up walking into the middle of the road because he got too distracted, or he’d follow a stranger into his car because he’s too trusting. So he needs someone to keep an eye on him and help him out. But, he’s a good person.”

His voice seemed strained, like he was fighting back so much emotion. Instead he looked up and let it out in the form of anger as his eyes alit with fury. “He didn’t deserve to get hurt like that! So make sure you stupid meisters and weapons do your job and keep him safe, okay?” he snarled.

And then Kid started to understand.

Maybe it wasn’t so much as bullying like what he had initially assumed from what Maleko said. He could see David being the kind of child who was harsh, he seemed to have a very angry attitude and he was likely a volatile child, but he could see him being the type of boy who never meant harm, wanted to protect his friends and maybe anger and aggression was the only way he knew how to act towards others.

He said that Maleko needed someone to keep an eye on him, and maybe David was just trying to do that in his own way. Not that his method was entirely good.

“And you got to keep him away from Kai if you find her,” David added.

That got Kids attention. This was the first time he’s heard someone say anything about the woman that wasn’t a praise or something positive. But David’s request, or rather demand, it sounded desperate, fearful. His eyes were angry, but there was something behind them when he mentioned the witch.

Fear. He was scared of her.

“Why do you say that?” Kid asked tentatively, “Everyone else seems to think quite well of her, why do you think she has to stay away from Maleko?”

The boy looked nervous, darting his eyes about as though looking for someone who might be spying on them. After a swallow, he spoke, not looking Kid in the eyes. “I don’t care what the others say, she’s not normal. She’s not… human. She’s a monster and she’s a bad person,” he gritted out. “She’s got the whole town, Maleko included, brainwashed. But she’s not a good person and I don’t think he’s safe with her.”

The way that he said that, it sounded like it was from personal experience.

“David, did something happen?” Kid asked, keeping his voice firm so that the child knew that he wanted the whole truth, wanted to know what it was that Kai did.

He swallowed again and then, “One time, several months ago… it was probably one of the first few months since Maleko came? We were playing and, well, I was being really mean to him like really, really mean. I ended up hurting him, shoved him out of a tree. But I didn’t mean to hurt him!” the boy added quickly, a crack in his voice. “I didn’t want him to break his stupid wrist, things just got out of hand. Kai was scary. She had this face that, she wasn’t showing any emotion at all, but you knew she was angry, and it was terrifying.

“Then, the next day I went out with my parents to swim. We were at the beach over by the hospital. I went into the water and then a tendril was wrapped around my ankle tugging me down. The water was tugging me down. It wasn’t—it wasn’t natural,” there was panic rising in his throat and he brought a hand to his throat. “I was drowning. I would have drowned if my dad hadn’t pulled me out. But, I looked up at the hospital and, and Kai was at the window to Maleko’s room and staring right at me with that same scary face. I know it was her who did that, I just know it. She’s protective of Maleko, I hurt him and so she tried to kill me.”

Considering her magic was manipulation of water, and with how fiercely protective she was of the boy, Kid found it impossible to not believe David.

“I tried telling others, that she was the one who did it, that she tried to drown me, but no one believed me,” David continued and he fought back the terror in his voice. “They said I was just trying to find something to blame for the experience, and since I’d never liked Kai… and Maleko didn’t believe me, either. He was so scared when he heard what happened, even though I hurt him, he brought me candy the next day to make me feel better. To make me feel better even though I broke his damn wrist the other day!” he gave an almost hysteric laugh.

“And that’s not the first time. She’s always had this dangerous air about her. Whenever the waves get really bad, abnormally so, like they’re actively out to get people, she’s usually been in a really bad mood that day,” the boy was actively yelling now as he threw his hands into the air, “And she’s always super careful not to let people get too involved in her life, and people who cause her a lot of problems, get too involved, they end up dying in the ocean, and it always gets written off as some kind of accident or tragedy that she had nothing to do with! And no one suspects a thing!”

David was heaving for breath, his eyes wild, not with the fury of earlier, but with fear, terror.

He was absolutely terrified of Kai.

Just what sort of trauma that the child was dealing with at the hands of the witch wasn’t something that Kid could imagine. He knew that many could be unreasonably cruel, perhaps a part of him had thought that Kai wouldn’t be. But Crona state was proof that being a mother didn’t make you kind..

Kid knelt in front of the boy, hands on his shoulders. “We know that she’s a witch, we believe everything you say about her,” he said slowly, “we’re trying to find her and I can promise you that when we do, she will be judged for any and every crime she’s committed. You don’t have to be afraid of her.”

David hesitated, eyeing him warily. “How can I be sure you’re going to find her?” he asked, “you didn’t even know who she was until recently.”

“That’s true,” Kid agreed, “she did well to hide herself over the years. But now we know who she is and what she is, it’s going to be a lot harder for her to hide,” and, if all else fails, they could always use Maleko as bait to draw her out. But that wasn’t something he should say in front of the child.

The idea of using a child, even if he was a sorcerer, just to lure out Kai left a sour taste in his mouth. It wasn’t the sort of thing the good people were supposed to do. But, Maleko was still a sorcerer, could they really say he was completely innocent?

David didn’t respond for what felt like minutes, but when he did, his voice was small. “What about Maleko?” he asked and Kid felt his heart drop a little. “I know… I know he lived with her and he’s probably been brainwashed by her. But, you’re not going to hurt him, are you?” his heart dropped even more at the pleading tone the child had now.

“I don’t get why Kai was so invested in him, Maleko is the biggest idiot that I know! But there’s probably a reason why she cared so much about him,” he continued, his chubby little fingers twitching, “But, he’s a good kid. He’s does what people tell him to, and he doesn’t try and cause trouble. He’s not a, he’s not bad like Kai is.”

David was a good child, better than Kid had initially assumed coming from the bully-victim relationship Maleko had unknowingly described his friendship with the boy as. But, if Maleko’s comments about David striving to be a meister in the future were right, then the child could become one of the best. He was aggressive and would have issues of his own to work through, but it was clear that the boy’s heart was in the right place.

Perhaps he hadn’t even realized how he treated Maleko was bad, maybe it was just to try and keep the smaller boy safe or make him stronger. Whatever the reasons for the way David treated Maleko despite the claim of friendship, Kid didn’t know. He just knew right now that David really did care about Maleko.

“I can’t make promises, but we will do what we can to make sure he doesn’t get hurt” Kid said with a soft smile. But in the back of his mind he knew that if needed, the academy may have to use Maleko to get to Kai.

But for now, so long as they could keep Maleko away from witches, away from any possible contact with Kai, they might be able to keep from having to hurt the boy. If they can keep Maleko in the dark, keep him from turning on them, there shouldn’t be a problem.

How hard would it be to keep him from contacting witches, anyway?

Chapter Text

When Maleko woke up, the first thing he noticed was that he was back in the infirmary again, the second was that he was all alone. No adult was sitting by the door watching him, making sure he wasn’t running off or tearing open all his injuries again. Breathing in, the scents felt stale, as if no one had been around for a few hours or so.

For a moment, he wondered if he had even left the infirmary, if going out to eat with Maka and Soul had just been a dream. But then he sat up and he felt a familiar queasy sensation in his stomach and the smell of throw-up and pizza grease still lingered in his nose. It hadn’t been a dream, he concluded.

The blankets curled up around his legs felt warm and he kicked them off. It felt strange to not have Spirit or Marie or even Stein or Nygus watching over him. He’d grown used to never being alone, to always be under a pair of watchful eyes, and he couldn’t help but wonder if something had happened and that was why they weren’t with him.

Maleko hoped that everyone was okay. Maybe they were gone because they found a lead on where mama was—he could hope.

Still, as Maleko thought of it, of his lunch with Maka and Soul, he felt guilty. He felt like he might have ruined their dine out trip because he got sick, all the scents had been too overpowering and added with the food, his stomach hadn’t been able to handle it in the end despite how hard he tried. It wasn’t as though he was still hungry since he’d emptied his stomach after eating last, just thinking of food made his stomach twist in an unpleasant way.

He should at least apologize to them if he ruined it for them. When he saw them next he could say he’s sorry, but he wasn’t sure when he would see them next, and he couldn’t leave to go find them.

His eyes fell to the chair the adults usually sat in when they watched him. There were papers on the seat, not like the magazines that Spirit and Marie would read, but like the ones that Stein would look through and write on with a red pen.

Curious, he climbed out of bed and crept to the papers. There were a lot of sheets stapled together, no red ink on it, and he couldn’t smell any of the grownups on it. Instead it smelled strongly of Soul and Maka. That only made him more curious so he began skimming through it.

Well, as best as he could. Most of the words he didn’t know, reading was still difficult for him and he could only recognize a handful of the words on the six or so sheets. But he saw Soul on each page. Did that mean that this was Souls?  It smelled of him. Did he forget it here?

If it was Soul’s paper then he might need it, and Maleko wasn’t sure when he’d stop by again for him to give it back to the weapon. Maybe he could… maybe he could go find Soul and give it to him? Soul would probably be really happy if Maleko did that. Where would he be, though?

Judging by the sunlight streaming in through the window and the many people outside, the two should still be in the building for their class thing. He could probably find them down there if he went looking, and it wasn’t as though anyone was in the room to tell him no.

It was probably impulsive, he’d probably get in trouble for leaving his room without permission and without anyone with him. The grownups didn’t like it when he tried to leave without them telling him he could. But this was for a good cause, and it wasn’t as though he was going to be leaving the school, he was just going to stalk the halls until he could find Maka or the others. He’d say what he needed and what he wanted, give Soul his papers and then he’d go back to his room, no harm done.

Maleko nodded to himself, sure in his decision as he crawled out of bed and scampered to the door. But he still hesitated just a moment to make sure no one was watching him, to make sure he wasn’t going to get yelled at or something. When the boy was sure he was safe, he pushed the door open and scampered out into the empty halls.

 

As it turned out, it was kind of hard to try and maneuver around the school, he wasn’t familiar with the halls or the layout of the building at all, and he continued to get distracted by his reflection staring back up at him from the floor. Since when were floors that shiny, anyway? There were lots of stairs, too. He didn’t mind climbing up and down stairs, but it made him nervous when he felt his injuries tug uncomfortably as he descended or ascended different flights of stairs.

Plus, the people weren’t all that friendly. Maleko had expected the other kids to be nice and friendly like Maka and her friends had been, but that wasn’t the case. They looked at him funny, like they were nervous.

Nervous of what? Maleko wasn’t going to do anything to them, but by the way they acted it made it look like he was gonna bite them.

He had even tried to talk to a few to ask if they knew where his friends were, but as soon as they saw him heading towards them, the small group of students had quickly scampered off, retreating to somewhere else far away from him. It was kind of hurtful if he was being honest, he’d never had people act that way towards him. The worst he had faced from people was David’s rough actions when they played.

But he wasn’t going to let himself be disheartened! No, he would keep trying until he found someone he knew! As Maleko climbed up what had felt like the sixth set of stairs, though for all he knew he could have already climbed these ones before and just not noticed, he had to pause to lean against the railing to catch his breath. The stitches in his side hurt, but he couldn’t smell any fresh blood so he was confident that he hadn’t torn anything open. Good, Stein would be mad if he did.

However, he paused at the top of the stairs when Maleko saw a familiar head of pink rounding the corner down the hall. His heart soared a little. Someone he knew, but not from the islands nor from the faces he saw through his window in the infirmary.

Someone like him.

New energy flowed through him, rejuvenating his sore limbs and Maleko ran after the figure, pushing himself back onto his hind legs for more speed, wanting to catch up before they vanished. A few students jumped out of the way just to make sure that Maleko didn’t get too close to them, not that he really paid them any heed.

It had to be her, right? The scent was there, and the color was unmistakable.

He couldn’t help the happy howl that escaped him when he caught sight of her again, the sound causing her to stop and turn around, almost dropping the books in her hands as her eyes widened in disbelief

However, Maleko didn’t have the time to slow down or stop when she did, he tried of course. But with the speed he was going, he just stumbled before colliding right into her legs, sending them both topping to the ground. The books hit the ground shortly after them, splayed open and echoing through the halls.

Even though his body groaned in complaint of the crash, Maleko didn’t mind.

Instead, Maleko pushed himself to sit perched atop of her, a smile stretched across his face. “Kimmy! Kimmy!” he chirped happily as he looked at the witch. Finally, someone he knew in this school!

Well, not so much as knew. Maleko had only ever met Kimial Diehl a handful of times. Mama didn’t go to the witch meetings often, and so neither did he, and Kimial went about as frequently as they, so their schedules only converged a few times. And even when they attended the same meetings, mama didn’t like to linger around long enough to talk to people if she didn’t have to, so he only got to talk to her for a minute or two most days.

The only time, and first time, that they had done more than a brief hello and nods was when  they had first met. Maleko had wandered away from mama to find the bathrooms, completely lost. He’d been wandering for what felt like forever and bumped into the witch.

She had been nice, asked him if he was okay, and then led him to where some restrooms were. Her hands had been warm wrapped around his smaller ones. Then she had helped him to find Mama again when he was done, she’d been nice, and had smiled warmly at him.

She also always brought a non-witch with her… well she claimed that her friend was a witch but Maleko knew better. She was human through and through, his nose wouldn’t lie to him, though Maleko knew better than to tell the others that.

Though she wasn’t the only one who had a companion who wasn’t a witch, Medusa brought one with her, too, and technically Mama did as well since Maleko was a sorcerer—the only one who attended those meetings as far as he knew. He got the feeling his kind weren’t especially liked in witch mass.

But after meeting her that time, Maleko had always tried to find her whenever mama took him to the meetings to say hi and see how she is. Both her and the girl she brought with her, who smelled of smoke and coals, a comforting and nice smell, were always kind to him.

This would be his first time seeing her outside of mass, outside of her usually outfit. It was kind of strange seeing her in a uniform like some of the other students, too. The smell of smoke still clung to her, so he could only assume she was still with her non-witch friend even though he didn’t see the other girl around anywhere.

But he was glad to have run into her. As nice as some of the people were, it was something else to have a face that was familiar, someone he had known previously. She might even know where mama was! Maybe she was helping the others find her!

“Maleko?” Kimial asked, but something wasn’t right. Her voice wasn’t happy like Maleko thought it’d be. She sounded scared. Why was she afraid? It was just Maleko and he wasn’t scary! “I heard they’d brought someone in but… there weren’t any details given… God I should have known it’d be you… they even said it was in Hawaii,” she was talking to herself, low groans as she buried her face into her hands.

Confused, that was all Maleko could think to describe how he felt right now. Was… him being here a bad thing? “Kimmy?” he asked slowly. Something was wrong. What was wrong? “Kimial okay?”

She forced a smile and gently pushed him off of her lap so she could stand. “I’m okay,” she assured him, but he could tell she was lying. “And… ah I really wasn’t expecting to do this. But could you not call me Kimial here? I know it’s usually ‘Kimmy’ with you, but please don’t use my real name, just Kim or Kimmy here?” she asked him and there was a tone of urgency in her voice, as though this was of great importance, though for reasons that Maleko wouldn’t be able to understand. Why change her name?

But… sure, he could do as she asked, ‘Kim’ was easier to say, anyway. Shorter. “Kim!” he confirmed.

The witch nodded with another smile that felt forced, but not as much, but there was still a sense of anxiety to it. “One other thing, can you pretend you don’t know me that well? Like… like we just met today?” she asked and looked around to make sure no one was listening, but they were the only two people in this part of the property. Slowly, Kim leaned closer to him, “I can’t let people know I’m a witch, can you keep that a secret? Here I’m just Kim, a regular meister, nothing more. Can you do that?”

Okay that… That was… weird. Why would she pretend to be something else? Witches were cool, could do so many amazing things. But, well, if she wanted to pretend she wasn’t a witch then she could pretend.

“Maleko jus’ met Kim!” he said nodding his head. He could play pretend with her.

That got a real smile from her and Kim reached down to pat his head with a ‘good boy’ uttered. He purred in response.

“Now,” Kim said, pulling back from him, “What are you doing out here?”

And so, Maleko dived into telling her everything. And by that, he literally told her everything. From waking up in the infirmary after a fight broke out at his home, his attempted escape and subsequent return to the infirmary, showing off his still bandaged fingers to her as he brought up how he tore out a few of his claws, to meeting Maka, Blackstar and Soul.

He told her how Maka and Soul took him out to eat yesterday, how the food and smells overwhelmed him and made him sick, recommended not throwing up in a restaurant bathroom, like ever. That got a bit of a laugh from her which motivated him to keep talking about how he woke up in the infirmary and set out to look for the others.

He said it all in an excited breath, gushing over his words and struggling to even get some of the words right. At some point he lifted up his shirt to show her all the bandages wrapped around him, some still had a little bit of red staining the white cloth.

“Oh, boy,” Kim said in a tight voice at seeing just how extensive his injuries had been, “That’s… yeah that’s bad.”

Maleko nodded, “Uh-huh, but Maleko tough,” he assured, pulling his shirt back down. “Gotta be—Mama’ll be sad if not.” She’d be sad he got hurt, mad that he got hurt, and he didn’t want to see that so he couldn’t let himself show he was hurting none, that way mama will be happy and smile when he finds her again.

A strange look crossed across Kim’s face and then she looked around warily, “Maleko, do you know where Kai is?” she asked carefully.

Did he know where she was? Maleko tilted his head over and blinked. If he knew where mama was, then he wouldn’t be here, or she would be here cause the others would have found her and reunited them. “No,” he finally answered slowly and then perked right back up, “But Marie says that her and the grownups going to find her for me! They’ll bring us together again!”

There was a strange look that crossed Kimmy’s face, something of pain and pity even though she was smiling at him. Maleko didn’t know what to make of it, what it all meant. “I’m sure that they’ll bring you two together… somehow,” she didn’t sound happy.

“Kimmy?”

But she shook her head and forced her smile to look happier, “But why are you out here? I doubt you’re supposed to be wandering the school on your own, your injuries probably aren’t even completely healed yet.”

She wasn’t wrong, his fingers were still wrapped in bandages where his nails had been torn off during his fall the first day, with his nails still slowly growing back and still rather sensitive, and he still felt raw and sore where he got stabbed by wood. But that didn’t mean he was invalid. He could still move about freely. Though Kim was probably right in that he’s not supposed to be, but there weren’t any grownups around to tell him no, so there!

“Maleko need find Maka an Sou!” He chirped, because right that was his initial goal before he got distracted by finding Kimmy.

“Sou?” Kim repeated and then shook her head,” Right, Soul. Why do you want to find them? They’re probably still in class right now.”

He held up the sheets of paper stapled together for her to read. “Soul’s,” he said. “Wanna give him. Looks importan’”

She gave a nod and seemed to be thinking something over, a hand on her shoulder and rotating her joints absentmindedly, she gave a few seconds of silence before she started talking again. “Well, you’ll probably find some way to get into trouble if I leave you on your own,” she began slowly as she looked at him and then a smile crept up onto her face. “I guess I’ll just have to walk you down to the room Maka and Soul are in myself.”

Kim picked up her fallen books and tucked them under an arm while she held her other hand out to Maleko. The boy chirped ‘thank you’ a few times as he took her hand in his own and followed Kim as she began walking through the empty hall.

Most kids were heading into class or training, she explained when he asked why there weren’t a lot of people in the halls. Though class would be ending after a while and then the crowds would arrive as students tried to get from one room to another. She herself had been running a few errands which was why she was out of class at the time.

Makelo couldn’t help the bounce in his step as she told him how she had been doing since she and he last saw each other, and Maleko didn’t miss the warm smile when she talked about her friend Jackie. He hoped he could see her sometime, he liked being around her at the meetings, the way she smelled of fire and smoke was comforting for him, and she had always been kind. There was also a boy named Ox that she talked of too, and though her expression conveyed annoyance, Maleko could detect the fondness in her voice that betrayed it. He was her friend even if she found him annoying at times.

She talked of quests, too, and how she and Jackie had gone on one a few days ago, how they got to defeat a really bad person and protect people. Maleko liked hearing of that, liked hearing of things like superheroes defeating villains.

Though with how they talked it felt like ages, it had only been a few minutes and a single flight of stairs before Maleko and Kim stopped in front of a closed door to a lecture hall.

“Here you go,” Kim said as she let go of Maleko’s hand, smiling down at him warmly. “Maka and Soul are in there, so just wait out here until class ends. You’ll know it’s over when people start streaming out the door. Though if you want to just barge in there that’s your choice. Teachers might not be especially happy with it.”

Maleko gave her a big smile and then wrapped his arms around her waist in a hug, “Thank you!” he chirped happily as he nuzzled her stomach.

Kim laughed and patted his head, “Come on, it was nothing,” she said, smiling sheepishly when Maleko pulled away. “Just remember, you only just met me today, okay? Can you do that?”

“Ye! Maleko promise!” he wasn’t going to let her down, if she wanted him to pretend they just met, then he would pretend. “Maleko just met Kim, Kimmy his new friend.”

She smiled and ruffled his hair again, “Good,” Kim said and started to back off. “Well, have fun. If I hear anything about Kai I’ll let you know, but in the meantime stay out of trouble.”

She walked away with a wave that Maleko returned, waiting in front of the door until she descended down the stairs again before he turned to face the door blocking him from his other friends. Kim had said they might be upset if he went in like that… but it was going to be okay. He wanted to see Soul and Maka, and he was confident everything would be okay.

Maybe he should knock first?

Maleko raised his hand and tapped his closed fist against the door a few times and then waited. A few seconds passed and nothing happened. A few more seconds and still nothing. Maybe they didn’t hear his knocking or just ignored it?

Well, it would be okay.

Puffing his chest up, Maleko pushed the door open and stepped inside.

When the voices stopped and dozens of eyes fell on him, his confidence began to waver. No, no. Maleko you are strong and brave and this is not going to be what makes you back off. Sure there was a lot more people than he thought would be here, so many faces that his head spun, but it was okay.

At the front of the class, the zombie man was watching him with a look of relative surprise, one hand holding a stick of chalk while the other had an open book. He said nothing as Maleko stepped further into the classroom and pushed the door shut behind him, still said nothing as Maleko smiled at him and gave him a wave.

He could hear people whispering amongst themselves, like a waterfall of voices, and he tried to block the whispers out as he scanned the many rows of seats before him. He recognized Blackstar in one of them, a fat grin across his face, and beside him was a taller girl with black hair tied back. In the row behind those two he was able to find a familiar mix of blonde and white and his expression brightened.

With a happy sound, he bounded up the stairs, past a bald student and one with a weird visor, past Jackie and so many more faces and scents, past all the eyes and whispers that followed him as he mad his way to where a surprised Maka and Soul sat.

“Sou! Soul!” Maleko greeted as he held out the papers.

“That are you doing here?” Soul asked, glancing at the students watching them before tentatively taking the papers from him, “This for me?” he looked through the papers and his eyes widened before looking up at Maleko and then back at the papers.

“Yous,” Maleko explained, nodding to the sheets of paper.

Maka leaned over to look at the homework and then at Maleko, “You came all this way to give him that?” she asked and the boy barked happily in agreement. With a small laugh, Maka smiled at him, “Well, you’re Soul’s live saver, but please don’t go running around the school or intruding classrooms on your own again. The others are probably looking all over for you.”

At that, Maleko deflated like a balloon and let out a low whine, “Sorry…” he mumbled.

Her expression softened and she reached over to put a hand on his cheek, “It’s okay,” Maka assured him, and then she looked up around the room. People were still staring and whispering about the sudden disruption and her cheeks were growing pink at the attention, so she turned her expression back to the boy. “Do you think you can make it back to the infirmary on your own? Soul and I can come visit you after class.”

Maleko was about to respond, but didn’t get the chance.

“He could stay if he promises not to cause another scene,” Sid cut in from his spot in front of the class. “Since he came all this way to give Soul his essay, I don’t see why he can’t stay for the rest of the lecture,” then the zombie looked over to Maleko. “What do you say?”

Maleko stared at him and blinked. He’d never been in a class before, never in a lecture. Mama always taught him everything he needed at home, so this would be completely new. What was one supposed to do here in the first place? Even though it was foreign, it was exciting.

A wide grin broke across his face and Maleko nodded his head furiously, “Maleko stay!” he answered but then turned to Maka and Soul, looking for approval. “Maleko stay?” he asked, waiting for confirmation. If she said no, then he would go, if she didn’t want him here with her he would go. But he really wanted to see what school was like.

But Maka just laughed, moved over to the next seat over and then patted against the now empty seat between her and Soul. “You’ll want to take a seat then, unless you plan to stand for the whole lecture.”

Maleko barked and climbed into the chair, buzzing with energy and his face growing sore from the smile that wouldn’t fall. A few laughs echoed in the room and Sid waited a few solid moments before returning to his lecture pointing at what he had written on the board, scribbling new things beside it while talking of this and that. Human body parts.

While the zombie man spoke, Maleko did his very best to listen attentively and to try and understand, he even took some paper and pencils from Maka to start writing his own ‘notes’ along with the class. Though his were just doodles of Sid and the others. Maybe he could ask one of the grownups to help him learn to write later.

But for the next half hour his smile didn’t falter.

Chapter Text

Time continued to fly as preparations were made. There were many things that had to be done before anything could truly happen, before they could lay a siege on DWMA. People needed to be contacted, alliances needed to be strengthened, followers reminded of who they followed, not to mention the equipment they would need, the training some would have to be given, even if it was only going to be a rushed crash course of how to fight, how to shoot a gun or use a knife and so on.

Kai wasn’t exactly a patient person, and so the wait was driving her absolutely mad.

They had to be careful not to let the agents of Death to find them, to keep them off their trail as they made their way to the Acolytes, and eventually that had brought them to the heart of Russia. So far, Kai wasn’t exactly impressed. Not by the landscape and it’s frigid cold, not by the people who she was forced to accompany, Medusa’s tools. They were annoying at best, unbearable at their worst. She doubted they knew just how much effort Kom was putting in keeping her from actually hurting them despite how much her instincts told her to drown the bumbling idiots in the nearest pool.

Kom was the only one in this group that she could actually stand to be around for a long period of time, and she even felt a little grateful that he was coming along with her down this winding yellow bricked road to madness.

But that didn’t mean that Kai didn’t hate the group any less with Kom there. Because, by God she hated all of them. There was nothing that she wanted more than to done with Medusa and her gaggle of goons. But no, she had to sit and let her rage simmer because cooperation was necessary or something. Medusa was offering a way to get Maleko back to her while destroying the shitty school for taking him from her in the first place.

Despite how much Kai hated Medusa, she understood that if she went with just her and Kom, the chances of anything working out right was low. It was unlikely that she would be able to get Maleko back unharmed, it was unlikely she would get out of there unharmed. But with an army? With the Acolytes?

Ooooh, Death and his bastards were going to know true terror.

So for the time being Kai would sit and let her rage and hate slowly boil while following along to Medusa’s whims. It was only temporarily, once she got what she wanted, she’d have no need or reason to follow along with the snake, and certainly no want for her company. Medusa was disposable once her use was fulfilled, and it was unlikely that Medusa even knew how limited value she held.

The group had gotten a hotel when they had come to Russia, currently the pool was closed for the night but that didn’t stop Kai from leaving her room at one in the morning and sinking down to the bottom of the pool. She had spent far too long in the air during the flight to Russia, and even though she was surrounded by snow and ice, there was nothing more soothing than being completely submerged in water. It was her own little sanctuary where no one else could reach her.

Medusa couldn’t get to her here, neither could the other witches, the werewolf, or even Kom. She was away from the rest of the world down here.

A small batch of bubbles escaped into the chlorine filled pool as Kai opened her mouth to exhale. The chemicals burned her skin only for the water to soothe and heal her in an endless loop of pain and relief as she sulked on the pool’s floor.

She missed Maleko.

That was an understatement. Kai wanted him back desperately. The more time that passed with the two apart like this, the more unhinged she was becoming, it was as if the glass of her mind was starting to crack, ready to shatter at any moment. It was taking all that she had to hold on. Maleko had always kept her grounded, had always been her rock, but now the ground had been torn out from under her and she was doing everything she could not to fall into the abyss.

It was clear, even to Kai, that she was inching closer and closer to falling back into old habits that she had broken free of since she had found Maleko. Could feel the whispers in her ears, the thin tendrils wrapping around her body and bind. Alcohol helped to stave off the madness, but it would only treat the symptoms and being drunk twenty-four/seven was not going to last as a fix.

She had to get Maleko back, if not for his own safety, than for Kai’s own wellbeing.

It frustrated her, scared her. Kai knew she was falling apart, a card house touched by the breeze, a cracked dam ready to burst. It frustrated her that she was afraid. Afraid of what was going to happen when the dam broke and all that she had spent hundreds of years contained within her would spill out. Water was dangerous, water couldn’t be stopped. Even Maleko could be hurt when that damn finally gave up.

No… no. Kai would sooner kill herself than ever hurt him.

A shadow fell over the water, followed by a distorted voice that dragged Kai out of her thoughts. A familiar shape was standing at the edge of the pool, peering into the water to look at her. A wave of annoyance rushed through Kai and she looked away. Maybe if she stayed under the water then he would go away and leave her alone. Maybe… no… she knew him, knew he was willing to wait hours for her to come up.

With a powerful kick at the cement bottom of the pool, she swam up to the top a short distance from the pools edge and emerged from the water with about as much grace as a three legged deer trying to dance. On purpose, of course. The large splash she had intended to make hit Kom’s feet and he stumbled backwards a little as Kai turned around in the water to fix him with a hard glare. It wasn’t just Kom either it seemed, Eruka was standing behind him, hat in her hands and looking nervous to be around her.

“What do you want?” Kai asked.

Kom gave her a sheepish smile and sat down at the pools edge, letting his feet dip into the water. “Sorry to intrude,” he said and waved Eruka over. “We just wanted to talk, check in on you. Fiigured you’d want to talk to someone who’s not a snake.”

She could believe Kom wanting to, but it was doubtful that Eruka was coming to see how she was doing without a reason to do so.

Giving a sardonic smile at the notion that she would even want the company of any of them, she let herself sink deeper into the water until only her head was above the ripples. “Well we talked. You two can go now.”

They didn’t go away and it irritated Kai even more, but she had to admit it was interesting that Eruka wasn’t taking this chance to back off and go back to her dog. But she watched as Eruka drew closer and sat down beside Kom. The frog witch looked nervous, trying to find the right words before finally speaking up.

“You and Maleko… you care about him a lot,” she said slowly, as if she was trying to find the right words to use. “It’s cute, actually. The way that you care about him. I never would have thought of you as such a motherly person.”

Kai glared at her, clearly unamused by the topic at hand, “I care about him? Huh, what a groundbreaking revelation,” she responded dryly. She and Maleko were close, she cared about the child she was taking such desperate measures to rescue? That was about as obvious as saying that fire was hot.

But Kom was laughing at how Eruka was stumbling through an attempt at a conversation, at how Eruka appeared nervous. And it was right for her to be nervous. She was facing Kai, who had been in a foul mood since the start of this little ‘journey’ of theirs. She was facing a witch who’s magic centered around water, was facing said witch at a pool surrounded by water. If she said the wrong thing, the chances were high that she might get killed. One wrong word and Kai wouldn’t think twice about drowning that pretty little face of hers.

Then again, Kom was here and he would probably hold her back, and credit had to be given to Eruka for being here. It was brave to come down and face her. Brave and foolish. Who knew, maybe the Frog Witch had a pair hidden down there after all.

“Sorry. It’s just… strange? I know I don’t know you all that well, but even I know you’re the living definition of a misanthrope,” Eruka wrung her hands together and looked for Kom for reassurance before continuing. “You hardly ever came to meetings with the other witches, but as soon as you come with Maleko, you’re… different. You’re not as quick to lash out… and just… how did he make you nicer?”

Kai waited until she was sure that Eruka was finished talking before she swam up to the pools edge, gripping the ladder with one hand and staring up at Eruka impassively. “Sorry, but you’re not privy to that kind of information. That’s something for people I can trust and like, and I don’t like you nor do I trust you.”

From his spot, Kom laughed at that, “Sorry, Eruka. You need to be a level four friend for her to tell you her tragic backstory. Right now you’re probably negative four.” He laughed harder as Eruka puffed her cheeks out in frustration, a face much like what Maleko would often make. It made Kai’s expression soften a little.

Why was Eruka even asking these things? It’s not as though she actually cares about Kai’s past, about Maleko. It wasn’t any concern of hers, the prying brat.

Though… Eruka wasn’t wrong, either. In fact, she had been pretty on point. Kai couldn’t deny that she hated people, society, didn’t like involving herself with them, misanthropic was an accurate term when it came to her. She hated everyone, witches, sorcerers, Kishin eggs, monsters, humans… everyone. She held some kind of grudge against the whole world.

It was no wonder that to an outsider, her suddenly seeming ‘softer’ and ‘kinder’ was a surprise. Honestly, Kai hadn’t even realized that her harsh attitude easing up had become so apparent. Sure, she kept her irritation and quick temper in check when Maleko was around and when she was at home to keep the people from growing suspicious. She didn’t want Maleko to take after her, she didn’t want him to look at her and think that he wanted to be like her. But had it really been so drastic a change that others noticed?

She glanced up at the frog who was standing by the edge of the pool. If she had to be truthful than Eruka was probably the only one out of Medusa’s group she could probably put some trust in. The frog hated Medusa  and feared her and didn’t even want to be a part of this at all, but was forced to be involved. She didn’t want to be Kai’s enemy, and she was usually well-mannered to Maleko during the meetings that Kai would attend.

“Maybe I’ll tell you how Maleko and I met one day,” she said simply.

She pushed herself out of the pool, wedging herself between Kom and Eruka and ignoring her friend when he offered a hand to help her up. With hardly more than an afterthought, the water reacted to her commands and flew off her, spraying right at Eruka and Kom while leaving her only a little damp.

“I’m going back to my room, you two can stay and play in the water or whatever,” she said to the two as she made her way towards the doors. The heavy glass door pushed open and she trudged down the halls.

No one was up and about at this hour, no one to ask why she was wet and smelled of chlorine. She felt a little bit… lighter. Loathed to admit it as she may be, maybe talking with Eruka and Kom had been helpful, even if it was only a little bit. She felt more determined to find Maleko.

Maleko had always been such a cheerful boy, even when she had just met him. He was resourceful, had to be with how long he had survived before Kai had entered his life. Who knew how long he had lived in the wilderness before they crossed paths. Long enough that his development had been stunted so much that he did not understand human behavior, understand human language or norms.

Just thinking back to when she tried to teach him how to wear clothes, how much he despised them at first and preferred to run around naked as can be, it made Kai laugh. He hated baths at first, too. Didn’t like being dunked in water nor the soaps and shampoos. The worst, of course, had been trying to cut his hair. The white mane had been about halfway down his back, full of tangles and the jungle, and the boy had absolutely refused to sit still for anyone to cut it. It had taken a good hour and half for her to get him to sit and not squirm before she even got to start cutting.

(He’s strong) echoed in her head. Strong, whatever the school does to him, he can survive and he will come out stronger. He  can endure whatever they throw at him until she finds him.

A smile found its way to her face as she entered her dark hotel room, unable to hide the way that thinking of him made her feel warm and happy inside, made her feel at peace. Turning on the lights, the room was dimly illuminated and her smile fell at the small figure on her bed.

“Medusa.”

The witch gave her a smile and smoothed out her outfit. “Kai, nice of you to return to your room,” she greeted as she hopped off the bed. “We’ve work to get done right now.”

Kai didn’t move and crossed her arms over her chest. “What kind of work is it now?”

Medusa gave a happy hum. Whatever she had been up to since they got to Russia, it was pleasing the snake and that only made the tendrils inside of her to twist even more. “All our work has finally got attention. I’ve been able to contact the Acolytes, they’re willing to meet with us, meet with you.” She emphasized as she began to circle Kai. “We’re going to go and say hello at their upcoming meeting, so I need you looking and acting your best.”

“If this is all a convoluted way of asking for us to give each other makeovers, I’m rejecting that right now,” Kai cut in bluntly, but she made her way to sit on the floor when Medusa gestured for her to do so, watching as the snake climbed onto the bed to sit behind her.

Thin and small fingers began to twist into her hair, pulling at the knots and messing around as though to find some kind of style that could  fit her needs in impressing the Acolytes. “I just need you looking professional is all,” Medusa answered, “It’s important that our allies get a good first impression of you, and how you look will affect that first impression. Since we can’t expect help from the rest of the witches, the Acolytes will be crucial in your plans. I need you to ensure they swear loyalty.”

Kai growled but didn’t move. Medusa was right, the Acolytes were crucial, they were the army they would need to fight the DWMA. Humans, not Kishin eggs, not monsters. Normal humans with ‘pure’ souls that can’t be hunted. People that the meisters and weapons would be conflicted about in fighting and how to fight.

But, she wasn’t entirely looking forward to dealing with the Acolytes, not again. She left them all those years ago for a reason, after all. Well, the members she had been with were all long dead, maybe the modern Acolytes wouldn’t be such a bore.

So long as they got her Maleko back, it didn’t matter.

-0-

Before long the days had begun blurring together and soon it was the night to meet with the Acolytes. Kai didn’t want to go. The idea of heading straight into a meeting of a bunch of zealot cultists wasn’t exactly high on her list of things she wanted to spend her night doing. Even though she knew how crucial and important it was to get them on their side, she wasn’t really looking forward to it at all. As Medusa began spending the day preparing for what they would be doing, plans for in case things went sour, Kai felt everything start to go stir crazy inside of her. She had to get out of that hotel and take a breath fresh air.

In the end that ‘breath of fresh air’ was a bar downtown.

Dressed in a double breasted cardigan coat and pair of jeans, she shivered against the chill of the air. She never could get used to the cold, especially not after spending most of her life in warm countries and places. She was sure that Maleko wouldn’t be bothered by the cold at all, his blood was like a furnace.

