Actions

Work Header

Hot Tub Pop-tarts Are No Way to Live

Work Text:

Maka'd been counting money -- flipping contentedly through thick stacks of bills with still-bloodstained fingers, comfortably ensconced in a recliner in the penthouse suite of a Las Vegas casino -- when her phone beeped at her with a new job notification. That in and of itself had been unusual enough that she'd set aside the money, removed her feet from the table, and put her drink down in favor of checking her notifications, since this soon after a gig she set her minimum alert requirements deliberately high, so high that nothing ever beeped through until she'd had time to enjoy herself because self-care was important, dammit, and if something had made it, well, it was clearly big news and even bigger money.

Turned out it wasn't even a general alert: it was a private request, sent to her and at most a handful of unnamed others. The money was eye-popping, even for Maka, enough that she could get out of this miserable business if she chose, which had been sounding ever more appealing of late because she was tired of bruises and broken fingers and gunshot wounds and murder. She considered it, tapping her fingers against the coffee table, heedless of the slanting evening sunlight beaming directly at her face, drink forgotten, brows drawn low because the client just wasn't giving much detail.

Find a young man, the job said. Kill him or capture him, further instructions to follow should he be caught alive. Known to be in witness protection because he'd turned informant on --

"Oh, holy shit," Maka said, and rubbed at her face in consternation. You didn't need to give much detail when the one piece of information you did offer was enough to start a fire all on its own. That was why the money was so high, they wanted someone in witsec taken out, and not just that -- it involved Florida, and that made everything so much more complicated, so much harder, so unbearable. Still, it was a lot of money even for Florida, even given the client, and she really had been considering moving to another line of work.

Despite her better judgement Maka was out of the city within the hour, old truck rumbling down the highway and already missing her comfortable chair and her expensive liquor and the evening she'd intended to spend beating arrogant men at poker, well on her way to one of her supply caches and hoping that the hotel didn't notice her abrupt departure until she was well down the road. It was doubtful that anyone would care, but she didn't like leaving clear tracks. It just didn't do, in her business. If people wanted to contact her, let them do it through official channels, and if they wanted to find her, they could get bent.

In the end, actually getting to Florida took a couple weeks, what with having to secure supplies and weapons and acceptable forms of identification that didn't set off national security alerts and, well -- it was Florida, after all. Maka may have dragged her feet a bit, even if the place was supposedly nice in the winter -- if you liked winter to feel like almost-summer, anyway. Finding her target also didn't exactly require she be there in person; that was a job for her contacts, for a bit of creative slipping past firewalls, for putting together a series of convoluted puzzle pieces. They'd buried this one much better than usual, which piqued her interest, and what really made her intrigued enough to see the job as something aside from a highly-paid exercise in tedium was that not only had the information been hard to get, they'd rehomed the guy not too far from the people he was supposedly hiding from.

Not that surprising, though; her clients wouldn't even look at that side of town, much less go there.

"Can always count on people to be snobs," she said to herself when she arrived at last, cruising past the trailer park that supposedly contained her target and absently rolling a lollipop around in her mouth as she leaned out the open window and into the bathwater-thick Florida air hoping for an improbable glimpse of something useful.

Casual reconnaissance didn't get her much of anything, though, and Florida was a useless flat hellscape of intermittent trees and underbrush that gave her nowhere to set up a blind or any kind of surveillance nest -- to say nothing of the fact that the nearby gas station had the kind of security on its roof that she usually associated with high security prisons. Someone expected this guy to be in danger and they were not taking any chances, someone with enough expertise in hitmen and associated guns for hire that they'd known exactly what to do to deter most of them; it was a level of care and attention to detail that was far from typical when it came to government employees, even those charged with witness protection.

So. She slept in the back of her old F-150 alongside her guns, thankful for the ancient bed topper that had come with it when she'd bought it all those years ago, and trained recon binoculars on the road until something useful passed by: an ancient Datsun truck, paint faded to a dusty yellow, orange-brown stripes along its sides still unfortunately vivid, driven by a guy with shockingly pale hair and a look on his face like getting swallowed by a sudden freak hurricane would be preferable to whatever he was currently doing.

"That's my boy," she muttered, and followed him to work -- which turned out to be at Walt Disney World of all places, and there was nothing Maka hated more than having to buy a hundred dollar ticket for the privilege of having to endure a billion screaming children and sugar-saturated, overheated air redolent with the haunting strains of It's A Small World. Thankfully she concluded that she really didn't need to pay, sneak, or swindle her way in just now, and not least because she knew that Disney was just not to be fucked with if you didn't want to get discreetly disappeared.

Annoyed and out of immediately viable options, Maka took herself to Disney's huge overdone outdoor shopping mall, found the Ghirardelli ice cream shop, and sat down with a hot fudge sea salt caramel brownie sundae, extra dark hot fudge, extra caramel, extra god-I-hate-this-place-and-this-job-already.

She was halfway through and feeling moderately better thanks to the magic of egregious amounts of sugar and chocolate when someone sat down across from her and she froze, brownie chunk halfway to her mouth, brain somersaulting into frantic escape route calculations.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," said a smug voice, and if anything Maka's hair stood even more on end as she dragged her eyes up along the lines of her unexpected guest's trim black suit, past her high-peaked collar and a delicate golden choker, up to amused dark eyes behind no-nonsense square glasses, and just --

"What," Maka said, finally remembering to eat her half-melted bite of sundae. "Azusa, I haven't seen you in years, since fucking when -- "

"Language," her former mentor said, chiding, but her tone did nothing to detract from the amused slant of her mouth. "While I regret that taking my current position required I go completely dark, I'm sure you can forgive me considering the opportunity afforded. It's not as if you weren't already out of the nest, so to speak."

Maka schooled her expression into something more composed and sat back, shoulders square, back straight, posture a stiff mirror of the woman sitting across from her. "Yes, I can certainly appreciate landing a job where you don't usually have to kill anyone but still get paid like you do. So to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"Professional courtesy," Azusa said, slim shoulders lifting in a shrug. "No business is to be conducted on company grounds, and while we won't ban you from the parks -- everyone deserves to experience the happiest place on earth, after all -- understand that you'll be watched closely while you're here. If you do cause trouble, well. You and Maleficent will become very close friends indeed, and there won't be anything I can do about that."

"Excuse me, what," Maka said, interrupting before Azusa could continue speaking.

It earned her an indulgent smile. "We named the interrogation rooms after villains," she explained. "I trust you understand?"

"Perfectly," Maka said, and crammed a piece of caramel-drenched brownie in her mouth, cursing her sweet tooth for manifesting with a vengeance whenever she was under stress and trying not to think about what horrors might occur in a Maleficent-themed interrogation room, because if she did she was going to need another sundae. "You've got nothing to worry about. I know better than to cause trouble here." She grimaced. "Anyway, you have to know that I'm not going to stick around a second longer than I have to. That of necessity means I'm not going to cause you any trouble, because I'd actually like to be able to collect my payment for this job once I complete it. It's just an unfortunate truth that the parks are within my scouting radius, is all."

That got her a marginal easing of the tension that always lived in Azusa's shoulders because Azusa was literally always ready to pull a gun or a knife and throw down, and when you'd had the time to know Azusa Yumi you knew that that loosening of the shoulders and that less-than-murderous look on her face equated to a bear hug from pretty much anyone else.

"Be careful, Maka," she said, and glanced at her watch, which Maka knew was definitely nothing so simple as a watch. "I'm afraid I can't get ice cream with you, much as I'd love to. Duty calls. Understand that you'll be watched any time you're on property, but you won't have any trouble as long as you don't cause any trouble."

"Yes, I'm aware of the ancient proverb 'don't start none, won't be none,'" Maka said, and stood to shake Azusa's hand. "Hopefully I'll be out of your hair soon -- and once I am, I'm going to make you get me free tickets."

"I thought you hated Disney World," Azusa said, and Maka really had missed that wry twist to her mouth, the same way she missed Marie's sunny smile and absolutely terrifying prowess with a crowbar.

"I love Epcot, though," Maka replied, and Azusa left with a wave that did nothing to keep Maka from noticing the veritable legion of unassumingly-clad figures that detached themselves from every prime viewing angle of the cafe when she did.

God, another sundae sounded good, but she knew she really shouldn't; instead she got the hell out of the supposed happiest place on earth and called an old friend from what must have been the only pay phone in a fifty mile radius.

"Maka," Sid said the next morning, sliding into the seat across from her at a Waffle House a discreet distance away from Orlando proper. He looked tired, but much more at ease than he had been the last time she saw him -- not that that was saying much, since the last time she'd seen the man they'd been in the middle of a firefight and Nygus had been bleeding profusely. Still, it seemed like civilian life and, improbably, working for Disney agreed with him, because the tension in his shoulders was low-grade and he didn't appear to be armed -- which probably wasn't true but still meant a lot, considering.

"Why did you call me," he said after a minute of frowning silence, accepting coffee from the waitress and watching Maka mow through a pile of cheese-covered hashbrowns. "We're not coworkers any more, and it was risky for me to even meet you. What could you possibly want from me?"

"Maybe I missed you," Maka said, shifting from hashbrowns to a pecan waffle and giving him her best catfishing smile.

Sid gave her a Look.

"Fine," she said, drenching the waffle in syrup like she was expecting a shortage. "I need a job at the Disney Boardwalk, help me out."

He said nothing, but two could play this game; Maka began methodically disassembling her waffle while he glowered at her, offering no indication that she gave even a single fuck. She'd been practicing her poker face since Marie first showed her how to give her father puppy dog eyes to get him to stay home with her instead of whatever it was he did when he left, and she'd be damned if Sid overcame it.

"Maka," he said again, very slowly, reaching across the table to slide her plate of hashbrowns over to himself. "That's not the man I am now. I can't have you killing someone on company grounds after I recommended you be hired. I can't afford that kind of trouble."

"Who said I was going to kill anybody," she said, mouth full of syrupy pecan manna and god, it was so good that it very nearly made it easy for her to believe in her own innocence.

Sid took a huge bite of her hashbrowns, and there was the disappointed dad look she'd become so familiar with over the years.

"I'm not going to kill anybody on company grounds," she amended, exasperated. "Look, Sid, you got out and I'm happy for you but I'm pretty sick of this too, and this job'll give me the money to do something else with my life. Anything else with my life. I'm not going to do anything that could implicate you in any way, you know I'm good at the whole natural causes setup. Besides, they'll pay for the target alive, so maybe I won't kill anybody at all. Now can you please get me a job so we can both be done with this?"

"Do you really want out?" Sid asked, expression more grave than Maka thought she'd ever seen it, even when he'd been worried Nygus might bleed out despite his best efforts, even when he'd been worried they might never see sunlight again, even when he'd been asking her if she'd really wanted to get into this line of work.

Maka took a bracing bite of waffle. "Yeah, Sid, I'm -- tired. You know how it is, some people work an office job they hate until they have the money to get out, well, same thing."

"All right," he said after a pregnant pause in which he finished off her hashbrowns. "I don't want to know anything else, Maka. Send me the usual info and I'll get it set up." He slid back out of the booth, stood, paused; settled one huge dark hand on her shoulder after a moment. "Good luck. Hope you like bartending."

"Thanks," Maka said, smiling up at him for real this time, and once he was gone ordered another waffle, this one with chocolate chips.

/

Soul had always heard about -- and hoped for -- those shining moments that changed a life, that sent people on pilgrimages to better themselves, to change the world, that made men give up fortunes to help the needy, that suddenly illuminated a path towards becoming a better, more complete person. He'd envisioned beautiful flashes of clarity or inspiration in which he might suddenly know, with certainty, what he needed to do in order to feel complete, or make things better, or become a person he liked better, one worthy of admiration. One day the path would become clear, one day his uncertainty would give way to --

Not this.

Clarity was not supposed to look like his coworker and a bartender brawling on his front yard in the middle of the night, hissing insults at each other while Soul tried to decide if what he was seeing was real or just some kind of distortion of reality brought on by how drunk he was.

It was just -- he was pretty sure his imagination couldn't have cooked this up. The two of them had driven him home from the bar, because his coworker had met him for drinks and the bartender's shift had ended at a fortuitous moment and they were both really just decent people, the kind who'd drive a guy home when he accidentally indulged his existential crisis a little too far and couldn't handle it himself.

They were also, apparently, the kind of people who could throw the fuck down in a way that Soul hadn't been sure happened in reality.

"Am I so drunk everything looks like a scene from John Wick, or," he said, still chewing on the stale Christmas pop-tart he'd gotten into once he was alone in his -- okay, calling it a house would be too generous, it was just a shabby old trailer in a shabby old trailer park and he hated it. Still, the pop-tart was marginally less shitty than the trailer, and he wanted it with the fervor of the very drunk, and also he wanted to know if he was actually witnessing, in reality, two people fighting hand to hand with so much speed and skill that his eyes could barely keep up, because there was absolutely no reason either of them should be able to do the things they were currently doing. Soul was pretty sure that this kind of thing did not happen in the real world where people didn't have stunt doubles and fight choreographers.

He was pretty drunk though, so hard to say. Hard to do a lot of things, like remain standing, but he was doing his best, same as he had been on that fateful day when he'd landed his sorry ass in this trailer by trying to do the right thing.

"Kinda busy right now, bro," said his coworker, grunting as he blocked a lightning-quick punch from the bartender and dodged -- wait, where the hell had she gotten a knife?

Soul, eyes wide, took another bite of his pop-tart, swayed a little, and tried fumblingly to decide just what the fuck he was supposed to do in a situation like this. Would a call to the police even matter? Someone would probably be dead before they showed up, especially given their current high-priority location of a run-down old trailer park. Was he allowed to call the police? Was he even in danger? Surely he must be, there was no reason for these two to have fallen over each other insisting on driving him home just because his lawn was somehow the ideal location for their epic battle to the death. Surely, then, his cover was blown --

He blinked, and winced when the bartender took a heavy blow to her ribs, but he winced for longer than she did -- and the next thing he knew the yard had been flooded with light bright enough to make him consider possibly spending the rest of his existence in darkness.

"On the ground, hands behind your heads," said a voice that was both very stressed and very, very full of intent to murder. The bartender came to a screeching halt in the middle of what would have been a successful attempt to stab Soul's coworker, and, after a heavy-ass pause and a glare that could have cracked crystal at twenty paces, dropped her weapon. The both of them gave each other a look that Soul recognized from being a teenager, from being caught by parents doing things he shouldn't have, the kind of look they really shouldn't have been exchanging considering their very energetic attempts to murder each other not even seconds prior.

Nonetheless, they took identical steps back and put their knees on the ground, heedless of the damp, spongy nature of Florida's "soil" and its ruinous effects on clothing, fingers lacing together across the backs of their skulls without complaint.

"Good choice," said the voice, and Soul's eyes finally adjusted to the light enough for him to confirm that the speaker was, in fact, his neighbor, which -- okay, it wasn't really weirder than what he'd just been watching, but it was still strange because he only saw the guy leave his house maybe once a week and he'd never come within miles of emanating the kind of murderous intent he was currently displaying. That might have been the open shotgun hanging from the crook of his elbow, though. "Now one of you explain to me what the fuck before I call in every federal agency that might be interested in the fact that two very wanted assassins are having some kind of slap fight in front of my home. If you can tell me something useful it might save your sorry skins, or at least buy you some time."

Soul's coworker -- what had he said his name was? Blake? Blair? -- put on a wide, ingratiating, maybe slightly flirtatious grin, and Soul's neighbor's glare intensified to a point where the bartender looked shy and retiring in comparison.

"Do not presume to think I don't have a lagoon full of hungry alligators, should you try to bullshit me," the man said, and Soul's coworker wiped the shit-eating expression off his face in a blink.

"You know we can't tell you anything," said the bartender, settling onto her heels and eyeing Soul like she might be calculating the exact odds of her taking him out and running for it without being shot.

"So there is some John Wick shit going on," Soul blurted before he could remind himself that just saying whatever shit popped into his drunken head had a good chance of getting him killed, and all three of the apparently very dangerous people standing on his yard gave him nearly identical looks of 'what the fuck is wrong with you.'

"Oh, come on," said Soul's coworker after a minute, exasperated and no longer bothering to address the bartender when he could talk to Soul's neighbor instead. "There's no way you don't already know what's going on if you're the one who has this place bugged to hell. Nobody with the skill to make it hard for her to get in," and he jerked his head towards the bartender, who looked like she was seriously considering killing all three of them and then dismembering them just for fun, "does it without having a reason. You know what's up, short, dark, and murderous. What could you possibly want us to tell you?"

"My name is Kid," said Soul's neighbor, which was the first Soul had ever heard that he had any name, no matter how weird, "and it would behoove you to never forget it. What I want you two to tell me is who sent you. If you tell me that, you may survive the night as free individuals." A knife appeared and, once again, Soul had no idea where it'd come from, but it glittered as it rolled across Kid's knuckles and even his drunk ass knew that you'd think twice before fucking with that.

"Ooh," said Soul's coworker, eyes sparkling as he watched the knife, and the bartender interrupted whatever he'd been about to say with a supremely disgusted noise.

"If you call him 'daddy' I'm going to kill you and then myself," she said, tone scathing, and Soul took a bite of pop-tart just to hide how abjectly horrifying -- and maybe vaguely arousing -- the spectacle of her violent disdain was.

Kid dragged his free hand across his face, looking like maybe he'd find death preferable, and finally said, "Soul, can we perhaps all go inside and sort this out? I imagine you have a few questions as well."

"Um," Soul said, mouth still full of processed sugar, "I'm, uh, pretty sure that I really shouldn't -- "

"If this is about witsec, I'm the one who arranged for you to live here," Kid said, eyes still riveted on the -- assassins? -- kneeling on Soul's lawn, tone almost uninterested despite the topic at hand. "I don't think there's any use in trying to hide anything from any of us, do you? These two definitely know more about you than you do, at this point. Hey guys, what's his favorite movie?"

"The Marine," said Soul's coworker, then looked nervous. "Or did you mean -- "

"John Wick, obviously," said the bartender, green eyes knowing in a way that made Soul sweat a little when she looked at him, and she gave him a slow, sidelong grin that was just about the meanest look ever directed his way -- and oh, hell, he did not need this new kink that he was apparently developing. "Who wouldn't want to be badass enough to escape their shitty situation by killing all the bad guys? Can't blame him."

"Not fair," Soul's coworker yelled, and his neighbor -- Kid -- whipped back to glare him into silence, knife finally stilling in his hand because, Soul assumed, he was getting ready to throw it if that was what it took to buy a little peace. "You didn't say," he added, voice about a hundred decibels lower. "How was I supposed to know you meant his real favorite and not the persona's? Not fair."

"Yeah, okay," Soul said, trying not to stare too obviously at any of the three of them for long enough that it got him killed, since that seemed to be the order of the night. "Let's get the fuck inside, what could go wrong? At least you can kill me in my favorite chair. Y'all want a -- " what did he even have in the house, pretty much nothing, he didn't eat the kind of food that civilized humans ate -- "pizza? I can throw something in the microwave. How about a drink?"

"I'd motherfucking love a drink," said his coworker, eyeing Kid warily as he got back on his feet with the slowest, most deliberate movements Soul had ever seen with the possible exception of the fathers at work trying to talk their daughters out of the five hundred dollar princess treatment. "Spent the night making sure you had a DD, after all. Think I deserve one now."