Kai had found herself at one corner of the bar, settled down on a stool as she held a bottle of Jever in her hands. Or more accurately, it was her third bottle of Jever. She could feel the edges of a buzz starting to kick in, but for the most part she was still pretty sober. Hopefully that would be changed before the night was done.

The bar wasn’t too crowded, but there was enough people in it to be loud. A TV hung on one of the walls, some rerun of a local football game was being played. Not that Kai could understand what was going on in the game, though she could speak Russian, she had never really payed much head to sports to know how the game was going. Besides, most of her effort was spent on making sure she said the phrases ‘Get me another’ and ‘I’d like a—’  which would be accompanied by a name of some alcoholic drink or beer or something.

Speaking of beverages, her bottle was magically empty again.

Waving down the bartender, it wasn’t long until she had another bottle of Jever placed before her and her wallet was a little lighter. Kai easily pulled the metal cap off and took a sip.

Her thoughts drifted back to Medusa. Why wasn’t the snake just letting her go and storm the school and get her kid back? She had the magic to do so, there were plenty of pipes under the town full of water just waiting to be broke free and put to good work, and even without the pipes and water in the town, people had enough water in them.

She just wanted Maleko back, was that too much to ask?

Growling, Kai grabbed her bottle and tilted her head back as the bitter liquid ran down her throat. If this kept up, if Medusa kept playing games, stalling… well she was disposable. Kai wasn’t an idiot, she knew that Medusa was doing this for her own goals, she had little interest in getting Maleko back unharmed. She was just using Kai to get the Acolytes, and was going to use the Acolytes for whatever the hell Medusa planned to do now that her Kishin planned had failed.

Kai was going to have to get rid of Medusa before the snake could try and get rid of her. That much was certain.

A hand landed on her shoulder, breaking Kai from her train of thoughts. A tall man with a handsome face and black hair was smiling down at her. By all accounts he was a pretty good looking guy, had a charming smile, too. “What’s a beauty like you doing all alone?” he asked, his voice rough as he spoke his native tongue.

Kai shrugged his hand off, her glare as cold as the icy winds of the north, “Because I want to be alone.” She responded in Russian for him.

Her attitude didn’t seem to affect him at all, the man just laughed and took a seat next to her, setting his bottle of Bud beside her Jever. He was all smiles, body turned to face her fully. “You don’t look like you’re from around here. Are you visiting our humble town, or did you just move in?”

It was clear that he wasn’t taking the hint that Kai didn’t want him here. “Passing through.”

“I see. Will you be staying long?” the man asked as he took a sip of his Bud Lite.

Kai contemplated how to answer, what kind of response would be best to get rid of this annoyance without causing too much of a scene. It was clear that he was either too thick skulled to take the hint that she didn’t want him around her, or was just refusing to acknowledge it. Maybe she should be blunt and tell him to fuck off.

The hand returned to her shoulder before she could make her decision, and suddenly he was closer, close enough for her to smell the alcohol on his breath. “By the way, can I ask your name?”

All she wanted was to get drunk and this man was ruining that plan. Time to say screw it and use force, and with that she let her soul protect go away for a brief moment.

His hand had gone tense, shaking and trembling as it was forcibly pulled back, though no one was even touching him. The expression on his face was clear fear, but his mouth wouldn’t move. Kai watched with a bored expression as the man, awkwardly and wobbly, got off his stool and stumbled away. All he was right now was a meat puppet, the water in his muscles, his blood and his skin were acting as the strings as she forced him to walk away.

The man would have probably screamed if he could. Good thing Kai wasn’t letting him.

Once he was out the door and out of her range of vision did she cut the strings and put her soul protect back up. Better safe than sorry should there have been any meisters in the area. Though running into one wasn’t a bad idea, it’d give her someone to kill, to let out all her frustrations on.

The man’s screams were muffled by the music and chatter of the bar and by the brick wall between them as he ran off, leaving Kai to drink the rest of her Jever in peace.

No one seemed to have noticed that odd display and she was glad for that. Fewer witnesses to start questioning and whispering, fewer people to kill off. She could drink in peace and hopefully be so smashed by the end she wouldn’t be dragged to the meeting.

But fate was not her ally.

Finishing off her bottle, she was about to order another when another hand hit her in the back, not hard enough to be an attack, but it was a friendly pat with a bit too much force that nearly had her fall out of her chair.

Whirling around, she found her glare locked in the mismatched eyes of the wolfman.

“Free,” Kai greeted curtly, going back to face the bartender and to try and get his attention so she could have another drink. He seemed to be ignoring her now, great.

The immortal took a seat next to her on the barstool. “Medusa had me and Eruka out looking for you, since you up and vanished. We’re supposed to be going to the meeting soon,” he explained and she didn’t ask. “Saw a guy run away screaming about witchcraft. Your work?”

“He’s not wrong, it was witchcraft,” Kai remarked dryly.

Free laughed at that, a loud and annoying laugh and giving her another hearty pat on the back. Kai wished he would stop acting like they were friend.

But it was clear the bartender had no intention of giving her any more drinks, not that she understood why. It didn’t matter, no more drinks meant she had no reason to be here anymore. Damn shame that she hadn’t even had enough to get a full on buzz. The mild fuzziness would wear off before they even got back to the hotel. Critical mission failure.

Kai stood up from her stool and took a deep breath with her eyes closed. “Let’s get going, mutt,” she muttered to Free as she walked away from the bar, the large man following behind her.

As they left the bar, the sound of glass breaking and screams filled the bar, the vast amount of alcohol spraying everywhere and mixing together on the floor with the glass shards, not a bottle left untouched.

Chapter Text

When Kai had returned to the hotel with Free, she was no longer buzzed. The cold air of Russia had sobered her up considerably, much to her chagrin. She had contemplated stealing the beers from the hotel to get drunk but that was pointless. There was no time to even attempt that with how Medusa was rushing her to get changed and dressed while debriefing her on all the changes the Acolytes had gone through since Kai had left them a couple hundred years ago.

The cult had grown tremendously since their first war with Death. Kai had thought that Death had completely destroyed the Acolytes, but apparently they rebuilt themselves in the shadows and now their numbers were over three times that of what Kai had left them at. It had grown so much that the structure had changed so there were branch leaders across the world. Kai and the others would be meeting with the Russian and Northern branch, but word of what happened in the meeting would spread to all the branches.

Their core attributes had not changed at all over the generations. They were still incredibly devoted to their ideals and religious beliefs. Death was still the ‘False God’ in their eyes, and even more, Kai was still their ‘One True God’ or whatever. She had never really understood their devotion to her, the religious fanaticism they held, believing her to be some immortal god. But the Acolytes believed that she was their God, and that with her magic she would bring about a Great Flood to kill the wicked and nonbelievers.

It didn’t matter. So long as they would still do as she said without question, she didn’t care if they worshipped the ground she walked on.

The plan was simple; Kai would go up to them, say some fancy words and take over. Medusa probably intended for Kai to be a puppet-ruler with the snake leading the cult from behind the scene. Though what was going to happen has yet to be seen, Kai was still debating on what to do with Medusa at the end of the day.

Even as they left the hotel and began their trek to the meeting zone, an old abandoned gulag or military camp or something, she hadn’t paid much attention to that, that was several miles out of town, Kai was still debating on what to do with Medusa. The air was bitter and cold and Kai wished she was wearing something warmer right now, but there was no use in crying over what she didn’t have.

They went by snowmobile, breaking off into pairs to travel by. Kai had slipped onto one with Kom situated behind her, hands on her waist as she rode through the snow. It took about an hour, visibility terrible as a snowstorm began to roll in one them, but eventually they came to the old rundown camp of tall concrete walls and barbwire fence.

Two men stood guard up front, dressed in heavy black coats and wearing masks. Not theater masks or masks someone might find in an anime or at a convention, but rather they wore gasmasks, the full-head kind with the lenses tinted so that it was hard to see into. There was no way to even tell who was beneath the mask, if it was someone Kai had seen before, if they were someone famous or someone poor.

Obscuring their identities like that, clever. Can’t be held responsible when no one knew who they were.

Medusa slid off the snowmobile she was sharing with Eruka to go talk to them while Kai got off of hers and tossed her helmet at Kom and looked around. Where they were was desolate, the camp long defunct, no one would even think to come find them here, especially not with a snowstorm coming in to make travel harder. Though the snowstorm would make leaving that much harder, too. Not something that Kai was especially looking forward too.

Their group was led through the gates and the snow covered courtyard, crushing the fresh layers of snow under their feet while their tracks were covered by a new layer behind them. The guard leading them balanced his rifle against a shoulder as he marched, leading them to a somewhat long building towards across the gates.

Their guide said nothing during the short few minute walk, but bowed his head in respect as he let the group walk past them into the building before returning to his post up at the gates.

As the heavy door closed behind them, Kai could hear chatter farther ahead. Dozens upon dozens of voices chatting with their words echoing through the thin stone halls. Kai was impressed that the floors weren’t ice as they walked, as even though they were inside it was still rather cold, making it apparent that the building had no form coursing through the walls.

They had reached the end of the hall and to a flight of stairs. Huh, so they were meant to go down. Must be a big bunker down there or something for them.

“Remember, Kai,” Medusa began as she took point, leading them through the halls as though she was the center of attention and the rest of them were just her followers, decorations to her. “Behave and impress them however you can.”

“Whatever.”

The lights were dim, no electricity and so the Acolytes had hung and laid lanterns along the hall to help illuminate the building, but even with the faint light that they provided, it was hard to see clearly. Kai especially did not like how confined and trapped she felt between the walls as they descended farther and farther down.

She didn’t like the claustrophobic feeling it gave her. So far underground, limited places for her to run. Of course if a fight broke out she wasn’t worried about her chances of winning, but she didn’t like the idea of fighting in a confined space. If there was, for example, a cave in; they’d be trapped. If the storm got especially bad and no one could get out, that’d be just as bad.

Kai wasn’t so sure she could endure dealing with possible hundreds of people she didn’t know for longer than necessary.

A hand brushed against hers, cold and rough. Kai glanced up and saw Kom was looking at her with a knowing and worried look in his eyes. He brushed his hand against hers once more in what she supposed was supposed to be comforting for her. He was naïve if he thought that just holding her hand, or whatever it was he was trying to do, was going to magically make her calmer and better.

What did make her better was the sensation of water.

As the group neared the bottom of the stairs, she began to feel it. Bodies of water farther ahead. An underground stream? No, too scattered. Not a spring, either. Brought down here, probably, that was good, it made this just a little better.

Her suspicion was confirmed when they reached the main room of the underground bunker, a massive empty space full of men and woman standing and talking. In the center was a platform of sorts, surrounded by a few 30-gallon plain plastic drums full of water. What Kai noticed after the water was that every person down there, apart from her own small group, were dressed in full face and full-head gasmasks.

(Wonder when they started doing that…)

That wasn’t an attribute of the Acolytes when Kai was still a part of them. The members she had run around with a few centuries back never hid their faces, they wanted the whole world to know who they were and who they were with when they fought, wanted their faces to be the last thing their victims saw before death.

Though, in today’s day and age it was understandable that they would have to cover their faces, to keep their identities secret, it would be harder to get around when all it would take is them to be found in one town without their mask on for them to be known throughout the entire world. Even in a meeting such as this; there was no guarantee that there might not be a spy lurking among them, and so to keep masked would protect them from possible infiltrators working for Death or some other organization.

They were dressed in thick coats and gloves to protect against the cold of the bunker, some rubbing their hands together, shifting from foot to foot to keep as warm as they could before the meeting to begin. There were so many of them, Kai noted, far more than she could accurately count but she could guess that they were in the hundreds. To think that this was only a portion of the Acolytes total numbers. How large the cult had grown since Kai had left, their ranks swollen.

 “They’re all human,” Kom whispered in surprise.

Kai wanted to ask him what he expected; was he thinking they’d be Kishin Eggs, or even witches? Of course the Acolytes would be a primarily human-based group, maybe there were a few witches in the ranks, maybe a couple people who’d gone so far gone that they’d become Kishin Eggs, but it would be mostly humans. Only humans would be naïve enough, dumb enough to be a part of a cult like this. Only humans were so desperate for a place to belong, for ideals and beliefs to hold on to that they’d drink the Kool-Aid.

The chatter fell silent as more and more people began to realize that they had visitors until the entire bunker had gone dead quiet, faces turned towards the group. Even with their masks on, with tinted lenses in the way, Kai could feel the hundreds of eyes falling on them, falling on her. It was suffocating. It made her skin crawl and her fingers itch.

“Go on,” Medusa said in a hushed voice, nudging Kai to take the lead, nudging her to start walking.

With a glare shot at Medusa for being told what to do, Kai turned towards the crowds and with her head held high she started marching as the others fell in line behind her.

Like the red sea the Acolytes parted before Kai, bowing their heads in respect or reaching out slightly as though to touch her but unable to bring themselves to do so. She kept her mouth in a thin line as she walked to the empty center where the stage had been erected, to where the water had been left in offering for her.

She didn’t like being stared at, but there was little that Kai could do.

As she climbed onto the stage, whispers rippled through the crowds. Medusa and the others stayed on the sidelines; this was Kai’s moment, this was her time to work and for them to stand back.

Movement on the other side of the crowd caught her eye. She watched as the members parted and backed off as someone pushed their way through. An eyebrow quirked upwards as a man broke through the ranks.

He wore no mask over his face, though there was a gasmask hung around his neck. He was older, too. White hair, partially balding, he was dressed in a winter’s coat just as the others and his hands were gloved too, but even as he walked there was an air of… not quite superiority but rather authority to him. A gentlemanly form of authority if such a thing existed. Right away Kai pegged him as the leader of this branch.

Her assumption was quickly proven right as the man climbed onto the stage and took a stand beside her, though he kept a respectful distance. The Acolytes went silent as he watched them all. Yuri Mashkov, her mind supplied as she watched him from the corner of her eye. If he was the leader of this branch and not just a mouthpiece, than this man must be Yuri Mashkov, former pilot in the Russian air force.

“Brothers, sisters, welcome!” Mashkov began, his voice booming through the bunker even without a microphone. He clapped his hands together while his eyes surveyed the Acolytes before him. They were deathly silent, as though it was a great insult to even speak when he was talking. “Today is a wonderous day, though you can all see why.”

The man waved his hand to Kai as he said that, and though no one spoke up, the agitation, the excitement of the crowd surrounding them became more and more palpable.

“For almost three hundred years we have been wandering. Aimless and lost. Our ranks have  grown, with each day more come to us, eyes opened to the truth. Our belief never wavering, but our guide was gone and so our purpose had become muddied. We were forced to go into hiding from the False God.” he spoke, his voice growing louder with each second. “Today our prayers have been answered. Today our leader, our queen, our Goddess has returned to us, and with her we have been given purpose once more.”

The crowd began to ripple once more, people moving, people wanting to cheer, to scream, to cry out how they felt, but they did not. No one dared to speak, not yet. But the tension was growing and soon nothing could hold it back.

“Our war with the False God was lost, but we were not defeated. For almost three hundred years we have grown in strength and numbers, our tactics improving, our tools improving because we knew that one day we would fight the False God once more and this time we would not lose. Our time to rise up and fight has come again at last!” Yuri called out marching across the stage with a passion that could not be matched. “We shall fight the False God and his followers, we shall tear them apart and let their blood water the earth as we return our Goddess to her rightful throne as the true Queen of our Earth! Our war shall return, and let the war against the fake begin here!”

Once more the crowds rippled and it didn’t stop. People were cheering, fists thrown into the air, cries of joy. The echo of chains was just barely audible over the Acolytes cries of joy and for war. But the ranks parted and Kai saw them.

A large man was in the front, in his meaty hands a thick chain and attached on the other hand was another man in disarray. His clothes were torn, clearly he hadn’t showered in days and his face was swollen from beatings. Yet even as the Acolytes jeered and shoved at him, the man held his head up high with pride as though nothing they could do would bother him.

Kai’s eyes lowered and she noticed the DWMA insignia sewn onto his tattered coat. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth curled into a scowl. A meister most likely, a weapon would have probably transformed, or partially transformed, to fight back. But it didn’t matter if he was the meister or the weapon, he was part of the DWMA, part of that loathsome organization, part of the people who had stolen her son.

The large Acolyte dragged the meister up onto the stage and then knelt down between Kai and Yuri, hooking the chain to the stage so that the DWMA’s little soldier couldn’t run away. He rumbled some words of respect to Kai and backed off the stage, disappearing back into the crowds.

The man stared up at Kai, hate in his bruised eyes, but there was no fear. “Witch,” he spat, a dribble of blood running down a busted lip.

“Human,” Kai replied coolly and knelt in front of him. “You’re from the DWMA, are you not?”

“I’m one of their top meisters here in Russia,” he answered in rough English, his glare didn’t waver. Either he had accepted that he was going to die and was not going to give her the satisfaction of showing her fear, or he was far too arrogant to understand his own position. “I know who you are.”

“Do you now?”

He didn’t let his gaze waver as Kai stared at him. “A witch. Kai Palakiko, though that’s not your real name. An alias to get by in human society? You went by Keone in the past. Your magic grants you control over water. A few hundred years ago you caused a bit of Hell by brainwashing humans into creating a cult that worships you and then you went to war with Death,” he spat and glared at the Acolytes. “Even after you went into hiding, they remained brainwashed and continued to indoctrinate more and more over the centuries. Now, after years of silence, you’ve decided to start up more Hell.”

He barely knew anything about her, bits and pieces from the little information Death was ever able to get on her in the first place. “Keone… That was the alias I took up when I started the Acolytes, but it was just another alias,” It had been so long, she wasn’t sure she could remember what her true name had been. “But you’re wrong. I never brainwashed anyone. The Acolytes? They started this on their own.”

“Forgive me if I don’t believe that at all.”

“Suit yourself,” Kai shrugged, glancing at the crowd that was still hurling jeers at the man, calling for his head, for his death, for Kai to punish him. She tuned them out and settled her gaze back on the meister. “Your superiors took something from me… someone from me. A child. My son. What has the DWMA done with him?”

Would he even know what was going on? They were in Russia, not America, not Nevada. How much would the Academy tell it’s foreign agents what was going on? Would they have even tell others that they took a child hostage? Sorcerer or not, involving children couldn’t possibly help the organization’s image.

The meister chuckled and then spat a wad of spit and blood onto the wooden stage, “If he’s a sorcerer then he’s been executed already,” he answered with a bloody smile. “There are far too many of you monsters, if the people handling him had any sense they’d have killed him before he can mature into a bigger threat. My money is that a weapon’s already eaten his soul, or maybe Death’s buried it in his room with all the other souls there.”

The cheers only grew louder as Kai stood back up, staring down at the meister as her expression turned calm.

Dead.

By all accounts, it was the most likely scenario, one that Kai had not wanted to think of, had not wanted to humor. But… he was in the middle of the heart of the organization. He was a sorcerer, one with the potential for unbelievably destructive magic. Fire. Fire could destroy anything in it’s way. There was no way that the people there wouldn’t acknowledge how much of a threat Maleko would grow to be.

They had no reason to keep him alive, not when his soul could be used to bolster their own strength, to make new Death Scythe.

Kai took in a deep breath and held it. She counted five seconds before exhaling through her nose, it was the best she could do to control the storm billowing within her. As she closed her eyes, she saw Maleko’s smiling face, him laughing and dancing around her in his innocent joy.

“Thank you for telling me,” Kai said and took a step back, and then she took another. There was no emotion in her voice, no inflection, her tone was dead. “That was all I needed to know. Goodbye.”

It was as if clarity had finally struck her, as though everything suddenly made sense. Everything she needed to do now was perfectly clear. With a terrifyingly clam about her, she raised her hand, palm outstretched to the meister chained to the floor before her.

Water was in everything.

The human body itself was mostly water at roughly 60% in a healthy young adult. Blood was 92% water. The skin was made up of 64% water, the bones were water at 31%. Even the organs, the most vital part of the body raged from 70% to 83% water depending on what the organ was; be it the brain, the heart, the lungs or even the kidneys. Water was the key to every organic substance.

Right now, Kai could feel every ounce of the water within him, could feel it all pulsating.

The meister was staring at her, trying to seem unaffected but was betrayed by his own body as she could see the hint of unease starting to show  through in his eyes. Then, without warning his body began to violently convulse.

Mouth open in a wordless scream, all the man could get out were gurgles and gasps as his eyes bulged and he writhed in his chains, unable to do anything. Right before Kai his body began to bulge and swell, a pulsing forming under his skin. With every small twitch of her hand, his body contorted in a new way, the compositions of his own being surrendering to her will.

He bulged and swelled, the chains digging deep into his skin as his body gradually grew bigger and bigger, like a balloon being inflated. He gasped and shuddered, the most he could do.

Then, like a grape, the meister burst.

It was messy. It was disgusting. The weaker willed of the Acolytes flinched back, one or two had ran to the walls and began to retch onto the floor in response to the grotesque sight. Silence had fallen over the crowd.

The stage was covered in blood, in chunks of flesh and meat. His own entrails were a pile of unidentifiable mush. There was no way to easily recognize who this meister had been, not without a lab. Even then, with no body and only a pile of gore remaining, it might be impossible for even a lab to find out who this meister was.

Kai let her hand fall limp at her side as she stared at the mess of pulpy, bloodied meat on the stage. It had been so long since she had used her magic for that. She always preferred to kill others in different, less messy ways. It was easier, less bloody. But no agent of Death deserved a less painful death.

Slowly but surely the Acolytes began crying out once more in cheers. Overcoming their surprise, they let screamed out praises, insults to Death, and other cheers for Kai. Overjoyed at the savage murder of the meister, of the death of the False God’s follower. So easily pleased. It would be hard for Kai to do something that would turn them against her, they were far too gone.

She was starting to remember why she stuck around them for so long. Blind loyalty like theirs was rare to come by. They asked for nothing in return and would die for her if she asked it.

Yuri stepped over the mess, kicking what might have been a liver out of the way as he addressed the cheering crowd. “What other proof do we need that this woman is the one we believe her to be? She is, without a doubt, our Goddess! She has brought punishment to the heretic!”

The crowd only grew crazier with their cheering as Yuri spoke.

“We are the children of the sea, my brothers and my sisters. From the sea we came from and to the sea we shall return,” Yuri yelled out to the cheering crowd. “Water is the absolute of this world, the source of life and death. We are the Acolytes of our Goddess of the Seas, the one true God of this world and the next!

“The world has grown sick, a corruption taking over the earth and the people. They have forgotten the truth. They worship the False God,” Yuri continued as he paced the stage, the crowds only grew stronger and louder, far too much for Kai to make out what they were saying. “It is time for us to reclaim what is ours. The sea is dominant, the waters rule us all. We must strike down the False God and his followers!”

He turned to Kai, his words English now, his face serious. “The Acolytes have been and will always be yours.”

“I expect that the ones who could not attend to this will be informed?” Kai returned as the crowds continued to cheer.

The corners of Yuri’s lips quirked upwards in a smile, “Of course. We have recorded you, and if you permit us, we will send the recording to the others so that there is no doubt that our Goddess has returned to us.”

That’s smart. Let them see what she can do, they wont doubt her authority. If not out of respect for her as their ‘God’, then out of fear that they may suffer the same fate as the meister if they betray her. Let them love her unconditionally, worship her, and for those who do not, then fear will be how she controls them.

“We have a lot of work to get to, Mashkov,” far too much work. Everything that Death had ever built was going to burn to ashes before she was done. “We will start working right away. I want you and the others at the top of the Acolytes ready to meet privately with me to discuss our first course of action before the night is over. Is there a place we can meet away from the others?”

There was a nod, “There is an administrative building that we can use to meet. Tell me when and we will be ready.”

Good. That was good. Kai nodded and glanced back at the crowds, “Get what men you need to attend this meeting, get the room ready. I will be with you shortly.” There were things she needed to do first before she met with the top brass of this branch.

With a slight bow, Yuri Mashkov confirmed her orders and backed off the stage, being swallowed up into the still cheering crowds.

Glancing back at the mess on the floor, Kai took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. Even after killing him, the storm inside her was still raging. It wouldn’t quell, couldn’t be quelled. No, there was too much rage in her soul for it to die down so easily. The urge to destroy was too strong.

“You did wonderfully,” Medusa was suddenly at her side and Kai’s very soul felt slimy. A small hand fell on her arm. “I couldn’t be prouder, you impressed them, you did more than that, you affirmed their faith and their loyalty. This went better than I could have imagined. But this is only the beginning.”

(Get your hand off me) Kai felt her hand clench into a fist as Medusa kept her hand on her. The storm continued to grow stronger and stronger.

“We’ve still much work to do,” Medusa continued as though she couldn’t sense the tension in Kai, or perhaps she just didn’t care.

Instead of replying, Kai stared at the hundreds of bodies still cheering while watching them, watching Kai. Her eyes glanced to the bloody mess on the floor, her nose twitching as the rancid stench of death began filling the air and her eyes moved back up to the crowd. They were cheering for Kai. They were screaming out their devotion and loyalty to her, to her. Not Medusa, but Kai.

They would never follow Medusa.

There was something awful building up inside of Kai, something toxic and poisonous. But she swallowed it down and let it dig its roots in.

“You know,” Kai began, her voice a calm against the hate and rage within her. “This partnership is entirely one-sided, completely dependent.” From the barrels surrounding them water rose into the air and in clear tendrils, they flowed towards Kai and Medusa. The cheers began to quiet as an anticipation filled the crowd.

“Kai?” Medusa began warningly.

She ignored her. “Absolutely dependent. You need me, whatever your plans really are, you need me for them to work, because you need me to use the Acolytes. But I don’t have any need for you, none whatsoever,” Kai said absentmindedly as she watched the water dance around in the air. “And I don’t even like you enough to keep you around when you have no use.”

The water shot out and faster than Medusa could respond, it had wrapped itself around her like a bubble. Her body, the child whose body she was using, wasn’t strong enough to force itself out of the water Kai had swallowed her in.

Slowly the water began to inch higher and higher up and it submerged more of Medusa into it, and just for extra measure, Kai began increasing the pressure of the water so that Medusa would feel the pain of her body being crushed.

“Kai, let me go right now!” Medusa’s face was contorted in anger. As if she hadn’t planned on a betrayal like this. A grave oversight on the snakes part. “Let me go—mmph!” she was completely swallowed now and as Medusa spoke she instead swallowed a mouthful of the frigid water.

Kai watched as Medusa squirmed in the water, the clock ticking, bubbles filling the water as Medusa fought for air that wasn’t there to be found.  Even as Kai watched Medusa drown, she couldn’t feel anything inside her. No satisfaction at finally seeing the witch die, knowing it was unlikely that Medusa could survive this, no satisfaction at seeing someone in pain and die.

She was empty.

Maleko had been the one who gave her feelings, had been the one who let her feel something, anything. But he was gone, had left her and with him he had taken her feelings. Once again she was as numb as she had been before she met him, she was as empty inside as she had been when she had first met Maleko, as she had been her entire life before meeting him.

The water dispelled, falling to the ground and mixing with the blood and gusts of the meister as Medusa’s dead body fell ungraciously to the stage.

“Kom,” Kai called out, her voice dead. She glanced to the edge of the stage. Eruka and Free were staring in absolute horror of what Kai had done, but Kom was pushing between them to scrambled up the stage and to get to her side.

He was careful to step over the messes that Kai had caused, but didn’t appear too bothered by what had occurred. “What do you need?” he asked. Loyal. Kom had always been loyal to her for as long as she had known him. He would make for a good ally. She wasn’t sure about the other two.

“I have a task for you; you’re one of the best sorcerers when it comes to poisons, and there is a poison I need you to make, and I need you to make it as quickly as possible,” Kai was already walking off the stage, through the parting crowd to make her way back to the stairs, leaving the other two by the stage behind her. If they wanted to  work with her, they can stay. But if they wanted to stay away and out of this mess, this would be their only chance to leave.

Kom hummed as he walked at her side. “As long as I can get the ingredients and tools I’d need, I should be able to make what you want, within reasons.”

She expected no less of him. Poison was his specialty; in magic and in science. Though he was just as adept at creating antidotes, his poisons were among the best. He sold them on the black market on occasion. There was no one else she could imagine doing a task such as this. “Without weapons, the academy would be useless. The meisters need their weapons, can’t fight without them." Meisters were far too dependant on their partners. The weapons were the real threat when it came to the DWMA, most meisters, save for a few, were useless and weak without their weapons. "I want you to make a poison that'll affect the weapons. Get them out of the picture."

Chapter Text

“There, that should be the last of the boxes,” Soul grunted as he dropped a cardboard box onto the hard floor by three others. He stood back up and popped his back before dusting his hands off, “Wouldn’t be so hard if there weren’t so many stairs to carry these down, though I’ll take carrying these down stairs than carrying them up all these stairs.”

The lighting was so dim down here and Maka couldn’t help but purse her lips. Maybe they ought to get some lamps to help add in more light. “I still don’t understand why they couldn’t have used one of the overnight rooms that was above ground. These rooms are more like prison cells than guest rooms.” There was a chill in the room. The barred windows and stone floors and walls didn’t help it at all, either.

It bothered her that Crona enough had to sleep down here underground, and now Maleko was being relocated down here as well. He might have been better off sleeping in the infirmary than in the overnight rooms. But at the same time, Maka could understand the need to move him, as long as he was in there the students had limited access to the infirmary, for both their sakes; a lot of students were still very… unhappy with keeping Maleko here for the simple fact that he was a sorcerer. The faculty wanted to limit the possibility of some incident happening.

“Apparently he threw himself out a window at one point already,” Soul said as he dropped to his knees and tore the tape off one of the boxes to open it before rummaging through, “Tore out his nails and got himself hurt worse than he already had been. Guess they wanna keep that from happening again.”

“I doubt he’s going to jump out a window again,” Maka mumbled as she made her way to the bed. It was brightly colored with the sheets and bedding on it, all ocean themed with colorful fish printed on the fabric. Marie picked it out if she remembered right. “Crona, we can get you things to put in your room too, if you want. Liven it up a little?”

Crona had been lingering silently at the far wall, nervously shuffling a couple of stuffed cat plushies that had been left for the child and they gave a startled jump when Maka addressed them before stumbling to their feet and turning to face her. “No, no, it’s okay, really,” they stammered, playing with their hands and not looking her in the eyes. “I really don’t need anything, I’ll be fine.”

She wasn’t too happy with that but didn’t push it. Maybe she could bring down some decorations for her friend later without them knowing.

“Well, the two of you are going to be neighbors now, if anything happens and you get worried for any reason, don’t be afraid to call us,” Soul offered. Even with how long Maleko had been with them so far, a few weeks at least, Crona and him hadn’t really interacted. Actually, Maka couldn’t remember seeing the two ever in the same room together, save for the few times that Maleko snuck into the classroom to be with Maka and Soul. There was a part of her, the corner of her mind, that was nagging her with worry.

Maleko and Crona were both followers of dangerous witches, they probably had some form of history together if the rumors that Kai and Medusa were working together are true. But from what she knew, she didn’t know if they’d be able to get along. Maleko was a happy kid, he clearly didn’t mean to cause problems or upset people, but he could be a bit… much at times. He could easily become more than Crona could handle. And of course there was also Ragnarok, the weapon might egg Maleko on to do something he wasn’t supposed to, and the boy probably wouldn’t even question it.

If either of them needed help, Maka would be ready to rush down to the overnight rooms to help them.

“We’ll be fine, I, I promise,” Crona mumbled, grasping at their arm tightly. It was amazing that Ragnarok hadn’t come out of theirback yet to respond with some witty remark yet. But Maka knew that the peace wouldn’t last, he’d come out eventually with some insult or snide remark that no one wanted to hear.

“Well… we don’t have all day, let’s try and get everything as set up as possible before Marie and Spirit come down with Maleko,” Maka changed the subject as she headed over to where a small bookshelf was waiting to be put together. “Soul, I think there’s a rug somewhere behind the boxes, if you want to get that unrolled and put down? Crona, can you unpack the boxes so we know what all is there?”

She wasn’t entirely sure what all was bought. Though Maka and Soul had brought a few things for Maleko, most of the stuff Marie and Spirit had bought and brought. She suspected that the two enjoyed dealing with Maleko, like there were honorary aunt and uncle, or maybe they just liked being able to take care of a kid like a parent would.

There were probably going to be more rules put down once he got moved into the overnight rooms. Spirit said he wasn’t going to be under constant observation anymore; he was young and couldn’t use Soul Protect yet, so even if he ran off so long as he was in range they’d be able to track him down. But he wouldn’t be able to leave the room without someone with him, either, just to keep him from causing problems or others causing problems. But he was a good day so Maka didn’t think they had to worry too much about that.

“Hey, Crona, I’ve been wonder. Do you know anything about Kai or Maleko?” Soul asked as he pulled the rug so that it was at the side of the bed. “I know that the teachers probably already questioned you on this.”

Crona mumbled something that Maka couldn’t quite hear as they pulled a few childrens books from one of the box, placing it in a pile on the floor. “I mean, I don’t know them that well. Kai never, she never really came to meetings with other witches often…”

As though waiting for that moment, Ragnarok tore out of Crona’s back and rested on their head. “Kai is a Hell of a crazy bitch, I’ll give you that,” he said, ignoring Crona’s cry of complaint as he snatched one of the books from their hands. “Like damn, I thought Medusa was bad, but she is something else.”

“How so?” Maka asked as she pushed a piece of wood into place on the shelf. It was hard to imagine someone especially bad when thinking of Kai Palakiko, not with how much love and adoration Maleko had when he spoke of her. But at the same time, Maka knew that Kai was a danger, a threat to the people around her. It was jarring, really. Maleko spoke of her as though there was no one on this planet that could be even a fraction of how good and amazing she was, but her actions told a different story.

With a grunt, Ragnarok threw the book into the pile and started digging through the boxes for something to occupy himself with. “She’s crazy. I’ve never met someone who can kill like her. When you kill someone you feel something, regret for some, others get an adrenaline rush, a thrill or some kind of satisfaction. But Kai? The woman feels nothing when she kills. She feels nothing for anything. It was like she didn’t have any concept of emotions, no empathy, no desire. The only time she really seemed to show any feeling was when she was angry, and you did not want her angry.”

“Kai can control water… La—Medusa told us stories of the ways that she could use the water in our own bodies to kill someone,” Crona’s voice had gone quiet, a shudder running through their body. Maka took a breath as she imagined the possibilities that kind of magic would have.

She had suspected that the magic only allowed her to control water from outside sources like rivers, faucets, oceans, that sort of things. She hadn’t considered that Kai could control the water in bodies. That made her dangerous, more dangerous than Maka initially thought. Though there was already reason to catch the witch, the urgency and priority that task held was growing more prominent in Maka’s opinion.

“I don’t get how Maleko can like someone like her so much,” Soul spoke up from where he had gone to sit on the bed. “He’s a good kid, kind of, well a lot naïve, but even he would have noticed that Kai isn’t that good of a person. How’d she even get her hands on him? Can’t imagine he’d be so happy to follow her if she abducted him from his parents or something.”

“Well, it’s not like that,” Crona said softly, and when the two looked at Crona, they flinched back as if they had said the wrong thing.

But Maka stepped forward and held a hand, reaching for them to comfort but not actually touching Crona to try and respect their personal bubble. “What do you mean ‘it’s not like that’?” She asked curiously. “Do you know how Kai got him?”

With pale hands fumbling together, Crona’s eyes darted about with all the attention on them, and so Ragnarok spoke up. Driving his fist hard into the back of Crona’s head, he pushed his meister to bend forward. “What it sounds like. We don’t know a lot about Kai, she’s crazy private. But we know the gist of how she got the kid, at least rumors. First off, obviously Maleko aint her blood kid. Despite his name, the kid isn’t Hawaiian like her, he’s Japanese—no amount of tropical tan is going to hide it.”

Well, that much she knew already. Even though his name, Maleko Palakiko, was Hawaiian in nature, the kid wasn’t. It was a name Kai had given him, though he never said if he knew a name that he had before the one she gave him.

“Apparently she found him on some excursion of sorts into the wilderness, some jungle or another,” Ragnarok continued as he used Crona’s head as an armrest. “when she brought him to the his first witch meeting? The kid was completely feral. Like I don’t think he knew he was a person. He walked about on four as often on two legs, sniffed everything and everyone, and only ever just growled or whined, no words. Sometimes he got aggressive, in the way animals would when challenging others. But whenever Kai said something, he’d look to her and come back to her side without complaint, even if he probably couldn’t understand anything she said. I don’t know if it’s because he saw her as some kind of ‘pack alpha’, or if he imprinted on her or something, but he listened to her.”

Sure Maleko was weird, he was wild and a bit… well, not as developed as other kids, but Maka wouldn’t say he was feral. There was no records of who he was or where he came from, she had assumed his behavior a result of his upbringing. But if what Ragnarok had said was true, that may have been worse.

“So he was abandoned in a jungle? That’s terrible,” Maka couldn’t help the venom in her voice as she spoke, “even for witches, if his parents just left him like that, that’s terrible!” She hadn’t had much expectations for witch parents, not with how Medusa had treated Crona, but still.

“Kai was probably the first person he met who was good to him, I can… I can understand why he’d latch on to her,” Crona mumbled, head still facing the floor as Ragnarok leaned on them. “He made her nicer, though. She smiled sometimes at the meeting when he was around.”

Even still… even if he was a sorcerer, he wasn’t a bad person. Maleko deserved a healthy family, not to be living with someone who would only take advantage and use him, and it was impossible for Maka to think of Kai and not to think that she was only manipulating him like Medusa had to Crona, only where Medusa used cruelty and violence, Kai was using kindness and affection to get her way.

There hadn’t been a lot of progress in even finding Kai despite how much time had passed. Whatever lead was found went cold, didn’t matter how many times DWMA found her trail, they’d lose it all the same. There were meister and weapon pairs all over the globe now keeping an eye out to try and find any sign of her in their region, but from what Maka could tell by the snippets she heard from Spirit and Marie, they weren’t having any luck. Not even the investigation Lord Death sent Kid on was bearing too much fruit.

He learned more about Kai than the others had by questioning her town, but even he couldn’t discern where she came from. In fact, apparently the intel that Kid had gotten contradicted the snippets of information they were getting in the field. According to the people who knew Kai by living near her, she was a solitary person, and yet investigations showed she was working with Medusa’s group.

It was frustrating to think that someone so dangerous was still free.

“Maka,” Soul began slowly and she looked up from the shelf to turn and face him, “You’re making that face again. Somethings bothering you.” Despite all appearances, Soul could be pretty perceptive.

But Maka just shook her head, “Just thinking of how the search for Kai and Medusa are going,” she admitted. “Sorry,” not that she had anything to apologize for. But she forced her mind away from that topic to focus on the task at hand; assembling the shelf and then stocking it full of things that Maleko might like.

She hoped he liked them.

…What age did a sorcerer start feeling the affects of the sway of magic? Kids didn’t get that destructive instinct, at least not on the same level of grown witches and sorcerers. But when he did start gaining that instinctual need for destruction, and he was going to feel it, he was a sorcerer, would he still…

Would he still be the happy and sweet boy that she knew? Would Maleko still be a friend?

Maka didn’t realize how much she’d come to care until she realized how much the worry for him was eating her away. He was a sorcerer, his magic was primarily fire, though she had not seen him use it personally, it was a relatively destructive force, a primal force. Was the child just a time bomb with the timer ticking down to when he succumbed to his need for destruction and burned the academy down? Would they have to fight him when that time come? Would someone have to kill him and his soul be used to turn their weapon into a Death Scythe?

Was that day tomorrow? Would it be next week? Next month? Was next year the year the pull of magic came for him? Would being friends even matter to him when that moment came or would he be unable to overcome an instinct like that?

No, no, she couldn’t think like that.

Maka shook her head to get those thoughts out and doubled her effort to sorting the books and toys onto the small bookshelf for him. They only had so much time to put things together after all, she would like to have the room all set up before Marie or Spirit brought Maleko down. From what she understood he was still in the infirmary getting his stitches removed and some last examinations before he’d be brought down to his new room. It probably wouldn’t be the same as his room back home, not that he could go back there considering the house was completely demolished, but maybe he could think of this as home too.

She glanced over at Crona still huddled by the boxes, working in determined, if not nervous, silence as Ragnarok lounged on their head. She would have to go to the store and find some decorations for them to brighten up their room while they were out. Sure Crona said it’d be fine, but she wanted to do something like that for them.

For now, just focus on the task at hand. No more letting her mind wander to what ifs and maybes. Just focus on getting the room all prepared.

 

It had only been an hour but they had just barely gotten everything put together and sorted out when they could hear footsteps drawing closer in the dark halls beyond the door, followed by the familiar energetic yipping noise and bouncing feet. Maleko was on his way, and not a moment too soon.

The door opened and Marie smiled as she saw the room, “I’m glad we weren’t too early,” She said and looked down at Maleko who had his small skinny fingers wrapped around her own. He blinked owlishly at the room as he was led into the small space, green eyes roaming from face to face then to the room itself. He was dressed in an blue sleeveless shirt and a pair of shorts today, and Maka was sure she had seen Blackstar wearing that shirt before, the large star on it just cemented that belief.

Marie nudged Maleko into the room further, still smiling at him, “Well, Maleko, this will be your room from now on,” she said in a tone that could almost be considered motherly. The child looked up at her and made a strange noise as he cocked his head like a confused puppy. “We can’t keep you living in the infirmary the whole time, we thought it was time to give you a bedroom in the guest dorms. Is that okay?”

Looking back at the room, a smile finally broke across Maleko’s face, “Mine?” he asked and was given nods in return. Letting go of Marie’s hand, Maleko bounded across the room to jump onto the bed before scampering off to look at the toys on the bookshelf and the different children’s books. “Mine! All mine! Thank you!”

Marie laughed a little as he pulled a bunny from the shelf and hugged it, giggling as he spun around the room, exploring all the new things in there like he had struck gold and wanted to see just what treasures he had now.

The way that his smile radiated joy and life, childish innocence, Maka couldn’t help but feel warm inside and feel the worry in her mind get gnawed away. He was too kind and too sweet, how could the pull of magic ever change that about him? How could magic ever make a sweet child like him destructive and cruel?

He was a feral being once, her mind argued, he could easily go back into an instinct based state again.

She couldn’t block out the worry and concern.


 

The night had settled and the others had left Maleko alone in his room to sleep until the sun rose again.

It wouldn’t quite fit to say he was happy, he had been ecstatic to get his own room and his own toys again. He hadn’t had any of this since he had been taken from his home, and sure this wasn’t like his bedroom back home, it was underground, dim and chilly, but it was his and that’s what mattered.

It wasn’t like the lighting or cold would bother him. His magic, the fire flowing in his veins kept him warm enough, and if he was bothered by the lighting, he could light a fire in a corner and give him more light and more heat. But he was happy.

There were toys, there was a comfortable bed, and he had a window, though it was barred up. He couldn’t complain, he had all that he needed, all that he really wanted. Well, not all that he wanted, but it was only a matter of time before his friends found Mama for him.

And his injuries were healing nicely, Nygus said so herself! They took the weird string stuff they had sewn onto him out earlier, so that was a good sign, right?

There were so many new scents that filled the room, and he had spent plenty of time exploring it all until the sun had gone down. Now Maleko was content to just curl up on his new bed, cuddling the bunny plush that they had given him until sleep overtook him.

There was a pecking at his window.

Maleko sat up and  crawled across his bed to look at the closed window. Sitting between the bars and pecking at the glass was a hunched over bird. He couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was, but it was pecking insistently at his glass.

The boy got off his bed and made his way to the window. It was twice as high as he was tall, as so he had to climb onto the little kids desk just to peer up at the bird.

It was big, brown and stopped pecking when Maleko got closer, staring at him with bright yellow eyes. It’s feathers ruffled a little and it hunched a little lower as it stared at him.

Maleko smiled, tapping against the glass of his window, “Hello.”

Chapter Text

If Kom had one complaint about the beginnings of their alliance with the Acolytes, it was the location. Russia and he had not mixed well, it came with having the same cold-blooded physique of his reptilian theme. The cold had left him feeling off, he felt slow and sluggish and he knew that he was not at his best while they were in the northern reaches of Russia.

As long as he was alongside Kai, then he absolutely had to be at his best.

Whether being at his best meant being in top shape for a fight, or having his mind sharpened for whatever mixtures she wanted him to work on, he could not slack off, he could not be inhibited, and the cold of the land had left him as inhibited as could be.

That would not do, could not do, not when Kai had given him a job to do, and a big one at that.

A poison that could affect weapons. There were a lot of ways that he could go about this, a  general poison was one thing, it’d attack the systems, kill slowly or quickly, painfully or painlessly depending on the ingredients he added. But she wanted something that targeted weapons specifically. Personally he thought it’d be better to target all of them, but what Kai said went.

Perhaps she wanted to get rid of half the team so that the remaining half would have to suffer more. That sounded like something Kai would do.But for whatever her reasons, it didn’t matter. He was going to get her that poison one way or another.

And Kom had been working hard at it ever since he had been given the job. Looking over his past notes and recipes for something to work off of—he could make one out of scratch, but that would take more time than if he modified an existing poison or used an existing recipe he had as a base to work off of. Time was of the essence after all.

So for the past weeks he had been working in one lab to another, moving every time Kai and the group traveled to a new place to either recruit more Acolytes to their forces or just to stay on the move to keep Death off their trail. Of course constantly being on the move was proving a challenge to making the poison, but it was a challenge he’d overcome many times and would overcome now.

There were already so many discarded failures that he had to toss out, and he yearned to return home to where his own stores and gardens were, where he had all the ingredients he might need. But he couldn’t, right now returning to Hawaii was too dangerous since the academy was still thoroughly investigating the islands for any hint of where Kai had gone. He was working with limited and sparse ingredients, things that they were able to get their hands on while traveling. ‘

Of course the Acolytes were proving useful. All he had to do was provide them a list of names, numbers and descriptions and they’d get him as much of the list as they could. Sure none of them knew the first thing of alchemy and potion making, but they were trying their best to provide as much help as they could in whatever ways they could. All to gain Kai’s favor, of course, but whatever the reasons, he appreciated the help.

Eruka and Free had tagged along and were providing help as well, though he didn’t understand why the pair didn’t take the chance they had to leave when they could. Maybe they just thought that it’d be safer working with Kai than getting stuck in the crosshairs of a war. They were probably going to face repercussions from the Witch Order for what they did with Medusa, trying to revive the Kishin and all that, the two might think it would be safer for them to stick around.

He wasn’t going to question it, or try to figure out if that was their motives for staying or not. So long as they could help him (so long as they could help Kai, because that was more important in his books), he didn’t care why they stayed.

“Let’s see…” Kom murmured, flicking his tongue out and narrowing his eyes at the table before him. They’d managed to get out of Russia and deeper into Europe and were now in some European valley miles away from towns and staying in the farmland of a farmer who just so happened to have drunk the Acolyte Kool aid. They’d been able to set him up a decent enough lab in the empty barn, it wasn’t too great but he wouldn’t complain.

On the table he had a mortar and pestle resting on some crumpled paper, inside was a mixture of brown and green powder from a variety of leaves and herbs he had put in. His retort was hung above an open flame, the vapors coming out and running down the neck into a new bottle. Other vials and bottles were placed around the table, a scale on the side for comparing weights and in bottles, cases and even hanging from the rafters were ingredients he had been able to scrounge together.

Kom went to the bigger vial that was simmering on a burner next to an open notebook full of his notes. “Lion’s hairs and… lets add some bloodwort to the mix,” he decided as he took a pinch of the leaves and added them to the mortar, grinding them up with his pestle in a smooth rhythm. “Some lady’s glove and may lily to give it a kick,” he had to scan the different labels to find the flowers before adding them in.

When it was a fine powder he began slowly pouring the powder into the larger container, stirring it in as though he was adding the flour and sugar to the wet ingredients of a cake recipe. “I think some tongue of dog could work, or maybe some maypops?”

This is what he loved most about his work, figuring out what ingredients to put together to get the right result. It was like trying to solve a puzzle, find the pieces that fit the best and voila. Of course puzzles didn’t usually kill someone like his poisons did, but not everything can be as fun.

Of course it wouldn’t work if you didn’t have an idea of what you wanted in the end. His poison, it wasn’t going to kill the victims, he had something better in mind. Hopefully Kai would be impressed, hopefully it’d make her happy.

Kom just wanted her happy.

He knew for a long time she wasn’t going to be happy with him, he couldn’t make her happy and completed, no matter how hard he tried. But then Maleko came along and for the first time in forever, he was seeing her alive, she had a look on her face, as though she had finally found a reason to live, a reason to be happy.

It had been the most beautiful expression he had ever seen, he didn’t want her to ever lose that.

But now Maleko was gone, and with him had gone Kai’s reason to feel joy and reason to feel anything.

He couldn’t replace the child, there was nothing on this world that could ever replace Maleko for her. But at the very least Kom could do whatever he could to make her feel better, even if it was just the satisfaction of defeating her enemies.

Maybe it wasn’t really fair of him to work so hard for her sake, it wasn’t as if she particularly deserved to be happier than others. She had done a lot of horrible things and worse over the centuries—they both had. Kai wasn’t some saint who had only ever been given the short stick in life, she wasn’t a good person, not when Maleko wasn’t involved. Take right now for example; here she was raising an army of humans with no special abilities to them to wage a war against the DWMA, both the organization and the school—a school, might he add, was full of students, kids, who were only doing this because they thought it was the right thing to do or they didn’t know better. Kai wasn’t going to care how many of those kids got hurt, how many of them got killed, she wouldn’t show remorse for the hundreds upon hundreds of dead bodies from both sides that would come from the war.

And yet Kom couldn’t find it in him to care nearly as much as he should. Even knowing all this, he wanted to do what he could for Kai, just for the chance to see her smile, truly smile. It wasn’t right, he knew this. But it didn’t matter if it was right or wrong, nothing was going to change. He’d follow her through the gates of Hell if that’s where she went.

Loyalty was a funny thing.

Kom snorted a little as he thought of it, letting his stick out between his pursed lips as he focused on the potions at hand. His scales itched under his skin.

“Bloodroot or beetle toe…. Bloodroot or beetle toe,” he mumbled to himself as he held up the small Ziploc bags of the two ingredients, one in each hand as he weighed them in his palms and locked back and forth between them. Decisions, decisions. Bloodroot might cause clotting, but beetle toe can cause vomiting. The enemy can’t fight or transform if they’re too busy puking up their guts.

But… he put the bags down and rustled through the other ingredients, “Devil’s snare!” he grinned, a smile full of sharp teeth and ill intents. Nothing worked quite as well as a devil’s snare when it came to killer cocktails, and so he quickly pulled a few of the dried white flowers out of the bag and tossed them into the emptied mortar, grinding them up into as fine a powder as he could get them.

As if Asclepius himself had come down from the stars above and had struck Kom with a burst of inspiration on just what he needed to do, though it wasn’t quite a medicine he was making, poison wasn’t too different when being created. But Kom found his mind whirling with things to do, ingredients to add and steps to take, and each pause between action was filled with him making notes of it in his notebook.

Kom was adjusting the temperature of the burner over one of his glass flasks, inside a bubbling lime green concoction that emitted a rancid stench, when he noticed the doors to the barn being pulled open, but he didn’t turn around. His tongue had snuck out between pursed lips and he knew that Kai had come up into the barn.

“How’re the meetings in there going?” Kom asked, not looking up from what he was doing. He had to make sure the heat was exact or else the result might not be what he wanted.

Kai shook her head as she took a seat on a hay bale across from him, heaving out a sigh as she leaned back. “Stressful. I’m remembering why I left them, that’s for sure. Generations may pass, but the Acolytes still maintain some of their more annoying habits,” she rolled her eyes as she spoke, “It’s like now that I’m here they don’t want to think for themselves.”

“They want to make sure they do only what you want. You’re their God, or something,” Kom explained and smiled when he got the burner just right, now allowing himself to straighten up and look as his friend. She was dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, looking as comfortably dressed as could.

“You get magic that allows you to control water, and apparently that’s the magic that’s deserving to be considered divine,” she shook her head again as if the whole concept was ridiculous, and honestly it was. “Humans worshiping a witch. It’s just magic, not a divine blessing.”

“Don’t tell them that, you need them to worship you,” Kom smiled wryly, but his smile fell quickly when Kai snapped her head over to look at him.

“I know that,” she growled and then ran her hands through her hair, gripping the stands tightly in stress. She was stressed often, Kom noticed. Ever since they had left that first meeting, where she killed Medusa and the meister, she had been more volatile. She was sleeping less, too, drinking more… needless to say, it worried him.

He glanced at his work and decided that it’d survive him stepping away for a few minutes.

“So what’s our next move?” he asked as he pulled his gloves off, leaving them by his ingredients before joining Kai on the hay. “Going to keep building up our forces? Start on the offensive?” he hadn’t been present with the meetings Kai was holding with the heads of the Acolytes, too busy working on this poison for her to go out and socialize.

She shrugged, “Until you get this poison done, we’re not doing anything against the school yet,” Kai answered and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “As much as I want to tear everything Death built brick by brick, blood by blood, I’m not doing anything when he has an army that’s fully functional. The Acolytes have the advantage that they’re human souls, Death will try not to kill them if he can, but that’s about it. They don’t have the same training or tools as the academy.”

Kai had a point, he would admit. The Acolytes got defeated the first time they went to war against Death. There wasn’t much to say this time would be any different. That’s why it was important to immobilize the weapons somehow.

“I’m doing what I can, going a few nights of no sleep just to try and make some ground on this,” Kom said gently, watching her face for any hint of change in her mood. “You gave me a pretty tall order.”

With a scoff, Kai scowled and looked at him, “Now you’re telling me that you can’t do it?”

“I didn’t say that,” Kom responded, an air of offense in his voice. Can’t do it? No matter the request, he can always find a way to finish a poison or potion. This wasn’t going to be any different, it was just more of a challenge. “I can do it, it just takes more work, more time. Doesn’t help that I’m working with limited supplies and a lab that has to be moved every time we travel.”

She only hummed and got up from her seat to start looking around his workspace, picking up trial and error results of potions in colors that varied from dirty water to vivid green, all with it’s own range of acrid smells. She tilted the bottles, let them splash about within their glass containers, weighed them in her hands with a thoughtful expression.

His workspace in this barn couldn’t even compare to the one he had back home, though it was more akin to the shabby potion brewing station that Kai had kept in her basement and left mostly untouched. Though she was a witch, raised by witches and taught how to make potions like many of their kind, it had never been a skill that Kai had been particularly good at. Most of her attempts in alchemy such as this ended with disastrous results or with nothing but colorful water.

Yet even if she was terrible at it herself, Kai examined his work with an eye of criticism and appreciation, that even though it was not something she could do herself, she did not feel anger or jealousy at others who could. His work had always been appreciated by her, she respected what he could do, respected him.

Maybe she could feel more for him than respect. He knew it wasn’t going to happen, yet Kom could always hope and wish.

“If you want to, need to, you are more than welcome to stay back from the main body to work on this. I do not intend to disrupt your work or make things harder for you, so if staying here to focus on making the poison will benefit you more, you are free to stay,” Kai said finally as she put down the potions in her hand and turned to look at Kom, her eyes, once a sharp and vivid blue were becoming dull in color, the life leaving them more and more with each day that passed, with each passing hour since Maleko was declared dead.

She had nothing to live for. When Death was slain and his organization destroyed, Kom worried about what Kai would do then. She would be alone, and being alone was not something she needed, as much as she might disagree. And being among the throng of Acolytes who followed her, she would still be alone. If he could help it, he would rather not leave her like that.

Kom smiled, “You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he said shaking his head and giving a soft laugh. “Even if it makes things more difficult, I’m traveling with you guys. Besides, you need someone at your side who won’t agree simply out of pure devotions, someone who’ll throw in counterarguments and point out terrible ideas when you come up with one.”

For a moment he thought he saw her lips twitch into the becoming of a smile, but just as quick as it appeared, her face became a wall of stone once more, “I suppose you’re right. You are a voice of reason in an unreasonable place,” she conceded. “As long as you think you can make this poison while on the move, then you’re free to do so.”

“You have my word, I won’t let it interfere. You’ll get this poison one way or another,” Kom promised. Even if it took weeks, months… years, he’d make a poison that’d cut weapons out of the equation.

It wasn’t as though they were in any real rush, right now the Acolytes, right now Kai had all the time in the world to gather her strength and prepare. Even if she wanted to destroy the DWMA and everything it stood for as soon as possible, now that there was no need to rescue Maleko—as terrible a thing as it was to admit—there was no rush to get things done as fast as possible.

Personally, Kom would like for them to take as much time as needed to gather what they need. From what he had  figured out from their brief encounters with DWMA agents, it didn’t seem as though Death really knew what Kai was doing, that the Acolytes were still around and growing stronger. Right now they needed to take advantage of that and use this time to make the Acolytes stronger. Buffer their defenses, charge their offense. Better weapons, better armor, better tools, everything had to be better if they were going to beat DWMA this time.

That’s what Kom was here for, to make things better. Cut out the weapons, maybe make a potion that can make the Acolytes stronger in some way. Hmm… perhaps one that charges up the soul wavelength, some Meisters were able to shoot their wavelength into other beings, perhaps he can make a potion that’d affect the Acolytes to temporarily give them the same capabilities, or maybe a ‘super soldier’ serum like movies enjoy making. Anything that can give the Acolytes a better edge.

They were only human, after all, they’d need all the help they could get.

Kom pushed himself off the hay he sat on, stretched his arms high above his head and let his spine crack and pop as he bent backwards. “Well, Kai, as much as I love your company—and I truly do love being around you,” he let his forked tongue slither out for a moment as he spoke, tasting the air as he looked at her, “I should resume my own work, and I’m sure there are things you want to attend to.”

She stared at him for a long moment before nodded. Normally that would be it, but her stony expression had softened, had become… vulnerable. “There is,” she said softly, her hand clenching into a fist. “We’ve been on the move for such a long time since Russia, going from one place to another… we’ve not had the chance to stop and….” She trailed off, emotion starting to make her voice grow thick.

Now this was… not something he was used to from her. Had Kom ever seen Kai like this? Not that he could remember. “Kai, what is it?” he asked, worried and scared. What was going on?

She shook her head and brought a hand to her face to discretely rub a tear away. “Kom, I want to…” Kai stopped to take a breath, collecting herself. A few seconds passed before she looked up at him, her face hard and certain. “I want to give him a funeral. I can’t do a proper one, I have no body—I don’t even know if there was a body left behind, but he deserves one. He deserved a whole lot more than what he got, but this is at least something I can give him.”

And he understood what she meant, why she wanted to. Even with him gone, Maleko was still her weakness, still brought out humanity in her.

“A funeral,” Kom whispered and then nodded. “Yeah, okay… yeah. He needs a funerals, a memorial, something we can do for him. Are we going to do it here or…?”

Kai’s mouth twisted into a frown, “No. This place has no meaning to him, this farm wouldn’t be important to him at all,” she decided, taking another deep breath before looking out the open barn door into the horizon of pastor fields and grazing goats, “I want to have it somewhere that was special to him, important to him. It wouldn’t have meaning if I did it just anywhere.”

“I understand.”

“I’ll have to prepare things, I don’t know all that goes into a funeral, but I need to get things ready, I need to… need to figure out how to get there without being caught on the way,” she was mumbling to herself, almost as if she forgot Kom was there. “In a few weeks we can have it… can have everything ready by then.”

“Whatever you need me to do to help, I’ll do it,” Kom offered. “Maleko was, he was important to me, too,” maybe not as important to him as Kai was, but Maleko had been a good kid, a kind kid, someone Kom would have enjoyed seeing grow up, a kid he could have grown to see as a son of his own if given time.

Kai shook her head, “No, you focus on your task at hand, I should be able to handle everything on my own, and if I need help, well, that’s what the humans are for.”

And Kom could understand that, so he offered no argument as Kai made her decision. Whatever she planned to do for his funeral, wherever she planned to do it, she wanted to do as much of it on her own, and he would let her. He would let her focus on preparing for the funeral, and Kom would focus on making a poison to affect weapons on her behalf.

Even as they left the barn, traveled to another corner of the world before Death could pick up their trail again, and continued to travel, that is what they did. Whatever Kai planned for the funeral, she kept close to herself and let no one know while Kom kept all his progress in the open, updating the Acolytes and Kai about progress and setbacks in his poison.

Weeks later, he found her sitting beside a dirty window in the condemned building—once an office building by the layout—that they had taken refuge to this time. They had made great progress in building their armies, the Acolytes were rallying in secret, were preparing for war, and the war was drawing closer.

“Kai,” Kom said, knocking on the wall to get her attention, she snapped her head to look at him, the bruises under her eyes a sign of the sleep she was forfeiting these days. But Kom only smiled triumphantly, and in one hand he held out a series of papers—ingredients and instructions—and in the other he had a vial of still bubbling black liquid. She raised a thin eyebrow at his gifts, and Kom’s smile grew to show his sharp teeth. “It’s a prototype, I need trial runs and data on the results to know for sure if this is on the right track, but I think I’ve done it.”

Chapter Text

Over the weeks that had blurred by, so many so that it had actually been a couple of months in fact, it was safe to say that Maleko was quickly becoming a normal presence for many in the academy, despite being a sorcerer. Fewer students would snap their heads around to look at him when he left his room to wander the halls with either one of the adults or one of the students he had befriended, the halls—and classrooms whenever he snuck in to sit in a lecture—were less tense, as though not as many students were anticipating the nine-year-old to suddenly attack them.

In short, the students and staff were growing used to a sorcerer in their midst.

Of course there were many still who would watch him with disdain and distrust, staying close to their partners so to be ready for an attack, to cut down Maleko at the first sign of treachery.

If Maleko even noticed the way people would look at him, the way some stared at him like he was a monster, he never showed any sign of knowing it. He was happy, well Maleko was almost always happy. All smiles and giggles and full of unbound energy to try everything and do everything.

Whenever someone came down to visit him in his room below the school, he would leap off his bed or floor and drop whatever he was playing with to grab their hand and try to tug them into the room, babbling about this and that with a smile as bright as the sun. Sometimes Spirit and Marie would sneak more toys in his room when he was sleeping or when he was out with one of the students.

There was a murmur of suspicion that they were doing this because they honestly loved the idea of being able to be something of a parent, or to be a parent to a kid who appreciated it again for Spirit. There was no confirmation from either, so it was left as rumors.

Maka had been teaching him how to read little by little, how to write and it was safe to say that the boy could now spell and write his own name, as soon as he learned to do that, the boy just began handing out papers with ‘MALEKO’ scrawled sloppily on it to his friends and other students as though he were Blackstar handing out autographs.

Blackstar may have been the one to instigate that, though there was no proof.

But no one was going to stop Maleko from doing it either, he was proud of his new achievement, was proud that he knew something that everyone would know to do. How could someone crush that innocent and harmless source of joy?

He’d yet to meet Lord Death despite the time he had spent in there, sure Maleko had heard plenty of him, overheard the adults and students talking about him, or talking to him, but he had yet to see him face to face. Probably for the best, everyone had agreed. Even with the kid-friendly design Death had given himself, it might not be the best idea to have Maleko brought to him for a while longer.

And of course he wasn’t technically supposed to go anywhere on his own yet. If he left his room he had to be with someone else, preferably one of the teachers, but Two-Star students and higher could accompany him. Though Maka, Soul and their friends were still only One-Star students, due to circumstances (aka the amount of trust Maleko had in them, the somewhat responsible nature, and that the boy would listen to what they say) they were allowed to take him out of his room and accompany him around the school or even into town on the rare occasions.

It was a freedom that Maleko enjoyed, everyone who looked at him could tell that he loved being able to leave his room. The room may have been exciting at first, and it was still a good place for him, it was his own bedroom after all, but it was not a place he could stand to be in for too long. Maleko wasn’t good with small spaces, with enclosed and dim places, he had too much energy to stand it, he needed open spaces, large spaces to thrive, couldn’t survive being in a bedroom for days on end. The boredom would kill him if the need to run off and move his body didn’t.

Though the toys were a good way to divert all the pent up energy in a fun way. And he had a neighbor too, Crona and Ragnarok. Not that he actually saw them very often, but he tried to go to their door to invite them to play as often as he could so they wouldn’t feel left out. Usually he didn’t get a response even though he knew they were in their room.

Sometimes they were at class with Maka and Soul, it was fun watching Ragnarok make a scene there, though he didn’t like how the black blob person harassed Crona. Bullying wasn’t fun.

Maleko liked sitting in on classes. The zombie man would always talk about things that he didn’t understand, a lot of stuff about Soul that made no sense—why would the teacher be talking about Maleko’s friend that way? No one seemed bothered and apparently Soul was a common subject in the class thing. Sometimes they talked about witches, sometimes sorcerers. Maleko noticed that the teacher, be it the zombie man, Stein, or even Marie, always seemed to be trying to be careful when they talked about his kind, he didn’t get why though.

Though Maleko was learning to write, he couldn’t write notes yet, didn’t even know what half the words used in class were and had no chance of spelling them. Instead he just filled the hour with drawing. Once he drew a picture of the zombie man, Sid, talking in front of the class just as he did in real life. Sid seemed happy with it and said that he’d put it on his fridge—Maleko didn’t know that zombies needed fridges, so he was happy to have learned something in class.

Drawing was what he did a lot when he had nothing else to do. Right now he was finishing up the last of his series of pictures for the day, dozens and dozens of crayons littered the floor as he laid on the cold concrete, his legs kicked up into the air and a smile on his face.

The wall across from his bed was covered in his drawings taped to it. Drawings of his friends, of animals and what not. In the center of it he kept a drawing of a sandy beach looking out at a sea and setting sun. He liked that one the most. It was of home.

The one he had just finished was of a jungle and tigers, and he eagerly hopped over to the wall with a piece of tape to add it to the rest of the collection. Soon Maleko would have enough to make a… a… what did Marie call it? A port-full-o? Yeah, that’s it! Maleko was going to make a port-full-o of all his drawings, that way he can show them off to mama when she got rescued.

Though it was taking an awfully long time to find her, Maleko wasn’t giving up hope. He knew his friends would be able to find her and to bring her home to him, they promised that they would.

By the time she finally got brought back home, she was gonna need a really big fridge to keep all these drawings. He just knew that mama was going to be super proud of his art skills.

His smile grew just a little as he thought of his mama. It was funny thinking back on how they met, how it had been pure chance. They could have easily have never even crossed paths, and if that hadn’t happened, he would have never left his first home. All he had been doing was hunting for his next meal, following a rabbit scent when he caught a weird, new scent that didn’t belong. If Maleko hadn’t decided to follow it, he wouldn’t have met mama. He would have still been just a nameless cub in the wild, not knowing there were others like him.

That wasn’t to say Maleko had been unhappy before meeting Kai. He loved the jungle, it was his home and eve now, it still called out to him calling for him to come back to it—and he would go back to it without a second thought if there was nothing to keep him here in the world of man. But out here he had mama, he had friends. Sure, he had friends in the wilderness, but wildcats and people were greatly different.

Maleko loved his time in the jungle, he loved it, the jungle would always be a part of him. It was hard work to survive, to find shelter, to find food, and he went to bed hungry as often as he went to bed fed. It was dangerous, too, there were plenty of beasts that would hunt him just as he hunted smaller prey. But it was fulfilling. It filled him with a sense of something that he couldn’t make out. It was home, his first home.

In many ways the jungle was easier than out here. Survival was the only rule of the jungle, to do what you had to keep alive. But out here there were a lot of rules, a lot of things you had to do and couldn’t do. There were so many more faces to recognize, norms to follow, and people had a larger range of personality and opinions.

Some days this world felt like an adventure, but other days it felt constricting, suffocating, the things he wanted to do he couldn’t because that’s not what people do.

People, that’s what he was. He was a person, not a beast, not an animal. A person meant he was superior to the wildlife, more important, better.

That thought troubled him.

What made a person better than an animal? What made them more important and more deserving? Mama tried explaining it to him before but had given up and said that it didn’t matter, that Maleko ought to believe in what he wants to believe, and not by what society says is right. If Maleko thought that people weren’t superior to the animals he grew up with, then people weren’t superior. After all, there were a lot of things the animals in the jungle he lived in could do that humans couldn’t! People didn’t have as good a smell as them, couldn’t run as fast or climb as well. They didn’t have claws or hard skin, or fur to keep them safe.

People lacked a lot of advantages that animals had, so why would they think they’re better?

The boy grinned as he started on another picture on the floor, green crayon grasped tightly in his small hand as he scrawled across the white paper. He wasn’t sure what he was going to draw this time, only that he wanted green—lots of green. Maybe some blue and grey.

His ears twitched as he caught the sound of wings beating against the air and looked up. His window was open to let in air, but the bars were still set—of course Maleko didn’t open the window on his own, even on his desk he could barely reach the window; Marie had opened it for him when she came to visit that morning, claiming that it’d keep the air flowing in his room. But perched on the other side of the steel bars was the same brown bird, staring down at him with bright yellow eyes.

Maleko smiled wide and pushed himself back onto his feet. “You came back!” he squealed in delight at the sight of his new friend. Well, of course the bird would come back—he said he would!

The brown bird just ducked his head down to start preening some feathers rather than respond to Maleko’s greeting. So Maleko cleared a space on his desk and climbed on top of it so he could look at the bird closer. It’d been a few weeks since he had first met the bird, and ever since the bird made regular visits every few days, to check in on him as the bird had said, strictly business, the bird said. Maleko believed the bird just wanted to be friends and was using all that as an excuse.

“Taka,” Maleko called out when the bird made no sign that it was listening to him or even acknowledging that Maleko was there. “Taka!” he called out, drawing the short name out, and when the bird continued to focus more on his own feathers, Maleko pouted and reached his hand up between the bars, poking a finger into the mix of light brown and white feathers coating it’s underside.

The bird gave an angry squawk at that, flapping his wings and jumping back away from the window. When it lowered itself back onto the sill folding his wings up to his body, those yellow eyes were trained on Maleko once more. “I told you, don’t touch me like that!” he snapped angrily at the sorcerer.

Maleko liked Taka’s voice. It was weird, in a cool way. Gravelly, rough, and somehow it didn’t seem to come out of the birds mouth when it spoke, rather it was as though the voices weren’t being heard by Maleko’s ears but were already in his brain. It was weird, but it was also really cool as far as he was concerned.

“You ignored,” Maleko pointed out with a bit of a pout, watching as Taka ruffled his feathers in annoyance.

“You didn’t have anything important to say,” the bird replied sharply, dipping his head in between the bars to peck lightly at Makelo’s fingers.

Taka was an interesting friend all things considered. For starters, he was a bird—a talking bird at that! When Maleko asked him on that, he said that he was something called a magic lifeform and that’s why he could talk—Maleko didn’t understand what that meant so Taka said he was just a familiar, not that he still understood what a familiar was. What he could understand was that Taka wasn’t a ‘normal’ bird and that he was made with magic, and that he could talk because of magic.

Maleko still didn’t understand why Taka started talking to him, but he wasn’t going to turn away a friend. Plus, Taka knew a lot more about witches and sorcerers than anyone in this school and had been explaining stuff to Maleko so he’d get better at magic, at understanding his own abilities. Not that a lot of progress was being made, Taka said that his magic was still developing and there was only so much he could do for now. But it was still fun to learn.

Mainly, Taka had been trying to get Maleko to learn something called a ‘Soul Protect’, apparently it kept people like Maleko and mama safe from those who wanted to find them and hurt them. Taka had used a lot of big words and long sentences to explain it, so Maleko really didn’t understand it’s purpose that much. But it was supposed to be an advanced spell, something that people at Maleko’s level didn’t learn—or couldn’t learn. Taka insisted that it’d be important for Maleko to learn how to use it.

“Sort of like… imagine covering your soul with a blanket to hide it,” Taka had explained during his last visit, “That blanket’s gotta be made of magic, to completely conceal your soul.”

Maleko had tried but didn’t feel any different. Apparently he hadn’t succeeded, and Taka had gotten antsy about it at the time. Taka got antsy a lot, he acted like something bad was going to happen and that Maleko needed to hurry, but he never said what the bad thing was, or why he was in such a hurry for Maleko to learn all these spells and magics.

The bird didn’t tell Maleko a lot of things. But he made it clear that Maleko wasn’t supposed to be here—in Death City, in the DWMA. But he wouldn’t say why.

“Alright, so, let’s try it again,” the present-day Taka said as he ruffled his feathers and adjusted himself on his perch. “Soul Protect, you won’t be able to use magic when it’s on, but people hunting you won’t be able to distinguish your soul from any other humans. Just—just try focusing on putting it in a cocoon or something. Sealing it up in a bubble.”

Maleko nodded, climbing down from his desk to sit on the floor as Taka flew from the window to perch on the chair. Even with his eyes closed, Maleko could feel the bird staring at him as he tried to channel his magic inward. Tried to force it in his center—that’s where the soul supposedly was. He still didn’t understand what a soul was, why it was important and stuff, but he focused on it as best he could.

It was hard, he wasn’t going to lie. Whenever he used his magic, his focus was to bring it outward, not inward. Let his magic flow to the surface of his skin and produce dancing flames across his flesh, or to let his nails extend into claws, let his eyesight shift. Everything he ever did with his magic was always external. Trying to manipulate his magic to go deeper within him, to flow the wrong way was hard.

He felt like a fish trying to swim up a raging river when he did that. Pushing against the current to reach his goal, but only getting an inch at a time.

How was he even supposed to know if he succeeded? Could Taka sense a soul the same way that Maka and Stein could? Maleko barely even noticed his own, so how would he know when he had it protected? Did mama use Soul Protect? Was using this spell as hard for her as it was for him?

“Why do I…. need learn?” Maleko asked, cracking an eye open to look at the bird, his concentration gone as he felt a frown tug at his lips. Why did he have to learn something so hard? If he didn’t have to, Maleko didn’t want to.

The bird huffed, though not physically, Maleko got the feeling that he would be huffing if he could and hopped a little closer. “It’s important that you learn so when things get bad you can get out of here without having half the meisters on your tail as soon as they sense you leaving the school.”

Maleko hunched over as he leaned forward, peering up at Taka. “They my friends,” he pointed out, his tone more confused than matter-of-fact. “They…good. Why would they chase me?” If things got bad… Maleko honestly couldn’t imagine things getting so bad he’d have to run away, getting bad at all, for that fact.

“The world aren’t as kind to your kind as you may think. Humans, reapers… most of them aren’t too fond of witches and sorcerers,” Taka explained in a tone that sounded more hateful than educational. “I’m sure even she taught you that much in the short time you were with her. Survival at all cost, that is the way that you were living before she took you in, and that is the way that our kind have to live when among those who wish us dead.”

He… didn’t really get it. He understood the necessity of survival, that had been the only thing that ever made sense to him for the longest of time, but he couldn’t understand the bit about people not liking his kind.

But mama had brought it up to him before, it was why he was never supposed to show his magic around people she didn’t say he could. But… did people really not like his kind so much that he might have to run away? No one had actually been mean to him or anything since he’d come by here.

Though… people avoided him when he was in the halls, kept their distance. He could always feel eyes on him in the academy, people watching him, could feel the tension in the air, the fear and anticipation. Some days he couldn’t tell if the feelings people let slip through reminded him of the prey he’d hunt… or of the predators he’d hide from.

He didn’t want to think badly of other people, but sometimes he did worry.

Maybe Taka was right… maybe he might have to run away one day even if he didn’t want to… maybe he’d have to go away and not be found…. Maleko hoped he never would have to.