"All right," Soul said, fumbling behind himself for the doorknob. "Come on in, then. Let's figure out just what the fuck is going on here, since I seem to be the only one who doesn't get it."

The bartender's laughter followed him inside, and Soul did his best not to feel like he was running away.

/

Start to finish, everything about this job had felt like Maka was losing her mind in infinitesimal increments, the cherry on top of its surrealism sundae being when she followed Black Star and the target's supposed neighbor into that shabby little trailer, whereupon the man she'd come to kill proceeded to mix them 'drinks' that involved the lowest possible grade vodka and Capri fucking Sun and pretend they were some kind of acceptable version of a martini, that they could even be mentioned in the same sentence as a martini, like it was even a concoction safe for human consumption in the first place.

"Don't know what I expected from a dude wearing mismatched Disney princess crocs, though," she said, accepting the drink just so she could set it on what looked like a plastic lawn furniture end table and get as far away from it as possible. She also wanted to put her back in a corner where she could see all the room's windows and exits, but mostly she just wanted to get away from the actual biohazard that her mark had tried to trick her into drinking. “I didn’t know they made those in adult sizes.”

"What the fuck do you care what shoes I wear when I'm home by myself," the guy said, sulky, somehow looking hurt that she didn't like his luridly pink crocs or his bad decision dinosaur depression cocktail.

"It's -- not that, really," Maka said, because this guy was her retirement plan and she didn't plan on letting him live to tell anyone anything she said. "You're just -- this is what the kids call a rich tapestry," and she gestured to the entirety of the little trailer: its old, humidity-impregnated wicker beach furniture, the paper plates, the bargain basement depression drinks, the little stack of one dollar frozen pizzas that had been the only thing in his freezer.

Black Star chose that moment to distract her with the horrifying spectacle of him knocking back most of his drink. "What, I've had worse," he said to her appalled expression.

"Yeah, but you've also been literally poisoned before, the bar is not high," Maka said, and rubbed at her temples, wondering if she could finish the job and get out without Star murdering her in retaliation. Probably not. The man was just as skilled as she was, galling as it was for Maka to admit it about someone so obnoxious and uncouth, and she didn't have even a small percentage of the armaments she'd need to handle that situation, much less the complication the man who called himself Kid posed. "You also eat peanut butter, pickle, and bacon sandwiches, so I really don't care if your obviously deranged palate finds that drink acceptable."

"So you two know each other," said their target, and Maka sighed again and wished for the billionth time that she'd just turned the job down, early retirement be damned. Marie always had told her not to be swayed by big dicks, big checks, or a big rack, and here she was anyway, repeating her idiot father's idiot mistakes and stuck in what was rapidly becoming the world's stupidest situation.

"If you kill him," said the man's supposed neighbor, interrupting her gratuitous remorse, his weird pale-gold eyes gleaming with a chilling level of murderous intent, "you won't be leaving this trailer, I assure you."

"What is going on," said their still-drunk host, starting to sound a bit desperate under the confusion. "Who are you people? Kid, I thought I knew you! I thought -- I thought I was safe here, at least, that was what made this awful place worth it."

That got him three identically-unimpressed stares, though his neighbor's was at least somewhat sympathetic.

"You oughta sit down, bro," Star advised, heading for the kitchen with his now-empty glass.

"Soul, sit," said his neighbor when he hesitated, and, looking miserable, he complied. "Good. Now. Here's what's going on: you turned informant on the world's scariest organized crime family, got put in witness protection, and these two very skilled assassins have been sent to make you pay for your betrayal." He paused, gave Maka a weighing kind of look, but in the same way an engineer might look at an especially intriguing math problem. "They're not the first, I might add. They just happened to be the first ones to take the hit who were good enough to make it this far."

"They didn't go through the usual channels this time, or they'd never have gotten my attention," Maka said, watching Star open cabinet after mostly-empty cabinet in a brief distraction from her continuing quest to discern just what degree of threat this neighbor was.

"I'd say not, if you two are the ones who showed up," Kid said, fingers tapping against his arms where they were crossed over his chest. "I didn't think I'd ever see you in the flesh."

That got him a ghost of a smirk, but before Maka could respond Soul interrupted with, "And just who the fuck are you?" directed at his neighbor in a way that made Maka append about a dozen extra question marks to it.

"He's a guy who should have staged an intervention a long time ago if your kitchen is any indication," Star said before Kid could explain anything. "Have you even looked at a vegetable in the past several months? Have you had any alcohol that wasn't rotgut? I wouldn't serve this tequila to my worst enemy, dude, it's gonna eat through your bones."

"Was hoping it'd eat through my brain," said the miserable sack on the couch, and Maka sighed again.

"Black Star," she said, not for a second fooled by his harmless act where he made frozen pizzas and expressed concern for his target's nutritional intake, "explain to me, very clearly, why exactly you're trying to keep this man alive whose life you got paid to end. This is not how we do things. There are rules."

"He's so sad!" Star yelled, indignant, while the neighbor watched them both, fine dark brows creeping towards his hairline. "He tried to do the right thing and got everything he loved taken away from him and look how he's living, Maka! He's just some poor good-hearted dipshit -- "

"Hey," said the dipshit, and went ignored.

" -- and aren't you tired of this bullshit? I know I am. Did you know I got disowned, Maka? Star Clan kicked me out and swore to never again allow me under their roof alive, so fuck the rules."

"Excuse me?" Maka said, not sure she'd heard him correctly. "Your family kicked you out and you're still breathing?"

"I broke Dad's arms to make a point," Star said casually, as though it were an everyday occurrence. "Tired, like I said. Thought maybe I'd start killing bad guys instead of innocent assholes and maybe be able to sleep at night sometimes, that sounds like it'd be pretty rad, honestly."

"This is some kind of redemption revenge arc, isn't it," she said, heedless of their audience. "That's exactly the kind of thing you'd pull, Star, do not get me tangled up in this, I do not want to have to fight off your family. I just want to take this guy out so I can buy my way out of this business and go live in the mountains somewhere where no one can find me."

Star rolled his eyes. "You'd get bored of that so fast," he said, and Maka wanted to stab him even more than she had when he'd been grappling with her outside, trying to tell her why she didn't want to kill this kid who was her ticket out like he understood anything.

"As fascinating as this is," said the neighbor, "maybe you two can sit down and shut up and we can figure out just what we're going to do about this little situation?"

"Yeah, yeah, you can't let us leave, I get it," Black Star said, smacking the microwave when it beeped at him and pulling a couple of horribly cheap pizzas out of it once he was sure it wasn't going to explode. "If you wanted a date you could have just said so, no need to be dramatic and go pulling weapons on me -- though I must say: hot, good choice, I am intrigued and into it."

Maka was really getting to a point where she almost regretted refusing the drink.

"If I were interested," said Kid, tone even and edged enough that he might not even need his knives, "you would know. Do you have to buy extra airline tickets for your ego?"

That got him raucous laughter in response, and Black Star made his way back into the living room, pausing only to hand Maka a plate containing the saddest pepperoni pizza she'd ever seen. Even when she'd had to live in the back of her truck off whatever she could get from the 7-11 she hadn't had to eat Totino's pizzas, honestly.

"Okay, look," Star said once he'd given everyone a snack, "I have a proposal for you all. I want Soul here to tell us his story, and then I'll tell you what I know, and then maybe we can convince Mr. Totally Not A Secret Government Agent here to tell us what he knows, and we'll see if my idea holds water. Okay? It'll be like a sleepover. Maka, you can give us an hour or two of your time, don't be unreasonable. I'll give you a pedicure."

Maka made herself shrug, because what else could she do? Doing her job right now wasn't an option and neither was leaving, so she might as well try to make the best of a situation that had gone from bad to abhorrent. "Fine. Tell me your sad stories -- but you're not going anywhere near my feet, Star. There's no way I can take anyone out right now and you know it, so consider me a captive audience. It's not like you're going to let me leave, anyway, though I wish we had something that could at least pretend to be real food or decent alcohol."

Black Star gave her a grin that was a few notches down from his usual manic craziness, and reached into his jacket before tossing something at her that Maka initially thought might be -- well, a grenade, something dangerous -- but which turned out to be a flask of what tasted like very expensive whisky, spelling intentional, because it wasn't American if Maka was any judge.

With alcohol burning down her throat, carrying with it searing notes of fire and ginger and a touch of butterscotch, she gestured expansively. "By all means," she said, and took another swig that almost let some of the muscles in her shoulders relax, "enlighten me. I hope for your own sake you manage it before I drink all of Star's expensive whisky."

"Are you really going to kill me," Soul asked, turning those odd, plaintive red eyes her way, and Maka sighed heavily -- because that was her current response to everything going on in her vicinity -- had another drink, shrugged.

"They paid me for it," she said, though she really couldn't argue too much with Star's reluctance at this point. "I accepted the job, and I want that money because I want to get out of the business of killing people. I can't do anything to you right now, though, so I'd take this opportunity to try and convince me to change my mind if I were you."

"Okay," he said, settling back into his horribly tacky couch and looking tense but not the kind of tense Maka was used to seeing in men who were facing down their literal assassins. "Well, you know about Olympus Heights?"

"Everyone knows about Olympus Heights," Maka said, unable to keep herself from giving him an incredulous look. "It's why no one fucking goes to Florida. Every other organized crime family is afraid of them. The police are afraid of them. Disney is afraid of them. I'm not standing here wondering what the fuck convinced Star to decide not to do what they paid him for just because I'm committed to my job or something, this is a very particular situation. Normally we have space for that sort of thing, wiggle room in our contracts or the option to cancel, but not with Olympus. You do what they pay you for or that's the last anyone hears of you."

"Yeah," Soul said, looking more grim than terrified. "I know." He rubbed one hand across his face, looked a bit haunted, and Maka couldn't help a tiny pang of sympathy -- though that could just be the alcohol kicking in. "I'm the youngest son of one of their founding families. I'm -- I was -- a pianist."

"I hear they like that sort of thing," Maka said, because she had, and the research she'd done since they gave her a little leeway to look into their affairs for this job had only confirmed it in detail that even she found a bit unsettling.

Soul gave her a miserable look, and Kid took over with a surprising amount of aplomb.

"He was their golden child," he said, raking long fingers through inky black hair. "Eventually they trusted him with more than just collecting prestige. He was given a gift for an associate, meant to be dropped off as he made his way across Europe on a performance tour, and that was where we caught up to him."

"I didn't want to kill anybody!" Soul said, looking more than a little tormented, and the sympathy pangs got strong enough that Maka couldn't write them off as whisky-induced. "I thought it was just -- I thought they were trying to make amends."

"No one expects a poisoned harmonica," Kid said, voice warm with sympathy and with a shocking amount of gravitas considering the phrase 'poisoned harmonica'. "The important thing is that you didn't deliver it, we caught up to you, and you found the courage to do the right thing, in the end."

"And look where it got me," Soul said, voice pure misery. "I'm never going to get out of this trailer, because nobody's ever going to stop them and you know it. They're too powerful."

Kid gave him an odd, crooked smile. "I wouldn't bet on it," he said, and Maka raised an eyebrow at him. "I can't give you details, of course. But we are working on something that has the potential to take them out for good."

Soul sighed, shoulders moving several inches with the motion, and didn't look remotely convinced. "Anyway, that's the story. I was their favorite because I was very good at what I did, and then I betrayed them and now they want me dead. I just didn't want to be part of something like that, all the counterfeit art and the murder -- "

"There there, bro," Black Star said, patting him on the shoulder and offering him a slice of pizza. "You're safe now. If I can't keep you from being murdered, no one can."

"Wanna bet," Maka said, mostly to be contrary, and eyed the cheap little pizza Star had given her with a certain amount of alcohol-induced appetite.

"If he can't, I can," said the neighbor, and the way he said it -- Maka was almost annoyed at how seriously she took him by default, though she'd never had reason to doubt her instincts. "He gave us the information we needed to start this operation, and without him we'd have no chance at taking Olympus Heights down. He deserves the best protection we can offer, which is why I pulled some strings to get him settled where he is -- where I could keep an eye on him."

"Who the fuck are you," Maka said, irritated, and helped herself to more of Star's flask.

"Nobody," Kid said, shrugging, faint smile the same look Maka had gotten in the past from the men who'd come closest to killing her. "Just an engineer."

"Like hell," Maka said, and all he did was give her an enigmatic smile.

"See, I knew it," Black Star said, and Maka knew him well enough to recognize when he was about to go on a long-winded rant and decided that the better part of valor would be eating some of the pizza he'd made for her, however terrible it might be when one hadn't been drinking. "They have the information they need to do the work, but they still can't just take Olympus Heights out without boots on the ground."

"They have boots," Maka said, mouth full of abominably cheap cheese pizza and not even caring any more. "What possible need could they have for people like us, Star? We'll just be arrested at the end, you know how these operations go. We're already in trouble as is, since this guy's still breathing and he's clearly a well-ranked agent. Let the professionals take out the McMansion Mafia. Maybe we can slip away while they're distracted."

"You're not listening, Maka," Black Star said. "You can't just stubbornly insist on something until reality changes to make you right. This shit right here is why I changed my mind. It's not just that this guy clearly needs friends and a life makeover, this is an opportunity. We could really get out. No strings attached."

 

"Star," Maka said, tone a warning, calculating the heft of the flask and whether or not she thought she could nail him with it hard and accurately enough to knock him out from where she was standing. “That’s what I was trying to do when you decided to ruin Christmas.”

 

The neighbor gave both of them another assessing look, took a thoughtful bite of his pizza without any visible reaction to its general level of terribleness, and asked, "What kind of opportunity might make you abandon a job like this, assassin? What on this earth could drive one of Star Clan to abandon the family business and cripple the patriarch? My understanding of White Star has always been something like -- "

 

"Don't start none, won't be none," Black Star supplied, mirroring her comment to Azusa not all that long ago, and it was the fact that he said it without smirking, that he looked distinctly grim, that made Maka start to take him seriously.

 

"Yes," Kid said with obvious reluctance, as if agreeing to such a crass statement caused him physical pain. "Essentially, that if you were going to defy him, you'd better be prepared to finish what you started. And you left him -- "

 

"Alive, yes," Star supplied. "And crippled, read humiliated. I had a point to make, like I said. That's my business, don't worry about it."

 

"You can tell us not to worry about it, but I'm going to have to when your entire fucking family shows up to murder you and everyone near you," Maka said, still angry about that and much more willing to say so after half a flask of whisky. "And they will, it's how they do business! They'll kill you for being a traitor and they'll kill the rest of us for seeing them, or, hell, just for knowing you put your father facedown in the dirt, just for the possibility that we might know. You've put all of us in danger just by telling us what you did, Star. This poor sad asshole is a dead man, regardless of whether or not I succeed in using him as my retirement fund."

 

"I'm still not going to allow you to kill him," Kid said, unruffled -- and if he could stay calm in the face of Star Clan, well. He was either an absolute idiot or he was just as competent as Maka had suspected he must be, and she was glad she hadn't picked a fight with him on his turf.

 

"Nobody is killing him," Star said, at a decibel level Maka could have happily died without ever experiencing. "Look. Maka. The fucking McMansion Mafia just happens to employ the vast majority of my family, it's why I was in Florida in the first fucking place."

 

"Oh great, so they're already after you? You're telling me that literally everyone who is scary enough to make anyone with half a brain shit their pants is actively out to kill you? Great job, Star, just what I wanted, for you to reenter my life with enough heat on your tail to melt fucking tungsten." Maka decided that she wasn't going to throw the flask at him after all, because the least he owed her for this was a nice flask of expensive booze.

 

"God, you are such a nerd. I hate that association with you means that I know what the melting point of tungsten even is," Star said, voice full of affectionate loathing, and despite herself Maka's shoulders unknotted, against every wish she had she caught herself grinning at him for a flash of a second before she reasserted control. "Anyway, listen. You want out, I want out, Special Agent Nobody Special over here wants these guys taken down, and our poor artiste here wants -- what was it you wanted?"

 

"To live," Soul said, clearly at overload levels of confused, incredulous, and extremely fucking concerned for his safety. "And I -- when I did what I did they called my older brother back home and I think it's just a matter of time before they threaten to kill him unless I turn myself in. As it is they're obviously tormenting him, they've got him playing an indefinite series of 'exclusive engagements' over at their club -- "

 

"So you want to take them out too, then," Black Star said, back to grinning. "Great! We're all on the same page. Two birds, one stone, can't get a better deal than that. We secure some capital, put together a team, and take the whole thing down from inside. Wham, bam, we all have piles of money, the bad guys go to jail, this guy's brother goes free, and nobody has to live in a trailer park eating out of date frozen pizzas."

 

"You realize you're making these plans in front of a guy who is literally law enforcement," Maka said, so nonplussed she felt like she might forever be made entirely of minuses.

 

The law enforcement was eyeing them with a distinct air of speculation, a gleam in his eye that might have been ambition or might have been avarice.

 

"He's fine," Star said, waving a hand in dismissal. "I can tell, Maka, trust me."

 

"You're an idiot," she said with feeling, and Black Star stuck his tongue out at her.

 

"I think we can cut a deal," Kid said, interrupting any further bickering, and Maka and Star turned to face him, one triumphant and the other deeply suspicious. "Off the books, of course, and you cannot take all the money, that would be obviously fraudulent. But. I've been trying to take these guys out for a long time now, and I don't think we'll ever be able to knock them out using entirely legal means -- so maybe, maybe, we can work something out, just between us."

 

"Chaotic good is the hottest alignment," Black Star said, sounding downright smitten.

 

"I swear I'm going to vomit in your shoes if you don't knock this shit off, Star," Maka said, feeling a bit green around the gills just from the look Star was giving Soul's questionably-murderous neighbor. "Are you really suggesting we abandon our life of crime for -- for -- a different life of crime where we illegally take out bad guys?"

 

"Shit, let's be Batman," Black Star said, and Maka buried her face in her hands.

"I'm going to just let Azusa have me," she said with feeling, and didn't miss it when the neighbor's eyes narrowed at her mentor's name. "Spending quality time with Maleficent would be so much better than whatever the fuck this is."

 

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," Star said, and blew her a kiss that raised her blood pressure a solid twenty points.

 

"Gentleassassins, please," Kid said, and Maka wasn't the only one giving him a look of perhaps slightly murderous incredulity. That just made him flash them a grin, though, and Maka decided to ignore the way her skin prickled because honestly, if she paid attention every time he did something that made her want to stab him and disappear into the night, she'd never get anything else done. "Let's adjourn to somewhere more suitable for these conversations. I've done what I can to ensure that this place is secure, but there's only so much I can do for a civilian residence without tipping my hand, you understand."

 

"Um," Soul said, and Maka didn't blame him, really. He was in, as they said, a goddamn bitch of an unsatisfactory situation, and it seemed likely that almost nothing that had happened around him in the past couple hours made any sense at all.

 

"Are you implying that you have a secure location nearby?" Maka asked, head tilted sideways a little, eyebrow raised, willing to be impressed if only begrudgingly.

 

"Oh baby," Black Star said before Kid could respond, still eating abominable pizza, still drinking rotgut liquor, still insufferable, "faraday cages are the sexiest kind of cages. Want me to show you how to use one for something other than blocking signals?"

 

Kid's grin slid into something arch and disinterested. "How absolutely puerile of you," he said, and Soul made a face that Maka assumed meant he was no happier with the situation or Kid's choice of words than she was. "Also, bold of you to assume I lack imagination to that degree, starboy. Let's go. You okay to walk next door, Soul?"

 

Black Star was still staring like someone had taken a baseball bat to his head, mouthing 'starboy' to himself when Maka pushed away from the wall at last, interrupting whatever Soul had been about to say with, "Wait. We can't just -- " her hand gesture could have meant anything from 'swear in front of the children' to 'involve this guy in willful murder', but oh well -- "get him in deeper than he already is, I guess."

"You're here to kill him," Star reminded her, "so I'd say he's in pretty deep," but Maka ignored that.

"Soul," she said instead of responding. "Are you sober?"

 

"Unfortunately," he said, and the sullen look he was directing her way was a great deal more lucid than it had been, so Maka elected to believe that he was at least sober enough to be making choices.

 

"All right," Maka said, and walked over to the couch so she could look him in the eye better -- though she left a judicious distance between them when he started to look a bit spooked by her proximity, which, fair; she had been pretty vocal about her desire to just cap him and be on her way and she still maintained that it'd be easier and work out better than whatever crazy bullshit Black Star and Kind had in mind. "How involved do you want to be in this? Do you want plausible deniability, because we can just leave you here and go wherever we're going and you can stay as innocent a bystander as possible."

 

"Or what," Soul said, looking more than a bit surly. "What's option B?"

 

"Not a bad question," Kid said, sounding curious in spite of himself.

 

"Or you're in on it," Maka said, shrugging. "I'm sure you have a lot of useful info about neighborhood and house layouts, to say nothing of security and the inner workings of Olympus Heights. And you're a star pianist, I'm sure you're good with your hands, we could -- "

 

"We could get your daddy in here to teach him to pickpocket," Star shrieked, and if Maka's vision went red for moment, if she charted out in an instant all the ways she could dismember Star and dispose of the body and the closest places she could get strong acid and a large plastic bin, well --

 

Kid's hand closed on her shoulder, an initially soft touch that tightened into something grounding, and lucky for him he got the good end where it brought Maka back to reality without her finding out firsthand if Soul's carpet was too humidity-saturated to absorb blood or not.

 

"You're either real brave or real stupid, boy next door," Star said in the background, tone back to normal levels of businesslike for once in this accursed night. Maka swallowed hard against the urge to break bones, took a deep breath, clenched and unclenched her fists before meeting Soul's eyes again.

 

"We can do this without you, and you'll probably be safer," she said, tone as even as she could make it as she did her best not to think about the fact that her father probably would need to get involved, "or you can help us, and take a risk, but get to set things right with your own hands instead of letting other people do it for you."

 

"Memento mori, eh," Soul said, and Maka couldn't decide if that meant he was still a little drunk or just way too sober. "So does that mean you're not going to kill me?"

 

Rather than participate in the conversation like an adult, Maka gave him her best time-to-die grin. "No point in killing you if these two'll take me out and I won't get to collect my retirement money," she said, still deeply annoyed at having been, firstly, cockblocked, secondly, made sympathetic to the guy who was supposed to be her last job, and, thirdly and most importantly, conned into doing something that was going to get her on the shitlist of a crime syndicate known for being able to have anyone they wanted shuffle off the mortal coil with alacrity. "So sure, let's go put your whole family in jail for the rest of their lives. Star can owe me."

 

"I am offering you fulfilling work," Black Star yelled from the kitchen, and Maka felt Kid shift to wave him off, which she took to mean she didn't need to bother.

 

"So how about it," she said, green eyes squarely on the weird red of Soul's. "Wanna learn to take care of yourself?"

 

He gave her a dubious look that she was pleased to note seemed to contain generous portions of both fear and determination. "I don't want to have to kill anyone," he said, the set of his jaw downright obstinate.

 

"I can't make any promises about Black Star's mental processes, because he'd like it if everything could be solved by rocket launchers and grappling hooks," Maka said, and this time her grin was just a grin, "but I can tell you that I was certainly not planning on killing anyone. For this," she added when he gave her a look of such extreme dubiousness that Maka was forced to revise her opinion of Soul's backbone up a few notches. "With this sort of job, it's better to do it quietly, before they realize anything's up. So killing's, you know, mostly off the table except for extreme situations. We'll show you some self-defense but the fight really shouldn't come to you. That's my job, if needs must."

 

"'If needs must'," Black Star repeated, rolling his eyes so hard that Maka nearly challenged him to a duel on the spot on principle. "You seriously can't stop with the fancy-ass English, can you? Hey, neighbor," he said, turning to Kid, "we going to your place or what? You need some time to tidy up?"

 

Kid ignored him, no mean feat considering the palpable innuendo saturating his tone. "Yes, let's," he said, eyes still on Soul, and took his hand from Maka's shoulder as he turned towards the door.

 

They followed him outside and across Soul's barren yard, past a turtle-shaped sandbox that managed to seem both ancient and suspicious at the same time -- "Woulda sworn that was the secret entrance," Star muttered, eyeing it like he expected a turret to pop out of it -- through Kid's much more lush crabgrass, and at last into his doublewide.

 

"Well, this is disappointing," Black Star said, eyeing up the interior -- furniture of acceptable quality, carpet that had some actual give to it, a kitchen full of more than empty ramen cups and sad frozen pizza.

 

Maka looked around, looked at Kid, looked at Star. "Disappointing because it seems normal, or -- "

 

"It's boring," Black Star said, and shrugged when Kid raised an eyebrow in his direction. "Dude's going around implying he's some kind of secret agent or something and his place is -- "

 

"Star," Maka said, rubbing at her temples, but Soul beat her to the punch.

 

"If he was a secret agent, why wouldn't his place be boring," he said, looking genuinely befuddled. "Isn't that the point?"

 

"Absolutely," Kid said, and gestured to his overstuffed couch. "Have a seat, and I'll get things ready. If you want, there's water in the electric kettle; feel free to make yourselves some cocoa."

 

"Cocoa," Star said, but Kid was already gone, vanished down a hallway that terminated in what had to be the trailer's master bedroom.

 

"I'll do it," Maka said, if only so she didn't have to share a couch with Black Star and her now-ex-target. "Turn on the TV or something, Soul, because otherwise Black Star's probably going to manage to burn this place to the ground inside five minutes."

 

"Excuse you, miss 'shooting that gas tank will cause exactly the distraction we need'," Star said, as loud as he was indignant, but Maka had already turned on the kettle and was well on her way to looking through all of Kid's kitchen cabinets and thus felt no need to even pretend she'd heard him.

 

"She what," Soul said somewhere in the background, but Maka was too busy wondering how someone could manage to have such perfectly normal cabinet contents to deal with it. Looking through Kid's kitchen was like looking at a list a computer had spit out of the most statistically likely foods to find in a kitchen in Florida, and it was honestly kind of eerie. The beeping of the kettle was a relief, and she put enough marshmallows in each mug to kill a lesser human.

 

"You know it's too hot for this stuff, right," Star said when she handed him the cup. "It might be nearly Christmas, but Florida's still Florida."

 

"This guy's air conditioning is turned down to roughly arctic levels, shut up," she said, and felt ever so slightly smug when Soul took the steaming mug with an expression of quickly suppressed delight. "Besides, chocolate is good for your mood."

 

Star snorted into his mug but drank it anyway, and together they watched almost an entire episode of an abominably bad sitcom without killing each other before their host returned.

 

"Sorry for the wait," Kid said, mostly managing to smooth over the face he made when he found them all drinking hot cocoa and watching bad TV in his living room like nothing weird was going on. "I had to double check all my security systems to make sure nothing had been compromised before I felt comfortable letting you in."

 

"I'll compromise your security," Black Star said, slouched across half the couch. "Also, hate to break it to you, but we're already in. Now lead on before I actually expire of boredom, please. I appreciate the hot chocolate but I am a ninja assassin, I require constant intrigue."

 

"Of course," Kid said, and waved them down the hall. "If you'll proceed into the guest bedroom, we can continue."

 

Black Star pretty much bounded after him, and Maka followed after Soul, who gave everyone and everything in eyesight an apprehensive look before heading down the hall and into the leftmost bedroom, but didn’t seem to mind having her at his back.

 

"Watch your step," was all Kid said once they were all in, and the cramped space became less so when he opened the closet door to reveal an ascending elevator, complete with carefully-manicured dirt on top where it must have risen out of the ground underneath the trailer. "And please know, now that you've seen this: should you even think about mentioning this to anyone, I am contractually obligated to send a death squad after you."

 

"How terrifying," Black Star cooed in the tone adults usually reserved for kids claiming to be superheroes. Still he stepped into the elevator, unable to wipe the grin from his face when it became obvious that they were all going to have to get very friendly if they were all going to fit, since it had clearly not been meant for more than two people at a time.

 

"I believe you are familiar with Tezca," Kid said, doing his best to make space for Soul and Maka as they squeezed in, and Maka was gratified to see Black Star's complexion turn just a little bit pale.

 

"I don't say this very often," Maka said, shoulders pressed to the wall of the elevator as Soul tried his best not to be pressed up against any part of her at all, "but I'm starting to get the impression that we might be in a little over our heads, Star. How's that for constant intrigue?"

 

The elevator doors closed, Kid did something complicated that seemed to involve a code and a retina scan, and Black Star looked almost thoughtful as they began their descent.

 

"Not bad," he allowed as they went down, and down, and down, much farther than Maka would have expected for an underground structure in fucking Florida. Surely they must be underwater at this point. "It's certainly novel enough to keep me interested."

 

"This was technically your idea," Kid said, and Maka was pleased to note that he'd already perfected the exact tone of unimpressed indifference that drove Star absolutely bonkers. "If taking on a crime syndicate that scares the Russians is too vanilla, I can certainly call Tezca. I'm sure he'd love a date with you."

 

"Nope, no thank you, I am good," Star said, words a blur, and the elevator punctuated his statement with an incongruously pleasant ding as they reached their destination and the doors slid open.

 

"Excuse me," Soul said into the ensuing silence, "but whaaaaaat the fuck is this?"

 

"What a lovely sitting room," Maka said once she managed to maneuver into a position where she could actually see past everyone else, defaulting to inane commentary because she had not expected the elevator to open onto a room that wouldn't have been out of place in any well-appointed modern home. The furniture all looked like high-quality leather, the floor and two of the walls were tastefully done in hipster-grade reclaimed wood, with built-in -- and full -- bookshelves, and the lighting wasn't even terrible.

 

"What the fuck kind of underground batcave is this," Black Star said, and there was genuine puzzlement in his voice. "There's no way you're going to convince me that the government paid for this."

 

"No, of course not," Kid said, and stepped out of the elevator so he could wave the rest of them into the room. They were all still gaping at the impossibility of such a room existing underground in fucking Florida when he returned to the elevator, keyed in another code, another retina scan, and the sound of a series of heavy bolts in the room's only exit shooting home knocked them out of it.

 

"Okay, I've gone from thinking you were a normal guy who lived next door to learning you're a government agent of some kind to thinking you're definitely going to kill us all," Soul said, and he did look a bit pale, even under his tan. "I'd appreciate it if you could maybe convince me otherwise."

 

Kid was nice enough not to roll his eyes, probably because Soul wasn't Black Star. "This was here when I took ownership of the trailer," he said, heading for the non-elevator door. "The previous owner was -- one of those young radical types who bought into an impressive array of conspiracy theories. He built himself a doomsday bunker for when chemtrails or aliens or nuclear annihilation finally ended the world, and then got his ass arrested for related stupid behavior like manufacturing dynamite and not paying taxes. His trailer was repossessed, the bunker was discovered, and it was decided that it would make an ideal base of operations. I did fix it up, though," he added, applying his shoulder to the door to get it moving.

 

"Did this guy seriously put wood paneling on a vault door," Maka said, impressed in spite of herself.

 

"His aim was apparently aesthetic appeal and functionality," Kid said, voice as dry as Florida was humid. "This leads onto an airlock. He really did put a great deal of thought into this, much as I hate to admit it."

 

"So were the retina scanners your addition?" Star asked as they filed into the airlock and Kid got the second door open. "Because that's a clever way of turning this into a prison if need be."

 

That earned him a thin smile. "They were," Kid said, heading down a tastefully-appointed hallway that Maka would have been unsurprised to find in an upscale spa or hotel. "But not for that reason, though it's a nice perk. And don't act so offended about it -- you wouldn't give me a retina scan if I asked, would you? So you'd be stuck down here no matter what."

 

Star grinned at him. "No I absolutely would not, and no I absolutely am not," he said, and Maka, behind him, sighed heavily and bulled into his back to make him keep moving.

 

"Flirt later," she said. "You can flex once you're out of my way."

 

He let her shove him down the hallway, laughing, and Maka thought he sounded relieved, if only because they were for once in a place where no one could find them or kill them, at least for a good while. Being on the run from Star Clan was a high-stress prospect that always ended in death, no matter how he tried to play it off.

 

The next door Kid opened blasted them with frigid air, despite the fact that it opened onto what looked like a very comfortable -- if extremely well-equipped -- workspace. Maka counted three mid-height server racks, all full, all neatly cable managed; a vast expanse of a hardwood and iron pipe-fitted desk that was absolutely peak hipster; more monitors than she cared to even attempt counting; and a wall dedicated entirely to a pair of vast screens that were easily worth more than the entire trailer above them.

 

"Who the fuck are you," Soul said, beating Black Star to the punch for once. "The government does not just hand this sort of shit out."

 

Kid favored him with a much more genuine smile that was nonetheless not devoid of the vague promise of a threat. "They do not, no. Good to see you can occasionally remember that you're not just a scared ex-musician -- I knew you had a sharp mind on you, and we need you to put it to use. Without your info, this little operation of ours may just be a passing dream. Even a ninja assassin is gonna have trouble infiltrating your family's inner circles."

 

"No shit, I've seen what they do to spies," Soul said, and the way he said it made it very clear that his family had intended the sight as an instructive lesson in the fate of snitches. "But what can I possibly tell you? It's not like I have the house layouts memorized or something, I don't know where the secret passages are or the underground vaults or even where the security stuff is. It wasn't my department, and they're very aware that the fewer people that know about that, the better."

 

"Cool, we didn't really expect you to know that stuff," Star said as he ambled over to the very expensive smartboards on the room's free wall and poked one of them till it started up.

 

"What we'd really like from you," Maka said before Star could keep talking, even though he looked thoroughly engrossed in Kid's scrawled notes and diagrams despite the man's twitching eyebrow and murderous stare that should have been burning holes in his back, "is possible contacts. Someone who would know that kind of thing, or who could procure some solid information -- or at least put us in touch with someone else who can assist. The thing about organizations like Olympus Heights is they hold a lot of power, but not without fucking over a lot of people on the way. Surely someone in that organization both has information and wants out, or at least has some kind of morbid fascination with the chaos that busting them would cause."

 

Soul had looked both dubious and vaguely haunted up until the words 'morbid fascination' left her mouth, and then his eyes lit up. "Okay," he said, smacking one fist into his open palm and for once looking a bit animated, a bit like he wasn't just an incarnation of apathetic despair, "if morbid curiosity is a qualifier, then I might have somebody for you. They have a doctor on staff who's always been incredibly sketchy, though he's extremely good at what he does."

 

"Are you talking about Frank Stein?" Kid asked, attention at last diverted from planning Black Star's mysterious death. "That man is a butcher and an insult to the very concept of the Hippocratic Oath. You know this, right? The drugs he hands out, the experiments -- "

 

"Yeah, I know, look," Soul said, hands up, grimacing. "For one, he's more of a chemist than a doctor. He's most of the reason they can make such convincing counterfeits. For two, Medusa and Arachne are enabling him. I can tell that he wants out, that if he could get into an environment that wasn't, you know, the world's most powerful and ruthless crime syndicate dressed up as a friendly HOA, he'd have a chance. I think he'd help if we pitched it right and, uh, maybe if he couldn't leave right away, so he had to think about it."

 

"Okay, persuasion is not my preferred specialty," Maka said before anyone could suggest it.

 

Star made a terrible face at her over his shoulder. "Doesn't matter if you prefer it, sister," he said. "You're real good at it, and it needs doing."

 

"I am good at a specific kind of persuasion," Maka said, "and I don't think it's appropriate for this situation at all."

 

"We gotta work with what we got," Star said, almost philosophical, but anybody with eyes could pick up on his glee.

 

Maka rolled her eyes. "How about instead I call Marie and get her down here? She'd be much better at this, you know."

 

"Probably, she's got much bigger -- " Black Star's mouth snapped shut at Maka's glare and Kid's raised eyebrow. "Anyway yeah sure, might as well try your luck. And for real, call your dad, he's stupid good at this sort of thing. We're gonna need him for that if nothing else, and teaching Wonder Boy some kinda survival skills wouldn't hurt either."

 

"You call my father," Maka said, refusing to label her tone as sulky.

 

"I will if you give me his fuckin number," Star said, back to doodling obscene ephemera in the margins of Kid's notes. "Don't bother me none if you don't wanna talk to him, but we're probably gonna need him on this and you know he'll do anything you ask him to. Do you think he's really gonna take a call from me?"

 

"As fascinating as this all is," Kid said, interrupting before the conversation could devolve any further, "could one of you perhaps clue the rest of us in on whatever it is you're talking about? Who is Maka's father?"

 

"You seriously telling me you, the man with undisclosed sources of highly sought-after information, don't know about Spirit Albarn," Star said, momentarily distracted once again from creating obscenity.

 

"Well, I don't, even if my crazy neighbor does," Soul said, rapidly making the journey from overwhelmed and confused to overwhelmed and irritable. "I'm just a harmless musician, remember?"

 

Maka regarded him for a moment with her head tilted just so, reminded again that he did have a bit more fire in him than she'd originally thought, and managed after a moment to take a breath and let the tension in her shoulders go along with most of the defensive anger that flared up whenever her father came up in conversation.

 

"He's a grifter," she said at last, because Black Star had, somehow, found the patience to let her be the one to talk about it.

 

"He could sell condoms in a convent," Star added helpfully, and Maka found herself rubbing her temples for the umpteenth time that evening. "He's a legend."

 

"He is a philanderer," Maka said, "and we are not, generally, on speaking terms."

 

That drew a harsh snort from Black Star. "Yeah, sad story, please recall that I broke my father's arms because he'd rather kill me than let me be independent. Your father would literally die for you, so. You got that at least, hey?"

 

Maka sighed again. "Sorry, Star," she said, and the sincerity of it surprised even her. "I know. It's just -- difficult. Anyway, Black Star is correct, we probably will need him for this since Star and I can't exactly do reconnaissance work without being made, and it wouldn't do to pin all our hopes on Marie when she might not be the best fit for the job."

"It would be better that way anyway, probably," Soul said, and shrugged when he got querying looks from the others. "I mean, I know I'm not an expert here, but Stein aside -- they own a kinda famous restaurant and bar on this amazingly over-engineered fake beach, and it'll look a whole lot less weird if they show up as a couple, or if you send them both independently on two separate dates. That's where all the shady deals go down, and that's where the money laundering happens, and that's where they're forcing my brother to perform against his will so he can keep making them money while they've got him hostage."