He had to try and get his mind off of that, get back on the task at hand. Closing his eyes again,

Maleko tried to focus on swimming through his magic once again, not on his thoughts and questions. He focused on pushing up the stream, push through the rushing river within him as the flames prickled right under his skin

He felt like he was getting closer, making progress little by little. That was good. He just had to reach his soul, make a bubble and then he’d—

KNOCK KNOCK

Maleko’s eyes snapped open as the scent of gel and timber wafted into his room through the crack under his door and another set of knocks rang on the steel surface. Taka gave a startled squawk, wings flapping as he took to the air, both looking to the door.

A smile was on Maleko’s face. Soul was here! He’d recognize the combination of smells anywhere, though he wasn’t sure what the teen was doing, Maleko would never turn down a visit. His eyes glanced to Taka for a moment, as if unsure if he should stop the lesson or ignore Soul. Not that it’d work, Soul knew he was there, he’d be rude if he just ignored his friend.

“Go ahead. We’ll continue another time,” Taka nodded as he flew up to the window, pushing himself between the bars. “Be safe out there, little sun.”

“Bye-bye, Taka!” Maleko whispered as he watched the bird fly off. He waited another second before scrambling to his feet and making his way to the door as another set of knocks rang through while Soul waited patiently on the other side.

The door was heavy and it took a bit of effort to pull it open every time, sometimes Maleko had to throw his entire body into opening it, not that he minded. When he’d opened the door, he stepped in front of Soul and smiled wide and the white haired teen, his teeth showing between his lips.

“Soul!” Maleko greeted.

 


 

Soul had his hand up, knuckles facing the door and prepared to knock again as he waited on the other side. He knew that Maleko was in there, he could hear the boy moving about, and for a moment it sounded almost like he was talking. Which wasn’t strange, Maleko talked to his toys all the time when he was playing, and sometimes when he wasn’t as if they were living beings—in a cute kid way, not in the delusional way—so it wasn’t like he was worried or anything.

It was a little past eleven, about eleven-thirty in the morning to be more precise, nearing lunch time. Which was exactly why Soul was down in the dungeon-like overnight rooms to begin with.

Now it had become a bit of a rule now among his friends to be very careful of what they fed Maleko and where they took him, especially after that pizza incident. It was easy to overwhelm his senses, and he could quickly become sick from overload of greasy and oily scents and tastes. They’ve had a few incidents after the first time they took him out to eat where he ended up throwing up what he ate, so they had learned to be more cautious.

A small breeze fluttered through the dim halls, cool enough to send goosebumps down Souls bare arms. Damn was it chilly down here, not exactly the ideal place for guests to be staying. Maybe it was designed to keep people from overstaying their welcome.

Soul wasn’t the only one who thought it was unnecessary to keep Maleko and Crona living down here—Crona was a student after all and could probably be moved to the student dorms, or they could just move in with him and Maka. Maleko was probably a bit young to be renting an apartment, and if the student dorms weren’t an option surely he could stay with one of the professors.

Then again… who knew what Stein might do if a sorcerer was living under the same roof as him, Marie would be a good influence, but Stein might see it as an opportunity for an experiment. Sid or Nygus, Soul could understand, and if he remembered right Sid already had experience with kids by basically raising Blackstar.

Even Spirit would be a good foster home for the kid, and Maleko got along amazingly with the Death Scythe. Hell, Soul was half certain that Spirit was ready to just adopt Maleko once the opportunity arose, Spirit and Marie both—then again they were already parental in their own ways—and though he knew  Maka would never admit it, especially considering this was regarding the dad she claimed to hate and Maleko, he was sure she was a little jealous of the two.

But the decision had been Death’s to make and no one was going against it. It was probably just until the witch Kai was found and dealt with, after that they’d probably allow Maleko to move in with someone. Soul was sure Maka would volunteer to house Maleko given the chance and it’s not as though they’d have to worry about anything.

Maleko may be a sorcerer, but he’s a sweet boy. Soul honestly couldn’t see him hurting anyone, not on purpose.

The sound of movement got his attention once more and Soul prepared to knock again when the door was slowly pulled open. It was a heavy door, difficult enough for teens, and so he could imagine it was a bit of effort for the kid to tug his door open wide. It was probably a good workout, though.

“Soul!” Maleko greeted with an excited tone, letting go of the door and smiling wide.

Offering a toothy smile, Soul patted his head, “Hey there, kid,” he greeted, and quietly thought to himself how he’d never get over how naturally soft the kids hair was, it was more like soft fur than strands of hair. Was that an aspect of his magical trait, or just really good conditioner that no one else had? “It’s nearly time for lunch, the whole gang’s going out to eat in a bit, and we thought we’d invite you too, give you a chance to meet some of our other friends.” After all, this would be the first time since Kid, Liz and Patty had gone on their mission to Hawaii that all seven of them would be eating together again.

Maleko was bouncing on his feet at the mention of friends, or maybe it was the mention of food, it was hard to tell with him sometimes. “I can join?” he asked, and when Soul confirmed it, the boy latched onto Soul, burying his face into the weapons side and wrapping his arms around him. “Thank you! There be chick?” he asked hopeful.

“We’ll see if the place has any chicken,” Soul smiled as he held a hand out for Maleko to take. It was cute how much the boy loved chicken of any kind. “There’s still time to kill after all, Maka and Kid are doing some after-class work, Blackstar’s got a meeting with some teachers,” over some sexual harassment incident of all things. According to Blackstar he was just killing a bug on a girls skirt, and the girl took it the wrong way. But that was Blackstar for you.

He glanced back at the boy as they began to climb the stairs leading to the main floor of the school. “Hey, Maleko, how about we spend some time at the park while we wait for the others?”

The boy’s face lit up like a million stars at the mention of the park, bobbing his head quickly and letting out a howl just to emphasize how much he liked that idea. Soul couldn’t contain his laughter at seeing the excitement.

-0-

 The park wasn’t all that busy when they got there. There were a couple of other families with kids playing or enjoying the nice warm sun. A few joggers or dog walkers would pass by while Soul just resigned to sit on a bench watching as Maleko played. He had sent a text to Maka to let her know what they were doing and to tell him when she and the others were ready to head out.

Honestly he was a little worried over introducing Maleko to kid. The boy wouldn’t mind Kid, he’d be ecstatic to meet a new friend. But it was Kid that Soul worried over. He didn’t want to doubt his friend, but he wasn’t sure how Kid would react to meeting the ward of the witch they were hunting, a sorcerer at that. He knew that Kid wasn’t going to do anything, but a corner of his mind still spouted worry and concern over it.

The worst that might happen was that Kid would go into a fit over how ‘unsymmetrical’ Maleko’s mess of hair was. Well, he was sure whatever happened, Maka would be able to put a stop to it. Or Blackstar might make it escalate. One of the two.

With a shake of his head, Soul scanned the park once more to find Maleko, and saw that the boy was crouched down next to a large golden retriever, petting him and making dog noises with his usual smile. The dogs owner seemed to not mind as she knelt beside her dog, keeping a hold of him and laughing at whatever Maleko was saying, even letting her dog lick Maleko’s face.

That’s what Maleko had been doing for a good chunk of the time they were at the park, dashing from one corner to the other, greeting people, petting dogs, chasing squirrels and climbing trees. It was a fun sight to see and made Soul wonder if the kid ever ran out of energy or if he just had an endless store of fuel inside him to keep him going for hours without rest.

“Is that your little brother?” An elderly woman had come to sit down beside Soul, a cane in her hand and a smile on her withered, wrinkly face. She had grey hair in a tight bob, a sunhat and blue dress, and her eyes were squinted as she looked to Maleko who had moved from the dog to roll on the grass and leaves. “He’s quite an adorable child.”

 

Little brother? Soul subconsciously reached up to tug at a few strands of his hair. He supposed they did have matching hair, though that was about it. Still, little brother, that was a thought. “Nah, just a friend, and I guess the designated babysitter for the day,” Soul responded with a lazy grin. He’d never considered himself to be an older brother, not with being the youngest in his family. But he wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of having Maleko as his kid brother.

“Ah,” The elderly woman mused, looking back to the child. “Well, it seems you’ve your hands full as a babysitter. Children are very energetic and curious souls. How old is he, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“About nine, give or take,” well, no one really knew for sure, not even Maleko. But nine was the general consensus, though the boy might be older, he might be younger. “He’s a wild one, but for the most part the kid is pretty well behaved. Only throw a tantrum when he’s really upset over something.” And thankfully never involved magic in those tantrums.

As though sensing that they were talking about him, Maleko scampered back up to Soul, dropping a pile of flowers and grass into his lap, complete with the dirt still hanging from their roots. “Soul! For you!” the boy said, extremely proud of his gift, and then cast the woman a curious look, “Ha… hi!” he smiled, waving both his hands at her.

The woman returned his smile with a gentle one, “Hello,” she said warmly, “and what might your name be?”

The child just kept smiling, “Maleko!” he chirped.

“Maleko? Why that’s an adorable name for an adorable child,” she said and reached into her purse, digging through before pulling out a few caramel candies, “would you like a treat?”

The boy squeaked and took them from her with a gracious smile and a ‘thank you’. He dropped a few into Souls hand and grinned, “For you,” he said proudly as if sharing was a great feat to do.

The older woman just laughed again, “You’ve such a brilliant air to you, Maleko, I can tell that you’re going to shine bright, just like a morning sun.” Her compliment made him beam even brighter as he smiled and giggled.

Soul felt his phone vibrate in his pocket and pulled it out, glancing at the text. A few more words were exchanged with the elderly woman before the woman excused herself to move on and Soul decided it was time for them to head to the restaurant so they could get a table for the rest of the group.

“Wha’d you talk bout?” Maleko asked as he slipped his tiny hand into Souls and swinging their linked hands between them.

The weapon gave a small shrug as they passed a couple of squirrels digging in the grass, making sure he had a tight hold on Maleko’s hand to keep the child from running off and chasing the squirrels. “Not a lot. Small talk. She thought you and I were brothers,” he answered and gave a crooked grin. Not too sure how she thought that, we don’t look too much alike.” They weren’t even of the same ethnicity. Though it didn’t actually bother him much.

Maleko made a face and shook his head as though trying to wrap his mind around it. The kid… he did know what a brother was, right? “Maleko no brother,” he said firmly, but very slowly, as if trying the words out first, searching for the right sounds and right words to use. “Brothers…. are… blood. Maleko no… blood… no brother.”

Soul chuckled a little, “Well you’re not wrong, but there’s more to that than blood ties,” he corrected as they reached the end of the park and started walking through the business side of the city. “I mean, some brothers are related by blood, but being related by blood isn’t a requirement for family. There are a lot of ways that people can be brothers.” Marriage, adoption, just being so close you consider someone a brother… there were a lot of reasons to it.

“Not by blood?” Maleko repeated, clearly thinking the words over, Soul could see the gears in his head turning and wondered what was going on in that brain of his. “Mama not by blood… so brother not by blood?” he looked up at Soul, brows knitted together. “Soul my brother?”

The puppy-like face that Maleko was making, how could Soul be so cruel as to say no? “Well, I suppose that we are brothers.”

“Ye!” Maleko cheered, throwing himself onto Soul and hugging him tightly. “Soul an Maleko, brothers! Aaaruuu!” he finished off with a loud howl to the sun, letting to of Souls hand to dart forward to another pedestrian on the sidewalk.

Soul was about to stop him as he saw the boy tugging at her pencil skirt, and when the woman looked away from her phone at the child, Maleko grinned pointing at Soul who was hurrying towards them. “Soul an I brothers now,” he declared. “He my brother, he said so.”

Thankfully, the woman seemed to find his antics amusing because she smiled and said something of a ‘well that’s good’ which was enough to satisfy the boy as he let go and hurried to another person. Well, Soul decided, it wasn’t like Maleko was doing any harm. He just wanted to tell the whole world that they were now brothers.

Well, they weren’t legally brothers, but if Maleko wanted to think of Soul as his brother, the weapon wouldn’t stop him.

Soul smiled as he watched Maleko dart from his current target, a businessman in a suit that really didn’t fit him anymore, to dart off to a bulky looking man and a smaller, skinnier one beside him, looking as though they’d just come back from the gym down the street. It was kind of cute how excited Maleko was over this, Soul wasn’t going to deny it.

He pulled his phone out as he felt it vibrate again in his pants, reading over the string of texts he’d gotten. From Maka, mainly. The rest of the group had to make a brief stop since Kid and Blackstar got into a little fight over something stupid. She didn’t go into the details but Blackstar probably did something dumb and broke something and then Kid and him started arguing over it.  Sounded like something they would do. Mostly Maka was just apologizing since they’d be a little late.

He chuckled, responded to her texts saying that it was fine, there was no doubt that he and Maleko would find a way to entertain themselves while they waited for the rest.

“Well, I guess it was bound to happen, just means we get to have all the snacks and appetizers we want while waiting, right, Maleko?” Soul grinned as he read his texts again. “I’m kind of hungry for cheese balls, does that sound good for you?” He asked, looking up from the phone as he walked. But then he stopped walking and a wave of fear when he realized that he couldn’t see Maleko anywhere.

Where did the kid go? Shit, he had only looked away for a minute!

Maka was going to kill him if the kid up and vanished, hell, the professors might too if he didn’t find Maleko fast. The boy couldn’t have run off too far, right? Maybe he just ran ahead to tell some more people the news about them being brothers. That was probably it, he hoped at least.

He shoved his phone into his pocket and began to quickly hurry down the street, a brisk walk that soon became jogging as he tried to find any sign of the missing boy. It was times like these that he wished he had the same soul perceptive abilities that Maka and Kid had, that’d make finding Maleko a lot quicker and easier. But he would have to make do with what he had, and what Soul had was a pair of legs, eyes and ears.

There was no way that Maleko could have gotten far. He could have just decided to follow a stray cat or something, that was a Maleko thing, right?

The fear in Souls chest was making it hard to breathe.

But he almost stumbled over his own feet when he heard trashcans being knocked over in the alley up ahead. It caught his attention right away and Soul quickly made his way towards it, feeling hope fill up his chest that maybe that’s where the boy was. “Maleko? Maleko are you in here?”  Soul called out as he began making his way through the narrow space between buildings. “You aren’t supposed to run off like that—Maleko!

Right on the other end of the alley was Maleko, slung over a large man’s shoulder and completely limp. The boy didn’t stir or make any form of acknowledgement that he had even heard Soul, that he was even awake. But the large man had clearly noticed the weapon, he froze in what he was doing and turned away from the large van he had been opening to look at Soul.

He was large, but Soul couldn’t say he knew the man, couldn’t recognize him, not with the gas mask that he wore that obscured his face. Not that it mattered who this man was, all that mattered was what he was doing.

 A wave of anger washed over Soul and he rushed towards the man, feeling his arm transform into it’s scythe blade. “Let him go!” he yelled, ready to swing at the man, to save Maleko and get out of there.

He only got halfway across the alley before something sharp went into his leg and he stumbled. Almost instantly a wave of fatigue hit him and he almost tripped over his own feet as he tried to look to see what he had been hit with. A dart… a tranquilizer dart? Already Soul could feel… wrong.

His blade quickly shattered back into his own arm and he felt the effort of just standing, the drugs—whatever kind were in that dart—were quick acting as he felt his energy drain. But no, he wasn’t going to just succumb to whatever this is, he was going to get Maleko away from that man.

“Get away from him,” Soul growled, forcing himself to keep going towards the large man despite how much effort it was taking. “Get away from—mmmph!”

One hand had grabbed his other, pulling him back into a thin body as the other pressed a damp cloth against his nose and mouth. “Shhhh…. Shhhh, it’s okay, its okay to go to sleep now, little weapon,” a slimy voice whispered into his ear as Soul felt his consciousness start to fade. “You’ve a strong will to withstand our little dart here enough for me to have to do this… but this is a lot more fun so thank you,” he continued and there was a sing-song tone to his voice, showing that he genuinely delighted in this.

Soul tried to focus, tried to fight, but it was hard to move, it was hard to even transform. He couldn’t bring himself to form his scythe blade, couldn’t do anything. It was taking all his strength to stay standing, and even that was waning fast. So Soul looked back at the large man, back at Maleko, and once again he tried to force his way towards the boy, tried to force himself out of the other mans grasp.

“Nah-no-no-no,” the man pulled him tighter against himself, keeping the rag firm against Souls mouth and nose, forcing him to keep breathing in whatever it had been soaked in “We can’t have you doing that—no can do.”

His legs gave out under him but the other man kept him standing as he held him up and against him, and Souls vision was starting to darken too, his eyes struggling to stay open.

“Shhh…shhh,” the man lowered Soul to the ground, onto his knees and laid him against his chest, and still Soul couldn’t see the man behind him, but felt him stroking his hair, playing with the white strands as if Soul was his child and he was trying to comfort him. “Shhh… it’s okay, it’ll all be over soon, so just sleep now, okay?”

And despite everything, Soul felt himself slip into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Maleko slowed stirred awake and found himself sore all over while his head felt fuzzier than a bunny’s behind. What happened? His memories of what he had been doing were… cloudy and warbled. And even as he tried blinking his eyes open, all he saw was darkness, nothing but pitch black. Were his eyes even open? His mind was still far too gone to be able to tell the difference, but he was starting to get some sensations besides dull aching back into his body.

He started to notice that his face was pressed against something cold—a concrete floor? It felt like it, had he fallen asleep on the floor after playing? No… nothing in this place resembled the scents of his room. Maleko could remember that he had been out of his room at the time, too… with Soul… heading out to eat with Soul and his friends….

Soul had… explained brothers too him and Maleko… wanted the world to know they were brothers? That sounded right, but what happened after that? He tried to think, tried to remember, but couldn’t.

His head hurt. His body felt lethargic.

Squirming on the ground, Maleko let out a low groan and whine as he tried to push himself up onto his knees to no avail. For some reason he couldn’t move his arms from where they were behind him… were they… tied? He tried again and felt the rope biting into his skin with each attempt, bruising his wrists where they had been tied tightly. His fingers felt tingly, was that because of the tightness?

What was going on? Why was he tied up? Where was he?

Squirming even more in desperation, Maleko let out a long whine and a whimper as he struggled to get free. Why couldn’t he use his magic? Was it because of the weird drowsiness his body felt?

“Maleko? Maleko, is that you?” it was Soul. He sounded like he was… right next to him? Maleko tried to find him and if he focused hard enough, he could feel the older teen on the ground beside him, though his scent was completely obscured by something… wrong. A wrong scent, one that was bad.

“Maleko, it’s going to be okay,” Soul’s voice but through the darkness once more, there was a hint of desperation in it that he was trying to hide, “Just focus on me, it’s going to be okay,” Soul was trying to be calm, for Maleko, but even he couldn’t hide the way that his fear made its way to his rotten scent.

Maleko whined and tried to drag himself closer to his friend, “Soul,” he whined, struggling against his binds even more. They hurt his wrists, were forcing his fingers to go numb. All Maleko wanted was to get free and know what was going on. He could feel Soul, so close, and yet just out of his reach. If he could just… just burn off these bindings… but he couldn’t, not when his body felt so wrong. It was hard just to find the embers, to find the spark to ignite his fire.

He whimpered as his face scrapped against the rough concrete floor as he tried to push himself to his knees, but his attempts came to a stop soon enough. Swallowing hard, Maleko held himself perfectly still as he heard footsteps drawing closer. His body falling into instinctual habits. A predator was coming, he had to hide—don’t make any sudden moves—don’t get found—his mind was a hurricane of thoughts and fears as the footsteps grew louder and closer, solid thunk-step-thunks against the cold floor.

The steps came to a stop right in front of him, so close that Maleko could smell the overwhelming stench of oil, salt and ink from the people before them. Then his ears twitched as the sound of laughter filled the darkness. It wasn’t the same happy and jolly laughter he heard all the time, from his friends at the academy, from the people back home, from mama.

This laughter was cold and hollow. It was cruel.

Without warning, Maleko felt a hand on his head, someone’s fingers were tangling deep into his hair and pulling him up by the strands. Hard. As if they didn’t care if they ripped chunks from his scalp. The back of his head burned and ached as he was lifted, and though he struggled, it only caused him more pain. From beside him, he could hear Soul let out his own howls of pain and resistance. He could only assume someone was doing something similar to his friend.

Maleko couldn’t see it, but he could feel another hand coming to his face, by the scent and by the way the air shifted in front of him. Then the blindfold came off.

It took Maleko a few seconds to adjust, blinking his eyes multiple times to see into the room, dimly lit by the few overhead lights that still worked. Even though he could now see, Maleko still didn’t know where they were. All around him was steel, concrete and stained, filthy windows that barely let sunlight through. Though it wasn’t as though it was empty inside, he could see between the steel support beams a few metal crates. Was this a… a warehouse?

Just barely Maleko could see Soul kneeling beside him, arms and feet tied up to keep him from running off. His face looked pale and sweaty, and his eyes were bloodshot. Now Maleko could put a name to the scent that clung to Soul, it was the same scent of a dying animal.

Slowly Maleko looked to the man who still held him by the hair. A large, bulky man, dressed in a black hoodie and jeans, his face hidden behind a mask of sorts. There was another, smaller, thinner man behind him, dressed in a white button up shirt and tie.

The smaller man chuckled and crouched in front of them, “Hope you two weren’t lonely while waiting for us,” he said, his voice so chipper, so easygoing.

“Who are you?” Soul growled as he lifted his head, blindfold hanging limply around his neck.

More laughter filled the air. “Honestly, do you actually think we’re just going to go and tell you our names? If we wanted you to know who we are, we wouldn’t be wearing masks, now would we?” he asked and reached over to pat Soul on the head. “But, really, you have other things to worry about than who we are. For example… shouldn’t you be more concerned over what’s going to happen to you?”

Maleko made a sound somewhere between chirping and whining as the man said that, the gears in his head turning as he tried to make sense of the situation. What did they mean by that?

The larger man let Maleko go and his chin hit the ground hard enough that he felt his teeth rattle. Groaning, he opened his eyes back up to watch the thin one pull a large briefcase across the floor. The latches clicked as he opened it op and Maleko felt his nose scrunching up at the awful smell that came with it.

Inside were needles and vials full of a strange green liquid. The smell was wrong, whatever was in those vials, it was bad. Dangerous.

“You two should consider yourselves lucky,” the small man said happily as he rolled up his sleeves and put the needle to one of the vials, sucking up the green liquid into it. “This drug is going to be our best weapon against the DWMA, and you two get to test it. Well, you won’t be the only test subjects, the people in charge need more than one or two tests to know for sure if this will work. But don’t let that get you down,” the man approached them and even though the mask hid his entire face, Maleko knew that he was smiling behind it. “Tonight the two of you will further the Acolytes cause.”

The man walked closer to them and Maleko flinched back, a growl rising in his throat, fighting against his bindings, trying to do anything to get away from the two of them, but as expected he got nothing.

“Oh, I wouldn’t even try. We injected the both of you with a small dose of this already, it’ll make you both woozy and keep you from any transformations,” the man chuckled, “we don’t need you slipping free from the ropes after all. But now we’ll both get to see what a full dose of this will do.”

Soul struggled, his eyes fixed on the two, “Why are you doing this?” he demanded, squirming on the ground to try and get free of his bindings. “Are you working for Medusa, is this her work? Not that it matters, we stopped her once, we’ll stop her again and you won’t get away with this.”

The thin one laughed again, “Oh, what brave words coming from a little mouse on death’s row,” he cooed, slapping the larger, silent mans arm in his laughter. “Us working for Medusa? That’s a joke if I’ve ever heard one. To think we’d sully our own names to serve someone as unworthy as her. No, no, never in a hundred lifetimes would we ever bend our knee to her.”

Medusa, Maleko knew her. Mama didn’t like her, and neither did the DWMA. But that was about the only thing that he understood or knew from that.

“Then why?”

Still laughing, the thin one just shook his head, “We’re doing this because our God has commanded us to do so,” he responded in a rather pleasant tone, which in itself was strangely discomforting given the situation. “Everything we do here, everything I do, it is all for her. The one true God of this world, not your whimsical reaper who delegates others to do his bidding, who has children fight his wars. Our God wants the DWMA gone, and all those affiliated with it dead, and so I must do as she wishes.”

“You are insane,” Soul spat.

“Are we? You do the same for your false God, hunting and staining your hands with blood because he says their evil,” the man responded and twirled the syringe in his hands, pushing the air out and letting a few drops drip down as he crouched between Soul and Maleko. “But we’re not here to discuss insanity and philosophy. We’ve a much more important task to complete, and so, who would like to go first?”

He pointed the needle at Soul, letting the tip brush across his bare neck, “So, shall we let you try it first…” he let the syringe linger on Soul for a few more moments before dragging it over to Maleko, “or maybe you?”

Maleko whimpered as the man drew closer to him while Soul struggled against his bindings, trying to crawl or drag or roll himself over to them, anything he could to try and stop this.

“Get away from him!” Soul snarled, “Don’t you dare, do what you want to me but don’t mess with him!”

His words fell on deaf ears as the large man lumbered over, took hold of Maleko by the shoulder and dragged him to his knees, holding him firm with a massive hand. Maleko whimpered as his arm was twisted against its bindings so that the needle could go into the veins right at the crook of his elbow. Even as he was forced to kneel and forced still, he trembled with fear.

The needle pushed in, breaking through his skin and he yelped, jerked away and closed his eyes as he felt the drug pushed into his veins.

It wasn’t right, it burned, it made his head feel fuzzy and his body scream.

This wasn’t right.

(Fight back already!)

Maleko whined as he felt the large hand on his shoulder dig into him, as he heard Soul yelling from the floor and the thin man laughing, as his body began to feel wrong as the drug made it’s way through him.

(Survive)

Maleko was stronger than this, he wasn’t someone who’d just let himself be pushed around like this. He was of the jungle. Maleko was of the world of the wild, not the world of man. He was stronger and braver, and yet here he was trembling and whining because of a needle prick. He’d faced down beasts scarier than this! Had this world made him weak? Had he forgotten the only rule of the wild?

Survival.

No matter what, no matter what you do, no matter how much it hurts or how hard it might be, you must survive. Nothing else matters but ensuring you live another day. Survival at all costs.

Maleko had to survive. Was going to survive.

Survive… survive… survive survive survive.

Slowly his whimpers morphed into a low growl as he bared his teeth. Even with the syringe still in his arm, the drugs in his system, he wasn’t going to just lay down and take it. He would survive, he would fight tooth and claw, until his dying breath to survive. Nothing else mattered right now.

Lunging forward as best he could on his knees, Maleko tore himself from the large mans grasp into the arms of the other, biting hard into his arm.

“What the—fuck! Get off me, you brat!” the jovial attitude of the thin man was gone in an instant as he snarled, grabbed Maleko by the hair and yanked hard to tear the sorcerer off him, to get him to open his mouth and let go. But Maleko had no intention to do that. He could feel warm blood pouring into his mouth, taste the coppery sting on his tongue and let out a muffled growl as he dug his teeth in deeper.

Was that bone his teeth were scraping against, or just muscle? Had he hit any major veins that he could tear out of this man? He wasn’t sure yet, his mind had a thin fog over it from the drug and adrenalin.

A knee rammed into his chest and the impact caused Maleko to open his mouth out of reflex, letting out a ragged gasp as the air was knocked out of him and a sharp pain coursed through his ribs. He hit the ground with a whine and each breath that followed sent sharp pain through him. Still tied up and unable to push himself onto his knees, he looked up as best he could to see what kind of damage he had caused the other.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” the masked man hissed, cradling his arm while the giant beside him looked desperately around for something to stop the bleeding.

Maleko felt a surge of pride as he saw how bloody and torn the arm was, and quickly berated himself for stopping at biting and not just tearing a chunk of meat right off that arm with his mouth. He could do it, easily, and some parts of the flesh was already barely hanging on where he had bit him. Maleko couldn’t help but smile in satisfaction as he licked some of the blood on his lips. It’d been a while since he had tasted fresh blood like that.

He hadn’t realized how much he missed the taste.

“Fucking savage!” the masked man snarled as his arm was wrapped with a torn off sleeve of the others hoodie. “You shouldn’t have done that… you really shouldn’t have done that,” the large man grabbed Maleko by the shoulders while the one he had bit rammed his fist into Maleko’s face. Maleko could hear something crunching and something warm running down his face as pain spread across his nose.

Another punch came, and then another. A punch to the face, a knee to the gut, all the while the giant behind him held him in place.  Maleko let out gasps between blows, tears burned in his eyes. Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to bite him.

“Stop it!” Soul yelled, pushing himself across the floor.

“Struggle all you like, but you’re not going to transform, you’re not going to be able to do anything,” the thin man cackled as he hit Maleko across the face again. “But your screams are annoying. Shut him up.”

The giant dropped Maleko to the ground and he barely had time to recover from the impact before the thinner man kicked him right in the hip. He writhed on the floor, opening his eyes a crack as he heard the muffled sounds of conflict, only to see Soul dragged limply across the floor.

He didn’t have time to process what the giant did to his friend because the barrage of blows didn’t stop. Though the thinner man couldn’t punch him anymore, he seemed more than content to continue kicking and stomping on Maleko on the floor.

His body felt like he had fallen from a giant tree, crashed through all the branches before landing onto the rocks below, and it only got worse as the man continued to beat him. His entire body was throbbing, he felt like he was going to vomit as choked sobs escaped him. The pain was overwhelming, it was all he could feel, enveloping his every sense and thoughts. He almost gagged and choked as he coughed up a glob of blood.

Stop, please, stop! Stop hurting me! Stop hitting me! He wanted to beg the man to stop, that he’d do anything just stop with the pain, but he couldn’t even form a single word.

Stop it… stop…

It was hard to breathe… his mind was clouding over. Survive, he had to survive. The weak died, the weak had no place in the wild… he couldn’t be weak, he can’t be weak. Instinct. Rational thoughts were giving way to pure instinct and drive.

Gritting his teeth, Maleko prepared himself for the next blow and felt the bones crack as the masked mans knee rammed into his small chest once more. The air rushed out of his lungs and his blood boiled. He was not going to die. He wasn’t going to die here.

Embers and sparks, he could feel them deep within him, buried beneath the drugs and toxins in his system. Swallowed up by the foreign liquid, but there. He just had to reach through the murky waters and grab it.

Maleko wasn’t a weapon, he wasn’t a human. He was a sorcerer. The son of magic and the son of the jungle. His blood was of magic, his blood was of fire. Maleko had within him the flames of the morning sun and he was not about to let them put the fire out. No one can put his fire out, those who try will be burned up in the flames.

 


 

The smoke filling the air was dark and dense, even as the fire department worked tirelessly to put the flames out, their sirens ravaging the air, louder than anything. There were probably a good dozen different vehicles, from the large fire trucks with hoses, to smaller trucks, paramedics and police cars surrounding the burning warehouse. Not to mention all the bystanders watching from a distance, asking questions and trying to understand how a simple rundown warehouse erupted into flames like that.

Sabotage? Teens messing around only for some goofing off to go wrong? The theories the civilians threw around was endless.

“Let me go in there!” Maka yelled as she tried to push past Sid. Behind her the others waited anxiously, though Blackstar was being physically restrained by the zombified man to keep from charging into the burning building, “He’s in there, I can sense him in there!”

Stein frowned as he dangled the cigarette between his fingers, looking to the building, to the dark clouds of smoke above. His eyes glanced to the entrance of the warehouse, where the ambulance sat parked and the paramedics waited anxiously with their equipment ready for anyone still alive within.

Soul and Maleko going missing and hours later a warehouse catches on fire suddenly and violently with Soul inside. Only a fool would think it’s a coincidence.

“Right now it’s too dangerous to just rush in,” Sid reasoned for what might have been the hundredth time since they had all gathered there. “The building is still burning and we don’t know how stable it is. Right now the best we can do is let the firemen do their job and get him out safely. If you two go rushing in, you might make things worse.”

Usually Maka was a well behaved student who was reasonable and understanding, but it was equally understanding that she’d be impatient and reckless considering her partner and best friend was in that warehouse, with none of them knowing if he was okay or not. So really, Stein could understand her completely right now.

But Sid was in the right.

They couldn’t very well let kids go rushing into a burning building just because they wanted to get their friend out. It was best to leave things to the professionals. When it comes to hunting witches and monsters the people let the DWMA handle it, and in return when there are regular crimes and fires, they let the police and the firemen handle it.

Though he should be thankful, he supposed, that the rest of the group was holding themselves back from just rushing into the building. Even though there were a handful of the staff at the warehouse, it could be more tedious than it should be to keep them all under control. Especially with so many civilians watching them right now.

But the fire… it didn’t sit right with Stein at all. Nothing about this sat right with him.

Soul abducted. Of course no one initially thought he had been abducted, he had only been missing for a handful of hours, his friends had just assumed that something came up and left it at that. But then he didn’t answer his phone and no one could find Maleko. Of course suspicion was going to start building up. The burning warehouse didn’t help things at all. Just made everything worse.

Of course Maka and Kid came to investigate when they heard of the fire and sensed Soul in the area, and reasonably enough, the entire group panicked when they realized Soul was in the burning warehouse.

Stein didn’t like anything about this. Nothing at all.

He’d realized that they had also not noticed the one thing that was most wrong about all of this. Well, he supposed he couldn’t blame them for that either. Soul was their friend, had been their friend for far longer than the other had. So when Soul was put in danger, is was natural that they would focus on him and forget the child entirely. Soul was more important than the boy was, even if they wouldn’t dare admit it.

His attention fell back to the warehouse entrance as a couple of firemen covered in soot and ash came out of the still smoking entrance. One of them was carrying Soul in his arms and was quick to bring him to the paramedics waiting. Stein gave Sid a nod, who in turn backed off, allowing the group of meisters and weapons to rush to Souls side as the unconscious weapon was strapped to a gurney.

One of the firemen caught Steins eyes and motioned for him to follow. He sighed, dropped his cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his shoe. “Come on,” he motioned to the others, but then paused and had Sid stay with the kids. “Keep them out there,” whatever was going on inside, he didn’t want the students sticking their noses in right now.

“All this smoke really burns my eyes,” Spirit muttered as they stepped into the dim warehouse, the sound of broken wood and plastic crunching underfoot while many small puddles of melted iron already cooling surrounded them. Just how hot had the fire been before the fire department put it out?

There were a few cops already inside, he noticed, and a mess of yellow tape was being put up everywhere. Of course it would, this was a crime scene. Though just what kind of crime it was going to be had yet to be disclosed.

His nose scrunched up as they wandered deeper into the warehouse. “Oh, God,” Marie had gasped, slapping a hand over her mouth and nose. “What is that smell?”

He knew the smell as soon as he had noticed it. It was a very unique kind of odor, one that most people don’t get the chance of finding, and as such he already had an inkling of what the fireman had to show them before they even reached the yellow tape.

But even with an idea in mind, he was still taken aback by the full extent of the scene. His mouth twitched and he had to force his face into the hard mask.

“Oh, God… oh God,” Spirit hissed as he reeled back beside him and Marie let out a horrified gasp, her eye wide, “How in… this is…”

On the ground were bodies. That wasn’t anything new, and it was understandable to expect them to be burned and charred corpses. But that wasn’t everything. Two men were strewn across the floor, unrecognizable. Stein could tell from what remained that one had been rather small and wiry, while the other was still fairly large despite the gore that remained. But there wasn’t really much remaining to get much more than that.

It would be an understatement to say they had been butchered. The two had been torn to shreds in a way that depicted no ounce of mercy or remorse. Throats torn open so that blood would pool out, faces clawed off, ears and noses ripped away, limbs were missing, their bodies were opened up so that their bloodied ribs were visible to all. Organs were gone, some had entire chunks torn off.

Or rather… bitten off.

Stein lifted the yellow tape and knelt beside the bodies, already working to put together what happened, and the more that he looked at this, the less it looked like the work of some maniac with a knife, and the more it looked like a wild animal attack. But he couldn’t think of an animal that would do damage this extensively, at least none that lived in Nevada. If it was an animal, the giant would have been able to deal with it easily.

It wasn’t an animal, despite how much it looked like it. Besides, an animal couldn’t do all the injuries that were present. Even though the building was burning, these men were burned in ways and places that the warehouse fire couldn’t do, that the flames wouldn’t have been able to reach, not unless it somehow found a way to get inside these men and burn them from the inside.

He glanced at the floor around them, at the bloodied and broken masks. They’d been torn off the men’s faces by the looks of it, broken and burned, but you could still tell that they were gas masks. A little farther away was a knife covered in blood.

This was just getting worse and worse.

“Stein, I think you want to take a look at this,” Spirit said and the scientist stood up as his friend nudged a burnt briefcase over to them, careful not to touch it with his hands until the police could bring them gloves. “It’s hard to tell what was in it, the glass is all broken, and the fire probably destroyed most of the stuff. But it looks like there were syringes and needles. Might be traces of whatever they were using in here.”

“We should make sure they run some drug tests on Soul, then. Whoever did all this could have been injecting him with something,” Marie spoke up, the concern for her student clear in her voice. “God… what even happened here?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Stein said, fishing through his lab coat for his pack of cigarettes as he got back onto the other side of the tape. He didn’t stop walking when he reached the two Death Scythes, and he ignored their questions when they asked him what he was doing and where he was going as he began to walk through the warehouse.

He lit his new cigarette on one of the crates that was still burning just a little as he passed it, barely pausing in his stride. His gaze stayed down, eyes locked onto the blood drops and smears across the floor. Not that he needed it to guide him where to go, but it gave him an idea of what to expect.

He followed it deeper into the warehouse, past smoldering support beams and charred cargo crates. Past broken security windows and burn marks on the floor. It led him to a door in the far back, an emergency exit in case of fires, fitting, he mused. The door and the push bar to open it was smeared with blood and bloody handprints, and the door was left ajar. Not wanting to ruin any potential evidence, Stein pushed it open the rest of the way with his foot.

The blood trail continued through the back end of the warehouse, and Stein continued to follow it. The wire fence surrounding the warehouse was broken a little towards the bottom in the back, and there was a shallow hole—probably made by a stray dog—and the bottom chains of the fence as well as the dirt of the hole had a good amount of blood coating it.