 

"How is it you know this," Kid said in the deceptively even tones of a man plotting gruesome murder. "As someone in witness protection, you are not supposed to seek out anything that even remotely has a tangential relationship to your old life."

 

Soul scowled at him. "I still have ears," he said, "and I work at Disney. Some of those folks do go to nice after-hours dinners, you know. Having a world-renowned violinist disappear from the global music scene to play a seemingly indefinite engagement at his family restaurant does draw attention. People talk."

 

"That better be all it is," Kid said, then let go of the breath he'd been holding and gestured for Soul to keep talking.

 

"Right," Soul said, "so, the club. I'm assuming you're going to want to have some contacts there, and I'm pretty sure they're not going to let the assassins they hired to kill me just stroll on in now that you've both jumped ship. You wanna talk to Stein, it's probably going to need to be there, at least initially. They don't actively follow him around everywhere or anything, but I'm certain someone will get an alert if he goes somewhere unusual, and I'm also certain they've got his phone tapped. The HOA council doesn't fuck around, as I'm sure you know."

 

"Sometimes I almost forget they call themselves that," Maka said, unable to keep a bit of wry humor from her voice. "Guess they're pretty dedicated to this illusion of a model community they've created."

 

"Y'know, I always wondered if that weird little Disney town wasn't doing the same shit," Black Star said without looking away from the very detailed and surprisingly well-done rendition of a torso with rippling abs he was drawing on Kid's notes. "No way that place is just a pretty little model town for the glory of Disney World."

 

"Well, I'm not about to ask Azusa to find out," Maka said. "Having her threaten me once on behalf of the happiest place on earth was more than enough, thanks."

 

"Okay wait," Star said, and Maka could see Kid's blood pressure rising with every minute they spent off-topic. "You're telling me that, one, Azusa works for Disney now? You said earlier you were just gonna hand yourself over to her and I thought you were just saying, you know, that you'd rather go back to school than deal with this, but -- wait, two, you actually pissed off -- "

 

"Disney's lead defense contractor, yes," Maka said, and the dry threat in her voice succeeded in cowing Black Star into civilized behavior for perhaps five entire seconds before he started laughing so hard that he had to sit on the floor and scrub tears out of his eyes before he fell over.

 

"Anyway," Kid said, already turning so he could settle at his desk and begin tapping away at one of the dizzying array of screens set up there. "So we're going to need to get in touch with the good doctor in an innocuous way, preferably one that the HOA doesn't know about. Does Stein live outside the main community?"

 

"Yeah," Soul said, voice pitched to carry over Star's laughter. "He's their doctor and chemist, but living within the boundaries of the neighborhood would be suspicious. He has a day job, his own house, the usual. I'm honestly surprised that you know about his extracurricular activities."

 

"I enjoy an unconventional relationship with data discovery," Kid said without even looking over his shoulder, so deadpan that Soul made a face at his back. "I assure you that law enforcement in general has no idea about what he does aside from the rumors they hear. There's a startling dearth of snitches from your organization."

 

"Is it really startling," Soul said, a chatter in his teeth, and Maka caught herself wanting to pat him on the back a little.

 

"No, not really," Kid said, distracted, fingers clattering across his keyboard. "Maka, if you've decided you're in on this, now would be the time to get in touch with your father and Ms. Mjolnir. The sooner we get things in motion the better, considering the current precarious nature of Soul's continued existence. As it is, you and Black Star are probably going to have to guard him, and I'm probably going to have to arrange for him to have mono so far as Disney World is concerned. He's safe on company grounds, but in between here and work, well. As you know, anything could happen."

"Speaking of which," Maka said, and not just because she was trying to put off calling her father, "does this bunker have bedrooms? We'll be needing a safe place to sleep, and I'm not convinced that someone couldn't just hit Soul's trailer with a rocket launcher if they wanted to."

 

"It is a non-zero possibility," Kid allowed, eyes flicking to her for a moment. "But it is exceedingly unlikely. No one else has taken the contract. I'll know if they do. And no, I'm not going to let a pair of the world's most notorious assassins sleep next door to my server room. Go make your phone calls, and then maybe we can figure out where you're sleeping."

 

"You're gonna have to let me out, you know," Maka said, unwilling to find out exactly what would happen if she tried to mess with the elevator and its security measures. "There sure as hell isn't cell signal down here."

 

"Go back to the elevator room, there's a phone there that should prove quite secure," Kid said, still glued to his monitors. "And we won't be able to hear you. This place is extremely soundproof on account of having thick berm walls to keep out the apocalypse."

“I’m more impressed it keeps out the fucking swamp,” Soul muttered.

 

"Fine," Maka said, because discretion was the better part of valor. "Just keep Star here."

 

"Of course," Kid said. "I'm sure I have a coloring book he'll enjoy that isn't my notes. Go."

 

She went. There was, in fact, a phone in the sitting room: an old rotary monstrosity made of dark wood with a solid brass base and the kind of receiver that had an elegant handle and a mouthpiece that curled up towards the speaker, the kind that hadn't seen use since the early nineteen hundreds, probably. Maka hefted it, decided it'd make a great murder weapon -- the base really was solid brass -- and dialed a number from memory.

 

It went to voicemail, of course; Marie wouldn't be foolish enough to take a call from an unknown number. Maka left her a message saying she wanted to take her out for Starbucks, and that she'd call back later.

 

Her father, of course, actually picked up.

 

"Albarn," he said, the raspy undercurrent of his baritone more pronounced than she'd ever heard it -- from smoking, drinking, exhaustion, or some combination of the three, she guessed.

 

"Hello, Papa," Maka said, voice as even as she could make it, and heard him choke. "I'm sure you're busy right now, and I don't want to spring serious news on you with no warning. When can I call you back?"

 

It wasn't exactly code, but they were in similar lines of work and the underlying meaning was clear enough. "Fifteen minutes," he said, recovering quickly, voice almost smooth again.

 

"Talk to you then," she said, and hung up before he could respond.

 

Maka stared at the phone for a minute or so, wishing she had another one of those caramel sea salt brownie sundaes, wishing she had more of Star’s whisky, wishing for sleep and for peace, and then called Marie back.

 

"Maka," Marie said when she picked up, sounding so happy to hear her voice that Maka unwound a little, settling into the leather sofa's plush cushions and managing a deeper breath than she had in the past ten minutes. "What's the occasion? It's been a long time -- which, by the way, I'm very upset about."

 

"Hi, Marie," Maka said, smiling, and felt the posture muscles up and down her spine loosen just a bit. "I'm sorry, I got caught up with work, you know how it is. And unfortunately, that's also why I called. I need your help with a job."

 

"Oh really," Marie said, and Maka could hear the interest in her tone in spite of herself. "What's the job?"

 

"It -- " no, she couldn't play it off, that wasn't fair. "I was going to say that I just need your help getting information out of a man, but that wouldn't be fair. Marie, I'm in Florida, down by Disney World."

 

"Maka," Marie said again, and this time her voice was flat, taut, all business -- and business was murder. "You took that high roller job?"

 

"It's not what you think," Maka said, sighing. "Listen, come down here and hear me out. If you turn me down, I'll buy you tickets to Harry Potter and that'll be the end of it, okay? Worst case scenario, you get a nice vacation out of the deal."

 

There was a stretch of silence that became more nerve-wracking the longer her foster mother figure stayed quiet, and then Marie finally said, "All right. I could stand to be somewhere warm and sunny for the holidays, anyway. Is anyone else coming down for this little Christmas party?"

 

"Ah," Maka said, and made a face that exactly no one could see.

 

"Maka?"

 

"My father is probably going to be here," she said, and Marie made a smothered sound that was definitely her covering up surprised laughter.

 

"Oh, this must be big," she said, unable to mask the sparkle in her voice entirely. "Okay, I'll be there. Send me your address and I'll hopefully see you tomorrow, all right?"

 

"Sure," Maka said, and was still smiling a little when she hung up.

And then there was the matter of calling her father back.

 

"Papa," she said when he picked up, before he could launch into an emotional tirade. "I need your help with a job."

 

"Maka," he said, and she could hear him smile, hated the warmth of it. "It's so good to hear your voice. What do you need help with? Tell me about it."

 

"I'm in Florida," she said, because that was really all that needed saying to convey the basic gist of the job's general level of risk. "I took a job and it didn't pan out as expected. Did you hear about Star Clan?"

 

"I heard," Spirit said, voice firming up into something more serious and less sappy, "that White Star has two broken arms, and Black Star is nowhere to be found. Apparently he grew a conscience." A pause, a shuffle, the sound of an expensive Zippo flicking open, and a tired exhale. "Good for him, honestly, if it's true."

 

"It's true," Maka said, voice hard. "He's here with me. He was here when I showed up, and he was the one who kept me from hitting my mark."

 

"You took that job for the HOA, didn't you," Spirit said, and it wasn't a question. "I heard about it, but nobody really wanted it, even out of the short list of people they offered it to and even at the ridiculous price they set."

 

"Yeah, I took it," she said, daring him to challenge her, and he stayed quiet. "I was gonna use the money to retire, but Black Star stopped me. He had an alternative proposal and I didn't exactly have much choice, and here we are."

 

"Are you asking me to move against the HOA," Spirit said, very carefully, and she heard him take a long pull on his cigarette.

 

"I'm asking you to come down here and hear me out," Maka said, because no -- you didn't just ask people that, not over the phone, not without sitting them down and telling them the entire situation complete with every detail you had and a few you probably didn't. "Marie's already on her way. We've got an in, hopefully, a contact who can give us good info that'll let us put together a plan. But even without that information, we know that we need more people, and your skill set is going to be necessary."

 

"I assume you'll also be wanting me to make some phone calls," he said, and Maka really hated the edge of exhaustion in his voice, even though he'd probably done it to himself, terminal fool that he was.

 

"Not yet," she said. "Come down here first, and hear us out. If you decide you don't want to deal with it -- and I won't blame you if you don't, only a crazy person would take this -- then I'll, I don't know, find the fanciest beach nightclub I can and let you have a night on the town for your trouble, all right? We can talk about the rest once you make up your mind."

 

"Maka," he said, and the tired rasp was back, "you know I'd do anything for you, you don't need to -- "

 

"No," she said, more forcefully than intended. "No. I won't have you blindly agreeing to this sort of dangerous insanity without at least knowing what's at stake. Not just for my sake, not out of -- of guilt, or parental duty, or whatever you call it. I won't have you making foolish decisions because of me, Papa. This more than any other job could really get you killed, or worse. You know how they are."

 

"I do," he said, sounding like maybe he'd burned through his entire cigarette while she'd been talking. "And I can't imagine what would possess you of all people to go starting a war with them, but I want to help. I'll be there soon, sweetheart. Send me an address."

 

Maka was still trying to decide whether to be infuriated or repulsed by his use of 'sweetheart' when the line clicked dead and realized that that feeling was actually just exhaustion.

 

/

 

Soul wanted to sleep. He wanted to pass out and wake up in a world where there weren't assassins after him, where his reclusive neighbor wasn't some kind of secret agent hacker with a bunker under his house full of X-Files conspiracy theory posters and a hundred grand in electronics, where he didn't have to work the stroller return at Disney World because he'd snitched on the world's most powerful crime organization.

 

What he did not want was for Maka Albarn, apparently one of the world's most well-regarded assassins, to drag him out of Kid's server room and into her truck in the name of 'groceries' at whatever unacceptable hour it was when they finally returned to the Eearth's surface.

 

He was still wearing mismatched Disney crocs and a tattered bathrobe and she did not give a fuck. She crammed him into her ancient truck, rolled her eyes when Black Star vaulted into the bed, and hauled ass to the nearest Publix.

 

"Is he -- what is he doing back there?" Soul asked, mostly in a bid to distract himself from anything even remotely to do with his current reality. "That can't be safe in the back of a moving truck."

 

Maka eyed her rearview mirror. "Ninja assassin, remember? Looks like yoga," she said, fingers tapping on her steering wheel for a moment or two before she switched on the radio.

 

'Maneater' blared through the truck's very much aftermarket sound system and it turned out that she knew every fucking word -- and so did Black Star, his singing audible even from the truck bed and not even slightly impacted by the complicated poses he was doing.

"I think I might have preferred to just be shot," he said when the song ended and they peeled into the Publix parking lot at something like forty miles an hour, which a beat up old truck should not have been able to sustain any more than his sanity was able to sustain all the weird shit that had happened to him in the past few hours.

 

"I can do that," Maka offered as she climbed out of the truck -- casually, like it was nothing unusual. "But I'd rather not at this point, since Black Star would probably take issue with it, even if you did request it."

 

Soul sighed and followed both of them into the store. He didn't really have much input, since he'd never had to cook while he was at home and he'd had no motivation to learn how once he got himself exiled. Maka bought things he hadn't the slightest idea what to do with, even though he felt like he probably should: eggs, milk, flour, sugar, spices. Black Star mostly just chucked in things like bags of candy and more boxes of Christmas pop tarts and an assortment of boxed wine that made Soul's rich kid sensibilities want to vomit.

 

"I still don't understand why we had to do this right now," Soul said, still following them like the lost puppy he felt like.

 

Maka grabbed a rotisserie chicken and gave him a look that seemed very nearly as exhausted as he felt, but with a generous topping of rage or something like it. "Because you have no edible food at home and I need something to do that isn't murder after talking to my father," she said, and Soul elected not to pursue that topic. "We're probably going to be stuck with you for a few days, since you ostensibly need protection and Star and I can't do a lot of the setup work for this plan on account of the wrong people will notice if we start going around talking to people. Hope you're ready to learn how to feed yourself like an adult instead of like a clueless college kid."

 

Soul shrugged and watched as she hit up the kitchen goods aisle for what seemed like everything ever -- actual plates instead of paper, kitchen utensils, pans, and a heavy cast iron skillet that she hefted in a way that made him wonder if she'd bought it as a weapon instead of something to cook food in.

 

Black Star added a set of cookie cutters and an inordinate amount of sprinkles.

 

"Gotta have Christmas cookies when you're stuck in a shitty trailer for who knows how long," he said when Maka made a face at him.

 

"Fine," she said, and headed for the registers. "Hope you're ready to hit up the hardware store tomorrow, Star. That trailer needs work."

 

"Fine by me," he said, and only flexed a little. "If we're gonna have to actually live there, some of that furniture and like all of the linoleum's gotta go."

 

"Hey," Soul said, even though he really didn't know why he cared.

 

"Dude, that furniture has a thousand years of Florida weather ingrained into it, and I am not sitting on it a second longer than I have to," Star said. "It's clammy. Please. Let us help you. The first step is admitting you have a problem."

 

"I thought we were friends," Soul said, ignoring the cashier and the way Maka made small talk with her as if nothing were out of the ordinary at all. Like they weren’t closing down a Publix at 11:00pm looking like they’re trying to stock a wholeass apartment from scratch -- though that wasn't entirely inaccurate, he supposed.

 

Star gave him a blinding grin and slapped him on the back hard enough to knock the wind out of him. "I haven't been working at Disney this long for no reason, bro. I knew something was up the minute I met you face to face. I want to help you because I consider us friends, even though you had no idea who I actually was till tonight. C'mon, let's fix up your place, it'll be fun! And we need something to do while we put together a team and get things lined up. Can't be making secret plans twenty four hours a day, you know. It's important to have hobbies outside work."

"Is it," Soul said faintly, still trying to regain the breath Star had knocked out of him. "What do you do?"

 

"Crochet," said the ninja assassin, and something of it must have shown on Soul's face, because he followed that up with "Hope you want new socks!" and Soul found himself wondering for the millionth time in a night just what his life had come to.

 

"You know, I'm starting to think that eating pop tarts in the hot tub and waiting for oblivion was a better situation than this," he said a few minutes later as he helped his would-be assassins carry groceries.

 

"I bet you say that to all the girls," Black Star said, hopping into the back of the truck with his arms full of grocery bags.

 

Maka handed up her bags and gave Soul a light pat on the shoulder, her expression an almost friendly sort of neutral, which Soul took to be her best effort at looking sympathetic. "It's just a lot of change in a short period of time," she said. "Tough to take in. You'll feel better in the morning once you're rested and sober."

 

"And then you get to meet Papa Albarn!" Star said, and took Soul's bags as well. "He's a treat."

 

Maka gave him a look of pure murder and headed for the cab.

 

"Don't let him scare you," Star advised as Soul moved to follow her. "He'll try to threaten you for looking at his daughter in an impure way, just ignore it. Maka'll beat his ass if he tries anything and everyone knows it. He's all bark, which, you know -- grifter. You'll be fine."

 

Soul climbed into the passenger seat, was quiet while Maka got them out of the parking lot, and, as her aged truck bounced over a series of potholes, asked, "What's a grifter?"

 

Maka gave him the side eye, but relented. "Papa can talk anyone into anything, for example rich ladies out of their husbands' money," she said. "Might wanna watch that, though with me around he probably won't try anything. He's also an excellent pickpocket, which I'll hopefully be able to convince him to teach you. The basics, anyway, enough to help us out if we need you to."

 

"Great," Soul said, and didn't even try to hide his apprehension.

 

"Don't give me that look," Maka said, looking for once a little amused. "You're a performer, right? You know how to operate under pressure, and I know you're good with your hands if you're a professional musician. You've already got the basic skills you need."

 

Soul scrubbed a hand through his hair. "It's not that, it's the getting caught and beat to death that I'm not into," he said.

 

"Oh, don't worry about that," Maka said, eyes flicking to where Black Star appeared to be juggling produce in the back of the truck for a moment. "We'll make sure you're safe."

 

"You wanted to shoot me an hour ago," Soul pointed out, just to make sure she remembered why he might not believe her assurances of safety.

 

Maka shrugged. "Wasn't personal," she said.

 

"Yeah, you want out, I get it. I want out of Florida, but you don't see me murdering people," Soul said, still cranky and a little jittery about the whole murder thing.

 

That got him another sidelong look, but this time it was the kind that made him contemplate jumping out the window to avoid a much more painful death. "Please. You worked for the McMansion Mafia. Maybe you haven't personally killed anybody, but you've been involved, whether you wanted to be or not."

 

"I didn't!" he said, louder than he'd meant to, and she looked a bit taken aback. "That was why I left. I figured out what they were trying to trick me into doing and I got out even though my chances of survival weren't fucking great, and I'm not sure I'd call living in that trailer living anyway, really. So don't act like I -- like -- "

 

"Yeah, don't act like you're on my level, I get it," she said, tone flat with that vague undercurrent of malicious intent she'd had back in the trailer when she'd first announced her intent to kill him. "Sorry. I know what they tried to make you do was hard for you, and making the decision to get out wasn't fun, either. I just don't like catching shit for my work. I'm tired of doing it, I don't need people to get high and mighty at me about it. Wasn't sure what I was going to do once I left, because I don't have a lot of other marketable skills, but -- " A shrug. "Star's idea seems -- fun. Take down the bad guys for once. Never had a chance to do that before, really. Doesn't pay as well. Tends to be more hassle than it's worth."

 

"Hassle," Soul said, as the truck crunched its way down a dirt road he hadn't even known was there.

 

"Yeah, these guys get antsy when they find out somebody who's done work for them -- and, by extension, may know things about them -- is working against them. Plus there are some rules, you know. The kind that get you shot when you violate them." Her fingers tapped along the steering wheel, and she shrugged again. "I don't intend to break those, though. Those involve betraying my coworkers to the law, and I have no intention of that. Anyway, with me and Star working together, I'm pretty sure there won't be too many people willing to come at us. The ones with the skill to find us should know better."

 

"Fantastic," Soul said, trying not to let his brain conjure up specters of assassins hounding him till the day he died.

 

"You don't have to go with us, you know," she said, voice a careful kind of even that Soul couldn't quite parse. "Help us with this, and if we succeed you'll be free to go wherever you want. You could be a musician again if you wanted. I know he talks like we're all going into business together, but don't let Star pressure you into anything. If you want to forget all this happened and go back to civilian life, well. Do it. If you tell anyone anything, I'll hunt you down, but otherwise it's your call."

"How generous of you," Soul said, wishing he were still drunk or at least just asleep. "Hadn't really thought about it. I just wanted my life back. Not sure if becoming a professional vigilante is quite what I had in mind."

 

"Don't wanna be Batman?" she asked, and turned into the trailer park. "Can't blame you. Try to let Star down easy if you decide against it."

 

"Does that mean you've decided you're going to do it?" Soul asked, teeth clicking together when she hit one of the neighborhood's many potholes. "You made it sound like you were just playing along because you didn't have any other options."

 

"Well, I really didn't," she said, and swerved deliberately to hit another pothole just to watch Star scramble for the oranges he'd been juggling. "But it seems all right, at first blush. If we make it through this job, I'll give it serious consideration to be sure. Success here would mean we have a competent, well-rounded team, and like I said -- taking out assholes instead of working for them does have a certain appeal."

 

"Yeah," Soul said as the truck rolled to a stop in front of his trailer. "I guess I never really thought about -- well. About picking my own path, maybe. Music is one of those things you start so young you can't remember not doing it. Telling the police about my family was the first time I ever really made a choice all on my own that mattered, and that got me here."

 

"You did a good thing," Maka said, cutting the engine, speaking into the sudden absence of snarling noise. "The right thing. Now we just need to teach you how to live on your own, because if we don't you're going to die of malnutrition before you decide what you want to be when you grow up."

 

Soul made a face at her that she didn't see because she was already gone, headed towards the back of the truck and the groceries she'd bought, so after a minute he followed, wondering if taking life advice from an assassin was a good idea in any reality.

 

/

 

Soul woke to a series of smells that, at first, made him think he wasn't actually awake, that he was just dreaming longingly of food he'd eaten once, before everything became awful: salt, hot metal, frying potatoes, bacon, butter, pancakes. Those smells got him out of bed like nothing had since he'd left his family behind, banished the always-lingering urge to just stay in bed and never leave it, and he was in the kitchen without even registering that he'd moved.

 

Maka Albarn, assassin extraordinaire, was cooking in his kitchen, at last changed out of the bartender's outfit she'd had on the night before and into what Soul felt had to be her typical setup: combat boots, comfortably worn-in jeans, a dark t-shirt -- and a gun, tucked against the small of her back.

 

"Uh," Soul said, and Maka glanced at him over her shoulder as she transferred pancakes from the cast iron skillet she'd bought.

 

"Coffee's over there," she said, nodding towards the corner of the kitchen. "Food's ready enough that you could eat if you don't mind missing out on chocolate chip pancakes."

 

"That is not a life worth living," Black Star said, and Soul turned to find him on his couch, controller in hand, playing --

 

"Is that Zelda," he said, squinting at the television and at his cup of coffee in turn, wondering if perhaps he needed caffeine to properly understand reality.

 

"Dude," Black Star said, giving him a blinding grin, "check out my horse! She's got pink spots and she's beautiful. Her name is Cherry."

 

"I," Soul said, no doubt making a strong showing in the 'intelligent responses' olympics, and decided that the thing to do was drink more coffee.

 

"You look confused," Black Star said, and Soul finally realized that he was wearing the loudest Hawaiian shirt he'd ever seen, a monstrosity of neon parrots and eye-searing blues. "The reason your coffee doesn't taste like literal hot garbage is: I cleaned your coffee maker. Were you unaware that that was a thing people do? Because it was bad, my friend."

 

"I never," Soul said, and Maka put a hand on his shoulder for the second time since they'd met; it was no less astonishing for repetition.

 

Clearly,” Black Star muttered over the sound of video game hooves.

"It's okay," Maka said, handing him one of the new plates she'd bought -- and Soul realized, belatedly, how short she was, at most up to his collarbone and still terrifying. "Get yourself some food. You can come back for chocolate chips. Star, get in here and feed that black hole you call a stomach, I know you're hungry and we've got work to do."

 

"Do we, though," Star said, though he obliged her. "Let's have a day off, Maka. It'll be great, you can learn how to not be stressed every minute of every day. That offer for a pedicure is still open, by the way."

 

"Chocolate chip pancakes are a day off," she said, ignoring that last statement as she cracked eggs into a bowl. "And you can do what you want. I'm cleaning up this damn trailer so I can stop sleeping in the back of my truck, and then we can figure out a plan from there, though I suspect Marie and my father will be here by then."

"I'm sure Marie will love my horse," Star said, but it was difficult to look surly when stuffing one's mouth with pancakes.

"Probably," Maka said without looking at him, whisking together more pancake batter. "Why don't you go next door and fetch the secret agent, I'm sure he could stand to have a real meal. Doesn't look like he gets them very often."

"It is a bit concerning when the assassins are the ones who are best-equipped as adults," Star agreed, and shoved half a pancake in his mouth all at once. "I'll be right back."

"I," Soul said after a minute or so of Star's abrupt departure, chewing on a piece of bacon. "Honestly. I'm shocked he didn't just quote Mulan and leave."

Maka turned towards him with a plate of chocolate chip pancakes, raised an eyebrow. "What," she said, "you mean the old lady? Too skinny! No good for bearing sons!"

"Yeah," Soul said to his breakfast, deciding he must be in a mild form of shock.

"He probably yelled that on his way through Kid's door, don't worry about it," she said, settling at the breakfast bar with her own food. "Anyway, eat. Enjoy your last meal in peace before my father shows up and starts insisting you learn sleight of hand." She took a swig of coffee. "Well, and before he and Marie start picking your brain for information you probably didn't even know you had. Do you happen to know where they might find the good doctor? Much less risky to speak in person than to call him, what with cell phones being a giant screaming beacon for your location and so easily compromised."

"He spends time at Labyrinth," Soul offered, and took a chocolate chip pancake for himself. "That's the family restaurant, lounge, and club depending on what floor you're on."

"I know what it is," Maka said, but didn't sound annoyed or otherwise judgemental, which he'd been expecting. "It's quite a popular place, and not just with criminals. Do you know where he lives?"

Soul shook his head. "I bet Kid does, though. Not that I'm sure it'd be a good idea to corner him in his house, he'd probably call for backup."

She shook her head, covered a pancake in whipped cream, took a bite. "Wouldn't do it," she said around her food. "Would definitely follow him around, though. Unless you have a way to get in touch that's unlikely to be monitored."

"No, but -- they'll still pay attention if he meets someone at the lounge," Soul said, and he could tell that his expression probably looked as hopeless about it as he felt. "Really, I don't know why you guys think this is a good idea, they're in everything -- "

Maka reached across the bar to pat him on the head. "You leave that to us," she said, sounding both sympathetic and rather amused. "It is our job. Who's to be suspicious if he meets an attractive stranger at the bar and they take things to a more private venue? I know they have a -- not a spa, exactly, but something like it, attached to the club. And there's always the lounge upstairs, where they might run into your brother."

"Have you been there?" Soul asked, despite the fact that he knew better than to ask that kind of question of someone he'd been reliably informed was one of the world's more skilled assassins.

"No," Maka said, sighing. "And it seems I won't get to. Kinda wanted to, seems like a nice place -- and I do enjoy nice places, when I have the luxury of time to spend in them. Anyway, I know about it because it was relevant to you, so I did my research. It's not often I have legitimate reason to go looking into your family without drawing the wrong kind of attention, you know. Figured I'd take advantage of it while I could."

"Fair," Soul said, and their conversation was halted in its entirety by Black Star's return with Kid on his heels, the two of them arguing about whether or not syrup was an appropriate thing to put on bacon.

Maka put a stop to that conversation before stronger words than 'abomination' could come into play, and also before -- and Soul could see her considering the possibility -- anyone could fight anyone else. She did it by handing Kid a giant plate of food and poking Black Star once he sat back down.

"Star," she said, interrupting what was probably going to be another pigtail-pulling bid for attention from Kid. "You said your family works for the HOA, doesn't that mean you should already have an in with this doctor?"

"Negative," he said, shoveling food into his mouth. "They work for the HOA, I never did. I was doing other work when Dad signed the long-term contracts and took a blood oath or whatever it was he did, and it was him trying to assimilate me into the new family business that ended with me having to break his arms. I put it off for years, too, and in the end he didn't even like my Icarus metaphor."

Maka gave him a weird kind of droll almost-smile. "You didn't really."

"Of course I did, it's exactly the metaphor the situation required. I get wanting to have the biggest dick on the block, but there are limits to what's wise when it comes to pursuing power. You know, things like selling out your children, swearing fealty to a pack of traitorous mercenaries, that kind of thing. So no, I don't know the good doctor, sorry."

"It was a long shot," Maka said, seemingly untroubled. "It's probably best to wait on my father and Marie before we try to make plans. They may have helpful information."

Black Star snorted into his pancakes. "You mean your daddy mighta -- "

"Star," Maka said with deceptive calm that did not quite hide the bloodlust in her eyes, and Black Star's mouth snapped shut around his grin because he did seem to understand the relationship between discretion and valor when it suited him.

"If nothing else can be done, I'm sure I can get a message to Dr. Stein that will at least be time consuming and difficult to trace," Kid said, ignoring Black Star with an aplomb that Soul found he could only envy. "Hopefully that won't be necessary, though."

"I don't think it will," Maka said, taking her and Soul's empty plates back to the sink. "My father and Marie are exceptionally well-connected. The tricky part will be what it always is: finding a safe contact."

"'Tricky' is not the word I'd use," Soul said, remembering what his family did to snitches and trying not to let it ruin his first decent breakfast in ages.

"Don't worry about it," Black Star said. "We're professionals, we'll get things sorted out. Having a hizzy over what might happen is a great way to fuck things up before you even get started."

"He is correct," Maka said, then: "Now get over here and do these dishes while I figure out where to start with getting this place habitable. If you have the energy to stress out over potentialities, you have the energy to do something more productive than that."

Soul went. Maka showed him how to do his own dishes, and how to load a dishwasher effectively in the event he actually found himself with a functional dishwasher in the future. By the time that was done, Kid had excused himself to get back to work and Black Star had left via a window to 'case the joint,' whatever that actually meant. It sounded like an excuse to not have to clean, but Maka accepted it without complaint, so --

"We're not just here to kick back and be housekeepers," she said when she caught Soul staring out the window, trying to figure out where the man had disappeared to. "It's up to us to keep you alive, even if it's kind of unlikely anyone's going to make it here without Kid noticing. Regardless, though, we need to be familiar enough with this place to defend it, so it's for the best that Star gets a good feel for things."

"Makes sense," Soul said, and it did, he guessed, but it also felt distinctly unreal, the kind of thing that only happened in fiction, far removed from real life, even if his real life had included a literal mafia family and poisoned harmonicas.

What also felt unreal was that he now had an assassin showing him how to clean house, pontificating a bit on the virtues of keeping one's cleaning supplies simple as she showed him how to clean most things with either vinegar or a bucket of soapy water derived from concentrate.

The countertops changed colors. The floor changed textures. Bit by bit they rendered the place clean if not necessarily attractive, and Soul felt the grey weight that had dragged at him more with every day lessen. By the time they got to the bathroom and Maka pulled out the only specialized cleaning supplies she'd bought, he felt as close to normal as he could remember feeling since the incident. And then, as he knelt to scrub out his ancient bathtub --

"Stay here and keep quiet," Maka said, and her voice had lost the relaxed tones of someone teaching something they cared about, dropping into a low, cautious register that made Soul's whole body tense up. "Probably nothing, but a car just pulled up outside. If it'd been a problem Star would have handled it, but I didn't get to where I am by not being careful."

Soul nodded, but she hadn't even waited for his assent. Instead she crept out of the room, not bothering with her gun when she could produce a giant fucking knife from Soul didn't know where, feet making no sound even on his shitty carpet. She edged into the hallway, pressed herself against the wall where she couldn't be seen from the door, and glanced back at him.

Why, he mouthed at her, eyes flicking meaningfully to her knife.

Equally meaningfully, she drew the knife through the air in front of her throat, furious green eyes never leaving his, and Soul thought that they probably would have sat there staring at each other in a silent impasse forever if someone hadn't knocked on the door.

Soul glanced at the door, glanced back to Maka, gave her the best 'what am I supposed to do' look he could manage.

He got a hard stare in return, and she raised a finger to her lips in the universal request to please continue to shut the fuck up. Maka shifted, craned her neck at an odd angle -- and Soul realized what she was doing: trying to angle herself in such a way that she could see the door in the reflection from the kitchen window, since they'd left the main door open with only the storm door shut for almost exactly this reason. She twisted sideways -- there was no way Soul could've managed it without ten muscle cramps -- stretched a little more, craned her neck --

Someone rang the doorbell, and Soul twitched, fighting the polite urge to answer it that had practically been bred into him, just as Maka managed to catch sight of whoever was out there.

"What's going on," he said as her expression blanked, as the tension that read to his brain as imminent murder left her, as she peeled herself away from the wall and straightened.

The knife thudded into the wall next to his head, and Soul bit back a yelp.

"If I tell you be silent, be silent," she said. "Until I say it's safe, or you're dead, and it won't be me who does it. Get it?"

"Yes, mistress," Soul snapped, reverting to a bad attitude to cover how terrifying -- and, again, maybe slightly arousing -- Maka's demeanor, willingness to murder anyone including him, and general level of skill were. "I didn't realize we were in that kind of relationship."

"We're in the kind of relationship where you do what I say because I've decided to keep you alive despite the fact that the world's scariest crime organization wants you dead," she said, imperious from her rare vantage of superior height given that he was still on the floor. "Now stay put for a minute while I deal with this."

What did that mean, he wondered. Did that mean that her friend or her father had shown up? Was she heading out to kill whoever was at his door?

Soul yanked the knife out of the wall, eyed the large hole it had left, and stayed put. After a minute he heard a woman's voice that was definitely not Maka's, raised in enthusiastic affection -- and, in response, Maka, sounding at first wary and then, after a response from their guest, more enthused than he'd have expected possible.

"Soul," Maka called once they'd come to some conclusion, and he finally climbed off his bathroom floor and walked into the trailer's living room, trying not to look as apprehensive as he felt considering how much danger he was apparently in lately.

"You must be the snitch," said the woman Maka had let in, a stunning blonde whose overall inherent charm and obvious delight at meeting him was not ruined in the slightest by her gold-embossed eyepatch. "Brave boy! You very well may have enabled the downfall of one of our world's great evils, so don't let your current circumstances get you down. Once we take them out and save your brother, you'll be free."

"Soul, this is Marie Mjolnir," Maka said in the way of all long-suffering children who are both proud of and a bit embarrassed by their parents. "Marie, Soul."

"It is truly a pleasure," Marie said, and her smile made the room seem so much brighter. "Now, Maka -- "

"If we must," Maka said, and now she just looked tired.

"Don't worry, I talked to him on the way here," Marie said, and the two of them headed outside, Soul trailing behind. "I wasn't about to let him show up here by himself and make everything terrible for both of you."

"Thanks, Marie," Maka said, voice pitched low, the kind of sincere that made Soul feel bad for having heard what she said. "I owe you more than I'll ever be able to repay."

"On the contrary," Marie said, sunny smile still in place. "If this job pans out, I'll consider any and all debts you feel you owe paid in full."

"Deal," Maka said, but her eyes were fixed elsewhere -- on an old car, in fact, one that hadn't been there before.

"Wow," Soul said, not fooled by the way the paint had been allowed to age to matte or the rust patches. "Is that a Z28?"

"Good eye," Marie said, waving at the car until her passenger opened the door and climbed out. "And yes, it is. I figured we'd need something that could haul ass, just in case."

"Sensible," Maka said, arms crossed, eyes on the man walking towards them, looking like she'd prefer to be literally anywhere else.

Soul followed her stare: the man was tall, taller than him, probably, with improbable carmine hair accented by the neat black suit he was wearing. Unlike Marie, he looked solemn, and when his eyes met Maka's the tension made Soul want to just go back to hiding in the bathroom.

"Soul," Maka said, not looking away from the man who had to be her father. "Go next door and fetch Kid. We need to talk things over, and he'll want to be there for it."

"Absolutely," Soul said, and got the hell out of dodge, nodding to the man on the way but not stopping, not for anything. He'd ring Kid's doorbell till it broke, he'd climb in a window, he'd set off every security system possible to get his attention, because anything had to be better than standing in between Maka and her father.

/

Maka endured her father until Soul came back with Kid in tow, and it wasn't as bad as she'd feared -- thanks no doubt to Marie and that talking-to she'd mentioned. His smile was a bit watery when he looked at her, because Spirit Albarn was an intensely sentimental man and he loved her too well despite everything, and he insisted on a hug, but -- well. Their relationship was complicated and Maka was happier when she didn't have to be around him, but that didn't mean she hated him. She had, for a while, but she was older now and understood better the ways in which relationships could come apart.

That didn't mean she was happy about what he'd done, and it didn't mean she didn't think he was mostly to blame for her mother's disappearance from her life, but love was a double-edged sword and all that. Suzume Albarn had made her choices, too.

"Thanks for coming," she said once she'd gotten both of them into the trailer and seated at the breakfast bar, since the couch was kind of unbearable to be in contact with. "Can I get you anything? Soul should be back shortly with his neighbor, who seems to be some kind of well-connected government agent. He'll be working with us on this, as will Black Star, assuming you two decide to go along with this death trap of a job. Off the books, of course," she added, preempting Marie's inevitable suspicions involving the government. "The HOA is a high-profile enough target that he's happy to look the other way as long as we don't take all of the money on our way out."

"They do tend to like to have a reasonable amount to take as forfeiture," Marie said, sipping coffee, and Soul came back before the conversation could continue.

Maka made introductions -- "Soul, Kid, this is Marie, who taught me almost everything I know, and my father, Spirit, one of the more talented grifters in the world currently. Papa, Marie, this is Soul, the snitch, and Kid, the mysterious secret agent next door. I'm a bit unclear as to what he actually does, but the setup he has going on and the information he has access to would suggest that he's either highly-ranked or extremely well-connected."

"Why not both," Kid said, smile as sly and unreadable as ever, and poured himself a cup of coffee.

"Oh, he fits right in," Marie said, and Spirit made an amused noise into his mug.

Kid actually gave her a shallow bow, because apparently that was just the kind of guy he was, and Maka was happy enough to let him do the explaining. He was certainly the more competent looking one of the two of them; so far she'd only seen him wear nicely-tailored suits, and up against her combat boots and t-shirt, she knew who she'd take more seriously. There was, of course, the option to let Soul try to explain things, at least up to a point, but -- well, she wanted to call her hesitance something like 'he wouldn't know, he's just a civilian', but the reality was more along the lines of not wanting to make him recount stressful information more times than necessary, and there was that pesky, apparently genetic, sentimentality again.