“He crawled under,” Stein said out loud as he blew out a puff of smoke and with his free hand he began turning the screw in his head. Even for him it would have been a tight squeeze under there, implying that he may have been too hurt or too weak to climb over the fence, something he would have easily been able to do.

It wasn’t hard for Stein to get over the fence and he continued to follow the blood. It concerned him that the blood trail was growing stronger the longer he followed it, more blood being left on the ground, shorter intervals between smears and drops.

Stein felt his lip twitch again and his hand came up to the screw once more, feeling the familiar click, click, click with each turn. Though he could still sense a soul, so there wasn’t a need to worry too much yet. He was thankful that the boy was smart enough to take back alleys and empty roads, otherwise he might have made a scene with the public.

Even so, Stein did let his pace quicken a little to a brisk walk as he continued along the trail. The blood was growing fresher, he was getting closer. But the soul didn’t feel any stronger, now that was something to be concerned with.

He turned briskly around the corner, diving into the narrow alley coming to a stop at a stack of old boxes that had been piled up beside an old apartment under the fire escape ladder.

“You’re going to get an infection staying out here like that,” Stein said, kneeling in front of one of the boxes. A whimper was what he got in response, followed by a whine. He waited patiently as the bloodied carboard box shook and trembled.

Maleko crawled out, his face and body lathered with blood, his white hair stained red and matted together. His nose was bleeding and crooked, broken by the looks of it, his left eye was swollen, as was his right cheek. Stein could already see the welts and bruises forming all over his small body. The kid was mostly naked, only burned strips of clothes remaining on him, pieces that hadn’t completely burned away or fallen off.

He was beaten badly, perhaps beyond badly. The boy was breathing heavily and it was clear he was trying hard to stay up. One hand was held fast around his left side, but even with all his attempts, blood still pooled between his fingers. Steins eyes fell to his other hand where he held a small knife identical to the one in the warehouse, covered in fresh blood.

“Heh…. Help…” Maleko whimpered, a single slurred word as he swayed on his knees.

Stein pulled his coat of and wrapped it around the child just as he dropped the knife and collapsed. There was little that he could do but use the spare gauze and tape he had in his coats pocket to cover the knife would on his side before lifting the unconscious child into his arms. Bruised, broken bones, multiple lacerations and stab wounds… the child looked like he had just come out of a war.

It was a bit tricky pulling his phone out of his pocket while holding the kid, not aided by the fact that Stein wasn’t going to just stand around but instead chose to start walking back out of the alley. He managed and dialed the number, waiting as it rang.

“Stein?” Spirit answered, by the background noise he was most likely still at the warehouse, “What’s going on? You just walked out on us! Did something happen?”

Stein adjusted Maleko in his arms as he began his journey back to the academy where he could perform whatever surgeries were necessary. “I’ve got Maleko, I’m heading back to the school now.”

“Maleko?” Spirit repeated and suddenly there was the sound of a struggle, Stein felt his mouth quirk as he heard a muffled argument on the other side and then— “Maleko is with you?” Marie. “How is he, is he okay?”

“He’s hurt. I don’t know how badly,” Stein answered, his pace still brisk. The knife wound wasn’t in any lethal area, but he couldn’t tell what other injuries the boy had, how much of the blood was his own and how much were the people he had killed in there. “Either way, Maleko is going to be telling us exactly what happened in there.”

Chapter Text

He sat in his room, staring up at the ceiling with a numbed feeling deep in his chest that left his insides frozen.

The bandages around Maleko were fresh and smelled of blood. Stiches, he had to get more stitches when Stein brought him back to the academy. The knife had gone in too deep for his body to heal on its own, for it to close on its own. There were scrapes and cuts along his hands and feet and legs and arms that had to be bandaged, but not as serious.

He could have burned his injury shut if needed, too, if he hadn’t been so scared. So confused.

The cuts weren’t the only injuries he suffered. A myriad of fractures and breaks in his bones all over. His chest was practically one giant bruise, and it still hurt to breathe, he could barely breathe on his own.

They wanted to know what happened. No one said it, but it was obvious that they wanted to know what had happened in that warehouse. Soul couldn’t tell them; he had been drugged and knocked out.

Soul could have been hurt, was hurt.

He stared at his hands, curled his fingers shut into a fist and then uncurled them to watch his bandaged palms.

No one blamed him for what happened, no one thought he did anything wrong. But they should know what happened, what he did. Maybe they were just pretending not to blame him, maybe they thought to themselves something worse, judged him, accused him.

Maleko closed his eyes and brought his hands up to take hold of his head.

Nothing made sense, and yet at the same time it made perfect sense. Everything those masked men had said, about Maleko, about Kai… about the DWMA… it made sense, it explained the weird way people got when he was around, some of the things people said.

It explained so much, but it explained things that he didn’t realize he wanted so badly to not know.

He wished he could forget it. Wished he could just forget the entire past few days, go back to being ignorant, naïve. Go back to not knowing. It was so much better like that; he had been so much happier when he had been ignorant.

Taking a deep breath, Maleko closed his eyes and tried to forget.

He couldn’t, he only became more aware. Every rustle of noise outside his window and doors. The sounds of shoes against the hard floor of the halls and the laughter and chatter of students outside. His own heartbeat, his own breathing. The many people, armed and ready to fight, ready for souls to gather, monsters to hunt.

David had always strived to join the DWMA because they were heroes who hunted monsters and other terrors. Mama had always hated it, hated the DWMA and yet she never told him why. It should have been clear.

No, it wouldn’t have, not to him. Maleko was dumb, he was a worthless idiot who was blind to the most obvious things, trusting too easily, to eager to accept lies and manipulation if he thought he’d make a friend. How could he be so… so..

A knock on his door snapped him from his thoughts and Maleko found himself curling into a tighter ball on his bed, pressing his back against the wall and trying to make himself look smaller out of instincts.

He could smell them before they even reached his door, could hear their footsteps drawing closer to his room before stopping. Maleko didn’t even look up as Stein and Spirit pushed his door open and came into his room.

“How are you feeling today, Maleko?” Spirit asked with a smile in his voice as he took a seat on the edge of the bed. Maleko didn’t look up as he felt his bed shift at the new weight or as he heard Stein saunter over to his window, the smoke of his cigarette lingering in the air as it curled out between the bars and through the open space.

Spirit waited a few moments as Maleko curled deeper into himself before reaching out to the child. “Careful, you might agitate your stitches moving like that.”

Who cared?

Stein turned from the window to the bed, a faint creaking and clicking noise echoing in the quiet room as he turned the screw in his head. “We were hoping you might have remembered something about what happened in there,” in the warehouse, he meant, even if he didn’t say it.

Maleko frowned against his arms, and still he didn’t look up. “Dunno,” he answered with a bitter bite to his word. “Dunno… Soul an I…. walking… people grabbed me… weird drug…. Everything got fuzzy.” He shook his head and closed his eyes tightly, trying to shake the sound of violent screams from his head.

The smell of burning flesh never bothered him before, so why did it now?

“We understand that,” Spirit said with a nod, a gentle smile as he rested his hand on Maleko’s small and narrow shoulder. “But it’s been a few days, are you sure there was nothing else you might have remembered? Anything they said that might give us an idea of what we’re dealing with?”

They wanted to know what the two had said. Probably so they could know what Maleko knew, what they told him, whether Maleko was still as harmless to them as before, or if he was now a threat.

“Dunno—I. Don’t. Know,” Maleko forced out, hugging himself even tighter than before as he let out a low growl. The lie felt bitter on his tongue. He wanted them to go away. They were making things worse, making the confusion worse. He didn’t know if he could trust them, if they were his friends anymore, he couldn’t be near them.

They hunt monsters.

David was right to always have Maleko always play the monster, it was what he was.

There was a long exhale as more smoke scented the air of his room. “We still don’t know the exact contents of the drug they injected you with,” he said, as if Maleko cared about any of that, “but we think it might have triggered something in you, akin to rabies, perhaps.”

Rabies, he didn’t know what that was. Maybe that was what had happened, but… no.

“If you feel any different, any signs of sickness, or if you start remembering anything, let us know right away,” Stein continued, and Maleko could feel him staring at him. “We need to figure out who it was that attacked you and Soul, and why.”

He shifted in his seat, but still didn’t look at the two adult. “…kay,” he mumbled into his arms.

There was nothing more that Maleko wanted to say to them, nothing at all. He just wanted the two of them to go away and leave him alone. That feeling must have been obvious enough because he heard Spirit let out a sigh and felt the bed shift once more as he got up from his seat.

The two lingered a few minutes longer than they should have before they bid their goodbyes, telling Maleko to rest, and to reiterate the importance of letting them know if he remembered anything that might be of use. Not that he was actually going to tell them anything, he remembered everything.

Their footsteps faded and the door shut. He stayed in his huddled position a few more minutes before untangling himself and crawling off his bed, wincing at the pain that shot up his side.

Why did they keep coming? Why couldn’t they leave him alone? Why couldn’t they stop pretending that they actually liked him, it’d be so much easier for him if they didn’t keep pretending, didn’t try to keep fooling him into thinking he mattered to them.

There were other scents outside in the hall, more footsteps. Maleko bit the inside of his cheek as he slowly made his way to the thick metal door and pressed his ear against it. Stein and Spirit had stopped a little ways away from his door so they weren’t directly in front of it, and yet he could still make out the conversations.

“Is he okay?” Soul. His voice was hoarse and gravelly, not yet recovered from the warehouse, from all the smoke he had inhaled, proven by the violent coughing he had every few minutes. Stein said he would make a full recovery, he just had to rest was all.

There was a pause, and Maleko could imagine the adults were trying to think of how best to explain it to the others. “He’s recovering, there aren’t any infections to his stitches,” Spirit began and then sighed. “He’s a lot more temperamental. Before the kid would light up like a Christmas tree whenever we came to see him, would tell us everything and anything. But now he just seems so angry, so guarded.”

There were a few murmurs and shuffling, words that Maleko couldn’t make out. His ears twitched and he began gnawing his bottom lip as he waited.

“I can’t really blame him for it,” that was a voice that he didn’t recognize, a girls. Was that one of Souls friends, the ones that they were supposed to meet before being kidnapped? “He’s a little kid, and it was likely pretty traumatizing. Give him some space and some time.”

“That would work, Liz, except we may not have a lot of time to work with,” another new voice, a boy. If that was the supposed ‘Liz’, then Maleko surmised that this one was ‘Kid’. “It’s unlikely the two were on their own, there’s probably a group, and they’re working on something if those vials were anything to go by.”

“It’d be nice if we can get Maleko to start talking, and soon,” Stein paused and Maleko didn’t need to see it or to smell it that it was a drag from his cigarette. “He’s not as good a liar as he thinks he is.”

So Stein knew that Maleko was lying. That wasn’t as big a surprise as it should have been. Stein was smart, even Maleko knew that, and he didn’t have much experience lying in the first place, never saw a reason for it until now. No wonder the man saw through him like he was made of glass.

“We shouldn’t push him too talk when he’s not ready,” that was Maka, concerned. (Stop it. Don’t deserve it. Stop pretending.) Maleko clenched his jaw and brought his hands up to his head, holding it tight, doing his best not to let out a sound as his emotions began spiraling. “Lying or not, he’s still just a kid.”

They didn’t know just how badly Maleko wanted to go out there and show him how he wasn’t ‘just a kid’. He was more than a kid, worse than one, and it wouldn’t be hard for him to show them that, to remind them that he was more than a kid.

He was a sorcerer.

He was their enemy.

Just acknowledging it, recognizing himself for what he was, what they were, it hurt. It made his chest clench and his eyes burn with tears he refused to shed. Had everything just been a game? Had they just been entertaining his naivete, playing along with his assumptions? Pretending to care, pretending to be his friends?

Most certainly. After all, why would they actually care about him? He was like a baby lion, cute and cuddly for now, but once he got older he’d be big, ferocious, dangerous. He’d be a threat. You can’t make a lion a pet, you can’t make a sorcerer one either, all you can do is have fun while they’re harmless and get rid of them when they become a problem.

Besides, sooner or later they were going to need to kill him for his soul, how else were they going to make stronger weapons?

Maleko choked back a whimper as he turned around and slid down to the floor with his back pressed to the door, no longer listening to the faint conversation outside. Words could not express how badly he wanted to go back to the days where he didn’t know, to the days of innocent ignorance. He hated not knowing things, hated feeling dumb, feeling stupid compared to others with what he knew and didn’t, but he’d give anything to just not know this one truth.

He didn’t tell the adults what happened, told them that he couldn’t remember. Blacked out because of the stuff they put in him; his memory was too foggy to put together details. It was a lie, he remembered everything. Sure, some bits were fuzzy, but he knew what happened in that warehouse, Maleko knew exactly what happened and what he did in there, and it was something he would keep quiet about until the day he died.

Because if he told any of them, then that day would come far too soon.

Closing his eyes, keeping them shut tight against the dim lighting of his cell like room, Maleko huddled into a tight ball there on the floor against his door. Even with his eyes shut he could see the memory as though he was still there, could still smell the scents of blood and smoke, of charred flesh, could hear the roars of fires and screams.

It was his own Hell.


 

Pain, everything hurt.

The masked man continued to kick him, to stomp at him, to hurt him. Soul couldn’t do anything to help, couldn’t hear him anymore, couldn’t move anymore. The weapon just laid on the cold floor silent and motionless.  And yet Maleko wanted so badly for the older teen to get up and stop all of this, to save him.

No one was going to save Maleko.

It was hard to breathe, painful to do so. Maleko closed his eyes as if it would make it all stop and knew that it wouldn’t. No one was going to come and save him, he had to save himself, that was all there was to it.

It was black and white, either Maleko fight to survive, or he dies. Survival. That’s all that matters. The only thing that ever matters.

He survived the jungle, he survived attacks from beasts, from hunger, from nature. He survived years alone in the jungle, this was nothing, just another thing for him to overpower and subdue, to survive.

Gritting his teeth, Maleko prepared himself for the next kick and could feel his ribs cracking as the masked mans foot hit him in the chest once again. Air rushed out of his lung as did a choking cough, his eyes burned and tears were streaming down his face. Everything hurt.

He could feel the fire within him growing hotter and hotter, burning him from the inside.

The masked man raised his foot to kick him once more, and Maleko took in as deep a breath as his lungs allowed, feeling the fire within him shifting, feeling it rise up in his body, gathering and burning. He breathed in, and when he breathed out, it wasn’t air that he aimed at the man above him.

A stream of fire came from his mouth, like a flamethrower, it blew out at the man. The masked figure reeled back, screeching in pain as he fell to the ground, clutching his arm as the sleeve burned away.

He rolled on the ground to put out the fire as Maleko felt a growl rising in the back of his throat, his mind starting to cloud over with aggression and anger. Maleko was fire, he was fire and he would burn everyone here until he was safe again.

His body was burning as he forced himself onto his knees, his magic coursing through his every cell, gathering within and sizzling onto the surface. He felt the flames dancing on his wrists and arms, climbing up to his elbows, on his feet to his knees, smelled the burning hemp as the charred rope fell to the concrete beneath him.

Free, he was free.

The masked man had managed to get the fire on his arm put out and was being helped up to his feet by the lumbering giant. His arm reeked of burned meat. Maleko bared his teeth at them as he pushed himself onto his feet, hunched over and growling.

“Okay, not a weapon, he’s not a weapon,” there was a frantic tone to the masked mans voice. Not so tough now that his punching bag wasn’t tied up and helpless anymore, now was he?

He felt his nails grow, shifting into claws, they scrapped loudly against the stone floors as he took a step towards the two, and the fire continued to climb over his body until he was completely engulfed in fire. It didn’t matter if his clothes were burning away, they would have only gotten in the way regardless. What use were clothes for fire—for destruction incarnate?

“What’s a sorcerer doing with the academy?” the smaller masked man yelled, pushing back against the giant as he backed away from Maleko. The boy couldn’t see his face through the mask, but he could smell their fear—and they were terrified. He relished it.

With a snarl, Maleko lunged at them, claws outstretched. His target was the thin one, the one who had caused him the most pain, but the man was quicker than he expected. He scrambled out of the way, hitting the ground painfully right as Maleko came at them, and was shielded by the giant who stepped between them.

Maleko’s claws dug deep into the large mans forearm, tearing into muscle and fat, and hanging suspended in the air, clinging to his arm, before he was thrown to the side by the giant. The impact onto the concrete floor hurt, his bones were already broken as it were, and his head spun for a moment before Maleko forced himself back onto his feet.

Still growling, still a living fire, Maleko crept about on all fours, circling the two slowly, searching for a spot to pounce, to lunge.

The thinner one was trying to stay as far from Maleko as he could, using the giant, now bleeding, as a meat shield. His voice quivered when he spoke again, “I… I know who you are,” he said, a nervous laugh, the kind of laugh of someone who knew they were done, that they were dead. “You’re… you’re Maleko! Maleko Palakiko—our Lady—Kai’s son!”

At that, Maleko paused. They knew his name… they knew his mama.

The thinner man was still laughing in nervous delight. “You’re alive? Oh Goddess, you’re alive, our Lady will be so happy when we bring you back to her,” he faltered, bringing a hand to his masked face, “Of fuck… oh shit, shit, shit! You’re Maleko and I—oh fuck, no, no, no, no! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“Arthur, we just drugged Maleko fucking Palakiko, you just beat the shit out of him,” the giant rumbled, the scent of fear only grew worse, it was pure terror now. “Not even death would be a deserving enough punishment for this, if our Lady finds out,” he cut himself off.

What was all this ‘our Lady’ crap? They got Maleko’s attention by knowing his name, by talking about Kai, but now they were just getting on his nerves with all these nonsense garbage. He growled to make his point be known, drawing closer to the two, getting their attention once more.

The thinner man—Arthur, apparently—faltered and raised his hands up in defense, “Look—my lord—” ‘my lord’ what even were these two talking about anymore? What the hell was a Lord? “I didn’t’ mean to—I didn’t know that it was you, I swear! Please, sir, I didn’t know, forgive me, I beg you,” he slowly got on his knees, keeping his hands held up in the air, a motion mirrored by the giant.

“Why are you,” The giant rumbled, suddenly choosing to be talkative apparently, “why are you with him,” he nodded to Soul. “The academy, DWMA? Why are you with the False Gods followers? I don’t understand.”

Teeth still bared, Maleko drew closer, the flames were starting to spread through the warehouse, the heat rising. “What,” he growled, his voice rough, inhuman, “you mean?” They needed to start making sense now, his patience was running thin.

Arthur was quick to volunteer and continue his role as the speaker for the two, “You’re with the DWMA, the False God, but you’re our Lady’s, the True Gods son, it doesn’t make sense,” he said, as if that explained anything, when it explained absolutely nothing. Maybe he understood that because moments later, Arthur was talking again. “You’re a sorcerer, my lord, the sworn enemy of the DWMA. They hunt your kind, devour your souls to strengthen their army, even as we speak, they’re hunting your mother, why would you ally yourselves with such heretics?”

Maleko stopped.

Sworn enemy… hunted… what?

“No!” his confusion turned to anger as he lunged at Arthur, digging his claws into the mans shoulders as he stood up, now towering over the kneeling man. “They friends! They wo—woud—wouldn’t!” They promised to help him find Kai, not hunt her down!

This man was lying, of course he was lying, he’d already beaten Maleko, so why wouldn’t he try to deceive him as well? Well, pain was a surefire way to get this man to start being honest with Maleko.

“It’s the truth!” Arthur screeched as Maleko twisted his claws deeper into him. “The DWMA hunt your kind, have for centuries! The academy trains children to hunt and kill sorcerers and witches, they use your souls to create Death Scythes, weapons for the False God! Gyah!” Maleko twisted hard again, felt his claws scrape against bone.

Try again, Maleko wanted to spit at him, but breathing was hard and talking was harder. So he would let his actions speak for him.

And he wouldn’t lie, but hearing Arthur screaming in pain—it was satisfying. After all the pain he had to endure at this mans hands, it was enjoyable to hear him in just as much, if not more, agony.

“Please, my lord, ask anyone and they will tell you the same; the DWMA hunts your kind,” Arthur sobbed as Maleko dragged his claws out, along with bits of flesh and meat off of Arthurs body. His fingertips glistened with blood.

He continued to let out a low growl, taking a step back to stare down at the two as his fires continue to grow, smoke filling the confined warehouse.

Try as he might… their claims were not as impossible as he wanted to believe. They sounded feasible; they explained more things than he wanted them to.

Why mama always seemed so annoyed, so angry, whenever David and Maleko brought up the academy, how she always tried to steer the conversation somewhere else or dissuade Maleko when he expressed his interest in enrolling with him. How Kim seemed so anxious when they crossed paths, so insistent that they pretend they had never met. She didn’t want him to expose her as a witch.

In the halls of the DWMA, people were wary around him, they always watched him with suspicion. Maleko had assumed it was because he was an outsider, but maybe that caution was because of something more.

Maybe it really was because he was a sorcerer, they were anticipating having to fight him, having to kill him.

He didn’t want to believe it.

“We’re telling the truth, my lord,” the giant insisted. “Please, my lord, let us explain ourselves, we work for your mother—” Maleko snarled at them in response and the giant flinched back against the bared teeth and dancing flames. “We serve your mother, the true God of this world, we are her Acolytes. I swear on my own soul that had we known who you were, we would never have done what we did.”

“I swear to you that we’ll personally escort you to your mother—we can bring in other Acolytes to do so if you don’t want us!” Arthur added rapidly.

They could… they could take him back to mama? The DWMA had promised to find her for him, but if what they said was true, about the hunting and the enemies, then they might not even bring her back to him alive. But… but these two people were bad people! They kidnapped him and Soul, attacked them, hurt them!

He couldn’t trust them.

Even if what everything they said was true, there was no way that Maleko could ever trust them, not to get him back to Kai, not for anything. They were bad people, evil people. He had to get rid of them, before they hurt him again, before these two hurt someone else. Nothing else mattered. They hurt him, and so they had to die.

He sprung at them, fire and claws digging into Arthur’s flesh as Maleko knocked him to the ground. He didn’t stop there, with snarls and roars as he clawed at him, instead he dipped his head down and dug his teeth into the skin between the shoulder and neck and viciously tore himself back, tearing out a chunk of flesh and fabric with it.

Teeth and claws tore apart the skin and meat like he would do for any rabbit or the occasional buffalo he caught. Blood dripped down his chin as he swallowed the bits of meat he tore out, the screams a lullaby for his ears.

What he didn’t tear off Arthur, he burned with his own touch as the fire engulfing Maleko grew and spread. By this point, the warehouse was burning, the thick smoke filling the building making everyone but Maleko’s eyes water and burn. They couldn’t stay in here, their lungs couldn’t breathe the thick smoke, their eyes couldn’t see in it. But Maleko could, he could breathe it and he could see past it without issues.

It put him at an advantage as he attacked.

(Kill) the voice in his head urged, (Kill anyone who hurts you) they attacked him, they had to die. Die for what they did.

He dug his claws in deeper, digging them into Arthurs stomach and tearing it wide open, he breathed fire into the wounds he made, tore out flesh with his mouth. All the while, Arthur screamed and tried to push Maleko off him, but couldn’t. Every time the giant tried to help, Maleko burned even hotter, keeping him from being able to even touch the boy, let alone drag him off of Arthur.

Eventually, the man beneath Maleko stopped squirming, stopped screaming. As Maleko withdrew his fangs from his opened throat, the man who had beaten him was motionless. Maleko growled, and dragged his claws across Arthurs mask, cracking through the plastic and glass, breaking part of it, burning and melting other parts. His face was dripping with blood that boiled under the flames cloaking him, his mouth tasted of meat and copper.

“Shit, fucking shit,” the giant breathed, trying to get away from Maleko, but fires had spread through their prison, blocking his exits with hot flames. The smoke was so thick, so burning. But Maleko found safety in the familiarity of this burning hellscape. This was his domain, his kingdom to rule.

The other man tried to flee, but Maleko leapt onto him and like with Arthur, he began tearing the man apart, biting and clawing until the giant would be unrecognizable. He felt something sharp go into his side, was punched across the face, had his hair almost ripped from his scalp by how hard the man beneath him fought, but nothing would stop Maleko.

Blood pooled on the ground beneath the giant, his entrails were dragged out when Maleko tore him open, ribs were broken off. Maleko didn’t stop until the thing beneath him wasn’t a large person, but a bloodied mess of meat and bones and he began to feast on the meat.

When he had his fill, Maleko stepped away from the corpses, crouched on his hind legs he raised his heat to the smoke filled ceiling and let in a deep breath. He howled into the flames and smoke, to the sky above, a wolf cry only he would hear. It didn’t matter if no one cried back, this was for him, this was Maleko cementing himself as Fire.

He was cloaked in flames, taking shape around him in a rough outline, a tail swished through the air behind him as he howled to the sky.

The entire room was sweltering hot as the fires danced with him, his claws scrapped the hard ground, leaving deep groves as he sprung from the floor onto a wooden box. The smell of burning flesh filled the air and mixed with the smoke, leaving his mouth watering.

There was enough meat here to last him for full moons worth of time, if he kept it right. There were no predators to rival here, to fight for territory and prey with. The fires would keep him warm; the meat would keep him fed.

Maleko howled once more. However, this time his howl was returned. A low rumble that grew louder and higher in pitch, closer.

His ears twitched as the siren wailed outside, joined by more and more. The fog in his mind slowly lifted, the blood lust fading as he listened. Sirens… the red trucks that deal with fires… police. People were coming.

He hesitated and looked to the bodies, to Soul off to the side, still unconscious, safe and ignorant of what happened. Maleko… Maleko would get in trouble, they wouldn’t approve of what he did here, would they. No, they would hate what he did.

Swallowing hard, Maleko jumped off his perch and landed on the burning ground, however his knees buckled under him as pain shot up along his side, worst than the ribs beneath his skin. For the first time since his kills, he looked at himself through the flames, at the small knife driven right under his ribcage.

What was that phrase those men enjoyed using? Shit? Well… right now shit seemed appropriate to use right now.

It hurt, immensely so. But he had to get out of here and fast. Couldn’t be caught here or he’d get in trouble.

The flames covering Maleko died down and he wobbled towards the back door of the warehouse, limping and gasping for breath. Now that the adrenaline had faded, it hurt to move, to breathe. How was he going to get away in time?

Closing his eyes, Maleko pushed through the flames.

He did manage to get away from the warehouse, with much difficulty. He had tried to make his way to the school but couldn’t. Eventually he was found by Stein and brought back, patched up, and now here he was to wallow in doubt, mistrust, and confusion.

Maleko groaned, coughing a little at the way his breath of air put pressure on his damaged ribs.

The familiar sound of wings through the air was the only sign he had when Taka landed between the bars of his window. The bird watched him, looking down on him from above as his feathers ruffled. There was no question that he knew what happened, Maleko didn’t even need to ask. That wasn’t what he wanted to ask, anyways.

“Taka,” he mumbled, his voice felt hoarse. “This place… they kill… my kind?” it was hard to get the words out, harder than usual because the damage that had been done to him, but he managed.

There was a long pause as Taka stared down at him, a pause that Maleko didn’t want. He looked up at the bird, glaring up at him with his bloodshot eyes. “Yes. Witches in particular, since they are far more common than sorcerers, but the DWMA does hunt witches, their souls are required as the final step in creating a Death Scythe.”

So they weren’t lying about that at least. Didn’t mean Maleko liked them or regretted what he did.

“Mama. Acolytes,” Maleko growled.

“They’re a cult, mostly humans, who’ve worshiped her for hundreds of years. She’s reinstated herself as their leader after you came into DWMA custody,” Taka answered and shifted on his perch. “I think she means to use them as an army to get you back.”

Maleko growled and buried his head between his knees.

So the two were telling the truth, about this school and it’s history with his people, about his mother. If that was the case, then he really couldn’t trust the school, could he? Even now he had been hoping that Taka would tell him otherwise, that the two masked men were lying to him, that he could still trust the friends he made here.

But if that was the case, then they weren’t really friends, were they? They were just using Maleko, were using him to get to Kai, were using him to get his trust so they could have his soul. They didn’t really care about him, did they?

“What,” Maleko wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He had to be strong. “What… do I do?”

What was he supposed to do? He was a mouse in a snake nest. He wasn’t safe here, not anymore. Who knew how much longer they were going to trust him, how much longer until he was deemed to dangerous and had to be disposed of? And mama, he had to keep her safe, had to find her and tell her that the academy is looking for her.

“You can’t stay here,” Taka said.

Chapter Text

The rushing river was a soothing sound, as was the gentle breeze rustling the leaves on the treetops and blades of grass. The air carried the scent of flora and fauna alike, clean of the pollution from the cities, from society. There were quiet whispers in the air, but only whispers, barely audible.

Kai knelt on the soft earth, her head tilted down as she held her hands folded together, as if she were praying, though there were no gods she would dare place her faith in.

Behind her was a small handful of Acolytes, the elite soldiers from around the globe who made up her personal entourage. The branch leaders had assured her that they were the very best of the organization in terms of combat and strategy, which would be good enough for her so long as they were being true.

They fanned out in the clearing and in the trees around her, keeping a good distance from Kai while ensuring they were close enough to defend her if something went wrong, and far enough to patrol and keep an eye out for threats. Kom sat closer to her but also at a distance, perched atop an upturned tree, watching her in silence.

 The days were blurring together, so much going on, so quickly. She wasn’t happy—doubted she ever could be again—but she was satisfied enough with the progress of everything, and the Acolytes, her mission, was progressing quickly if she might add.

With each passing day, she felt a contradiction of both being emptier while at the same time angrier. It was a strange feeling, a new one at that. Even in the past, she had only ever felt empty, not angry. It was only after meeting Maleko that she had begun to feel things, that the emptiness began to fill up with emotions.

But now that he was one, all those emotions had drained away inside of her, leaving only an icy rage.

She was calm, but angry. An eye of the hurricane, as Kom thoughtfully put it. She hadn’t been particularly amused by it, but it was fairly accurate all things considered.

It didn’t matter. The days went by one after another and she was getting closer to destroying Death and his army, of avenging Maleko. Then, what she did after that, she didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She’ll just let the days and centuries continue to fade around her, maybe.

But even with how fast things may go, how quickly the days went by, there was no way that she would let today slip by. Nothing could make Kai miss today.

“Continue to watch over me from above. Let my hands be steady in the coming battle, my heart stand firm,” Kai whispered under her breath as she stayed knelt on the ground. “Stay by my side and give me strength just as you had while alive, and please, Maleko, forgive me for what I will do.”

She stayed there a few moments longer, letting her prayer linger in the air before she reached up and took the worn and tattered teddy bear into her hands, giving it a kiss on its head she moved to leave it rested along the rest of the gifts.

Today marked the day that she and Maleko met, the day that they had first crossed paths. “It was right here,” Kai said out loud, maybe to no one in particular, maybe to those around her. She looked up at the trees creating a canopy above them, and then down at the dirt covered earth. “This is where we met, I had stumbled into his territory, right into his home.”

She began walking, aware of the dozens of eyes following her motions as she gave the tour. This had been Maleko’s first home, it deserved to be recognized as such. She wore a soft, tired and sorrowful smile as she came across a massive and old tree that stood the tallest among those in the clearing. It’s trunk had been clawed up quite a bit, but the marks were low to the ground to show that the one clawing it hadn’t been tall, she let her hand run along the gouges. There was a shallow pit dug beneath its large roots, the remnants of dried moss peeking out from inside. “This had been his nest, he’d drag in fresh moss every few days as a bed, or to cover the roots to shield him from the rain.”

He’d been perched atop the massive root when she entered, crouched low and growling, ready to chase her off, to defend his home. A small, scrawny boy, underfed, clear signs of malnutrition. His white hair was long, greasy, looked almost brown from how dirty it was and could have been used to house small animals with how much of a mess it was. No clothes to speak of, covered in dirt, blood, and injuries, old and fresh.

The boy hadn’t spoken a word of English, of any language. He couldn’t understand Kai when she spoke to him, not that Kai had much to say at the time other than a ‘you disgust me, leave’ sort of thing. She hadn’t been fond of him when they met, but he had grown on her. Maybe it was how willful he had been. Facing an unknown threat, facing what could have been instant death, but unwilling to back down.

She shook her head to clear it of that thought and continued to move through the old camp. There was another shallow grave a scattering of rocks filling it and Kai let out a small chuckle. Her boy had been so smart, even back then. “This was his firepit. He knew that fires would keep him safe, and he’d light one every night, it helped ward off bigger threats, kept him warm.”

He even cooked his food on the fire occasionally. Not often enough if the number of parasites he had in his body by the time she got him to a doctor was anything to go by. Most parasites couldn’t survive long inside of him, but there were a lot who were just too persistent to die in that internal fire of his.

 There was a flat rock, probably eroded by a river that once passed through this clearing ages ago, right in direct line of the sunlight coming through the cracks in the tree lines above. “He’d curl up here every day, just sunbathing. Taking in the warmth of the day, resting.”

There were so many things she could say about the camp. She could point out his favorite climbing trees, where he skinned the animals he’d catch and bring back to camp, She could point out where he made her bleed when they did have an altercation, where she patched him up after he got clawed up after a fight with some monkeys, where he’d left the corpses of the monkeys after he burned them alive.

She could point out the exact spot they had been standing when she realized that being around him made her feel something.

There were so many memories here, more for Maleko than for her, but these were where she had her first moments with him. Where she first realized she was alive and was happy. It was important to her. The one place where Death could not take from her, ruin for her.

So naturally, this was the only place appropriate to place his grave.

They didn’t have a body, so it was an empty grave, but it was a grave nonetheless. It had taken a few days to prepare, Kai couldn’t return home and so they had to send agents to get things from the wreckage of her home. Maleko’s old toys. Photos of them. Some had been taken from the debris, some had been taken from the police station. Her agents proved their worth by gathering everything without rousing suspicion, it even earned them some verbal praise from Kai. They ate it up like attention-starved dogs.

The shrine itself was simple. There was no cross, but she had been able to get someone to carve a simple tombstone for her.

Here lived Maleko Palakiko.

Short, brief, simple. He wouldn’t have wanted something long and complicated, something with too many words, or a lot of big words. No, it had to be short and to the point, it had to be simple, Maleko wouldn’t have wanted anything else.

She stared at the words, traced them with the pads of her fingers and it made it feel real.

Closing her eyes, Kai looked down at the base of the grave marker. There were old toys and photos against it. Maleko’s favorite teddy bear, with its ear all torn up. His Superman action figure—oh god how he loved Superman, he would have grown up to be a hero like him if the chance hadn’t been stolen from him—his bunny hoodie, and numerous photos that were taken of Maleko after he had moved in with her.

It was real, he really was gone, wasn’t he?

Kai closed her eyes again and took a deep breath. She couldn’t let the Acolytes see her in grief, couldn’t let them see her as anything but strong and in control. So she would save her anguish for when she was somewhere more private.

This was the most she was going to be able to do for him, at least for now. Once she avenged him, she could do more. Maybe erect a monument on the destroyed academy grounds? Probably not, would be too flashy for his tastes. Still, she wanted to do something for Maleko when this was all said and done, something to show the world, the whole world, that he had existed, that there had been something great, something pure, and that Death destroyed it.

That was something she could figure out once Death was dead. Once she figured out if Death could even be killed, too. That was still a question that was up in the air, after all. Could a god be killed? Probably, just not easily.

And if she couldn’t kill him, she’d settle for just slaughtering all his students. Maybe then he’d feel a fraction of the pain he caused her when Maleko was killed.

Taking another longing look at the grave, Kai turned and started walking away. The Acolytes shuffled to make way for her, to make sure they were out of her way, and she nodded her head towards Kom to gesture for him to follow her. He dutifully got off his log and came to her side.

There were a few nodded heads from the Acolytes as they passed, whispers of ‘My Lady’ and that sort of bullshit, and she didn’t even need to watch them to know they were following.

“Kai,” Kom began, probably just to fill the air with silence as they walked through the thick jungle.

“Any updates?”

There was a shuffle as they walked, trees rustling as the Acolytes followed them. “The entire organization is now aware and declaring loyalty to you, they’ve taken steps of their own initiative to neutralize problematic figures as well—in ways that won’t lead back to the Acolytes as a whole. They’ve been disguising these hits as normal incidents; robberies, hit-and-runs, accidents.”

“Good, they can think on their own I see,” Kai rolled her eyes a little as she thought of her cult. “They know how to be discreet, if anything.” They had spent years, generations of periods staying hidden from the public eye, of maintaining the appearance of being a thing of the past destroyed and gone. They knew how to mask their activities, how to keep Death off their trail.

They had their uses. What they lacked in the superpower like capabilities of meisters and weapons, they made up for in their dedication. Absolute loyalty, the unquestioned devotion. They would rather die than surrender, than fail. Rather die than fail Kai, and were willing to use any tactic, any sacrifice, to do as they were told.

Her enemies lacked that loyalty, that blind obedience. They would doubt and ignore orders if they don’t agree with it, they’ll run off and do their own thing if it pleases them.

They were used to hunting monsters and witches, and now they would have to dirty their hands to kill fellow humans. Kai wanted to see the look on their faces when they made their first kills. The look of absolute despair.

“We got a raven this morning, as well,” Kom continued as they walked, and Kai tilted her head towards him. Raven? No one used ravens for messages, not in the age of technology. Which meant it was important, unique. Witches, most likely.

“Mabaa?”

Kom nodded, not that there was much doubt to who could have sent it. “The other witches aren’t sure what to make of this yet. They won’t stand with us, but they won’t stand against us, either. Better than I could have hoped, to be honest,” he gave a lazy shrug.

Kai hadn’t expected them to ally themselves with her, but the threat that they may aid Death had been prevalent. “I’ll take it. So long as they don’t get in the way, I’m content with them standing on the sidelines.”

“And as long as we don’t pose a threat to the “safety and stability of the witch community” they’ll be happy to stay out of it,” Kom threw in air quotes with his fingers as he said that and rolled his eyes. “They’re watching us, of course. Looking for the one moment we slip up so they can formally declare us as enemies. I don’t like it. They’ve always been a bit craven, looking out only for themselves, ready to throw others under the bus.”

“You’d have done the same in their place.”

He grumbled but didn’t deny nor confirm it, instead he just kicked a rock aside, watching as some small rodent darted out between the bushes.

“How is the drug working?” Kai asked, moving the conversation along as she stepped over a mess of vines and roots, recalling how she had almost tripped over it the first time she walked that path. She didn’t look at Kom as they walked, instead watching the familiar scenery.

Kom hummed, having a bit more trouble maneuvering through the undergrowth. “I sent prototypes of the drug to twenty test groups across the world, so far nineteen of them have given me feedback for its effectivity,” he answered, ducking under a low branch. “The drug works, it successfully interferes with the both the soul wavelength of an individual as well as the weapons ability to transform. There are some issues of efficiency in using it, but that can be ironed out later.”

That was good, that was exactly what they needed this drug to do. It’d weaken the enemy forces considerably. But there was one bit that did concern her, quite a bit in fact. “And what of the group that hasn’t reported in yet?” she asked carefully, watching Kom from the corner of her eye.

He was nervous, anxious when she brought up that group, and began scratching at the back of his neck. “About that. The group that hasn’t reported in was manned by Arthur Kirkman and Boris Grackle.”

“And?”

Kom swallowed and then, after steeling his nerves, looked at her, “They were stationed at Death City. We don’t know the full details, but it appears that their mission was compromised and they were killed.”

Death City, huh? That place was just cursed. “Great, just great,” Kai hissed as they walked, shaking her head. “Any idea how much the all benevolent Death knows?” she asked him. If he knew too much, their advantage of surprise might be ruined. A lot of their plan was relying on DWMA being in the dark for as long as possible.

“No idea. So far it doesn’t seem that they know much of what’s going on, about the Acolytes. But I’m sure they’ll begin piecing it together.”

“We’ll have to be careful; we’ll need to move fast, too.” It wasn’t as though Kai actually felt bad that they had lost two agents, it was just annoying that they had lost them. Arthur and Boris had been the only agents within Death City and had been acting as our main source of intel in that area in regard to what the academy was doing. It hadn’t been a perfect system by no means, Death and his minions were good at keeping quiet, but it had allowed them to know some things that went on thanks to talkative students.

It also meant that Death was going to be more alert now. They were already on the hunt for Kai, and with the deaths of two Acolytes, it wouldn’t be long before they pieced together what was going on, figured out that she had her own army. Kai would need to be more careful, more cautious. One more wrong step and things could become a disaster, she wasn’t going to allow for that.

“One battle,” Kai decided as they reached the bend of a rushing river, staring out at the water and feeling it call to her. “We just need one battle that’s a devastating defeat for them. We need to crush their main forces and morale in a single hit, and then finish them off while they’re disorganized and confused. Hit Death when the city is at its weakest and unguarded. Our aim is going to be a swift and unquestioned victory.”

Kai walked forward and the river parted around her. On the other side, that dirt and grass, was where she and Maleko had finally connected. She could see it perfectly, remember every little detail.

Dirty, scrawny, cautious, the nameless boy was couched close to the ground. Heat radiated off him like a candle, a low growl in his breath.

A hand had been held out and he took it. Warmth overcoming the cold of her own flesh and bones. For the first time, Kai had felt something deep within her, an emotion she hadn’t been able to name at the time, but a warm one, one that she wanted to keep and never let go.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

The river closed in around her, submerging her from waist down in rushing water. Kai turned her head to look at Kom, still standing on the shore, amidst the bushes and grass. He was watching her, a look in his eyes that she could not name, a distance that was new.

“I’m sorry?” Kai asked.

He hesitated, then spoke again, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked again, “Going up against the DWMA, against Death. I don’t like either of them, but, the odds aren’t good. Even with the poison I made, even with your magic. It’s going to be suicide, and if it’s not, if you win, it’s going to be pure chaos. If the witches decide to ally with the DWMA, it doesn’t matter how big an organization the Acolytes are, doesn’t matter how fast we can have them all gathered in one spot; we’ll lose.”

“Are you suddenly afraid, Kom?” Kai stared at him, her eyes not narrowed, her expression not angry, but it was accusatory all the same. Are you turning your back on me? was the unspoken question. “Afraid you might lose? I didn’t think you only took chances if there were no risks.”

The lizard sorcerer stared at her in silence, a mute pleading in his eyes, but he didn’t budge, not a step towards her, not a step back. “If we make ourselves an enemy of the whole world, we die.”

“And if we win?” Kai challenged and felt the water around her rise in spires, “Are you underestimating the strength of my magic? If we choose the right battlefield, it doesn’t matter how many people oppose us. I trust in my magic; I trust in my strength and capabilities. I trust we’ll win.”

“And if we win, we might still lose,” Kom replied softly.  He took a deep breath, looked up at the sky before exhaling. Kai watched as her friend, the one person who had been at her side for hundreds of years, began to walk towards her, wading through the water. It was hard, it was slow, he pushed through the rushing rapids with no aid from Kai, feet sinking into the mud and sludge, but he pushed on.

He reached her, soaked, freezing, and standing before her with a mask on his face. “I’ll stand by you, Kai,” he reached for her, resting his hand on her cheek. “I’ve always stood by you. I may not agree, I may not believe in any of this, but I’ll stay with you until the end, if you’ll have me.”

That was good enough for her. She needed him there, someone she could trust. He was vital, important, the only one who could produce the poisons, the only person who could lead as her proxy.

She stepped away from him, letting his hand slip off her face and watching it fall back to his side. The water parted once more, leaving a path for them to the other side of the river.

“We’ll need someplace where we’ll have the advantage,” she said as she walked towards the shore. Someplace that would give them an edge over the enemy in this coming war. Someplace with water in excess. She knew just the place. “Tell the Acolytes to ready for travel, to prepare for cold weather.”

Chapter Text

“How is he?”

Spirit looked over as Marie approached him, worry filling her golden eye as she came to a stop.

“Still isn’t talking to any of us, nor letting any of us in his room,” Spirit sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m more concerned over that than the silent treatment. Not even food is getting him to let us in, I’m worried he’s going to end up starving himself at this rate.” They had tried forcing their way into his room, but Spirit was certain he’d somehow managed to push all his furniture against it to keep the door from opening.

It had been a few days since the warehouse incident, and as soon as he had been able, Maleko just cut them all off and isolated himself from all of them. It’d gotten to the point that the few students he’d won over were growing worried.

They’d tried bribing him with his favorite foods and drinks, with candy and toys, but nothing worked. The only signs that they had that Maleko was even alive and still in there was the movement they’d hear through the door and his soul still very much present within his room.

Marie frowned and as Spirit walked, she fell into step beside him. “I wish we knew what caused this.”

That was another mystery, Spirit thought to himself. It was obvious that there had been more to the warehouse incident than what he had told them. But now it was going to be impossible to find out if he kept acting like this. Had they said something, the ones who had kidnapped him and Soul? Had they done something? For all they knew, this new behavior could be the result of trauma.

Spirit wished he had the answers, wished he could say something, anything, and make it all better. Sure, Maleko was a sorcerer, but he was still a kid and Spirit was a parent. His heart hurt for the boy, and whatever pain the kid might be suffering since that night.

The only thing they could do now is just wait for him to be ready to talk and keep an eye on him as best as they could. It was a blessing that Maleko couldn’t use Soul Protect, his soul wavelength was so drastically different from the others in the city that it’d make it easy to locate and follow if something were to happen.

Was he even at risk of fleeing? No one knew for sure, but they had to be cautious.

Spirit felt terrible for him, that was the honest truth, what he went through was probably traumatic. Even if he was a sorcerer, he was a child first and foremost, and that’s what mattered in the end. There was a chance that he could still become something, someone good, not twisted and poisoned by his magic.

But if he pushed everyone out of his life like this so suddenly, it wasn’t a good sign.

“Maka’s going to try talking to him again later,” Spirit said out loud as they walked. He had faith that if anyone could reach Maleko, it was her. Maleko had been fond of his daughter, almost like a little brother looking up to a big sister, and he hoped that it would be enough to get Maleko to talk to them again.

Marie’s mouth twisted into a frown, “I hope she succeeds,” she murmured softly, a hand coming to rest over her heart as she looked down. Then, as if struck by determination, she straightened, “I’m going to try cooking him something to eat. Chicken, some cookies. He’s got to be hungry in there.”

She was so certain, so hopeful, Spirit could only hope that her plan worked, “If there’s one way to reach a boy, it’s through his stomach,” he agreed with a tired smile. “You do that, I’m going to meet up with Stein, see if there’s anything new.”

The weapons parted, footsteps echoing softly in the halls, growing quieter and quieter as they drifted away.


 

The days were beginning to blur for Maleko. He refused to leave his room for anything or for anyone, unable to cope with the bubbling emotions within him that wanted to burst free in a beautiful eruption with the intensity of the grinning sun itself. He wanted to lash out at the world, but held it all back, his anger and fear and confusion, kept it inside where it festered like an infected wound, putrid and oozing.

He’d shoved his desk against the door to keep it from opening. All the toys that they had given him, he’d thrown across his room, broke and burned. Drawings were torn to shreds, claw marks were left gouged into the floors and walls. It was the best he could to handle this sense of betrayal.

That’s what this was, wasn’t it? A betrayal?

His friends, the people he played with, come to care for, come to enjoy being with… they weren’t good people. They hunted and murdered his kind, and for what? Their souls, so they could get stronger, stronger so they could hunt stronger witches and sorcerers.

Maleko was just prey to them.

All this time, were they just keeping him here so they could kill him when the time was right? Were they using him as bait to lure mama in so they could kill her as well?

Had all that time he’d spent with them, playing with them, was it just so they could get his trust, so he wouldn’t even suspect a thing when they finally brought down the guillotine blade upon his neck? Maleko hadn’t done anything wrong, but being born was crime enough to warrant being executed to these people.

Everything had been one-sided, hadn’t it? The friendship, the laughter, and games, and smiles, he’d been the only one who saw them as friends, hadn’t he?

It hurt. It really hurt.

He ground his teeth, nails digging into the floor, “Aaaagh!” he screeched until his throat was raw, his back arching as he crouched on the floor.

Taka ruffled his feathers a little but didn’t budge from where he perched on the desk, watching and waiting. Taka… Taka was the only one who was actually on his side, wasn’t he? He was honest with Maleko, trying to be helpful in his own way. Taka said that Maleko needed to get away, and he was right, he needed to go.

But he couldn’t just up and run, the moment he left his room, they’d be on him. They’d follow his soul and drag him right back, and this time instead of him locking them out, he’d be locked up with no way to escape. No, he couldn’t leave, not until he learned how to hide his soul.

It had been four days since the truth came out, four days since he’d last eaten a proper meal. To say he was hungry was an understatement, but Maleko wasn’t going to let it get to him. He’d been through worse in the past, and it wasn’t as if he wasn’t eating anything at all. Maleko had some candy storied in his room, it wasn’t filling, but it was enough for him, for now.

He couldn’t risk opening the door for anyone, it’s a sign of weakness, of submission. He had to stand his ground, even if it meant starving.

Maleko scowled, pushed himself up onto his feet to start pacing the room, growling and scratching at his neck before tugging at his hair. If he pulled out tufts, would that relieve the pain and frustration?

Still perched above, Taka only watched and said nothing as Maleko moved, growing angrier and more agitated by the second. He needed freedom. Even if Maleko imprisoned himself, being confined was driving him crazy.

But he couldn’t leave the academy, not until he learned to hide his soul, or else he would never be able to escape at all.

Maleko snarled, turning on a bare heel and slamming his head into the wall. A dull ache sprang from his forehead, growing worse as he continued to pound it again and against, his shoulders shaking as he growled and huffed, seeking something, anything to soothe the growing anger inside of him.

There was a knock on his door.

Blood beginning to dribble down his face, Maleko pulled away from the wall and turned to glare at the door. His nose twitched at the smell of chocolate, but he didn’t take a step towards it.

“Maleko? It’s me, Maka,” came from the other side as another knock rang out. “Are you okay in there? I… I brought you some candy, chocolate bars, your favorite.” Her voice hesitated a little, and she knocked again.

Maleko bared his teeth, growling softly. He trusted her, admired her, thought they were friends, but how many witches and sorcerers has she already hunted? Already killed? And if not any yet, she certainly will in the future. She and Soul always talked about how they were going to turn Soul into a Death Scythe, they would need to kill a witch for that or a sorcerer. Sure, they avoided the details when he was around, but now he knew what was needed to achieve that dream.

Were they planning to kill him? Was that why she was so eager to spend time with him?

His hands shook, his claws extending with the need to tear into something. Taking a deep, shaky breath, he couldn’t even calm himself, but he was able to refrain from responding to her, from yelling at her like his instincts wanted.

There was another knock, and then a soft thud followed by the sound of something sliding against the metal door, he wasn’t sure what she did this time. “Maleko, please, just talk to us,” she was speaking softly, pleadingly. “We’re all worried about you, please just tell us what’s wrong.”

She sounded so sincere, so genuine, it made him want to trust her again, to believe in her again. It made him want to apologize and go back to how things had been.

“They’re killers,” Taka reminded him. It was all that Maleko needed.

His anger returned, a sharp flare and Maleko whirled around on his heels once more to face the wall, to glare at the faint stain of blood he’d left. With a snarl, he dragged his claws through it, leaving a fresh trail of gouges into the surface. It was all he could do to keep from dragging them through flesh.

There was chatter outside his door, one of the others must have been with her. Soul, probably. He bared his teeth, should have let those two men in the warehouse kill him or whatever they were planning. They worked for mama, served her—and he killed them. Of course he killed them, they hurt him, they beat him up, made him bleed, they had to go.

His blood was at a boil, his skin burning.

“Maleko… I’ll be back, I promise that I will, but please at least eat something,” Maka said giving another soft knock on the door. Footsteps receded from outside his room, growing softer and farther away. Maleko kept his ears perked for any other noise, any sign of life outside his door, breathing, shuffling of shoes, a rustling of clothes.

Nothing. He was alone, again. Well, not entirely, but alone enough.

Maleko snarled and hit the wall. His knuckles cracked and burned, the pain only made him angrier.

He didn’t want to stay here any longer, he wanted to get out, needed to get out. Find Kai, find her and be with her again, he’d be safe with her, at least. He could warn her that they’re looking for her.

Another growl escaped him.

“Maleko,” Taka commanded softly, taking from his perch on the desk to land on the boy’s shoulder. “Relax.”

Maleko snarled, but talons dug into his shoulder and he relented. Sitting down, he crossed his legs and left his hands to rest between them, taking a deep breath. Try and ignore his anger, focus on himself, inside of himself. Nothing would matter at all if he couldn’t escape.

Focus on his soul, focus his magic on concealing it. Imagine a blanket, wrapping his soul up nice and tight so that it’d be safe from everything.

Safety, imagine safety.

It was hard to do, to hide his soul when he barely understood the concept of one. Trying to conceal his very essence, to smother the flames inside of him so that the smoke wouldn’t lead others to him, it was difficult, and something part of him didn’t want to do.

Hiding his soul, concealing it, it meant he’d have to lock away his magic, he’d be cut off for as long as his soul was hidden. There had never been a time that he’d been severed from his magic and to be honest it was a terrifying thought to have.

But it was necessary. He’d have to give up his magic, temporarily, if he were to escape. Had to, needed to. Stop being such a coward and do it!

There was no way to hide his grimace as he tried to focus his magic on himself. He tried to concentrate his fire, to compact it into a small ball to cover his soul. Imagine stuffing his soul in a bag, locking it up in a box where no one can find it.

Slowly, a chill began to spread through him. He could sense his magic growing fainter and fainter as he focused on the box, focused on keeping it locked uptight. His heat was ebbing away, quickly fading from his body.

Another soft knock echoed on his door, the box broke open and heat washed through him, burning his skin and leaving it prickling as the cold left him.

Maleko snarled. So close, he’d been so close!

He pushed himself onto his feet, forcing Taka to fly off at the sudden movement, stalked towards the door and leaped onto the desk so he could press his ear against the heavy metal. Who was bothering him this time? He wanted to tear them open and breathe magma into their carcasses! His teeth bared and his claws dug into the steel.

Another knock, this time louder and more insistent. A startled whine.

“R-Ragnarok! He’s not going to, he’s not going to open the door,” a familiar voice cried in dismay as the knocking continued.

Hearing the trembling voice, Maleko paused, his snarl fading into confusion and uncertainty, he waited at the door, crouched on the desk, waiting for what else was going to be said.

“Of course he won’t talk! All he does is growl and howl!” snapped a high pitched voice, Ragnarok was… well, his attitude was about as same as usual. But it was surprising to Maleko that they were here, they tended to avoid him, well, Crona did, he could never understand. He had thought that they’d be kindred spirits, rescued by the academy, waiting to be returned to their parents.

Now he had doubts about if that was true. Crona was fond of Maka, the two were close, with Crona’s affections for her reminding him of the way Kom had always acted around his mama. Had she sent them to him as an attempt to make him open up? Was this a ploy, a trap?

But… Crona was like him, their mama was a witch, an enemy of the academy as well. Crona was the only one who could possibly understand Maleko. This could be… they could be a friend.

Ragnarok was still yelling at Crona as Maleko crawled off the desk and slowly pushed it away from the door. It screeched against the floor, and he panted and grunted at the weight of it, but was able to give enough room to open the door a bit.

The argument had died down at the noise he’d made, so when he opened his door, he saw the two looking at him with surprise. They hadn’t expected him to let them in, to respond to them at all.

“Cro…? Raggy?” Maleko’s voice was flatter than usual, worn out. He was tired and made no attempt to hide the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt.

“Looks like the brat finally opened his door, what a shocker!” Ragnarok jeered as he lounged against Crona’s head, ushering for his meister to walk in. Maleko stepped aside so they could, watching the thin teenager slide through the narrow gap and then shut the door behind them. Ragnarok twisted about from his perch to stare at Maleko. “You look like shit.”

Face scrunching up, Maleko glared at him, “Shut up,” he didn’t want to put up with the weapon, not right now. He felt too volatile to be able to deal with him, to on edge. He didn’t want to lash out.

Taka flew over to land on Maleko’s shoulder once more. “Ah, so this is Ragnarok and Crona… Medusa’s pair, correct?” his voice echoed in Maleko’s head, the other two gave no sign that they heard him but Maleko just nodded “Right,” he mumbled back.

“You have a pet bird?” Crona asked softly, wringing their hands together in a clear sign of uncertainty, grasping at whatever they could to start a conversation. They probably hadn’t planned this far ahead.

Maleko frowned and moved to sit on his bed. “Taka not pet,” he corrected, “friend.”

“Friend, right,” Ragnarok sounded uninterested and looked around the state of Maleko’s room. “So what’s got you throwing such a tantrum? Damn you really tore this room up.”

He glared at the weapon, his skin was burning again, blood boiling. Should he tell them that he knew? Did they know? He looked at Taka and the bird nodded. “Academy… bad,” he said, fishing around for the right words. Thankfully, the black blood meister and weapon said nothing as he spoke. “Kill… witches, not, not good. Mama witch, kill her… an me,” there were so many words he wanted to say, but they were words he didn’t know.

He dug his nails into his bed, hearing and feeling the fabric tear. “Bad people, killers,” he spat, shaking. “Want to… find mama, get away.”

Crona seemed nervous—but they always seemed nervous, so was it anything new? “You found out?” they asked. Ah, so they did know. Didn’t explain why they would stay if they knew, maybe they weren’t able to stay, they were just hostages with freedom like Maleko had been.

“Are you planning to run away?” Ragnarok asked. Maleko snapped his head up to look at the black blob, slowly he nodded. “Not going to be easy, the schools got all sorts of meisters who’d be able to follow you easily the moment you left the school gates. Doubt you’d even be able to get out of the city before they brought you back here.”

It was nothing that he didn’t already know. “Soul… protect,” Maleko said firmly. “Gonna, gonna learn. Can’t find Maleko.”

“But, even if you do escape, how are you going to find Kai?” Crona asked, slowly coming to sit next to him on the bed. “She could be anywhere in the world, no one here’s been able to locate her yet.”

“Maleko tracker,” was his answer. He was a good tracker, a good hunter, and beyond that, he had Taka, he knew what to look for. Find the Acolytes and they’d take him right to her. He didn’t say that, though Crona, as much as Maleko liked them, was weak-willed, if Maka asked, or anyone else asked, they might just spill everything Maleko told them. He didn’t want to take the chance.

Mama would be proud if she saw how cautious and thoughtful he was being right now.

The weapon snickered, “Well, it seems like you have everything planned out, as soon as you figure out how to hide your soul, you’re out of here, huh?” he asked and Maleko gave a nod. “Heh, well, good for you.”

Crona flinched and looked up at Ragnarok, “We can’t just let them run off, Ragnarok. It’s dangerous out there, and it’ll be cold at night, there’s no food and there are animals.”

Maleko wasn’t scared of any of that, what was the big deal? He snarled, “Maleko go,” he said firmly, pointing to the window. Taka fluttered a bit and waddled across his arm to a different part. “Can make it!”

To his surprise, Ragnarok held up a round hand. “Hold it, kid, they’ve got a point, surprisingly enough. We can’t just let you go out on your own like that. Surviving in a jungle and then surviving in a desert are two different things,” he pointed out.

There was a sigh of relief from Crona, “I’m glad you understand.”

“We’ll have to get you some proper supplies,” Ragnarok decided, earning a stuttered response from Crona. He looked down at them and began tugging at pale hair, “We owe it to them and to Kai, Crona. Because of her, we don’t have to be afraid of Medusa showing up ever again, consider this us paying her back,” he snapped easily avoiding Crona’s flailing hands. “Besides, this can keep your precious friends safe, too. Kai gets Maleko and we avoid a war.”

Maleko didn’t really understand what was going on between them or what they were talking about, but Crona did and they stopped arguing soon after with a mumbled ‘you’re right’.

With that apparently settled, Ragnarok let go of Crona’s hair to point at Maleko. “Crona here has a spare backpack in our room that Tiny Tits gave them. We’ll give it to you, stuff some stuff you’ll need in it. You sure you can find Kai?”

“Ye!” Maleko chirped, sitting straight.

Ragnarok nodded and rested against Crona as he continued talking as if thinking out loud. “Maybe get you a little bit of money just in case, Crona doesn’t really spend any of their weekly allowance the school gives them so we got some we can spare. Food is a necessity… maybe the witches down at Chupa Cabra can loan something, too,” he said and gave a light punch to Crona’s head. “You’re going to have to keep this quiet from the others, got it.”

“I won’t,” Crona responded weakly as knuckles ground into their temples.

Maleko watched as the pair stood up, Ragnarok watching him closely, “You stay here, we’ll try and get things put together for you so you can up and scram when the chance comes. Come on, Crona put those legs to work and do something useful for once!”

Watching them leave, Maleko quickly closed the door and pushed the desk back against it to barricade himself from the others. He had an ally, someone who was going to help him. He was so happy about this, he wanted to just roll and laugh.

“Can you trust them?” Taka asked as he flew to stand at the window. “Crona and Ragnarok, are they trustworthy?”

Were they? Maleko wanted to think that they were, he had no reason to mistrust them, did he? He wanted to trust Crona, wanted to be able to trust someone, anyone in this academy again, in this prison. Anyone, someone.

He didn’t have time to doubt, to question, he had to get ready, he needed to be sure he could hide his soul. That was his priority, his second was readying his escape route; it wasn’t as if Maleko could just walk out the front doors. He glanced up at the windows and metal bars, knowing what he’d need to do.

But, first things first.

Maleko sat back down on the floor, closed his eyes and focused on himself, on his soul.

 

Crona didn’t return until late that evening, carrying a faded backpack that seemed stuffed full. Ragnarok lounged on their head like it was a throne, waving a tiny fist in the air in greeting when Maleko pushed the metal desk aside once more. Maka had been true to her word and had tried to visit Maleko an hour prior, but he had stayed silent through her entire attempt.

They placed the bag on the bed and opened it up so that Maleko could see all that was in there. “We packed you some granola bars, a few fruits too, so you have something to eat,” they explained, showing the box tucked away inside. “Um, we have a jacket in there, in case it starts raining, a map…” they mumbled as they rummaged through it.

“There’s some money packed up in the side pouch, fifty or so, not much, but enough if you need to buy food or something when you reach the next town,” Ragnarok pointed to said pouch, and then to the large object hanging off the other side. “There’s also a canteen of water, try not to drink it all at once, unless you want to start drinking your own piss.” Vulgar, but Maleko could understand the point.

He stuffed his hand in it and then pulled a baggie of some cream and herbs, his nose crinkled at the familiar bitter smell. “Yeah, we were able to get Arisa, she’s a witch down at the cabaret club, some homemade ointment if you get hurt,” Ragnarok said offhandedly.

Maleko stared at the contents, eyes wide. It was more than he expected, to be honest. His eyes might have gotten a little watery, too. He would have been content with just some water and a candy bar, but with this… this was basically a luxury trip.

“Thank you,” he whispered and then threw himself at them, wrapping his small arms around Crona and burying his face in their midriff, letting out a soft purr. “Thank you.”

Crona let out something of a terrified whine, going stiff and awkward at the hug, arms askew while Ragnarok just laughed. “Don’t mention it, pipsqueak. Now, we just need to get your ass out of here, you know how?”

“Uh-huh,” Maleko nodded, backing away from Crona and pointed to the window. “Jus… jus need a boost,” he couldn’t reach it on his own, not with the desk being used to block the door. He’d need help.

 Ragnarok nodded, “Alright, makes sense,” he tapped his fists against Crona once more, “Come on, get him up there!”

It was a bit awkward, there was a bit of trouble to it, but Maleko was able to climb onto Cronas shoulders so that he could reach the high window. They swayed under him, stumbling a little, but Maleko held onto the metal bars tightly, focusing hard.

Fire, heat… feel it pulsing through him.

He closed his eyes as he felt the metal heat up. Slowly the metal began to shift, softening, melting. Maleko breathed heavily and then pulled hard on the two bars. They creaked, bent, but remained. He focused harder, applied more heat and tried again, and again, and again. Each attempt, the metal bent more and more, it’s shape becoming altered, becoming softer.

By the fourth time, Maleko broke the two bars off, giving enough space for him to crawl through. The two bars fell to the ground with a splat, the wet metal cooling quickly and sticking itself to the floor.

First, the backpack was pushed out the window, and then, with Crona’s help, crawled through.

He was free,

Grinning from ear to ear, Maleko dropped to his knees and peered back into his former room. “Thank you,” he whispered from the bottom of his heart, “Thank you.”

Crona smiled, too, it was soft and small, but it was there. “Your welcome,” they whispered but it was drowned out by Ragnarok, “Get running now, kid, they’re going to realize you’re moving soon, especially if you don’t have your soul hidden.”

He nodded in response, right, he needed to hide his soul. “Goodbye,” he said, pushing himself onto his feet and shrugging on the bag. Hopefully, he’d be able to spend time with them again in the future.

With those final words, Maleko took off running. Away from the academy, down the stairs and into the heart of the city. As he ran, he focused on himself and took a deep breath. Inside his mind, Maleko imagined the chest, visualized his soul within and locked it shut.

Diving into the crowds, ducking into alleys, over fences and narrow spaces, there was no chance for anyone to find him or follow him, not when they couldn’t locate his soul. Maleko broke free of the city without anyone finding him.

Chapter Text

“We can’t find him anywhere!”

“No one has seen him anywhere!”

“I tried searching the city, but I can’t find him, not even a trace of his soul.”

Stein sighed, rubbing his temples as he held his cigarette between his teeth while different meisters and weapons spoke over one another. The early sun was still rising over the horizon, laughing at them as it ascended the sky. How can a city full of meisters and weapons lose one little kid?

When Marie and Spirit tried to talk with Maleko late into the night, they’d found the door wasn’t blocked anymore, not entirely. The desk had been moved to the side to offer a narrow space to slide through to get into the room. The room itself had been a mess, as if it had been the sight of a battle with how much had been destroyed in the boys tantrum.

The kid hadn’t been in there, his window was open and bars melted and torn off. The metal had long since cooled, so no one could say just how long it had been since he had escaped, but they had issued a city-wide search as soon as they found out.

Yet hours passed and no one found any sign of the boy. Everywhere had been searched; abandoned buildings, alleys, empty apartments. Anything that could hide the child and it all turned up empty. So far those who were searching outside of the city had yet to find him either, though some were still out looking.

It would have been easier and quicker if they could follow his soul, but it was gone, not a single trace.

Damn it. How did he even learn Soul Protect? He hadn’t known how to use the spell when he arrived at the city, he had to have learned it within the months he stayed here, but from who? Had this escape been planned from the start? Or was it triggered by a recent event? The kidnapping, was that the cause of all this?

Stein knew that there was something up with Maleko, something else happened in that warehouse that he wouldn’t tell them. Was that what this was really about?

He cranked his screw and blew out a puff of smoke. If he managed to reunite with Kai, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but the boy knew things about the academy that he’d rather not let such a prominent enemy know.

Perhaps he had been working as a spy all along? No, Stein doubted Maleko would have been capable of fooling them for that long if that was the case, he wasn’t necessarily the brightest child in the world after all. He was too naïve, he wore his heart on his sleeves. It was impossible for the child to deceive someone for so long and on such a grand scale.

Slowly the group began to disperse, and no sooner had the students left had Spirit approached, looking disheveled and tired. He’d not gotten a wink of sleep, searching with the others to try and find the sorcerer before someone potentially got hurt. He placed a thick manila folder onto the desk, papers starting to fall out but held together by paperclips and staples.

“Lord Death’s issued for everyone to cease searching in the city,” he explained, pulling out a chair and collapsing into it. “We’ll keep looking outside the city, there’s not many places he could have gone on foot.”

Stein took a drag from his cigarette, “It’s a big desert,” he pointed out, to which Spirit gave a hum. “If we’re lucky we’ll find him alive, but it’d be easy for a boy like him to die out there. Animals or dehydrations… as soon as he uses his magic we should be able to find him if he’s still close by.”

“We’ll find him alive,” Spirit frowned. “and then we can find out why he ran off. But, we also have bigger problems,” he pushed the folder over to Stein and waited as the doctor flipped it open, scanning through the pages. “We’re starting to suspect that there’s something bigger at play.”

Stein began shuffling through different reports and records, narrowing his eyes and turning his screw with his free hand. “Acolytes?” he said out loud. Of course he’d heard of them, they had caused quite a scene a long time ago, had been a very real threat during the time as well. “I suppose it makes sense that there would have been remnants of their organization that survived long enough to begin rebuilding.”

“We don’t have concrete proof, not yet, but everything we’re finding is pointing towards a resurgence,” Spirit ran a hand through his hair. “Which may make things even worse. Hunting down kishin eggs is one thing, but asking students to fight and kill human souls doesn’t feel right.”

Stein hummed as he found the black and white photo of a scrawny witch with a tangled mess of pale hair and narrow eyes. What made the Acolytes so dangerous was their fanaticism, blind worship of an evil entity. Witches. “When the witch they worshipped was killed, the logical line of thinking would be to realize she wasn’t an immortal god,” he said as he plucked the photo up and stared at her face. What had her name been… Sara, her magic involved iron manipulation, she had been leading the Acolytes when they’d finally been squashed.

Or so they’d thought. “She was killed and the Acolytes were defeated,” he said out loud and placed the photo back down, “but perhaps it had been wrong to assume she was the one they thought a god.”

Spirit raised a brow, leaning back in his chair, “What’s going on through that head of yours?” he asked.

Picking up another report from the file, Stein skimmed it over, the frown not leaving his face. “It’s only a theory at the moment, but I feel very strongly over it’s possibility. Everything seems to convenient to be a coincidence. We find Maleko, and instead of coming to retrieve him, the witch raising him vanishes,” he put the paper down and began turning the screw in his head even more. “What few sightings we’ve had are lining up with the reports suggesting Acolyte movement. The timing is too perfect.”

“You think this sea witch is the real mastermind behind the Acolytes?” Spirit asked.

Leaning back and putting out his cigarette in the ashtray on the desk, Stein stared up at the ceiling, at the slight flicker in the lights. “She could be,” he nodded, “it’s not a good outcome, but it seems to be what everything is pointing at. She’s preparing for war, and we need to prepare as well.”


Maleko yawned as he curled up in the shade of a large rock. He didn’t mind the heat, honestly the dry air and hot sand was comforting if anything, he enjoyed the feeling of warm sand under bare feet—it reminded him of the beaches at home—and he was grateful that even with his magic shut down, he still had a high heat tolerance. The problem was that he’d been walking and running for several hours and he was exhausted.

But, he’d made good ground and now was as good a time as any to take a rest.

Shrugging the backpack off, he reached for the canteen of water and took a drink, careful not to take too big of a swig before he put the cap back on. Taka had landed and nestled in next to him in the shade, patient as Maleko rummaged through the bag to find a granola bar to munch on.

“We should be able to reach the next town over in a few days,” Taka mused as Maleko ate. “You’re doing wonderful, little sun, you were able to escape the city long before they noticed you were gone. No one could have asked for more.”

A few more days of running, Maleko could do that, he’d keep running if it meant there was someone in the next town who could help him get back to his mama. There had to be one of those… those… Acolyte people there, right? Or maybe another witch? Someone was bound to help him.

Or maybe not.

Maleko’s face twisted into a frown as he nibbled on the bar. Maybe he wouldn’t find anyone who’d be able or willing to help him. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to find her at all, the meisters might find him first and drag him back to the academy. They might just kill him on the spot. The thought sent shivers down this spine.

He’d held them in such high regards, but they’d been using them, hadn’t they? They wanted his soul, or maybe information on his mama. They’d been quite interested in her when he first arrived, asking questions and making him believe they wanted to find her so they could reunite the two. But that wasn’t the case, was it?

He reached up with his free hand and began scratching at the nook between his neck and shoulder. His body trembled as he bit down hard into the granola bar and drew blood with his claws. The more he scratched, the more he began to calm until it felt like he could breathe again.  

“Little sun,” Taka nudged him slightly, “I believe the sword pair had put a map in the bag?”

Blinking, Maleko glanced at the bird and then at the backpack. “Oh,” he whispered and then another pause before his brain began catching up and he moved towards it, opening the pouch once more and rummaging within. A map… that was important, right? He didn’t really understand it, but, Taka wanted to see it, he guessed.

He pushed aside the jacket, the snacks and bandages as he searched. His fingers brushed against some paper and his mind went ‘ah’ as he grabbed it. A map, right? It felt small, maybe maps were small.

But when he pulled it from the bag, it wasn’t a map it was a photo. Maka and Soul, Blackstar and Tsubaki, even Crona was in the picture. It looked like they were at some sort of party, dressed up in fancy clothes and all smiling at the camera, looking like they were laughing, that they were happy.

Maleko’s heart clenched, his mind thought back to eating with Maka and Soul, getting sick and carried to their apartment to recover. He thought of Blackstar, always happy and laughing, confident, his fun declarations of strength and how much Maleko had believed him. Tsubaki was always so kind and sweet, like a mother or sister.

All the fun games he’d play with them, following them off into class too sit beside them, drawing the zombie man as he did lectures, or the screw man, or Marie when they taught instead. How they’d let him take naps during class, walk him to the cafeteria so he could join them as they ate or walk him back to his room when classes were done. They didn’t care if he couldn’t understand the classes, they let him participate and let him have fun just by being there.

Blinking back tears, Maleko realized how much he missed it already. Even if it’d all been an act or a game to them… he had enjoyed his time with them, he had thought them his friends and had loved being with them and a large part of him wanted to go back to it.

“It’s best not to think of them,” Taka flew up to perch on Maleko’s arm brought up his foot to rest on the photo, pushing down as if to lower it. “They were using you, little sun, they don’t deserve your love.”

Whimpering, Maleko let the picture drop to the ground. Taka was right, he had to try and forget about them, if he didn’t, it’d only hurt him. Swallowing back the tears, he focused his attention back on the bag to go back to looking for the map as Taka watched silently.

Eventually he was able to find the map folded up deep in the bag and withdrew it. Taka flew off his shoulder to land on the ground as Maleko unfolded it and placed it on the sandy ground, finding small rocks to hold it down.

It was a mess of squiggly lines of different colors, jumbles of words and symbols. Just staring at it made his head hurt.

“Let’s see,” Taka examined the map, putting a talon on a large marker, “Death City, and we’ve been running for several hours so… we should be around here.” He hopped down and put his talon on an empty space a little bit away from where the city supposedly was. It wasn’t really far from it, the distance was only the length of his thumb, still close to the city. Maleko scrunched up his nose as he stared at the map as Taka kept talking, something about how he had an amazing sense of direction and that if they kept going this way, they should be go, confirming that they were just a few days away from the nearest city.

How could he tell any of this?

“Is something wrong?” Taka asked looking up at Maleko and then glancing down at the map once more, “was there something that caught your eye?”

Maleko shook his head, “Can…can’t ruh-read,” he mumbled and wanted to hit himself. All this stress, it was making it harder for him to remember how to form his words, talking was getting harder again. He hated this.

“Not even a map?” Taka asked, to which Maleko shook his head. He cocked his head and then looked over to the map, hopping over so that he started pointing at a small series of symbols on the side. “These symbols represent landmarks, cities and other locations. This big dot with the star marks the capital—the main city—of this state. These smaller dots represent towns and cities…”

Slowly and patiently, Taka began explaining different aspects of the map, different places, and each meaning. He paused in between topics, waiting to see if Maleko had questions before moving on with another. He was understanding and practical, and even if Maleko still wasn’t quite sure how to read a map, he at least knew a little more than he had when it was over.

They went over the map, mostly Taka looking at different things and trying to plan out a safe route that would lower any chances of running into others from the DWMA. Eventually, after Maleko had crunched up the granola bars wrapper and stuffed it into a different pouch in the bag, Taka let him fold the map back up and return it to the backpack. It was time for them to get moving again, too dangerous to stay in one spot for too long, who knew how long the academy would keep searching for.