"Firstly, I work for the IRS," Kid said, interrupting her train of thought, and Maka choked on her own spit.

"The hell you do," she said, and the face Soul made at Kid was even more horrible than the one Maka was making.

He gave her another one of those infuriatingly opaque smiles. "No? Recall how they took down Al Capone, if you will. We don't need to prove the flashy stuff to get the warrant -- that comes later, once they're in custody and we've had time to seize their documents and their assets."

"You're one of the reasons I'm ready to get out of this business," Maka said, and she absolutely had not forgotten that he'd accosted her and Black Star with a shotgun, with knives, with the threat of calling in one of the government's secret hit squads if they didn't play nice.

"That's the goal," he said, and took a sip of coffee before continuing. "Anyway. I've been here for some time, gathering information in an attempt to build enough of a case against Olympus Heights to allow us to take them down -- all at once, preferably, since only bringing in a few of them will serve next to no purpose. Some of my bosses would be happy with that, but I want them gone. I want their entire organization broken, and the earth salted when we leave. To that end I've been trying to get my hands on their electronic records, because I know that they have them, and I know that those records would implicate everyone, allowing us to do a clean sweep, so to speak.

"Soul was my in," he continued, nodding to the man in question, who just looked like perhaps he was regretting every decision he'd ever made. "I'd been trying to get a good lead for quite a while when he came along. Unfortunately, the information he gave me let me get close, but didn't give me a true opportunity -- I'd been trying without any success to move forward for months when Maka and Black Star showed up and things took an abrupt, and hopefully useful, turn."

Spirit leaned back in his chair, mug in his hands, and crossed one leg over the other -- almost elegant in his suit, almost professional-looking, except Maka knew better. "So it's not just the tax evasion you take issue with, then," he said, fingers tapping on the ceramic, and Maka hated that she'd inherited that habit from him. "Is it their art operation you hate so much?"

The look on Kid's face was enough that Maka took a judicious step away from him without even thinking about it.

"They are defiling history," he said, and Spirit held up a placating hand at the sheer venom of his tone. "To have your life's work, your legacy, taken advantage of -- " he shook his head, took a deep breath. "Yes, you are correct. The fraud in all its many varieties is not the only reason I've taken such an interest."

"Understood," Spirit said, in the voice he used to talk down violent marks, and Soul gave Kid a look like maybe he'd revised his opinion on who was the biggest threat to his safety in the room.

"And just to be clear," Marie added, "when you say 'building a case', you mean 'hacking into their computers', correct? I know how these ops tend to go."

Kid gave her an absolutely unreadable look. "Your opinion of my work is, of course, yours to have," he said, and Marie gave him a knowing smile that he didn't acknowledge. "Regardless, the situation is this: Soul is in witness protection because he agreed to give us information in exchange for safety. Olympus Heights has taken issue with that, to the point where they put an outrageous enough price on his head to attract the likes of Maka and Black Star. Luckily for Soul -- and me -- it seems they're both looking for a career change."

"Star was," Maka said, perhaps still a bit resentful at having been forced down any path, even if it was one she kind of liked. "I wanted to retire. But between the two of you I got cornered into playing along. I still think we're in very real danger from his family, you know. He's going to get us killed unless we somehow also take Star Clan down along with the McMansion Mafia."

Kid shrugged. "You don't seem too opposed, and yes, I'm aware that he is -- a bit of a hazard. The idea is that we'll get this all taken care of before his family complicates things. So. Spirit, Marie. Soul has given us a contact back home, and we're hoping the contact can give us what we need to take out Olympus Heights for good."

"So you still haven't been able to get into their databases, then?" Spirit asked, with more gravitas than Maka would have expected.

"Their security is surprisingly good," Kid said without inflection. "Soul has given me reason to believe that it would be more efficient to simply go to the source, so to speak, and perhaps liberate some hard drives, provided we can engineer a window in which doing so without being killed is possible."

"Papa, Marie, the reason I called you is because we need to get in touch with Soul's contact," Maka said when he paused, since Kid didn't seem inclined to get to the real point. "Star and I can't, we'll be recognized -- and you know what the HOA does to people who cross them. From there, we can hopefully put together a real plan. If not, well." She shrugged. "I can always finish the job I came here to do, I suppose."

"Maka," Marie said, and the look she gave Maka was pure disappointed parent. "How could you, this poor boy tried to do the right thing and ended up here with a price on his head, that's awful!"

"I'm an assassin," Maka said, having had this conversation too many times to keep having it.

Marie gave her an unimpressed look. "I raised you to have more of a conscience than this. At least have the decency to fake his death and use some of that ridiculous amount of money to help him leave the country."

"Hey, yeah, let's do that," Soul said, eyes lit up with something like enthusiasm for the first time since Maka'd met him.

"Sure," Maka said, because she honestly had considered it, once Star made completing the job in a more traditional -- and emotionally uncompromised -- fashion impossible. "But that's not the goal. The goal is to take Olympus Heights down. If we can put together a team that can do that, then we'll have a team that can do pretty much anything. Star wants to make a living off of taking out the bad guys, and that's why I insisted you come here first and hear us out."

"Tell us about this contact, then," said her father, and maybe he'd gotten his act together a bit after all; he was staying on topic better than the rest of them, anyway.

"The contact is Olympus Heights's pet 'doctor' and chemist, Frank Stein," Kid said. "Lacking any other means, we're looking to get in touch with him at the HOA's restaurant and bar, Labyrinth. It's likely that they're keeping an eye on him, but also likely that they're not monitoring him as closely as most of their other associates, given how long he's been in their employ."

Kid spoke, Maka sipped coffee, and her father went a bit pale.

"Frank Stein," he said, leaning forward, hands tight on his mug and fingers, for once, still. "You're sure?"

"Quite," Kid said, looking expectant. "The good doctor is hard to mistake for anyone else, once you know who he is and what he does. Why?"

"We're old friends," Spirit said, and preempted everyone's surprise with, "Though we haven't spoken in some time." He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, looking perhaps a little nervous. "My suggestion for contacting him would be to send Marie to the bar and have her order him a drink called 'embalming fluid'. That was the code we agreed on, should we ever need to talk off the books."

"Charming," Maka said, somehow unsurprised to find out that her father knew a man like Frank Stein.

"We used to go out drinking a lot when we were young and foolish," Spirit said, a bit misty-eyed and no doubt recalling his glory days.

"As opposed to now, when you're old and foolish," Marie said before Maka could, and grinned when Spirit gave her a hurt look. "Anyway, I can absolutely do that. Spirit can come along as backup."

"Wait," Soul said, and looked unnerved when everyone turned to look at him. "This isn't just about taking down the HOA, all right? The only reward I want for enabling all this is that we get my brother out of there. When I turned on the family they made him come back home so they could hold him hostage -- so they could punish me, so they could keep their other world-famous artist close, where he couldn't make a break for it."

"Oh, Wes Evans!" Marie's eye lit up with recognition. "I know him, he's one of the great violinists of our time -- so you're his brother, then, the virtuoso pianist? I'd heard someone turned informant on the HOA, but I didn't realize who exactly. They really are torturing him, I'm sure, making him play in that overpriced bar of theirs."

"Yeah," Soul said, jaw set, eyes hard, determined instead of depressed about this one thing. "Endless soft jazz renditions of Margaritaville. I want to get him out. You guys can do whatever you want, take out the family, take out Star Clan, invade Disney -- but I want my brother out of there, away from them."

"So that's the job," Maka said. "And now you know why I wanted you to come here first, because telling you this over any phone line wouldn't be safe, and because moving against Olympus Heights is suicidal at best."

"Maybe," Spirit said, but he looked thoughtful. "But I know Stein. He might be able to point us in the right direction. It'll take luck and skill, but I think we have both of those in ample supply, don't you?"

"If I had any amount of luck at all, I wouldn't even be discussing this," Maka said, because apparently she was the only person in the room who remembered how insane the whole proposition was. "Sure, Black Star's whole 'let us become Batman' thing sounds fun, but I still can't quite convince myself we're going to walk away from this alive."

"You've always been a bit of a pessimist, dear," Marie said, and her smile took the sting from her words. "And I'm sure being stuck here hasn't helped, you were always happiest when you could take direct action. Let's see what Doctor Stein has to tell us, and then we can make an informed decision."

"I don't like this," Maka said, except she only got halfway through her sentence on account of Black Star reentering the trailer the same way he'd left: through the kitchen window.

"Hey, Papa Albarn, hey Marie, great to see you again, listen guys -- if you're gonna do this I wanna be the getaway driver, okay? If things go south with the good doctor just hightail it back here and I'll be ready. We'll be out of town before anyone else can even find their keys."

"This is because Marie brought the Z28, isn't it," Maka said, remembering with stomach-turning clarity the last time she'd been in a vehicle driven by Black Star.

"No actually," Black Star said, an avaricious gleam in his eye, "it's because one of Soul's neighbors has a Z-car in their carport and it is heavily modded, if you catch my drift."

"I'd love to see how you plan to fit six people in a Nissan," Kid said, amused.

"Can't you let me dream for ten minutes," Star said, pouting. "I know. In reality, I have a nice unremarkable minivan picked out and I intend to drive it just slightly under the speed limit the whole way, because that's how you actually get out of town when people are looking for you. I still want that car, though," he added. "Maybe we can put it on a trailer or something, free it from this dull existence."

"We can figure that out while Marie and my father get in touch with Stein," Maka said. "After all, don't you two need to go locate some appropriate wardrobe additions?"

"Spirit," Marie said, whole face lighting up. "Let's go shopping."

The look of absolute agony on her father's face almost made up for the entire sorry situation Maka had found herself in.

/

Maka had wanted to sleep inside, and in fact had planned to spend her free time doing some moderate renovations to Soul's trailer in the interests of turning it into a place where she wouldn't mind sleeping inside. She and Star had had some plans: fresh paint, a thorough cleaning, new flooring maybe, better furniture. Stuff you could do in a few days if you had time and the ability to focus.

But then her father showed up, and even Maka had to admit that sleeping in the Z28 was absolutely impossible, and she wasn't about to let him sleep in her truck any more than Kid was about to let any of them sleep anywhere remotely near whatever it was he had in his trailer.

So she let Marie have Soul's guest room to herself and her father took his couch, and she just kept sleeping on an air mattress in the back of her truck, same as Star slept in the back of Soul's shitty Datsun. Marie and Spirit had prep work to do and not a lot of time in which to do it, so they tended to disappear fairly early in the day, which was when Maka and Star would generally get together, decide on a task, and Black Star would head to the hardware store to get whatever it was they needed.

"You guys don't have to do this, you know," Soul said every morning while Maka taught him to cook this or that, and he'd say it again in the evening when she'd stopped tearing up flooring or painting or scrubbing the walls in order to show him more basics, this time relevant to combat instead of cooking.

"We know," she'd say, or Star would, depending on whether or not he was helping instruct. "But we're the kind of people who need things to do, especially when all we have to do is wait. We don't have to, but we want to, and let's face it, you kind of need the help."

He was getting better with a chef's knife, but he still had band-aids all over his fingers; he was getting better at cooking in general, but the air still smelled a little bit like burning underneath the heady scent of hot metal, salt, garlic, fresh herbs. Underneath his embarrassment at needing to be taught basic skills in the kitchen, though, even Black Star could see that he enjoyed making things, that eating food that wasn't cheap pop-tarts and microwave pizza was helping him feel good enough overall not to sit in his hot tub drinking abominable beer and eating even more abominable food, waiting for the days to tick over so he could get up, go to work, start the miserable cycle anew.

And then, after a few days of shopping and info gathering, Marie was ready, roundabout the time that Maka and Star replaced Soul's kitchen floor and put up some acceptable blackout curtains. She and Spirit headed to Labyrinth, with Spirit settling in upstairs in the lounge, drinking expensive cocktails in the elegantly burnished light of a bar made of copper and expensive wood, while Marie took a seat outside by the reflecting pool where she'd be less likely to be recordable.

Maka, Black Star, Soul, and Kid all crammed into the elevator once again, this time with somewhat less murderous intent in the air, so that they could sit at Kid's monstrosity of a desk and watch the video feeds. Marie had accepted a small camera in her eyepatch, a setup she was quite familiar with, and Spirit had a very expensive platinum tie clip that he'd allowed Kid to modify to the same purpose.

"Okay, I know you've got a kitchen down here," Star said once they were all out of the elevator. "You can chaperone me or not, but I'm fucking making popcorn."

Kid looked at Maka, looked at Black Star, made a face like he was considering just calling the feds on them, and said, "Maka, Soul, go to my office and stay there. Don't touch anything. I'll know if you do."

And that was how they all ended up clustered around Kid's desk in folding chairs, gorging on butter-soaked popcorn while they waited for Stein to show up and watched Spirit try and fail to hit on half the people in the bar.

"Your dad is not good at this," Star said, mouth full of popcorn, snorting laughter as another woman walked away from him.

"He’s one of the greatest grifters in the world," Maka said, rolling her eyes, "but if he's not actively working a job, he couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag. Trust me, he'll manage when he needs to.”

"Be that as it may," Kid said, tapping away at his keyboard, "he’s still getting some useful information as is. Several of these people are known to me and I haven't had much success getting insiders into this particular club."

"Takes a lot of balls to turn informant on Olympus Heights, even casually," Star said, eyes fixed on Marie's feed. "Looks like our boy's in the house, though!"

Kid muted Spirit's feed in favor of Marie's and together they ate popcorn and watched as Marie worked her magic.

Frank Stein, Maka thought, was a rather handsome man, if you could ignore the railroad scar that bisected his face and the gleam in his eyes that bespoke a particular kind of madness. Still, he didn't seem to be suffering for it, and he accepted the drink and Marie's company with equal interest.

"Oh my god, she's actually talking to him about chemistry," Star said after a few minutes.

"It's her job," Maka said, stealing the popcorn bowl from him. "She can converse intelligently on more topics than you'd even think existed in the world. In this specific case, though, she probably legitimately knows a fair amount on the topic, also given her line of work."

"Fair enough," Star said, then glanced at Soul, who'd gone a little pale, eyes fixed on something that definitely was not Marie. "Oh shit, dude, is that your brother?"

"Yeah," Soul said, voice rough, and Maka turned her eyes to her father's side of things. "At least he's still alive."

Wes Evans was certainly the older brother, but he had the same pale hair and dark-tanned skin, the same agile hands and tired-ass smile and red eyes, though his were much darker, enough that they might be mistaken for brown at a quick glance. He looked like a man who hadn't slept well in months, or a man recovering from a long illness: eyes a bit shadowed, posture slumped in a way that bespoke fatigue.

"Looks like your pops just bought him a fuckin' cosmo," Star said, laughing into his mug of coffee -- something he seemed to be constantly ingesting, regardless of the hour and medically recommended upper intake limits.

"We have to get him out of there," Soul said, and Star gave him a sideways glance, obviously wanting to make a joke at Spirit's expense except for how obvious it was that Wes's appearance was deeply distressing for Soul.

Maka couldn't blame him. Wes looked horribly grateful to have the drink, or maybe it was just because, as far as she could tell, Spirit was just treating him like a guy at the bar that he found interesting and not as a world famous violinist -- so of course this was when Spirit decided he wanted to actually work and turned on the charm.

"God, your brother looks just as sad as you," Star said instead of taking the obvious shot. "Can't we go back to watching Marie get asked on a D&D date instead? I'll be real, the combo of your brother being sad and Maka's father trying to hit on him isn't exactly enjoyable viewing, even with the sound off."

"Excuse me, did you say D&D date," Maka said, more than happy to ignore her father being her father and trying to pick up whoever he could in the name of 'the mission'.

"Stein literally just said something like 'hey, tonight's my D&D night and we could use a tank, think you'd be interested' and I wish I were kidding," Star said, sounding deeply aggrieved. "This is not the content I came here for."

"It's the content you got," Soul said, and Maka thought that she and Kid must have been wearing identical expressions of not-quite-controllable amusement.

"Hush," Kid said, and queued up Spirit's earpiece to ask him to take a quick smoke break.

"Yeah, D&D is legitimately something he's into," Spirit said once he'd excused himself and given Soul's brother a sufficiently lingering glance on his way out. "We used to play a lot. You interrupted me for this? Marie will be fine, she's a big girl. I'd recommend one of you shadow her if you're worried, because I'm staying here to see if I can get any useful information off of Wes."

"Yeah," Black Star said at sufficient volume to rattle the server racks, "useful information, you mean like his phone number, like his dick si -- "

"Don't be vulgar," Spirit said, and oh, he sounded so offended, Maka knew that tone. "That young man is a work of art, an exquisite bird in a cage that's much too small, and he probably knows everything we need to pull this job off."

"Sure thing, daddy," Star howled, and in the blink of an eye Kid had a blade tucked under his chin, pale eyes alight and Maka knew that expression because she'd seen it before in the mirror.

Black Star shut up.

"You do that, Spirit," Kid said without removing the knife from Star's neck. "Just be careful. I know you're a professional, but on the other hand I also know your general record, so. Keep your wits. And please remember, your daughter is watching this stream."

"The consequences of failure are enough to cool even the most inflamed ardor," Spirit said by way of reassurance, and hung up, leaving all four of them looking vaguely like they wanted to vomit or possibly die.

"God, I forgot how your father is sometimes," Star said, leaning away from Kid until he was able to step back without getting sliced up. "Was he crying?"

"You're lucky that you can forget, and yes, my money is on him weeping over the tragedy of it all," Maka said, and elected to focus her attention on Marie and her nerd date rather than dwell on her father's bullshit. "So is somebody going after Marie as backup?"

"You, preferably," Kid said, as Marie excused herself for the traditional nose-powdering before she decided whether or not she was, in fact, going to play warrior to Stein's warlock.

"Marie," he said once she'd made sure the bathroom was clear. "We're going to send Maka to back you up. Spirit is upstairs talking to Soul's brother, and I don't want to lose that opportunity. You all right with that?"

"Honey," Marie said, and she actually was powdering her nose, adjusting her eyepatch and her hair, making sure she was still filling out her bra appropriately -- Star's eyebrows about hit his hairline, Kid averted his eyes, Soul blinked, blushed, looked at Maka instead like a lost puppy -- "having Maka back me up makes me feel more safe than relying on Spirit to keep his wits about him when he's in a bar with a pretty boy. I've seen pictures of Soul's brother, I know what's going on. There's information to be got, and I don't doubt Spirit can get it, but he always was one to combine work and pleasure if at all possible. Besides, Maka's a lot scarier in a fight than he is."

"Damn right I am," Maka said to no one, since Marie probably couldn't hear her, and Star patted her on the back with an affected brotherly pride that made her want to simultaneously stick out her tongue at him and tackle him to the floor just to make sure he remembered who the real badass was here. "Anyway, Kid, let me the fuck outta here if you want me to play bodyguard. I need to drive across town, after all."

"Take Soul with you," Kid said, and handed her a pair of earpieces.

"Excuse you, why," Maka said, because nothing about that made sense. "Bringing a civilian -- "

"Call it a hunch," Kid said. Maka cocked her head to one side a little, thought about it, considered the complete lack of artifice in Kid's eyes. Wondered if she'd even be able to tell if he was lying, honestly; she wasn't sure she'd ever met someone as good at putting on unfathomable expressions as this man, not even people whose careers and survival depended on it. "You might need to talk to Stein yourselves," he added. "Be helpful to have someone who knows him along for the ride to lend credulity. I'm not asking you to take him into a firefight, Maka."

"You might be," Maka said, and she really did not want to take Soul somewhere this uncertain -- and not just because he probably wouldn't be helpful in a fight, either. "I've barely had time to teach him how to fall without breaking an arm and you're suggesting we might be breaking his cover."

Kid sighed and now he was the one cocking his head and giving her a thoughtful look. "You're going to have to take him into a dangerous situation soon enough," he said. "Do you really think it's in his best interests to make the most dangerous time also the first time?"

"Title of your sex tape," Star said, and just laughed when Maka gave him an infuriated glare. "Take him with you, sister! Good opportunity for him to maybe firm up those nerves of his. If nothing else, you guys can hang out and you can teach him how to lie without giving himself away within the first five seconds, that's gonna be important."

"Hey," Soul said, still a bit flushed, but maybe at this point it was annoyance. "If I couldn't lie I'd be dead already, thanks. Let's not just conveniently forget that I'm just about the only person to turn informant on my family and live long enough to get into witsec."

"Fair," Star said. "Fair. Still. No reason it has to be a waste of time, you know. Not like you were gonna do anything more useful here anyway, we were just gonna watch Marie play Dungeons and Dragons and laugh ourselves to death watching Maka's father hit on -- "

"Yep, let's go," Maka said, grabbing Soul and heading for the door.

"Do you think they're actually going to play D&D," Soul asked once they were in the elevator with a little bag of stuff Kid had given them 'just in case'. If it'd come from Star, Maka would have expected an obnoxious mix of useful tools and, say, condoms or lube, but from Kid -- who knew. She'd check it over once they got to where they needed to go.

Maka shrugged in response to his query. "In any other situation I'd say it was just a cover, since they're using codes and it's part of the game, but -- my father knows Stein and he claims they used to play, so who knows. Maybe they will. Maybe Olympus Heights' pet mad scientist just wants to play some D&D to help him forget about his day job, I don't know. My guess is that the people he plays with are relevant somehow, or might be. Otherwise it's got to be just an excuse for them to go elsewhere."

"If Stein is involved I'm willing to believe nearly anything," Soul said, trailing her through Kid's living room and out to her truck. "Would mine be any better? It's smaller, at least."

Maka turned to look at him, key still in the door lock. She knew that tone, even if it was hard to really see him well in the humid darkness of a Florida night. "Not a bad thought," she said, and pulled the door open. "If this was a stock truck, anyway; your little Datsun's four wheel drive and better balanced in that case. Don't worry, though, we'll be fine. This truck's a lot of things, but it sure isn't stock."

"That's not exactly reassuring," Soul said as he slid into the passenger side of the truck's expansive bench seat.

"Well," Maka said, passing him the bag while she fiddled with one of the earpieces Kid had given her. "No, I guess it's probably not. Put it this way: if you've got to be in a potentially dangerous situation, you're in good hands. Remember, I'm the best of the best, and I wouldn't just go driving some old heap of a truck, and I sure wouldn't get you into a bad situation if I didn't think I could get us out in one piece."

"That would be more comforting if -- "

"Yeah, I know, okay, you've got to get over it and do your best to trust me," Maka said, and cranked the truck. "I haven't taken a bullet for you yet, but I'm pretty sure that time's gonna come, and I won't hesitate, so it'd be nice if you believed me. Not just for the sake of, you know, building a professional relationship, but because I don't want you to hesitate when the time comes and get yourself hurt."

Soul was quiet as they left the neighborhood, as Kid gave Maka directions and Black Star gave her much-interrupted commentary on her father's increasingly emotional state in regards to Wes's ongoing performance.

"You know," he finally said as they drove in darkness down some state road towards the middle of nowhere, "for someone who gives her father so much shit for being sentimental, you kinda -- "

"I will leave you on the side of the road for the snakes to eat," Maka said with deep feeling, and Soul's very tired laugh made her cheeks heat for a variety of reasons she had absolutely no interest in deciphering or dwelling upon.

"Sorry," he said after a minute, remnants of a smile still audible in his voice. "It's just been -- scary. The depression was almost preferable to living in constant fear and seriously contemplating taking my family on face to face. Fistfighting god seems like it'd have better chances of success."

"That's just what they want you to think," Maka said, "just like any other bully. Of course, it's mostly not posturing in this case, but they're hardly bulletproof. If they were, they wouldn't bother sending me after you."

"Well, when you put it that way," Soul said, and yawned. "So where are we going, anyway?"

"Beats me," Maka said. "I'm following the directions Kid gave me, and he's just going by what Marie told him. Seems like we aren't going to the good doctor's house, that's for sure. Judging by the landscape, you're going to be more in danger from gators tonight than anything else."

"I'll take that," Soul said. "Beats the alternative. Wrestling an alligator sounds like more fun than getting in trouble with my family."

"At least you don't have Black Star running commentary in your ear about my father's debilitating crush on your brother," Maka said, tapping her earpiece when Soul blinked at her in confusion.

"Maybe we'll get lucky and Kid will strangle him," Soul said, teeth clacking together when Maka took another turn, this time onto a rough but nonetheless paved road that seemed to head towards lights suggestive of some form of civilization.

"He'd enjoy that too much, sadly," Maka said, squinting at the lights ahead of them. "Looks like a gas station up ahead, at least. And a Waffle House. I assume they have those built in the middle of the swamps out here, honestly, just in case the wildlife develops a taste for hash browns."

"You wouldn't be wrong," Soul said, leaning forward in his seat. "Looks like a -- surplus shop?"

And indeed, as they approached Maka realized that the third building looked like an old, sprawling house converted into a surplus store of some sort, the kind that sold bait and tackle alongside disaster preparedness gear and combat boots, currently decked out in enough Christmas lights that it had to be attracting every bug in a ten mile radius.

"That's the place," said Kid's voice in her ear, and Maka made a face.

"This is the kind of place you bring someone to murder them, because they'll never find the body," she said, and Kid laughed, but that didn't change the situation. "I'd know, after all. Guess we're going to Waffle House?"

"May as well if we have to sit through a D&D game, I guess," Soul said with an eloquent shrug. "Otherwise we'll be stuck in here for like four hours if they decide to play an actual game."

"I swear I'm going to kick the door down if they do," Maka said, turning into the Waffle House parking lot. "Get that earpiece in and let's get some coffee. Maybe a waffle. Might as well enjoy what we can of this."

They exited the truck to the smell of a nearby marsh -- very nearby, actually; Maka could see a little duck boat tied up next to the surplus shop, near a sign advertising six dollar machetes.

"At least we won't lack for weapons if this somehow turns into a fight," she said, and headed towards light and coffee.

/

Soul sat across from Maka in a backwoods Waffle House and declined coffee, owing to the general state of his nerves, but did not decline an all-star special. Maka watched with a kind of hilarious combination of revulsion and interest as he combined scrambled eggs and butter and cheese grits all in one glorious, liberally-salted heap as they listened to Marie's adventures.

"Better keep a straight face, whatever happens," Maka said, still watching him eat, her heavily-syruped waffle forgotten for the moment. "Can't have you scaring the waitress."

"Like you wouldn't straight up throw yourself through the window if shit went sideways," Soul said, and crammed a chunk of waffle into his mouth.

"Well yeah, if it comes to that, there's no sense in maintaining the pretense of normalcy," Maka said, sipping coffee. "If it turns into a situation where speed will save lives, yeah I'm absolutely going through that window."

Across the street, two cars pulled into the parking lot of the surplus shop: Marie's Z28 and an ancient Jeep. Maka perked up visibly, and Soul went back to eating grits in hopes of smothering the anxiety pooling in his stomach.

"Before we head in," Stein said over their earpieces, and Soul could see Marie lean against the hood of her car, arms crossed, interested. "Forgive me for being so forward, but why exactly did you order me that drink?"

"Oh, is it time to decide if you're taking me to the dungeon or the fungeon?" Marie asked, voice light but with an undercurrent that wasn't to be fucked with.

Soul stopped chewing, almost choked -- and glanced over to find Maka watching him expectantly, remembered her comment about his poker face, and managed to swallow his food as though nothing had happened.

"It is of course your choice," Stein said, and Soul busied himself with his hashbrowns because he was smart enough to know that staring off into space while he listened really would look suspicious. "I ask simply because up until tonight, only one person ever ordered me that drink, and I don't generally believe in coincidence. I'm just trying to figure out exactly how to introduce you to my D&D group."

Soul could feel Marie giving Stein a considering look, and he heard the absence of her smile when she spoke next.

"Spirit did instruct me, yes," Marie said, all flirtatiousness vanished in favor of getting down to business. "He and I are also old friends."

"You must be the one who took in his daughter after Suzume disappeared," Stein said, warm epiphany in his voice. "In that case, it is doubly a pleasure to have met you. So are we to play Dungeons and Dragons, Miss Marie, or can I assist you some other way?"

“Por que no los dos?”

Maka got up then, coffee mug in hand, and wandered over to the main counter to beg a refill from the waitress as though nothing unusual could possibly be going on, as if she definitely wasn't listening to a conversation go down that had the potential to end in an ugly shootout and them on the run from Olympus Heights.

Across the street, Marie handed Stein a sheet of paper, on account of the possibility of any nearby phone or camera being able to record whatever she said, and Soul just -- ground his teeth with the uncertainty of it, and waited.

"God, boring," Black Star said, and Soul remembered he was actually watching a video feed in addition to listening in. "Allow me to provide dialogue during this intermission."

At the counter, Maka twitched, knuckles a little white on her coffee cup while she chatted up the waitress.

"I think I did it again," Star said with a level of gravitas usually reserved for informing family of unfortunate news, deadpan except for the ridiculous grin Soul could just hear. "I made you believe we're more than just friends."

Stein looked up from the paper. "No shit," he said, and Marie made some gesture that Soul assumed meant he should keep reading.

"Oh baby, baby," Star said in that horrible deadpan, and Maka's smile almost faltered. "It might seem like a crush -- "

"This is serious," Stein said.

"But it doesn't mean that I'm serious!" Star crooned in obvious triumph, followed by scuffling noises that Soul assumed were Kid restraining him.

"I have reason to believe you can be of assistance in finding good help," Marie said, smooth as silk, as if she hadn't just proposed to an employee of their obscenely powerful enemy that he betray his bosses.

Maka, evidently finished charming the waitress, came back over and tucked into her remaining waffle. Soul watched her because he had to look at something and if this kept up much longer he thought he might lose his mind, because -- because. If Stein took this amiss, if Soul'd been wrong in his assessment, he could be T-minus thirty seconds from getting shot, or from watching Marie get shot.

"I'm willing to make introductions," Stein said, though he sounded more than a little reluctant. "But not so long as you're by yourself, asking me to believe this without any actual proof beyond knowing what drink Spirit likes to buy me when he wants favors or a loan. Call your backup over and we can talk."

"Show me yours, I'll show you mine?" Marie asked, and received an amused affirmative. "Fine."

"Ugh," Maka said, and polished off half a waffle in something like thirty seconds. "Time to go. Follow me."

"What," Soul said, but Maka was already up, hauling him out of the booth and passing the waitress a fifty.

"We need to go out the back door, please," she said, and the waitress waved them through with a shrug.

"Y'all need me to call somebody?" she called after them, and Maka gave her a smile and a shake of her head.

"No thanks, we'll be fine," she said, hand on the doorknob. "Just stay here. Now would be a good time to go take inventory, actually."

Then they were outside, behind the Waffle House where they'd parked, and Maka was pulling things from the cargo cases that lined the inside of her truck bed.

"Put this on," she said, and tossed something at Soul that hit him with considerably more force than he'd expected.

Unfolded, he realized why: she'd just hit him in the chest with a bulletproof vest.

"Maka," he said, blinking at it.

"I'm not going to let you die because I got careless," she said. "Just know it won't save you from someone with a fucking knife, and if you take a bullet it's still probably gonna crack a rib. Beats dying, though."

"Okay," Soul said, and struggled his way into the thing while doing his best not to think too much about the implications of it.

By the time he'd gotten it figured out Maka had hopped back out of her truck.

"Are you wearing an Ed Hardy shirt," Soul said, because she'd had her leather jacket zipped up till now and focusing on inane details like the fact that one of the world's foremost assassins was wearing a shirt with a skull and crossbones on it holding a banner that said 'love kills slowly' might save his sanity.

"Yep," she said. "Funny thing about being in the business I'm in, there's no such thing as professional attire. You wear whatever the fuck you want and let your skills speak for themselves. Anyway, come on, we gotta get moving. They're only going to be willing to wait so long. Kid?"

"You're good," Kid said, though he sounded a bit tense. "I was expecting something like this. Just be careful, and you might still end up playing D&D tonight."

"Yeah, sure," Maka said, and turned to Soul. "You ready?"

"No," he said, because who fucking would be? “I've been afraid to tell you this until now, but -- Maka, I don’t know how to play D&D.”

"Oh, I get it! Is like joke, yes? Just walk like you're on a strict no-hater diet and you'll be fine," Black Star advised, and Soul grimaced.

Maka gave him a sympathetic look, but she still caught hold of his elbow and pulled him into motion. "Unfortunately the world rarely waits till we're ready," she said, pulling him round the side of the Waffle House. "Shoulders back, chin up. Like you're walking on stage for a critic who thinks you're a hack."

That he understood. Without even thinking about it Soul's shoulders squared, his expression smoothed into something confident and otherwise blank, and his chin lifted.

"Just like that," Maka said, pleased, and together they crossed the street as though out for a casual stroll while Stein and Marie watched.

"Doctor," Maka said once they were in earshot, and offered Stein her best 'I know fifty ways to kill you and some of them involve nothing but a pencil' smile despite the fact that she was practically up to his elbows. "You certainly are a tall motherfucker."

Stein's eyebrows shot up. "Okay, I believe you now," he said, eyes moving from Maka to Soul and back again. "No introductions needed. Let's get the fuck inside before someone sees him."

"With pleasure," Marie and Maka said in unison, prompting laughter from Marie and a grudging chuckle from Maka as Stein unlocked the peeling door they'd been standing next to and ushered them all inside with only a few paranoid glances over his shoulder along the way.

"You all stay here for a minute," Stein said once they were in. "Soul, it's good to see you in good health, and I'd like you to stay that way, so I'm going to go downstairs and talk to everyone first. If they're amenable, I'll come back for you; if not, I'll send you home. Deal?"

"Who the fuck do you play D&D with," Maka said, hands in her jacket pockets as she took in the odd little storage room they seemed to have entered, no doubt mapping exits and cover and possible weapons.

Stein shifted his glasses a bit and gave her the exact same creepy 'I could kill you right here' kind of smile she'd been giving him and everyone else all week. "I play D&D with two of the guys who run Olympus Heights's security and a couple of crazy preppers who do things like wrestle alligators on their off days," he said, as though this were all normal. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

He left, and Maka's stare shifted to Marie. "I can't say I approve of you forcing us out into the open," she said, though her tone was much milder than the almost-glower of her expression.

"You know I wouldn't have put you in danger if I saw a way to avoid it," Marie said, and gave Maka a smile redolent with motherly affection. "Unfortunately, our hand was forced."

Maka took a deep breath and sighed, most of the angry tension leaving her. "I know," she said. "I do. I just don't like knowing that if the outcome of this meeting is anything other than ideal, I might have to kill someone. We can't let anyone who's seen Soul leave here if they aren't working with us."

"Listen," Soul said, back to teeth-chattering stress, "if he's got the people I think he does downstairs, I don't -- you don't want to fight them, and I don't care how amazing of an assassin you are."

"I'm certainly inclined to not want to engage anyone who's in charge of security work for Olympus Heights if it's not necessary," Maka said, eyes back on the door Stein had taken. "But. I can't let anyone who positively identifies you walk away unless they're with us, because anyone breathing a word of this to your family might well mean the end of all of us."

"Relax, Maka," Marie said. "Have a little faith in your father and in the doctor. He's gone out of his way to keep things on the level so far, so I'm inclined to believe he wants to see this through. If he wanted us dead, all he'd have had to do was invite us downstairs and say the word, assuming his D&D buddies are who he says they are."

"Still don't like it," Maka said, double checking the surprisingly extensive array of weapons she'd grabbed when she'd been in the back of the truck. "Soul, do me a favor and stay to one side of the door, just in case."

Soul swallowed down unease and moved, though when Stein returned it was as he had left -- alone, and with his hands carefully visible lest either of the dangerous personages in the room decide he was a threat.

"You're in luck, as I suspected," he said, and gave all three of them a tired smile that was, for once, devoid of creepy undertones. "Follow me and we can talk about the plan before the game."

"So you really do play D&D," Marie said, sounding thrilled.

"Oh yes," Stein said, and his smile widened when he turned towards her. "I genuinely do hope you join us once we've finished up whatever negotiations are about to ensue."

Soul knew an embarrassed blush when he saw one, and spent the trip down the narrow, creaking, barely-lit staircase smothering laughter in spite of the terrifying circumstances.

The room Stein led them into was what might have once been a basement, some kind of cellar with cinderblock walls and a faint, constant smell of salt marsh. In spite of that it was a rather welcoming space; the walls were sealed and painted, the lighting was well-done, there was a table to one side covered in food and drinks, and the gaming table itself was richly appointed. And sitting at the table were four men, including --

"Giriko," Soul said, and felt some of the color leave his face as he stared at the lead field agent of Olympus Heights's security force, a brawny, ill-tempered man prone to rude language, facial piercings, and spiked hairstyles that would have looked more at home on a bully from a 90's teen movie.

"You always get all the attention," said the slim blond man next to him, and Soul knew him too: Justin Law, the head of the technical branch of Olympus Heights's security detail, arguably more dangerous than his more physically-inclined counterpart.

"It's my job to be intimidating," Giriko said, grinning, and flexed a bit -- just enough that Soul caught himself wondering how he'd get along with Black Star.

"It's your job to be showy," Justin said, his smile much more unsettling than Giriko's, and he waved to Soul. "It's my job to be effective. Hi there, kid. Didn't think I'd see you alive again, and definitely didn't think I'd catch you hanging out with one of the scariest professionals of our age."

Maka might have had something to say to that if she hadn't been staring at one of the other people at the table, a long-haired, unassuming man with a toothpick dangling from his mouth who nonetheless was watching her in a way that made Soul's skin prickle.

"Mifune," she said.

"What," Marie said, head swiveling. "What the fuck. You're supposed to be dead."

"I am perilously close to thinking you set us up, Stein," Maka said, hand edging towards a weapon, eyes never leaving Mifune.

"Ladies, please," rumbled the man sitting next to him, possibly the buffest dude in the room and also seemingly the most calm. "Before all this happened we were just here to play Dungeons and Dragons. Please relax. Stein seems to believe that you three have a proposition for the four of us that we'll find it difficult to refuse."

"Didn't catch your name," Maka said, and looked away from Mifune for just long enough to punctuate her statement.