The plan would be to keep walking, and when the sun went down, he’d keep walking until he found someplace safe to set up a den for the night to rest. There was still a long way to go until they reached that, though. The day was still young.

Hours passed, his legs were starting to grow sore but Maleko didn’t voice a complaint. Taka would fly off to scout on ahead, sometimes following from above and sometimes just perched on Maleko’s shoulder or bag.

Maleko swallowed and adjusted his grip on the bag, he kept walking, feeling the warm sad sinking between his toes with each step. Cautiously, he glanced up at the hawk on his shoulder, his last talk with Crona and Ragnarok repeating in his head, their comments towards the bird sticking.

“Ta…Taka,” his tongue felt weird in his mouth, words felt weird. It always felt weird trying to say words, but now it felt worse than usual. He grimaced and tried again watching as the bird looked his way. “Are you uh-ah ah familiar?”

Even Maleko knew what a familiar was, mama had told him about them when he saw some during a gathering of witches. They were animal companions to witches and sorcerers, they were magical. Was Taka magical? It’d make sense, most birds couldn’t talk, right? Was he… was he Maleko’s familiar?

Taka ducked his head as he continued preening his feathers, a few beats of silence passed as Maleko kept walking through the Nevada desert. “Clever little sun, I am indeed a familiar,” Taka confirmed after plucking a light brown feather from under a wing. Letting it drop from his beak, it fluttered to the sand. “However, I am not your familiar.”

It was disappointing to be shot down, ducking his head in shame and feeling his face heat up. But then, if he wasn’t his familiar, then… maybe, just maybe… “Mama?” hopeful, desperate hope.

“That’d be a sight to see. A witch of the sea with an avian familiar,” Taka’s voice chuckled in Maleko’s head at the thought, feathers ruffling as he adjusted his perch on the boys shoulder, then settling back down to relax. “You don’t need to concern yourself with it, my dear sun. My master would like to look out for you is all.”

It was hard to not worry himself over it when Taka made it so much more curious of a topic. If he wasn’t his or his mama’s, just who was the witch or sorcerer that the hawk belonged to? But, Maleko tried his very best to banish those thoughts from his head like he was told to do, tried not to think of it anymore.

He supposed that all that mattered was that there was someone looking out for him. Taka was someone’s familiar and they were a friend. They had to be if they were this concerned over helping him reunite with his mother. Maybe, if he was lucky, he could meet Taka’s master and thank them.

The thought was enough to keep him going with a smile, as if reenergizing him with the hope of meeting this person one day. He bounded forward at a decent pace, hands on the straps of his bag to keep it secured as Taka took off from his shoulder to fly around.

By the time the sun had gone down and the air had cooled, Maleko found himself an abandoned next that smelled of a strange animal. It was safe and hidden, so Maleko curled up in the dip on the ground to sleep for the night. Taka nestled down beside him, telling him to sleep and that he’d keep watch over night, and come morning, with the sun starting to rise, the two were on the road once more.

True to words, they had reached a small city within a few days. It’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as Maleko had run out of food the day before and would run out of water in his canteen soon. The city was full of strange and new scents, none of it familiar.

Maleko received a few curious glances from the adults that passed him on the streets, staring down at the dirty, barefoot kid with an oversized backpack, and dirt covered clothes. But no one stopped to talk to him, they went on their way and let him go about his own business.

Though they had reached the city, he still had to be careful. They didn’t know who was a friend and who was an enemy, he couldn’t let people know just who he was, what he was.

He set up a cozy den under a damp bridge coated with a generous amount of obscene graffiti and spiderwebs. It was safe, and all the scents of people underneath were several days old, so he felt confident that he wouldn’t be found under there. They needed to figure out a game plan now. Or, Taka did, Maleko wasn’t a good enough thinker to be able to think of a viable plan of action, he’d come to accept that about himself. He wasn’t smart, not like those around him, so leave the thinking to those who could do it.

Shrugging the bag off to the side, Maleko sat down and crossed his legs together as the bird settled down in front of him.

“You’ll need a new name,” Taka said, “You can’t call yourself Maleko, not when people are going to be looking for you, and you can’t tell people you’re a sorcerer, not unless we can trust them.”

“Buh, but Maleko…” he made a face when Taka said he’d need a new name. He liked his name, it was the one Kai gave him, it was important to him. He was Maleko, he didn’t want to give that up, it felt wrong.

Takas feathers ruffled but then relaxed. “It’s an alias, a fake name to keep you out of trouble,” he assured. “You’ll still be Maleko Palakiko, but those who meet you from here on forth can’t know that. Does that make sense?”

He frowned but nodded. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but he could try and understand. “Okay… theh, then what… my name?”

There wasn’t a moment to think, not a pause to contemplate possibilities. When Maleko asked, Taka answered. “Asahi. You are Asahi.”

“Asa…he?”

“You’re Japanese, little sun, neither the wilds, the tropics or even the deserts can hide that. So, you’ll don a Japanese name,” Taka explained and hopped a little closer. “Asahi, the morning sun. It’s a fitting name. I’ll try and teach you the language as well.”

Asahi… Maleko frowned. The name, it stirred something deep within him, felt as if something in the back of his head was scratching at the walls, trying to get out. It didn’t make sense. But, if that was the name that Taka chose… “Maleko… Asahi,” he accepted with a nod.

“Good. Now, let’s rest, little sun. We’ll need to search for your mothers allies tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

It was cold and dark when he woke up, scrambling to his feet. A scream caught in Maleko’s throat as he saw where he was, surrounded by cold metal. Slowly, though, he realized it was the underside of a bridge he was looking at and not the walls of the DWMA, that he had gone to sleep underneath a bridge on the edge of the city. It was the best place to hide from those who might still be pursuing him.

He relaxed with a sigh of relief and, from the corner of his eye, spotted Taka raising his head and then lowering it again as he nestled back into a brown lump. For a moment he feared he was still at the academy, that escaping and being on the run for those few days had been a dream. If he really had woken up back there, he would have lost it, he didn’t want to have dreams that’d raise his hopes only to be crushed when he awoke.

Rubbing the last of the sleep from his eyes, Maleko yawn and made himself move, stalking out from beneath the bridge into the dim light of the city. It was night, the streets alight by the streetlights and passing cars.

His stomach grumbled and glancing at the bag only reminded him that he had run out of the food Crona had given him. Perhaps he could find a mouse or rabbit, or maybe even a bird that he could catch and eat. Well, maybe not a bird, that might upset Taka. There wasn’t much in terms of berry trees and bushes, so he’d have to do with whatever small prey he came across.

He couldn’t use his magic to help, but, back in the jungle, his magic had only been helpful to fight, not to hunt.

Taka didn’t seem to move from his spot as Maleko walked away from the bridge in search of food, but he knew the bird would find him if trouble came.

As Maleko rounded a corner, a shrill scream pierced the silence and sent shivers down his spine. He turned his head in direction of the noise and found the smell of fresh blood soon reaching his nose as he started to slowly walk in its direction. He could smell two people, but one of them smelled… weird. Wrong. A putrid stench like an infected wound left to fester and rot.

“You shouldn’t get involved,” Taka spoke in his head and Maleko glanced around as if to see the bird, but couldn’t. He was hiding and watching.

But, he had to, someone was hurt, and something wrong was happening here. Maleko knew, deep inside, he couldn’t just ignore it. What would mama say if she found out something bad happened and he didn’t stop to help? What would David say? He couldn’t go home and face his friend if he ignored it.

Maleko still wanted to be a hero. Heroes helped people if they were in trouble. Like Superman.

The boy had made his decision and, despite complaints from the hawk, made his way after the scent of rot and blood. He hurried down sidewalks and wove between parked cars, and soon he’d found the source within an alley between two closed stored.

The rotten stench was coming from what could have only been a kishin egg. A bad person, a really bad person. But even after knowing what kind of terrible monsters they were, it hadn’t been enough to prepare Maleko for the sight of such a twisted, deformed being. It was drooling and laughing as it hunched over, long, bloodstained knife-like fingers scraping the ground as it took a hunkering step forward.

He swallowed and decided that it didn’t matter how frightening the monster looked, what mattered was that it had a woman cornered. She was a young looking woman, looked no older than mama and held a broken bottle up as a weapon with a shaking grip. Her arm was bleeding from where the kishin egg hit her and she was obviously scared, reeking so strongly of fear that Maleko was sure he would still smell it without his strong senses.

Maleko didn’t allow himself time to have second thoughts as he rushed towards the monster, kicking up from the ground latching himself to the monsters back, digging his nails into its face and twisting hard. “Ruh-run!” Maleko growled to the woman as he slid off the kishin eggs back and took a few quick jumps away from it.

His claws were unsheathed and his teeth were bared. He didn’t bother to watch and see if the woman ran away like he said, his attention drawn to the creature that turned to face him. Its face was bleeding from where Maleko dug its claws, and it was even more ugly on the front as it was from behind. It laughed as if the deep scratches didn’t hurt as it lumbered towards him.

Fighting animals was one thing, but a kishin egg was different, and a sudden surge coursed through him. He hid his fear with an angry growl, arching his back and widening his stance, eyes narrowed as he let out a snarl at the kishin egg.

Quick as a tiger, the monster darted forward, bladed claws outstretched in a swipe that would have cleaved him in half had Maleko not dropped low to the ground. As Maleko hit the dirty pavement, he winced as his jaw hit the ground and his teeth rattled in his mouth. For a moment, he saw stars beneath his eyelids and let out a low whimper.

Deranged laughter brought him back to reality and he opened his eyes to see the kishin egg raising its claws and then bringing them down in a rushed downward swipe. Maleko didn’t have enough time to get back up and out of the way. He couldn’t fight it, not with his soul locked up in the chest, not with his magic repressed. He had to open the box, let his soul out. It’d be okay if it was just for a few minutes, right? Quickly, Maleko focused on his soul and—

“Get away from him!”

Glass shattered and Maleko stared in mute surprise as the woman chucked the broken bottle at the monsters head, at how it shattered into a splendid shower of glistening shards right above him. The monster was stunned, and in that brief moment, Maleko scrambled to his feet. Why was she still here, he told her to run!

He dived to the side just as the monster regained itself and lunged at him with another slash. The claws caught him on the back, tearing through his clothes and cutting into his skin. Maleko bit back a scream and turned it into a snarl as he fell forward. Catching himself with his hand, he propelled himself away, rushing forward blindly and finding himself crashing into the woman’s legs. She caught him before he hit the ground again, breathing heavily and terrified as her hands shook, trying to keep him from falling.

“Oh my god, oh no, oh shit,” she repeated over and over again as Maleko found his footing. “Are you okay? Oh god, it hit you, oh no, no, no.” her fear intensified and the strength of the smell was making his head spin.

His back was damp as blood ran down the skin. “Fuh-fine,” Maleko forced out. His head hurt, his back was torn, his face was bleeding as well from faceplanting the pavement, the hard surface having torn into his chin. And… he was angry.

“Maleko, you need to get out of there,” Taka warned. He could spy the bird perched on the roof of one of the buildings they were sandwiched between, his eyes glowing in the night. “You can’t win this fight.”

For some reason, that just made him want to fight this monster even more.

“I c-can beat it,” he said to the bird, eyes focused on the kishin egg as it began stalking towards them once more. There was no way to escape, the brick wall of buildings was behind them and the kishin egg was between them and the alley entrance. He’d have to fight it, and he certainly wasn’t going to leave someone to die just so he could escape.

He growled and flexed his fingers, it hurt to arch his back but he did so anyway. “I cuh-can kill you,” he snarled lowly at the kishin egg. He wasn’t afraid, not of this thing, not of anything. He wasn’t going to let this monster beat him when he knew he was stronger.

Maleko let his soul out of the box and relished the rush of heat coursing through his body.

“K-kid, what are you—don’t go towards it!” the woman whimpered, reaching for him as Maleko began stalking towards the lumbering monster. He wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t weak, and he’d prove it by killing this thing. He was getting sick of looking at its ugly face anyways.

The heat was rising, his blood coming to a boil. He could taste the smoke on his tongue as he took in a deep breath. He’d tear this monster apart, over and over and then burn it’s body until there was nothing left of it. He’d fill the alley with its blood, turn that horrid laughter into screams as it convulsed under him, like a scared little rabbit, until it was—

There was fire.

It engulfed the kishin egg, turning the laughter into screams as its form writhed into the flames, dark plumes of smoke rising into the sky. When the fire faded, a red soul was left in place of a body. The woman behind him gave a deep, shaky breath and dropped to her knees, letting out soft sobs and whimpers.

The soul bounced, suspended in air, surrounded by it’s own firey red aura. Maleko glared at it, his body tense, his claws aching as he kept them out. Then, he let his gaze shift from the soul to the other end of the alley.

The fire hadn’t been his.

At the mouth of the alley was a pair of girls that he recognized as soon as his eyes caught sight of their cream colored uniforms. Through the smoke and blood, he found their scent. His lips curled back into a snarl as he hunched over, blood still boiling, claws itching for a fight as Kim approached, Jackie in hands. There was a glow and soon the weapon was walking beside the witch in her own human form. Their eyes glanced to the woman sobbing at the back and then landed on Maleko, worry and surprise in their gaze.

 “Maleko,” Kim said softly as Jackie went to the woman, talking to her in a hushed voice to make sure she was fine. Maleko didn’t respond, only growling as the witch drew closer, distrust and suspicion singing in his ears. Kim got closer and then kneeled in front of him. “Are you okay? You’re bleeding—here, I got something I can stop the bleeding with and I can heal it later,” her eyes glanced to the woman with Jackie. Right, she didn’t want people knowing she was a witch, so she wouldn’t be using her magic in front of strangers.

She dug into her pockets and pulled out a plain handkerchief, reaching out to wipe the blood off Maleko’s face, but he reeled back when she reached for him, letting out a growl and swatting her hand away.

“Maleko,” Kim furrowed her brows and held her hand close to herself. “Maleko, what happened? Why are you out here, don’t you know how worried everyone is?”

Worried? Yeah, right. Maleko took a step back, on edge, ready for an attack, for anything. Kim was with the academy, she hunted witches—she was an enemy, a traitor. How could he have even trusted her in the beginning, ah she must have thought him the biggest fool there was. He bared his teeth at her. “Not going bah-back.”

“Not going back? You have to! It’s too dangerous to be out here on your own,” Kim tried to reason. “You’re hurt, come with me and I can patch you up, and you can tell me what happened, why you ran away.”

“Don’t trust her,” Taka warned. “She’ll just take you back to the academy, you’ll never be able to find Kai if you’re trapped there.”

Maleko growled and then snapped forward with a warning swipe that sent Kim reeling back even if he didn’t manage to hit her. “Nah-not going!” he repeated forcefully. There was so much he wanted to say to her, reasons why he would never step foot in that city again, but it was too many words, far too much for his brain to comprehensibly translate for him to say. So, instead Maleko snapped his jaws in a warning bite, “Gonna find mama.”

That was all he needed to say for Kim to understand. “Maleko, you, you can’t,” she said and he snarled at her, so she tried again. “I know you really want to see her, I can completely understand, but you can’t. there’s a lot going on, and it’s not entirely safe to be with her, not right now.”

“Cuh-cause you’re hunting her,” he shot back and the startled look was confirmation for what he already knew. “I won’t let a-anyone hurt her.”

Something crossed her face, an expression with emotions he didn’t understand. She tried to reach for him once more. “Maleko, you’re hurt and scared, I understand that,” she said speaking softly, and he saw her glance towards Jackie behind him. “Come with me and I can heal you, and we can talk. About your mother, about what’s going on.”

He shook his head. “No,” he snapped.

“You need to leave.”

Maleko bared his teeth and took a hasty step away from her. Takas voice rang in his head, an urgent echo as the hawk watched above, it’s anxiety coursing into the boy. As Kim made to reach out and grab him, Maleko shot forward, ducking under her arm and rushing past her towards the open entrance to the alley.

“Maleko!” Jackie yelled and Kim took off after him.

It hurt to run, but he kept, ducking between cars and leaping over trashcans while the witch stayed hot on his trails. Why wouldn’t she just stop chasing him? He bared his teeth, feet slamming against the paved ground, the pebbles and rocks dug into his bare feet digging into the skin, leaving cuts and scrapes. It was harder to use Soul Protect as he ran, he was already hurt and tired and scared, but he managed to stuff his terrified and anxious soul back into the chest.

Leaping onto a fence, wincing as the razor wire cut into his hand and sliced across it, he clambered over and stumbled down to the ground on the other side and darting off once more. Taka flew above, following him and Kim stayed right behind, but slowly growing farther behind.

Even as his feet and hand were bleeding, and the pain from the cuts on his back began to sear, he kept running, leaving blood with each step. How was he supposed to loose her when he was leaving a trail of blood behind him?!

Maleko darted through a narrow alley, diving between the small space between a wall and a dumpster as he went through and kept running as he broke through to the other side, knowing the small spaces would slow her down just a little. Taka was nowhere in sight but he had to trust that they’d meet up again soon.

He swallowed back the pain and ran onto the street only to falter as a sudden burst of lights stunned him, letting out a scream as tires screeched against the pavement. He fell backwards onto the ground as the car came to a halt in front of him. Heart beating loudly in his ears, Maleko sucked in a sharp intake of breath, staring at the dark car and flickering headlights as the driver threw the door open and rushed out.

“Holy shit, why the hell did you run out onto the street?” the driver yelled, but the anger in his voice dissolved as he took in the terrified sight of the boy, bloodied and dirty, shaking as he sat on the street. “Fuck, kid, are you okay?”

“I…. I….” Maleko’s voice trembled and caught in his throat, instead he let out a low whimper and instinctively pulled back when the man reached for him. “Ch-chase…”

Footsteps echoed through the air, coming off from the alley he’d cut through onto the main road was Kim, having caught up to him once more. She caught his gaze and starting towards him in a jog, breathing heavily from running after him. “Maleko!” she yelled.

He scrambled back, struggling to get back on his feet and tumbling back down before he fully stood up; it felt like his legs had been replaced by Jell-O for the moment. Whimpering loudly, he backed away on the ground, “St-stay ‘way!” he snarled, blinking back the tears as his chest continued to heave from the exhaustion. She was going to catch him, she was going to take him back to the academy—she was going to keep him from finding Kai, from going home. No, no, no, no! “Get ah-ah-away!”

Kim ignored him, coming closer, “Maleko, stop running, we need—”

The man who had been so close to running Maleko over had inserted himself between her and the kid, arms crossed over a broad chest. “I don’t think the kid wants you near him,” he said curtly, and though Maleko couldn’t see his expression, he could smell it, the scent of an alpha. The man was telling her to back off, to leave. He was… standing up for Maleko, keeping Kim from taking him away.

He continued backing away, to get away from Kim and the man, grabbing hold of the car and trying to stand once more with its help.

“Look, sir, I know what this looks like,” Kim was saying, trying to maneuver around him, only for the man to sidestep in front of her every time.

Maleko grimaced as his cut hand smeared blood on the warm hood of the car, stinging and burning. He took a wobbling step, then another, slowly, with each one he regained his strength and stability until he was able to start running without falling over. He had to take this opportunity while he could, while Kim was being held back by the man.

He sucked in another breath of air as he began running, stumbling forward but able to keep moving.

“Maleko!” Kim yelled and rushed after him, but the man grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back. “No you don’t,” he said and looked out towards Maleko. “Kid, wait!”

But Maleko ignored them. He kept running, darting down another narrow space, leaping off the sidewalk into the grass and through the bushes, hoping the darkness and foliage would hide the blood he was trailing. The scent of it was overwhelming his nose, until it was all he could smell, and his heart beating within his own chest was all that he could hear.

He kept running, blinking back tears that blinded him, listening as a few people looked out their windows and yelled at him when he ran through their yards, a few more cars screeched to a stop when he rushed onto the street once more.  Running blindly through the city, he refused to stop no matter what, every time he tripped and stumbled, scraping his knees and palms into bloody messes, he pushed himself back up kept running.

Eventually he felt the soothing presence of Taka’s voice in his mind, urgent calls to keep moving and encouragements as he shadowed him in the sky above.  He offered no guidance or directions, only urging Maleko to keep running, to stop for nothing. Kim and Jackie were here, who knew who else was here from the academy, he had to run. Keep running until he was safe.

He was tired and exhausted, but he kept running, fueled by fear and anger.

He kept running, dropping to all fours and ran like his life depended on it, for all he knew, it actually did.  Was Kim still after him? Had she slipped the man’s grasp? Would Jackie be there waiting for him when he turned the corner?  Were there others waiting for him? He’d thought them friends, Kim was a witch and Jackie was her friend, he thought he could trust them, thought they’d be a friend. But, no, he’d been a fool to think that. Of course he’d been a fool.

 “Calm yourself, little sun,” Taka soothed, “Breathe.”

It was hard to, but he took in a deep breath as he ran, trying to calm his nerves, banish the fear from his mind. “You’ll be okay, little sun, you’re doing wonderful,” the hawk continued to assure him as they moved.

He closed his eyes for a moment and took in another shaky breath. Opening his eyes, he ran. Don’t think, just run. The world had become a blur of colors streaking by, he had no idea where he was anymore, nor did he care where he was going, so long as he got far from the girls.

He didn’t want to go back, he didn’t want to go anywhere near the city nor its meisters and weapons.

“Little sun!”

Maleko didn’t recognize the warning until it was too late. He’d dived into a yard and ran, no longer looking where he was going and suffering for it when his leg caught on something and he skidded across the ground, rolling and sliding and becoming tangled up into thin metal wiring as he came to a stop in the dirt.

Breathing heavily, Maleko squirmed, only for the tangled mess he was in to get worse, and the metal wire to dig into his skin, leaving new scratches and aggravating his cuts. Whimpering, Maleko tried to pull an arm free to no avail. “Taka,” he whispered when the hawk landed on the ground beside him. He couldn’t stop running, they’d catch up, they’d find him. He had to get out of this, keep running, find someplace safe.

 “It’s okay, little sun, I’m here,” Taka answered, grabbing hold of one of the coiled wires and giving it a tug, though it was useless.

Taka wouldn’t be able to pry any of it back, he was trapped, they’d find him. They’d find him and drag him back. Maleko’s body shuddered and he buried his face into the dirt, giving out a muffled sob. What was he going to do? Relenting, Taka ducked down and buried himself into the space beside his neck, as if to present some comfort.

“Damn raccoons!” a voice yelled through the air as a door was kicked open. “I told ya that if I caught your sorry hides in my cabbage patch again, I’d make hats out of you!” he weakly lifted his head to see a woman aiming a gun at him as he laid trapped in her garden. But as soon as she saw that it was not a raccoon ransacking her garden but a child tangled up, she lowered the gun, looking as if she was trying to process just what she was seeing.

“Well, I sure as heck aren’t shooting a kid,” she said, flicking the safety on her gun and leaving it to lean against the house wall. Moving towards him she stepped over the rows of vegetables and crouched beside Maleko who was fighting back his tears. “It’s okay, hun, let me get you out of there.”

Maleko winced and shivered as she carefully and slowly pulled the mesh fence off of him. Whimpering, Maleko closed his eyes and metal and nails brushed against bruises and cuts and heard her click her tongue as she worked. To his despair, Taka took off from where he’d cuddled underneath the boy, taking to hide in a tree. She piled the wire fence beside him after getting the last of it off of him and then ran her fingers through the bloody skin of his back, taking in the sight of the wounds the kishin egg left, left dirty from his run through the city, and then looking at the other injuries littering his body as Maleko curled up.

“Hey, there, string bean, I’m not gonna hurt ya, okay?” she assured him and carefully scooped Maleko up into her arms. He only halfheartedly fought her off, too tired and sore, falling weakly against her chest, a scared, trembling mess. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Can you tell me your name?”

He choked in a breath and hissed at the pain that rushed through him. “Ma…” he began, faltering and trying again. “Asahi.”

“Asahi?” the woman repeated and gave a nod. “Alright, Asahi, look, let’s get inside, get you cleaned up and patched up, does that sound good?”

Not trusting his voice, he just nodded weakly and let the woman carry him back inside. If he was inside, then Kim and Jackie wouldn’t find him and—she wasn’t bad, was she? She didn’t smell of anyone from the school, that was good, right? He didn’t know. But a wave of anxiety washed over him when he realized Taka wouldn’t be going with him.

“It’s okay, little sun,” Taka assured, “I’ll be outside.”

The inside of the house was warm, full of family photos and various new smells. It was small and cozy and reminded him of his home with Kai, before it was destroyed. It felt safe inside.

She took him to a bathroom and left him on the bathtubs edge as she grabbed things from the cupboard. Turning on the tubs faucet, the tub filled a little with water. He winced as his tattered feet began to soak and the woman ran a washcloth under the running water.

“Look at you, you’re filthy. Go ahead and strip down so we can clean you up,” she ordered and he obeyed, saying nothing.. Tossing his torn clothes onto the ground, he sank down into the tub as it continued to slowly fill with warm water. She was gentle as she began washing him, running the washcloth across his cuts and occasionally refilling the water when it started to dirty. He hadn’t realized just how dirty he had become until he saw the water a mixture of red and brown from his blood and grime.

Her fingers gently massaged into his hair as she washed the dirt out with some fruity shampoo, were careful as she washed gravel and dirt from his cuts, even as they continued to bleed. She said something about needing them to keep bleeding, so that they washed out whatever got in the cuts.

As the water refilled for the third time, she filled a cup with water and poured it over his head, letting soap suds run down his skin as his hair began to regain is snow-white color. “My name’s Maggie, I probably should introduced myself earlier, but I suppose names aren’t all that important when you get down to it,” she said as she ran fingers through his hair and poured another cup full of water over him.

The way she treated him, careful and gentle, it reminded him of Kai whenever she gave him baths. It was easy to relax, to slowly forget the terror he’d felt while running as Maggie massaged his scalp.

Maleko waited a few beats before speaking. “Maggie?” he repeated, testing the name, “Maggie… nice.”

There was a pause as Maggie took in his way of speaking, but it was only for a half a second. “I’m glad you think I’m nice, string bean. Not many people do.”

He didn’t understand what she meant by that, why people wouldn’t think she was nice, so far she had been kind, her and the man who had held Kim back. But he didn’t have the energy to question it. He just sat there as she continued to get the dirt and grime off him and out of all his injuries.

It took a while but eventually she pulled back, “All clean, now, let’s get those cuts all covered,” she said, draining the tub and leaving him on the edge, patting him dry with a towel. He whimpered and when he saw the blood staining the fabric, screwed his face into a grimace. She was so nice and he was ruining her things. But Maggie must have seen his expression because she laughed and ruffled his damp hair, “It’s okay, I was going to throw some towels out, anyway,” she assured him.

Dried, thanks in part to the towel down and in part to his own hot skin, she rummaged around and began to apply antibacterial ointment onto each one. He hissed and winced at the way it stung, but Maggie kept giving him affirmations. “You’re doing great, sweetie.” “It’ll be done soon.” And so on and so forth, until it was over and he was covered in fresh bandages. The ones on his back were the hardest to wrap up due to the size of the cuts, but she managed, while the scrapes on his face and rest of him were rather easy. Even his older injuries that were aggravated got some treatment.

It was nothing like the infirmary at the academy, but, he wasn’t treading blood everywhere, that’s all he could ask for.

She left him in the bathroom for only a few minutes, telling him to stay, and when she did come back it was with some clothes. Her sons, she had said, they were a bit small for him, but when he put them on, they were much too big for him. The shirt alone almost went down to his knees. But it’d be better than running around naked, or from wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing since he left the academy. He could easily hear Kai, “It’s filthy to wear the same thing without changing, you don’t want to be filthy, now do you?” He’d never considered being dirty as a bad thing before, but then again, he hadn’t known much before she came and found him.

Led into the kitchen and seated at a table, Maggie went to fix him up something to clean, slippers padding softly against the hard floor.

“So, Asahi, can you tell me your parents number?” she asked as she opened a fridge and the smell of eggs, milk, meat and so much more wafted into the air. “I’m sure they want to know where you are and we can get you home.”

Home

Maleko withdrew into himself, wrapping his arms around himself and looking down. “Don’ know,” he mumbled and shook his head. “Mama… far ‘way, trying ta’to find her.”

Maggie hummed and brought over a plate with a sandwich on it, sliding it over to him as she took a seat next to him. “Lost, then?” she said, watching as he cautiously began eating. “I can bring you down to the police station, I’m sure they can help you find her.”

The police? They’d… no, they were with the academy! They’d never help him find Kai. He swallowed his mouthful and quickly shook his head. “No!” he said a bit more forceful than he had intended, ducking his head in embarrassment and hiding his face as he ate.

Maggie didn’t have a response to that, she just kept looking at him, as if he was some bug she was trying to study. It made him uncomfortable, made everything in him cry out that he had to run. Did she already figure out who he was, was she going to go find Kim and send him away? Was she—

“Tell me something, string bean,” Maggie finally spoke up, still watching him as she rested her cheek on a hand, “do you like pudding?”

Did he like… huh? Slowly, Maleko looked back up at her, searching her gentle, smiling face for any hint of malice, for anything. But he found nothing but peace. She reminded him so much of Kai it made his heart hurt. “I like pudding,” he answered with a hesitant smile.

Mm-mm, well, then you’re in for a treat! My son makes the best damn pistachio pudding in the world! It’s sure to knock your socks right off your tiny feet,” she ruffled his hair as she said that, and Maleko couldn’t help but smile and giggle. She left the table only long enough to grab him a bowl and spoon.

As it turns out, pistachio pudding was good and now his favorite treat out there.

He ate his bowl and his stomach was content to have had a real meal aside from granola bars and water. Absently, he remembered he’d left his backpack under the bridge and made a note to reclaim it when he could—Crona gave him that and he’d feel awful to abandon it!

When it was done and Maggie wiped his face clean, the boy curled up on a couch. As she draped a blanket over him and a pillow under his head, Maggie said something about her son being asleep and her husband at work until morning, so no one should bother him. He saw Taka watching from outside the window and knew that his friend would alert him if someone did arrive.

For the first time in what must have been over a week, Maleko felt relaxed, he felt safe as he drifted into sleep.

 

 

The morning sun rose into the sky, a massive grin stretched across its face as it chortled on its ascend. Maleko stirred awake to the sun shining on his face and the smell of bacon wafting into the air. He blinked his eyes open and pushed himself up, the blanket falling off his shoulders and the couch sinking under his weight.

For a brief moment he thought he was home and hope blossomed in his heart that everything had been a dream. But then reality came crashing in and he realized the room he saw wasn’t the same living room as his own home. The family photos weren’t his own, the furniture not his own, the scents neither his nor his mothers. Right… Maggie. This was Maggie’s home.

He winced as he pushed himself off the couch and onto the floor, his back still burned with pain from his fight. His arms and legs still throbbed from running and scraping them up. He could smell blood on himself and only had to glance down at his arms to see red staining through the bandages on his arms. His back was probably no better since that was where the worst of his injuries had been.

Ignore it, he told himself and glanced out a window. Taka was still out there, right? He couldn’t tell, but he had to have faith that his friend was still there.

He yawned and stumbled away from the couch, his legs feeling unstable, but managed to make his way to the kitchen where the smell of food was coming through. Maggie was by the stove, cooking bacon and eggs and humming a small tune, and she wasn’t alone. A teenage boy, older than the students he thought he had befriended at the academy, leaned back with a some comic in his hands.

The boy was tall, slim, dressed in ripped jeans and a band shirt. He had Maggie’s eyes, but his hair was black—the faint smell of dye wafting from him. He noticed Maleko standing there and looked over to the boy, eyebrow raised.

“Well, good morning, kid,” he nodded, he didn’t seem surprised, Maggie had probably told him about Maleko.

Speaking of whom, Maggie turned from the stove and smiled widely at Maleko, “I’m glad to see you’re up, little bean, did you sleep alright?” she asked as Maleko cautiously approached the table with a mumbled ‘yes’. “This here is my son, Mickey, he was already asleep by the time you showed up so I hadn’t been able to properly introduce you two at the time. If you stick around, I can introduce you to my husband when he gets home.”

She was friendly, and acting like he was already part of the household. It was strange, and Maleko was trying hard not to trust he so easily. But it was hard.

Mickey smiled, “Name’s Asahi, right?” he asked, “nice to meet you, kiddo. Sorry if my mom’s been a bit overbearing at all, she means well.”

Shaking his head, Maleko climbed into a chair, ducking his head to not look at anyone, “S’sfine,” he mumbled, perking up when Maggie slid a plate full of eggs and bacon over to him. He moved to reach for a slice, stomach growling, but stopped himself to look at Maggie cautiously, afraid of getting in trouble. “Mine?”

She laughed and nodded, “Yeah, string bean, it’s yours. Do you want some milk to go with it? We also have orange juice,” Maggie offered as she pulled a glass from a cupboard and the opened the fridge. When Maleko responded with ‘OJ’, she poured him a glass and placed it beside the plate.

He should have been slower, should have taken his time, but instead Maleko scarfed down the food. Even though she fed him last night, he was still hungry and the food was delicious. Though it seemed to amuse the other two to watch him swallow his food without chewing and without a care. They watched him with grins for a few moments longer before returning to their own tasks without a care in the world. As if Maleko was just a normal part of this family.

It worried him about as much as it comforted him.

Finishing his plate, he peeked over at Mickey, who was engrossed in whatever it was he was reading. “Whas’ that?” he asked carefully, waiting as Mickey looked up at him as if to make sure he was who Maleko was talking to.

Then he smiled, “I’m reading the latest Superman comic,” he answered as if that was all.

At the mention of the hero, Maleko’s eyes brightened and he leaned forward so that he was halfway in his seat and halfway across the table to try and look at the comic. Sure enough, he could just barely see his hero on one of the pages. “Superman?” he repeated, grinning wide. “Superman!”

“Ah? You like him?”

“Yeh! Superman the best! Watch on TV lots,” Maleko threw a fist into the air. “Wanna b-be like ‘im!”

It seemed to amuse Mickey enough that he closed his comic and to watch the boy. “He’s pretty cool, though personally I prefer Moon Knight—even though he’s Marvel. But I’ve got a lot of DC comics up in my room, I can lend you my Superman ones to read.”

Maleko was already excited, and that only made him even more eager, but then just as quickly, the boy deflated and sank back into his chair with his lower lip caught between his teeth. “Ah… cah-can’t read well,” he admitted. As much as he wanted to read the comics, Maleko would be completely lost when he could barely read. Sure, seeing the images would be wonderful, just seeing Superman beat up the bad guys without any verbal context wouldn’t be terrible, but it wouldn’t be the same.

He wanted to know the story just as much as he wanted to see his favorite hero in action.

Picking up on Maleko’s dejection, Mickey gave a contemplating look, looking down to his comic, glancing at the boy and then to the ceiling as if unable to keep his gaze on one thing for too long while he thought. A hand came to tap at his chin and he started humming as Maggie came to collect the dirty dishes and take them to the sink. It had only been a minute, maybe two, but eventually Mickey decided to speak up once more.

“Well, I can read them to you,” he offered. Maleko raised his head to look at the teen, to see him grinning as if that solved everything, the way he smiled, so confident and sure of himself, it reminded Maleko of Blackstar. “I’m aspiring to be a voice actor, so I think reading these comics out loud, using different voices, it’d help me out and it’d let you read the comics as well. What do you say, Asahi?”

How could he possible refuse?

Save for when Maggie changed his bandages, Maleko spent most of the day in Mickey’s room reading Superman comics with him. He’d been situated on the teenagers lap while they sat on the floor, comic held out in front of them, Mickey voicing everything with gusto and enthusiasm—and he wasn’t half bad as a voice actor—they’d gone through a good chunk of the many comics that were boxed up in the room.

They went through various different adventures with Superman, splitting off into Justice League comics in general, and sometimes sliding away from DC to Marvel. Mickey even pulled out some of his Moon Knight comics to read to Maleko.

“Khonshu….nnngh,” Mickey had winced and groaned, breathing heavily behind Maleko as Moon Knight, bleeding and struggling to move, stumbled into a wall for the support his legs couldn’t manage. “Why… have you… forsaken me?”

Maleko decided that he liked Moon Knight. Sure, he wasn’t Superman, he was much more violent and less stable… but he was fun.

For the short time he had actually been with Kai, he’d only ever been exposed to the cartoons and movies of these heroes, the comics were a new frontier and one that he had come to love as soon as Mickey opened up and read the first page. They took breaks to eat, to move, eventually they began to do other things. Play. Mickey was far more fun of a playmate than the other kids back home had been.

He felt safe here and a part of him hated it, a part of him cried traitor. He was supposed to find Kai, find his mother. But here he was, staying with this family, playing house. Just until I know for sure Kim is gone. I know for sure they’re not still looking for me here, he tried to reason with himself. Until my cuts are healed. Until Taka says its safe to go.

He was still going to find her, but it was nice to have someplace to rest. She’d like Maggie and Mickey, knew his mama would.

Chapter Text

Slowly… take it slow and steady.

The world was dark, the only light available was flickering from the windows, casting a faint glow on the outside world. Maleko hunkered down close to the ground, hidden by the grass and garden, kneeling and eying the top of the trashcan. His body was tense, yet the muscles were loose, ready for him to move at a moment’s notice, ready to charge, to pounce.

He breathed deeply, holding it for a moment before letting it out once more. Rinse, repeat. Keep breathing, stay calm, stay still.

At the corner of his eye, Maleko saw movement. He refused to move, but his eyes followed the small figure as it ran across the lawn, pausing only to snuffle at the ground. He waited as a dark head poked up and looked around. Waited as it started drawing nearer, closer and closer. The vermin had yet to notice anything wrong as it continued scuffling towards him.

Drawing towards the garden, it’s protective wiring still a gnarled mess from Maleko, it perked its head again. Something was wrong, it must have noticed. It hurried towards the carrots, intent on getting its food and getting out. Maleko watched, digging his fingers into the ground as he waited, shifting so that his legs were ready, muscles coiled, ready to spring.

Just a few more feet… one…two…three… count the seconds as it got closer; five… six… seven...

The raccoon paused, Maleko sprung forward.

At his sudden movement, the raccoon froze. It was only for a moment, but that brief hesitation of fear was all Maleko needed as he landed atop it, throwing his entire weight on the animal, small hands grabbing it tightly. A snarl escaped him as he dug his claws into the coarse, dark hairs. The raccoon squirmed, Maleko grabbed it by the neck.

A swift movement, a firm twist and it fell limp in his hands.

Maleko relaxed, pulling himself back so that he sat crouched among the garden. He took a deep breath, an open smile on his face as he stared at the prey. His heart was racing now that it was over, adrenalin and excitement mixing together. It had been so long since he had hunted, actually hunted, he’d missed the thrill, the rush he got when he caught his prey.

He wanted to dig into it right now, tear it’s pelt off and eat the meat. It’d been long since he’d hunted, longer since he’d had fresh kill to eat. As much as he had loved how cooking tasted, there was something special about fresh meat.

Before he could bite into it, the door opened reminding Maleko of why he’d hunted tonight. He got to his feet and scampered out of the garden, holding the dead racoon up proudly for Mickey to see.

“Ga-got it!” he slurred, still smiling.

Mickey laughed, reaching over to ruffle his hair. “You weren’t kidding when you said you were a hunter,” the teenager praised, moving aside so that Maleko could enter the house. “Having you around might be a better solution to our raccoon problem than mom and her gun.”

Puffing his chest out, Maleko couldn’t help but feel pride at the praise. But when Mickey made to take the raccoon, to stuff it in a trash bag to be disposed of, he held it closer to himself and shook his head.

“Not done,” he said, swatting his hand away and making his way to the kitchen. “Skin it. Meat is—is good. Is,” Maleko hesitated, fumbling with his words, trying to find the right ones. “is good with,” he shook his head, frustrated at his own words and gestured desperately at the spice rack, hoping Mickey understood.

He did. “I’ve never had raccoon meat before,” Mickey said, watching Maleko throw the raccoon onto the counter and climb into the chair so he could reach. “And you’re sure it’s good?”

“Uh-huh!”

Maleko hadn’t really ever had these kinds of raccoons before. But there had been similar small animals back in the jungle, surely they’d taste the same. Any meat was good meat, after all. And he would be lying if he said he wasn’t particularly excited to show Mickey this. To show that he was proficient in something, himself, that he had something he was good at the same way Mickey was good at games.

Before he could grab the raccoon again, Mickey swiped it and placed it in some kind of metal tray.

“As delightful as some cooked raccoon may sound, I don’t think ma will be too thrilled about it, you know?” he offered, bringing the trayed raccoon out of Maleko’s reach. “She’s already got some chili cooking for tonight’s dinner, I doubt she’d be happy with us changing it on the fly for some raccoon meat instead.” He didn’t stop smiling, however, as he began edging away towards the back door. “How about we toss this one out, and we can see about you catching us a different one tomorrow night. Does that sound good?”

He was soft as he spoke, patient. Mickey didn’t speak to Maleko in a way that suggested ‘this is what we’re doing and it doesn’t matter what you say even though I asked’. Even if Maleko knew that what he said wasn’t going to change anything, the way Mickey talked to him made him feel like his words would hold some sway. He liked that. “Aight,” Maleko said, nodding his head. It was like Mickey had said, he could catch them another raccoon any time.

Satisfied, Mickey took the raccoon to the outdoor trashcan, the metal bin making noise as he dumped the body and tray in. “Asahi, you go wash yourself up, then we can play some games until it’s time for dinner, alright?” he called from the doorway.

Nodding his head, Maleko scampered out of the kitchen, making his way to the bathroom to scrub his hands clean of dirt and raccoon.

This family was nice, he thought. He’d only been here for a day, but he liked this household, liked this family. Maggie was a lot like mama in many ways, and Mickey was a lot like an older brother. He listened to Maleko and played with him, and none of them asked questions he couldn’t answer. He liked being here. He wanted them to meet mama, she’d like them too. They took care of him, bandaged him up, were nice to him.

And they were safe, too!

Taka hadn’t given him any warnings or cautionary words since he’d come here, only telling him to be careful of his identity, to not run out just yet. Not when Kim and Jackie were probably still out there and looking for him. Even if he wanted to leave this house, he couldn’t, not until he knew it was safe to keep moving. Taka hadn’t given him any reason to worry about Maggie and Mickey, either.

The bird kept close, always in the trees by the house, keeping an eye on him, always close enough to talk to him. That’s what mattered, Maleko wasn’t sure what he’d do if he lost Taka, he had been there for him this entire time. Losing him would be terrible.

He hummed as he scrubbed his hands clean, nose twitching at the citrusy smell of the soap as he cleaned his hands and wrists.

 By the time he’d finished scrubbing his hands and arms clean, making sure that not a speck remained from his earlier hunt, he’d come down to find that Mickey had already set up the living room for the two of them. The TV was on a low buzz, the familiar home screen of his game console up and waiting for a game to be chosen. The stairs creaked as Maleko climbed down, watching the teen fiddle with a controller.

Hearing the creaking, he looked up at the boy and smiled, dark eyes warm and friendly as Mickey gestured for Maleko to come over. Which he did, scampering the rest of the way and climbing onto the couch beside his friend.

“Alright,” Mickey smiled, ruffling Maleko’s hair when he settled in. “We’re going to play one of my RPG games tonight,” he explained.

Maleko tilted his head, “Are-Pee-Gee?” he repeated slowly, he’d heard the term before. Sometimes from Soul and BlackStar when he played with them, even David brought the word up from time to time. He’d never seen one before, however. “Fun?”

“Very,” Mickey confirmed. “Pick a number from three to five.”

Three to… huh? Maleko stared at him, head cocked to the side. He wasn’t very smart, he knew that, but he’d been certain that numbers started at one. Asking to start from three just made his head hurt and for him to start questioning what little he understood of numbers.

“Just humor me, kiddo.”

“Uh… aaah… five!” Maleko finally decided after a prolonged moment of confusion, trying to make sense of what was going on. Five, he’d decided, because it was the bigger number.

Mickey snorted, sliding off the couch to rummage through his game cases. “A man of good tastes,” He laughed, and though Maleko couldn’t see it, Mickey slipped a game disc in, the machine whirring to life. Mickey returned to his spot on the couch and then tugged Maleko up so that he was seated on his lap, arms around the boys midsection in a lazy hug as he held his controller. It was nice, it was warm. “Persona 5 it is, then.”

Maleko’s brows furrowed. “Persoh-sona 5?” he asked. That meant it was… the last game in the series, right? Then he shouldn’t he start with the first one?”

“They’re all pretty much independent of each other,” Mickey said, as if he had known what Maleko was thinking. “Most people don’t consider the first half of the series to be part of the same, universe, I guess? As the last three games. But you can play pretty much play the series in any order you want. You like supernatural stuff?”

“Eh?”

“Mythology,” he explained. “Folktales. Demons and angels, that sort of thing.”

“Oh. I, uh, I dunno?”

That only made Mickey laugh, “Well, you’ll find out if you do or not after this.”

As it turned out, Persona was fun.

Even though Maleko wasn’t handling the controller, wasn’t the one actually in control of the protagonist, Mickey made sure to involve him in everything. During fights, Maleko got to suggest actions, during dialogue, he got to help decide what to say. Whenever they had the little quiz questions, however, Mickey was the one who answered the, for obvious reasons.

Maleko felt like he was just as involved n playing the game, not just an outsider watching.

They got to the first palace, Maleko a jittery mess of excitement and confusion on Mickey’s lap, he had burst out into uncontrollable laughter when he saw Kamoshida. He didn’t understand why, but a cap and speedo looked funny, so much so that he hadn’t been able to stop and had almost fallen off of Mickey’s lap and onto the floor—would have had Mickey not kept his arms wrapped around the boy. It took five minutes for him to calm back down for them to continue the game.

That wasn’t even talking about how pretty it all looked. So much color. And the music, it was something else entirely.  He’d squirmed and swayed and bopped to the music wile Mickey laughed behind him.

“Yeah. The Awakening music kicks ass,” Mickey laughed, and Maleko could just hear the capital letters. “You’ll hear it a few more times.” To that, Maleko squeaked and yipped happily.

He loved the outfit that Joker wore, the mask, the coat, the style. Maleko had never been one to care about fashion, he’d go around his everyday life naked if he could, clothes were sometimes just uncomfortable and constricting. But he didn’t, because people didn’t like that. Even so, there was something about the clothes Joker wore that made Maleko want them for himself.

The volleyball coach wasn’t really that good of a person, Maleko found himself curling his lip whenever the man appeared. It was his attitude that bothered Maleko. Everything else he did, or apparently did, well, Maleko couldn’t really understand, but Mickey really didn’t like him, so Maleko didn’t either.

Then the girl, the nice, quiet one with the sad eyes, jumped off the school roof. She wasn’t able to catch herself like Maleko had when he jumped out a window at the Academy. She got hurt. Badly. Maleko decided that he wanted to tear the teachers throat wide open.

They had only reached the first boss when the front door opened and Maggie burst into excited chatter with the newcomer.

Pausing the game, Mickey grinned and nudged for Maleko to get off of him as he, himself, rose from the couch. “Dad! Welcome home,” he greeted as he left the controller on the coffee table.

“Hey, there, Mickey. Boy, it smells good in here, are you cooking chili?” a man’s voice asked, a rustle of clothes suggesting he was removing a coat to hang on the rack. “Oh, do we have a guest?”

Maleko squirmed and turned around, still kneeling on the couch as he peered over the back at the new man, the father of this household. His brows furrowed in confusion and his mouth set in a straight line as he saw a familiar tall man with a head of thick black hair. There was a look of equal surprise and confusion on Mickey’s fathers face.

“Ah, dear. This is Asahi,” Maggie introduced, standing at her husbands side and holding a hand out to Maleko with a warm smile. “I found him last night all tangled up in my garden. He’ll be staying with us for a little while, until we can find a way to get him back home.”

That only made the man’s brows furrow, the creases of his forehead becoming more apparent. “Asahi?” he repeated, as if that didn’t match up with what he’d already known. Of course it didn’t. Kim had called out ‘Maleko’.

This was the man from last night.

This was the man who had almost run Maleko over with his car.

This was the man who’d held Kim back when she caught up with him, giving Maleko time to flee once more before finding safety with Maggie.

“Well,” Taka’s voice rang in his head, he wasn’t sure at this point if it was Maleko imagining or Taka talking. “Fate certainly has an interesting way of working.”

With a trembling smile, Maleko raised his hand in a scared wave. “’ello,” he greeted, awkward and anxious. Was this man going to rat him out? Was he going to kick him out? Turn and hand him over to Kim? The doubts were bubbling up inside of Maleko, growing stronger the longer the man waited to reply.

But then he smiled, it was bright and genuine, a smile that made Maleko feel safe. The man got down on a knee and watched Maleko, smiling peacefully. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Asahi,” he said, a knowing glint in his eyes.

Maleko decided that he was good.

It wasn’t long after that Maggie called them all to eat, claiming the chili and sandwiches were all ready to be had. Maleko sat beside Mickey, careful as the husband—Robert—questioned him about this and that. Where was he from, how was he feeling, simple, not probing or suspicious. All the same, Maleko was careful as he answered each one as ‘Asahi’.

Until Taka told him otherwise, he’d be careful, even with the people he felt he could trust.


The sun had set, replaced by the grinning moon, drooling it’s blood and chuckling cruelly as it overlooked the world below.

Kom had been distant.

Usually, Kai wouldn’t care, nor would she notice—she was hardly a cozy individual herself, but Kom of all people distancing himself was abnormal enough to catch her attention. He claimed he needed to avoid any distractions if he was to perfect all the new drugs and poisons he was manufacturing for her and the Acolytes, she could understand that, but it was off all the same. He was hiding something from her and it made her… anxious wasn’t the right term… tense.

She loathed to admit it, but it made her angry. Kom was her most loyal ally, she dare say he was a friend. She knew his loyalty went beyond just friendship on his end, she wasn’t blind, she just never had interest to reciprocate. So, for him, who was known for obsession and loyalty, to be hiding something and sneaking about, it was off-putting.

It wasn’t as if she feared him betraying her, no, treachery wasn’t even a question.

Kom cared about Maleko, not nearly as much as she had, but he had loved the boy in his own way. There was no way he wouldn’t have wanted to seek revenge himself. He would want the heads of those who had slain her boy, the ones who devoured his soul, just as much as she did. So no, she didn’t think he was planning to betray her.

Not that it eased her nerves much. Betrayal wasn’t the only reason someone could go skulking about like he was, and even if he wasn’t planning to go against her, whatever he was doing under the guise of his drugs was something he clearly felt she would not approve of enough to be open about. It was the unknown of what he could be doing that bothered her. She would much rather suspect him of being a spy than to have not a single inkling.

She tried not to think about it too much. Kai couldn’t afford to cast Kom out this late in the plans, he was irreplaceable at this point. Even if much of his work was alchemical rather than magical in composition, there were very few Acolytes with the talent and knowledge of alchemy to be able to resume his work if she disposed of him. She’d have some keep a closer eye on the sorcerer, pretend to be in the dark.

There were more important things than for her to focus on the distrust she felt towards those around her. Not that she could say she actually trusted any of the Acolytes, witches or sorcerers who had joined her cause.

Everyone here had their own reason for joining her. Most were only here because they hated Death, they hated the demon weapons and their meisters. It was understandable among the witches and sorcerers, the war between the two sides was as ancient as time itself. The humans, now that was a grab bag of reasons. Some hated the DWMA for various reasons, some disliked the idea of a God of Death ruling over them, were opposed to the notion of a being of death making laws for the living. Some of the more radical numbers, which was surprisingly the majority of the Acolytes, honestly believed Kai to be a God of some kind.

Was water manipulation really so astounding and unbelievable that she was considered a God? Well, she wouldn’t encourage nor deny the notion so long as it kept them loyal. These cultists were the ones who she could say were the most loyal. They believed her to be their God, of course they wouldn’t go against her lest the face divine retribution.

 Humans were unbelievably stupid. They clung so desperately to a belief that they refused to believe anything else.

Oh well, they weren’t going to last much longer, anyway.

Kai was pleased to say that the curtain would be closing soon. It had taken a few days since the decision, but she and her company had reached Antarctica. The entire landscape was full of water, from the ice, snow, to the ocean and the people on it. This would be the battleground. The snow would run deep with blood, bodies would be scattered, and Death’s army would be crushed. She’d have complete control over the terrain here.

She had little doubt that Mabaa and other witches would join her once she has her victory here, finding the crippling blow she deals Death as proof enough that her side is the winning one.

Even now, more and more followers and allies were arriving to the frozen wasteland.  

Perhaps Kai wouldn’t kill Death. She could kill his son instead, let him feel the pain. Leave him abandoned in that city of his, unable to leave, picking off any allies he hoped to find before they could enter. He could watch helplessly as all that he built was destroyed, unable to lift a finger to help.

Whatever she chose to do, she had time to decide.

“Are you ready?” a witch squeaked as Kai walked past. Skoya, if Kai remembered right, another of the witches who only joined because of a hatred for Death. A small, timid girl, probably no more than two hundred years of age, old enough to know the trauma that Death’s ‘order’ causes, young enough that she’s not made herself a complete recluse living only within the With Realm.

Kai nodded, feeling the corners of her lips turn down in a tighter frown. An address to her followers, Yuri had claimed. She hadn’t really seen him since she first rejoined the Acolytes. He had been gone from her party for a while to assemble others and had regrouped with her only a short while ago. He said she needed to make a statement to all those who believe in her, who follow her, to bring them here and remind them why they must fight.

A bunch of empty words, a boring speech, just to put a fire under their asses and get them to move faster.

She wasn’t going to say no, Yuri was smart, she would admit.

As she stepped into the wide open ice ‘stage’ that had been constructed, the crowd before her waiting anxiously for her to speak, she spotted him off to the edge, a coy smile on his lips. At the other far side of the stage was Kom, when their eyes met, he ducked his head down to look away.

It took all her strength not to glare.

Instead, she turned to look at the man who had his camera raised, wires attaching it to his laptop. Streaming, no doubt. One of her followers had set up a private website to address each other, password protected so that only fellow Acolytes could access. She didn’t know how secure that really was, but she also didn’t care. There was also a screen set up behind her, hooked up to another technologically talented individual somewhere she couldn’t see.

Kai watched as the hundreds of men and women, humans, witches and sorcerers rustled about, anxious balls of energy. She watched as they murmured and muttered to one another before finally raising her hand, watching Yuri gesturing something to the man with the camera.

The murmuring fell, rolling into a silence until only the wind and crunching snow was heard. She took in a breath.

“How many have family or friends whose children were taken by Death, by the Academy?” A quiet mumble as people whispered to one another, she let the initial buzz run its course. “Either hunted by the school, or taken in because they could turn into a weapon or possessed qualities to hunt witches. Children, might I remind you, children.”

She continued to speak. Children were what made up a sizable chunk of Death’s army. Teenagers, kids. Death sent children to hunt monsters that murdered adults, sent children to hunt witches and sorcerers. Wasn’t there even a famous Death Scythe who had only been thirteen when he acquired the title? Yes, there was, a boy by the name of Justin Law, he had been thirteen, how crazy. How cruel. How fucking inhumane.

They hunted witches and sorcerers of all ages as well. It was no small rumor that Death had sent one of his meister-weapon pairs to hunt down Angela Leon. The poor girl was even younger than Maleko! Had it not been for that swordsman of hers, she would no doubt have died.

The screen behind her came to life as Kai kept talking, bringing up an image of a young boy with black hair and glasses, wielding some heavy looking glove like weapons. The images were clearly taken secretly, from an angel off to the side out of sight as the meister attacked the kishin egg. They kept flipping through until it landed on the weapons transforming into their human forms.

Two little kids in an orange and yellow hat. Younger than the usual twelve-year-old threshold that most of his soldiers began fighting at. As young as Maleko, perhaps as young as Angela.

Angry hisses and gasps rang out from the crowd before her.

“Is this the kind of ‘God’ you want running this world? A God who won’t fight the wars he started, but rather sends your children to fight for him?” Kai was playing on the parental fear many had. Even if she didn’t trust the mental stability of any who thought her a God, she trusted that they at least knew how morally disgusting it was to have children thrown into life or death situations such as this. Children shouldn’t be handling weapons, shouldn’t be fighting and killing, shouldn’t be training to be soldiers. Children should be children. Playing, studying, having fights with their friends, making up, developing crushes and getting into trouble.

Before she’d met Maleko, she wouldn’t have cared that Death used children as cannon fodder. But that changed. Now, as much as she hated them, she hated Death even more for using them.

How can someone who claimed to be ‘good’ do something so deplorable?

 The screen behind her began to show members of his staff, his trusted leaders. “His personal ‘Death Scythe’ is a slut. An alcoholic manwhore who spends more time with hookers than doing his duty. One of Death’s top meisters? Psychotic, treads the line of madness, at any moment he could easily snap and begin cutting up the students under his care, if he hadn’t already,” she was pacing the stage, her shoes clicking against the ice with each step. “A normal school would hardly let them anywhere near children. Yet Death has the two as the primary influences for weapons and meisters. The ones that these kids should aspire to be.”

Kai continued yelling to the crow, marching and growing more heated with each point. Death was a coward, too afraid to leave his castle, unwilling to bend to others. Why should a God of Death rule humanity? He doesn’t know the first thing about humanity nor mortality, why should he use their children as his soldiers? Brainwashes them into thinking they’re doing something great, that it’s a high honor to be spending their childhood, risking their lives when they’re not even adults. Whatever law a country creates, Death and those associated with him are above. It doesn’t matter if someone tells them ‘no’, he and his superiority complex are above it all.

The crowd was cheering, or rather screaming, already brought to rage by her opening on child soldiers that it didn’t matter much else what she said, yet she kept talking, stoking the fires of her followers, fueling their rage and starving them for battle.

By the end, even Kai was grinning, an unsteady smile, but a smile nonetheless. She was breathing hard, her throat hurt, but she gazed upon the crowd and knew that this was it. “If Death wants us gone, then he will have to bring his armies here and fight us. Then, when all that comes back to him are corpses and coffins, he’ll know that he’s not above us.”

Before her, the crowd broke into cries.


Maleko shook his head, speaks of water splattering all over as the towel hung around his neck. Maggie had sent him upstairs to take a bath and he had just finished it up. His small body shivered a little as he went from a warm tub to a chilly room. It was hard to get used to how much colder everything felt when he had his magic locked up, when he was left without his natural heat.

A shudder ran through him and Maleko hurried to crawl into the warm pajamas that Mickey was loaning him, then slipping his feet into fluffy bunny slippers.

He liked it here, he was going to miss the family when he finally moved on and continued his search for his mother. If she allowed it, he’d like to come and visit them again, thank them for taking care of him while he hid from Kim and Jackie.

Stretching, yawning, and scratching at his stomach, Maleko left the bathroom and began heading towards the stairs. It was too late to go outside and play, but it was too early to go to bed. Maybe he could ask Mickey if the two of them could go back to that game of his, he wanted to see how the teacher was going to get in trouble. Maybe he’d still get a chance to tear out his throat.

He smiled, his hair still damp, but his body warmer now as he approached the stairs, a hum on his tongue and a bob to his head. As he reached the first step, his entire body froze.

Ears perked, twitched, his eyes narrowed and his heart began to race. Hope flooding through him, followed by confusion. He wasn’t mistaken, was he? This… this couldn’t be, it had to be…

“Is this the kind of ‘God’ you want running this world?”

She was quiet, but the voice, the passion… Maleko recognized it so easily. Even though so much time had passed since he had last heard her talk, he’d never forget how she sounded, he’d recognize her no matter, whether it had been days or years.

“A God who won’t fight the wars he started, but rather sends your children to fight for him?”

A wide smile spread across Maleko’s face, his body was positively vibrating with energy, so much so that he didn’t hear Taka’s warning, instead he raced down the stairs, nearly falling down half of them in his haste. She was here, mama was here! Maleko was blinking back tears.

How had she found him? Maybe Taka brought her here, or she’d been searching for him all this time—of course she’d been searching for him! It didn’t matter how, his mama was amazing! She finally found him, they could finally go home! This awful nightmare was finally over, it was over, she was here, she was really, really here! She was here!

He skidded into the living room. “Mama!” he cried out happily.

Except… she wasn’t there. No sign of her, not even a trace of her scent.

“He’s deserves neither respect nor love, he deserves nothing but scorn and wrath!”

It was Kai’s voice, there was no doubt about it, she was there, she was talking, but at the same time, she wasn’t there.

Robert, Maggie and Mickey had been huddled on the couch, and when Maleko came barreling down, they froze up and turned to him. Maleko watched as Maggie recovered herself and reached over to the laptop that sat on the coffee table, fiddling with it—then mama’s voice was gone.

Maleko felt his heart drop. “Mama…? Where’s mama?” he asked, desperately hoping for an answer, that she really was here, that he hadn’t imagined it all.

“Asahi,” Mickey began, staring at Maleko with a look of confusion and pity.

But then Robert stood up, brushing his hands against his pantlegs and coming around the couch to stand before Maleko. His face unreadable as he glanced towards the laptop. Maleko followed his gaze and saw Kai on the screen. “Your mama… huh?”

Chapter Text

To say that things hadn’t been going according to what anyone had wanted was a major understatement.

Maleko was gone, that in itself was bad. No one had been able to find him, not even using soul perception. The boy had figured out how to use Soul Protect during his time at the academy, or maybe he already knew how and never used it until this point. There was no use wondering when he figured out how to use it, not when he was already gone without a trace.

They’d almost found him, almost caught him. Kim and Jackie had crossed paths with Maleko during their mission. They’d killed the kishin egg and found the child protecting a woman from it—he’d been really hurt, from what Kim had said, but he refused her attempts to help and fled from her. She’d chased him halfway through the city before losing track of the child once more, which she blamed to have been due to a citizen interfering. He had misread the situation, from the reports that had come in, and thought that Kim was a rather young child abductor.

While Maka commended the man on trying to stop what he had thought was an attempted kidnapping, she couldn’t help but loathe him at the same time. They’d been so close to getting Maleko back, and then he slipped through their fingers.

He was a sorcerer, the sworn enemy of the DWMA and all that it stood for, an enemy to humanity. But, Maka couldn’t hate him. No, she wanted the academy to catch him because she was scared for him. The boy was just that; a boy. A kid. One who couldn’t read, could barely form sensible sentences, who understood the bare minimum of how to live in society. He’d be eaten up alive. He’d wander into a street and get run over. Follow the wrong person, find himself hurt, or end up killing someone because he was scared.

Maleko wasn’t a bad person, Maka knew that he wasn’t, she understood that he wasn’t. He acted based on fight or flight reasoning, if he was scared, if he felt threatened, he was going to fight. He may just be a kid, but he wasn’t weak; he had magic on his side and a normal human, no matter how tough they may think they were, would get killed.

If Maleko started hurting people, he was going to end up on Death’s execution list. His age didn’t matter, Lord Death had sent BlackStar and Tsubaki out to hunt Angela, and she was a kid, too. It didn’t matter what anyone might want or say, if Maleko became a threat, he’d be placed on the list.

It was hard.

It was hard for Maka to hate him, to justify him being hunted. Any other witch, any other sorcerer, and she wouldn’t see an issue.

But, she knew Maleko. Not in the same way she had known Medusa. No, she knew that Maleko was a kind kid, that he was sweet, he didn’t want to hurt people, he didn’t want to cause problems out of some malicious intent. No, he was just a child who wanted to play with his friends and have fun, like any other child.

And Maka had considered him a friend. She and Soul both had.

How could anyone be expected to hunt down someone they played with, someone they befriended? He’d basically become a part of the family.

He was nothing like a sorcerer was supposed to be. Not some horrible monster bent on destroying everything. He was as sweet as any kid. He hadn’t really done anything to become an enemy, other than just being born.

Maka hated this conflicted feeling more than anything. On one hand, his very race was an enemy to humanity, a threat to everyone; when Maleko grew up he’d likely be like his peers, killing and destroying all he sees. But, even if that was true, Maka couldn’t see him as anything but the kind and sweet boy that she had spent time with. He’d never have hurt a fly, well, he probably would, but not out of some malicious want. And, Maleko hadn’t even run away from the school because he hated them—she hoped that wasn’t the case. Rather, because he was scared.

Maleko just wanted to find his mother, more than anything he wanted to be with his mother again. And though it pained her to say it, Maka could understand how he felt, wanting so badly to be able to see and touch someone you loved so dearly. No, she couldn’t understand how he felt, not completely, at least Maka still got postcards from her mother so she knew what she was up to, where she had been, that she knew her mother was still alive. Maleko had nothing, only knew that the people he trusted intended to kill his.

That was a betrayal that would cut deeper than any knife.

It only made Maka feel worse in the end, too, made her wonder constantly if she could have done something, anything, that could have kept him here. Here where he would be safe, here where she could have maybe explained why they had to catch his mother, how his mother was doing bad things. Could she even explain it if she had the chance? Was there really any justification for murdering someone’s mother?

Maka wanted to scream, she wanted to hit something, but she did neither. Her entire life she had believed in a few simple laws, she hadn’t realized how black and white she had viewed the world until Maleko turned everything grey. Her very perception was unraveling and she didn’t know what to do. What if there were others like him, witches and sorcerers who had done nothing wrong but just be born, yet were still hunted and killed all the same? How could that ever be right? How could someone be considered good in that case?

Closing her eyes, Maka sank down into a crouch, her back against the wall of the empty hall, her head buried into her crossed arms.

That wasn’t the worst of it too, that wasn’t the only part that had made her start questioning and doubting, though Maleko was a big impact on her, and likely a few others as well. He wasn’t the only one.

There were clips, videos circulating about. Clearly cut off from a larger one, probably purposely planted while the full video was kept private. A speech by Kai Palakiko herself addressing her followers. Maka had little love for the woman, she may be Maleko’s mother, she may be the most important person to him, but that didn’t change the fact that she had murdered so many people.

But, the things she had said, it had struck a chord with Maka, her voice echoed in her mind and wouldn’t leave her be.

Children. Maka was only fifteen, but she hardly saw herself as a child—when was the last time she even considered herself one? But, she still was just a kid, as were her friends, her classmates, they were still children. Some of the newer students were only twelve, others were nearing eighteen, legally none of them were adults, morally they were all still kids.

And yet… they were fighting wars on behalf of Lord Death. They were hunting down the worst of the worst, risking their lives to protect others, to protect the world. Maka saw no shame in that, saw nothing wrong with protecting others and in doing her part to keep the world safe. Yet at the same time…

Just how much of her childhood had she sacrificed to become a meister?

She respected Lord Death, admired him greatly, he was a great leader, the best their world could have asked for, and she would never question his judgment, not openly of course. But at the same time, the things that Kai had pointed out, Maka had never realized just how true it was. They were children fighting an adult's war.

She recalled BlackStar and Tsubaki talking about their mission with Mifune and Angela, how her friends had spared both in the end. Would anyone else have done the same if given the chance? If killing those two would have given someone the chance to become a Death Scythe right there and then, would they say no and let a child live? Maka wanted to say that they would but she didn’t know.

And then there was themselves. Were they being groomed, intentionally or not, to be soldiers? If Maka sat down and think about it—and she had done quite a bit of that since seeing the clips—they were by definition child soldiers for Lord Death.  The DWMA was a type of military organization, they were being taught and trained to fight and kill.

If any other group were to do what the DWMA was doing, if a country decided to create an academy to train children to fight while sending them on combative missions regularly, it would be considered a war crime. Yet no one blinked at the DWMA doing the very same thing.

Maka didn’t want to doubt the school, didn’t want to doubt Lord Death or any of this, being a meister, being the greatest mesiter and to make the strongest Death Scythe had been her dream for as long as she could remember. But, now everything was unraveling and nothing seemed right. It made her feel like she couldn’t trust her own judgment, it made her doubt what Lord Death, what the teachers, what her father might say.

Why couldn’t things go back to being simple? Why couldn’t everything just… just…

“Maka?” the question was soft, so soft that Maka had almost missed it, but even drowning in her own thoughts she had managed to catch the soft, trembling whisper and snap her head to attention.

Standing before her was Crona, hunched over and fiddling their fingers nervously. They looked concerned for her, but unsure how to address it or approach her on it. Beside them was Soul, much more relaxed, though his face gave away how he felt with the glint of worry in his eyes. They waited quietly for Maka to speak, both watching her carefully.

She offered them a smile, though a little strained. “Hey guys,” she said. “Is something going on?”

Her two closest friends just glanced at one another. Then Soul bent forward, holding a hand out to Maka. She took it and he pulled her to her feet with such ease that she may as well have weighed nothing to him.

“Stein says that they may be able to locate where Kai has been hiding soon,” he began when he let go of her hand, letting Maka dust the dirt and dust off the back of her skirt. “As soon as they can make certain where she’s hiding, Lord Death plans to strike, getting rid of her once and for all.”

“Oh? That’s good, we can finally put an end to this.” That was good news, really good news. Maka wanted to feel happy about that, but she couldn’t bring herself to feel even the tiniest bit glad. Maleko flashed through her mind, he’d be alone, an orphan once Kai was gone, he’d never be able to trust anyone from the DWMA again, and he’d have no one left.

It must have shown in her voice, or maybe on her face because Crona and Soul glanced at each other once more like they were talking to each other with their eyes alone so that Maka wouldn’t understand it.

“They, um, Professor Stein said that they’ll need all the strength they c-can. So, students are signing up to join the attack,” Crona spoke up, averting their eyes to the floor. “We thought we should let you know. In case you want to go.”

She wondered how many students were going to sign up, and how many would back off, too confused and conflicted by what Kai had said. This would undoubtedly be a terrible battle, there was going to be a lot of casualties. No one would say it out loud, but a lot of them were bound to die in this fight, people on both sides.

And they’d be killing a lot of people, humans. Sure Kai may have a few witches or sorcerers in her ranks, but apparently, the vast majority of her followers were humans. Average, normal humans, ones who weren’t on Lord Deaths list, ones who weren’t kishin eggs, with souls still glowing a pure blue. A lot of them would be killed, even if they were given orders to capture and not kill, there was still going to be a lot of blood spilled.

Maka wouldn’t have considered it before, wouldn’t have given it much thought, she’d be going into battle to rid the world of evil people to make it a safer place, she’d be doing Lord Death’s bidding, and that was a good thing, an honor even.

But why didn’t it feel like such an honor anymore?

“Alright, thanks for letting me know,” she said, trying to sound pump, grinning and twirling on her feet so her back was to them while she started walking to where missions were posted. She didn’t want them to worry that something might be wrong, she was still the same old Maka! “Come on, let’s go sign up, then! This is a good opportunity, and we already know the others got their names on the list!” Maybe she’d be able to find Maleko out there, she might be able to at least keep him from dying a pointless death.

-0-

Maleko never felt quite so small as he sat on the couch, head hung low and hands clasped together. Sitting across from him was Robert, having dragged the sofa-chair over so that it faced Maleko perfectly. The man said nothing, just watching Maleko carefully in silence, his laptop still open, the screen frozen on a closeup of Kai. It took all of Maleko’s willpower to keep from looking over at it.

It’d been so long since he’d seen her face, heard her voice. When he heard her talking, he’d been so happy, so excited that he hadn’t thought it through darting down the stairs and crying out to her. Knowing that it had only been a video, his heart felt broken.

Mickey and Maggie were watching them, he knew they were watching him while they pretending to bustle about in the kitchen, reorganizing clean dishes in their shelves, or wiping down spotless counters to look like they were occupied. But, they were watching and listening, had done been doing so ever since Robert shooed them away so he could have a ‘private talk’ with Maleko.

His fingers were trembling and Maleko’s eyes kept glancing back and forth on the floor, too afraid to look up. He could run, he could set fire to it all and run away. But, he didn’t want to hurt them; they had been nice to him, kind to him. The DWMA had been nice and kind as well, his mind supplied, but then look how that turned out.

Maleko swallowed, gripping his wrist tightly, trying to keep his entire body from shaking.

“So,” Robert began loudly, causing Maleko to flinch and try to sink deeper into the couch, to no avail. He still refused to look up at the man as he spoke, keeping his head hung low. “I’m going to take a guess and say that your real name isn’t Asahi, now is it?”

He said nothing, kept his head down and bit his lip as his hands trembled. His instinct was to set loose fire and flee, every part of his body said to flee and it took all his strength to stay seated. He couldn’t keep the whimper from escaping, though.

Robert watched patiently, leaning forward as he rested his chin on his folded hands. “I had that suspicion when I came home to find you integrated into my home. That girl certainly hadn’t been calling you Asahi when we met on the streets,” he pointed out, causing Maleko to flinch again.

Maleko knew what was going to happen. Robert was going to know who he was and he was going to send him back to the academy, back to the DWMA where he would lose any chance at all of finding his mother, he’d be locked up, this time in a better cell that wouldn’t give him a chance to flee.  He’d be trapped, like the princesses in those storybooks, except he didn’t have a knight or prince who’d come and save him, he had no one but his mother.

Swallowing hard, he fought back tears, his shoulders were starting to shake.

If Robert noticed, or even cared, he made no sign of it. “Your name is Maleko, isn’t it? Maleko Palakiko?”

Finally, Maleko raised his head just enough to look at Robert. Was there any point in denying it when the man looked so certain? “Better to come out with the truth, little sun,” Taka’s voice echoing in his mind was the only comfort Maleko could find in this situation. He knew the bird was near, but he also knew that there was little Taka could do to help him.

So, he heeded the advice. Maleko looked at Robert and gave a timid nod. “Yeh—yes,” he murmured, barely more than a whisper.

With that, he prepared for the worst. For Robert to start yelling, for Maggie to call the police, or someone at the school, even for Kim and Jackie to burst through the door and grab him. He was ready for what little happiness and comfort he had found with this family to be torn away and for them to turn bad, mean, to turn cruel. At least if they were like that, if they turned into bad people, he wouldn’t feel bad if he hurt them trying to escape.

Something clattered to the ground in the kitchen, he heard Maggie and Mickey talking in hushed whispers, using words that he couldn’t understand, words that were too big and too complicated. Robert's gaze left Maleko for only a brief moment to look behind him to the kitchen, giving an obvious eye roll at whatever his wife and son had done before letting his attention flitter back over to Maleko.

No one started yelling yet, no one seemed angry. At least, not in any way that Maleko could recognize. Still, Maleko felt on edge, waiting for the shoe to drop.

And it did drop a few moments later. Just not in the way that Maleko had been anticipating. Instead of screaming, panic, or even rage, what happened was that Robert started laughing. Loud, boisterous, honest laughter. He leaned back in his chair, hands on his stomach as he laughed as if this had been the funniest thing in the world to him. Maleko couldn’t understand it.

Eventually, the laughter came to an end, and Robert had calmed down. There was a strange twinkle in his eye as he leaned forward, smiling at Maleko as if the boy had been the most interesting thing in the world.

“Well, in that case, that settles it,” Robert declared with a nod to himself.

Maggie took a step from the kitchen, hands held to her chest. “Honey?” she asked carefully.

It seemed not even her or Mickey understood what Robert was getting at right now, which made Maleko feel a little bit better about being so confused. Robert was already pulling his laptop back to his side, opening a new tab and typing something into it without even waiting.

“I had thought there little point in any of us going, it’s not as if we can offer much combative help in the end,” he said, glancing at Maggie and then back to his computer. “But if we have Maleko with us, we need to head up and join with the rest.”

What was he even talking about? Maleko glanced back at Maggie and Mickey, searching for the answers that they didn’t have. He swallowed, looked back to Robert with a confused whimper in his throat.

But when Robert looked at him, he had a smile on his face. “Well, Maleko. How about we get you back to your mother?”