"I'm Free," said the guy, which didn't seem to mean anything to Maka or Marie and certainly wasn't anything Soul recognized. "Nobody you'd know about, and I'd like to keep it that way. I've known Mifune for a very long time, and I was the one who set things up for him once he decided to retire. You can rest assured of my discretion, so please -- sit."

"No need," Maka said, and Soul realized that she'd stopped just inside the door, her back deliberately to a wall where she could keep an eye on everyone in the room. "We'll be quick. As you can see, this is Soul, son of one of Olympus Heights's founding families and, till recently, a world-renowned pianist. "

"Yeah, then he ratted us out," Giriko said, and Soul had never thought he looked more prone to murdering someone with his teeth than he did in that moment. "We took so much shit for that, and then they finally got serious and hired you. So what happened? Why isn't he dead? If you'd done your job I could be playing D&D in peace already."

"And who are you, again?" Maka asked, tone and expression precisely calculated to make Giriko want to murder her.

"We run Olympus Heights's security force," Justin said, putting a quelling hand on Giriko's shoulder. "I do the coordination and tech side, Giriko handles the fieldwork."

"Well, I'm sure you're familiar with Black Star," Maka said, and Soul didn't miss the way both Justin and Giriko's jaws tightened, the way their stares intensified at Star's name. "He also took the hit on Soul, and somewhere along the line he had a change of heart, as you may already have realized. That's not relevant, however. What is relevant is that we have the information and the motivation to infiltrate Olympus Heights and take them down. What we need is a concrete in, and more manpower. The endgame isn't this job, though. Star wants to put together a team that can take down all comers. The basic idea is that we'll be taking out criminal organizations, seizing a generous share of their assets, and turning them in to the authorities."

"You wanna be Batman?" Giriko howled, and burst into near-hysterical laughter.

“More like Robin Hood, really,” Maka demurred.

"Coming from anyone else I wouldn't take this seriously," Justin said, "and I'm still not sure I do. Really? You want to take down Olympus Heights, and that's just your starter course?"

Maka gave both of them a quizzical look. "Do you two not want free of them? I was under the impression that you did."

"They do," said Mifune, impassive in the face of Giriko's very obvious outrage. "Are you asking me to come out of retirement, Maka?"

"Sir," Maka said, almost deferentially, and with a degree of respect that Soul hadn't expected to ever see from her. "I had no idea that you would be here -- I had no idea you were still alive. But since you are here -- wouldn't you rather pursue a line of work that your daughter can be proud of, and possibly grow into? There are enough evil people in this world that the law cannot touch that I can't imagine we'll ever lack for work, in this life or the next."

Free crossed his arms over his broad chest and looked all three of them over head to toe, and Soul belatedly realized that, like Marie, he had only one eye -- it was just that he hadn't bothered with an eyepatch when he could have a false eye with a creepy symbol on it.

"Honestly, Mif," he said. "Sounds like a good opportunity to me. I know this isn't the kinda life that suits you, living out in the middle of nowhere selling people surplus crap and occasionally taking out gators and bears."

"It is true that my sense of honor almost demands I take this opportunity, if only because it would serve as repentance for a life spent taking innocent lives," Mifune said, though he was still giving them a narrow look as though expecting betrayal. "Perhaps. Giriko? Justin?"

"D'you know what happens to people who try this sorta shit," Giriko said, rolling a D20 across his knuckles in one of the weirder shows of nerves Soul had seen so far.

"We aren't trying 'this shit'," Marie said, inserting herself into the conversation with smooth practice. "We are doing this shit. What we need is an opening in which to infiltrate the neighborhood. If we can get concrete evidence of fraud or tax evasion, we can see to it that everyone involved is arrested -- with, perhaps, a few exceptions."

Giriko and Justin did not miss the implications of her words, nor did they miss her inviting smile. They looked at each other and, at length, Justin said, "They rent out Disney World every year for Christmas, everyone goes," and Giriko put his head in his hands.

"So you're in," Maka said, and her statement very clearly encompassed everyone in the room.

"Guess we are," Giriko said.

"In whatever capacity I can be useful," Mifune said, inclining his head in a manner much more dignified than Soul had expected to see from a man playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement in Florida.

"Great, we'll be in touch," Maka said, and before Soul could protest she was dragging him back up the stairs. “Start figuring out a source for some invasive critters,” she suggested over her shoulder, then shut the door behind them.

/

"Okay, I know I agreed to this, but I did not agree to this," Soul said for about the tenth time, and for about the tenth time Maka just laughed at him.

They were in the back seat of possibly the largest pickup truck Soul had ever seen, a heavy-duty offroad-equipped monstrosity with an extended bed and metal saddlebag cargo containers full of who even knew what. The truck belonged to the woman driving it, one Tsubaki Nakatsukasa, who'd apparently been working animal control for Olympus Heights for a few years now and was well-known not only to Justin and Giriko but also to Mifune and Free, though for more dubious and never entirely clarified reasons.

"We occasionally wrestle gators or go noodling," Free had said, referring to the practice of catching giant catfish with one's bare hands like a certifiably insane person, "but if Tsubaki's gonna be there, lot of the time there's no reason to bother -- can't win. Most people kill gators round here, but she does catch and release with her bare hands. Good lady to have on your side, and I know for a fact she'd be happy to see Olympus burn."

As it turned out, she was more than happy, and that was how they finalized their plan to gain access to the neighborhood while the family at large was out at Disney World having fun: create an animal situation intimidating enough to necessitate a call to Tsubaki, who would take them in as extra helpers.

So. Mifune released several alligators into the neighborhood, Free filled the guard stations with fire ants, and in short order they were on their way to Soul's ancestral home after a panicked call from security to Justin, who okayed calling in outside help from what sounded like a carousel.

So far, so good, except: Soul had not consented to Tsubaki and Maka's idea of a disguise, which turned out to be mirrored aviators and leather croc hunter hats complete with real gator teeth.

"Look, you won't dye your hair," Maka said, and slapped the hat on top of his head. "And it’s too recognizable. How do you think Star and I both found you to begin with? If you get recognized the whole thing falls apart. If you have a better disguise in mind, please, enlighten me."

He hadn't.

The only upside was that Maka looked kind of incredible in combat boots, a bomber jacket, the hat, and the mirrored shades, and Soul was absolutely certain that with her and Tsubaki -- who was similarly attired, though sans jacket -- in the truck, nobody with eyes was going to even notice him and Mifune, especially not since they were all freaking out over the whole alligator thing.

"They'll just hang out in the fountains, probably," Tsubaki said, shrugging as they approached the neighborhood's first wall and security checkpoint. "They're well fed, it's chilly, I made sure they'd be a bit groggy. Don't want anybody getting hurt, including them."

They slowed to a halt at the checkpoint, and Tsubaki put the truck in park so she could climb out and talk to the guard.

"Y'all, I look amazing in this outfit," said Black Star's voice over their comms, and Soul shut his eyes against whatever batshit thing he was about to follow that up with.

"He really convinced Azusa to do it," Maka said, almost wonderingly, though she sounded kind of like things were approaching levels of absurd that even she couldn't roll with.

"I'm sorry, do what," Soul said, not sure he wanted to know, but --

"Hey Kid," Star said, "I'm gonna send you some pictures, okay? I make this Tinkerbell dress work."

"I'd rather you send me pictures of your family in holding," Kid said, tone so normal that Soul caught himself wondering if he'd even paid attention to what Black Star had just said.

"Excuse you, it's called Pride Rock here, get with the program," Star said, cackling. "Anyway, I'm like T-minus five from being ziplined to the best vantage point in the park, see you on top of Disney castle."

"He -- are you serious, he's Tinkerbell, the one who gets to fly to the top of the castle for the whole fireworks-castle-lighting Christmas thing," Soul said, because he'd been there for so many Christmas parties, because he'd loved that part and now it was ruined forever by the mental -- and probably not purely mental for much longer -- image of Black Star in a light-up Tinkerbell outfit, doubtless with weapons strapped to his bare thighs. Unless he was wearing fishnets. Which he probably was.

"Ssh," Maka said, mercifully interrupting that train of thought, and rolled her window down to listen to Tsubaki telling the security guard that they needed all the house security systems deactivated.

"Listen, you got gators, you might have snakes," she said, sounding so reasonable that Soul couldn't imagine not believing her. "Not just pythons, either. I don't want somebody to come home late from Walt Disney World only to find a cottonmouth in their toilet. Can you imagine? And you've got this ant problem, I'm sure you don't want all these excellent houses full of bugs."

"I'll have to call my boss," said the guard, sounding vaguely horrified.

"Sure, we'll wait," Tsubaki said, and leaned back against her truck while the guy disappeared back into the guardhouse.

"Justin's got this," came Giriko's gruff affirmative a minute later, and they were waved through without any further inspection, not even for Free, who was following behind them in a second gigantic truck.

"Stay in the truck," Kid said, to the accompaniment of his fingers clattering across a keyboard. "Tsubaki, I have a contact inside who should meet you at the community center. Tell him you need to implement protocol -- "

They wound their way into the neighborhood, passing at least two more guard stations to the sound of Kid digging through the mountain of notes on his desk; Black Star interrupted, said, "Hey, I don't see Red, you should probably -- "

"Protocol four-two-four-two-five-six-four," Kid said, triumphant, and they at last arrived at what Soul assumed was their initial destination: what Kid had called the community center, but which housed a lot more than just a pool and recreational facilities if you knew where the secret doors were. "You'll know it's him. Just be advised you might have to repeat yourself."

"Copy," Tsubaki said, parking on the curb in front of the main entrance, and let herself out of the truck. She was met on the pathway by someone Soul didn't recognize -- a young man, dark-skinned, hair done in neat cornrows and carrying a tablet. Soul did recognize the badge on his chest, though, marking him as upper security, IT division: Justin's direct subordinate.

"You must be Tsubaki," he said, offering her a smile made a little sinister by the street lights reflecting off his glasses, and offered her his hand. "I'm Kilik. Thanks for coming on such short notice so close to the holiday. I know that this must be a hectic time for you."

"It's no trouble," Tsubaki said, shaking his hand, smiling the way Maka did when she was trying to impress upon someone her staggering level of professional competence. "As I told the guards on the way in, I'm going to need some concessions on the security systems so we can make sure the houses are clear. Protocol four-two-four-two-five-six-four was what I was told."

Kilik cocked his head to one side. "I don't think now is the time for polka renditions of Kesha songs, ma'am," he said, voice perfectly professional -- but the smile on his face was madness.

Tsubaki didn't even twitch. "No, protocol four-two-four-two-five-six-four," she said, emphasis careful.

"Oh," Kilik said. "Apologies, I misheard you. One moment."

He tapped away on the tablet, smile fading into a terse expression of concentration, and --

The street lights all went out.

"There," Kilik said, looking pleased with himself in the light from the tablet's screen. "You can all get out of the truck now."

"Do it," Kid said, and Soul didn't need to be told twice.

"Flashy," Maka said as she circled round the truck to stand next to Soul. "Was that necessary? We needed security disabled, not something that's going to catch everyone's attention as something being obviously wrong. The goal was to not have everyone here on high alert."

Kilik pushed his glasses up his nose and seemed surprised that he had to look down to meet Maka's flat stare. "Not to worry, Miss Albarn. I've set this up as a nice distraction for the security agents currently on property, since it'll now be their job to patrol the perimeter manually with flashlights while maintenance tracks down the problem. It won't code as an emergency because all of the essential systems -- climate control on the art, some high-security areas, the like -- are on backup power and can remain that way for some time. It'll take them a while to realize there's nothing they can do because this is a problem on the electric company's side.” Kilik grins, a quick flash of teeth. “Who knows, maybe a gator chewed through a line. Maybe some construction went bad. Maybe they got hacked. On that note, be careful. The main home security systems are off, and the exterior cameras went with the electricity, but that's not even close to everything."

Maka gave him a slow smile. "Not to worry, indeed. We weren't expecting you to work miracles, just needed an in. We are professionals, after all. You understand."

"Absolutely," Kilik said, then made a gesture with his hand that Soul couldn't quit figure, but that Maka evidently knew, as she raised an eyebrow before clicking off her mic. "That said: consider this a gift," Kilik added once he was sure they weren't being overheard, and passed her a scrap of paper. "Sounds like you'll be needing a tech guy who isn't a government employee once this is over. Look me up."

Maka glanced over the paper, eyebrows climbing higher with each line until she looked up and gave him a much wider, more genuine smile. "If these work, I absolutely will," she said. "If they don't, rest assured that you won't even know what's hit you one of these days."

He gave her a broad grin right back. "Smooth criminal," he said, a hand over his heart.

Maka snorted. "If you say so. We have work to do, though, so don't let us keep you. I'm sure you have things to take care of on your end, too."

"Yes," Kilik said, grin fading. "Your friend is an exacting taskmaster. Does impressive work, though, and knows what the fuck he's about, so I won't complain. Be careful out there. Tsubaki, once you get the gators wrangled, come back here and ring for me and I'll show you round the houses like a good boy."

"Can confirm, Red's not here, guys," Black Star said again, and Soul just -- it was impossible not to imagine him, dressed as Tinkerbell, up on top of Disney castle with tactical binoculars and a license to kill. "Watch your asses. If she catches you off guard, you're screwed. What's the status?"

Maka waited till Kilik had walked away, then queued her mic back up and said, "Heading in now. We'll start with Arachne and move down the HOA ranks from there."

"Be quick," Kid said. "Spirit and Marie are keeping eyes on Medusa and Arachne, but I'd estimate you have no more than an hour before this works its way to their ears and you're out of time."

"I'll also have my family mostly incapped by then, so shift your asses," Star added, never one to not interject himself into a conversation. "Their absences will be noticed."

"Yep," Maka said, and they climbed back into Tsubaki's truck to catch a ride rather than walk a mile or more to the back of the neighborhood where Arachne's house commanded the only hilltop view for miles around.

"What a lovely gator that is in that fountain," Soul said once he was out of the truck and had realized what Tsubaki was about and why she'd been heading the same direction they were, edging away from it until Maka grabbed his arm and dragged him down Arachne's long driveway, following a trail of solar-powered lights through the night.

"All right," she said, taking stock of the pitch-black house, and fished a small yet somehow obscenely bright flashlight from one of her jacket pockets. "Time to put all that stuff my father taught you to good use."

"Are you sure about this," Soul said, one hand wrapped around the lockpick set in his jacket pocket. "Aren't you better at this, like, more experienced, and -- hey, was Kilik hitting on you back there?"

"Don't worry, buddy," Black Star said, and somewhere in the background It's A Small World was playing. "Judging from half a lifetime of friendship, you've definitely got the best chances with her. Some rando isn't gonna get the time of day no matter how useful or charming he tries to be."

Maka rolled her eyes at Star, cut her mic, and blinked at Soul, bemused, a smile tugging one corner of her mouth. "Does it matter if he was? He was trying to convince me to give him a very lucrative job. And yeah, sure I'm more experienced, but from what I've seen and what my father's told me, you're unnaturally good at this. Show me your moves, bro."

Soul sighed and took a knee at the front door. "Guess I'm not surprised they got those fancy electronic locks that are easy to bump," he said, and had the lock open inside of two minutes. “It’s always about the fucking looks with these guys. Whatever happened to functionality?”

"See, I told you it'd be fine," Maka said, but she also didn't let him go through the door first -- instead she edged inside, flashlight in one hand and the other on her gun, but there was no sign of anything inside, as expected, since Arachne had never been one for pets. "Okay, time to get a move on. Once the power comes back on that lock'll tattle on us. Where are we going?"

"Tick tock," Black Star said in a low murmur, followed by the sounds of a scuffle and a lot of muffled profanity. "That's one. Gonna leave 'em for Azusa to collect, no time to be doing fetch quests."

"Up," Soul said, heading for the grand staircase. "Her office and studio are both upstairs."

That lock still had power, as Kilik had warned them would be the case, but --

"Don't pick it," Maka said, a hand on his shoulder before he could try. "This one still has an active security system, so it's time to see if Kilik was playing us or not." She fished the bit of paper Kilik had given her out of her pocket and, after a moment, keyed in a code.

The lock disengaged.

"Handy," Maka said, and tossed Soul a second flashlight. "I'll see if I can do anything with the computer, you see if you can find anything that looks useful."

"You know," Soul said, and reached past her where she was still standing in the doorway to flip a switch, and the room flooded with light. "Yep, that's what I thought."

Maka gave him a look out of the corner of her eye without turning towards him. "And what made you think to do that?"

"The air was cold when the door opened," Soul said, and followed her inside. "She's got this room wired to backup power and climate control, because Arachne is absolutely the kind of person who keeps her priceless items in her office where she can admire them. Trouble is, they need pretty strict climate control, so here we are."

"We're keeping him," said Black Star.

"That was never in question," Maka said, settling into Arachne's office chair, which was probably white rhino leather or something, and Soul resolved to ignore the way that statement, delivered with casual conviction, made him go a bit warm. "Kid, am I confiscating this hard drive?"

"Not yet," he said, sounding distracted. "If you don't find a way in by the time time starts to run down, then yes. Problem is that it's no guarantee, and if they're smart, the drives we want are somewhere we can't get at them so easily. Far better to be non-invasive, so to speak."

"Got it," Maka said, then, after several minutes of rummaging through the desk: "Soul, find anything?"

"Well," Soul said, "I think this is a first edition double elephant set of Audubon's Birds of America."

"I, too, would love to have a ten million dollar set of books casually on display in my office," Maka said. "Doesn't seem to be anything of note in the desk. Let's not waste time here -- we can come back if we don't find anything at Medusa's."

"She's my bet for it anyway," Soul said, following her out and turning off the lights as he left. "Arachne's the older sister and the one who always insists on being in charge. Long as I've known them, Medusa's been lowkey stuck in the teenage rebellion phase where her sister's concerned, so."

"Got half of 'em," Star said when they were halfway across the vast cul-de-sac to Medusa's house. "Hustle, ladies."

"Go take a spin on the teacups or something," Maka said, waving at Tsubaki, who was in the middle of hoisting a trussed alligator into a cage in the back of her truck.

"Hey guess what," Star said, and then cut off long enough to serenade them with a lot of splashing, several very weighty thuds, and when Soul assumed was profanity in a language he didn't know.

"Anyway," Star continued a minute later, breathing hard, "Maka. Your daddy's on the teacups right now, trying to impress Soul's brother with how fast he can make them spin. Next thing you know they'll be making out in the haunted mansion or something."

"Black Star," Maka said, an edge to her tone that made Soul alter his trajectory just enough to put more space between them over time.

"Shut up, Star," Kid said, in that perfect unimpressed parent voice, and Black Star subsided with an out of breath cackle.

Medusa's lock yielded the same as Arachne's, and Soul was heading for the wine cellar when he realized Maka wasn't following him.

"Maka?"

"Wow," she said, and Soul realized she was staring at the statues that flanked the stairs, flashlight beam flicking from one lusty goat-man to the other.

"Oh, that," Soul said, and shrugged. "I guess after Arachne's place the satyr statues are a bit much. But, ah, I'll warn you -- Medusa's decorative and artistic tastes very much run to 'dicks out', so get used to it. Up here is pretty restrained."

"Fantastic," Maka said, and turned away from the statues to follow him. "How fun. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that her place is like this since Arachne's was so tasteful and expensive."

"Oh, it's still expensive," Soul said, and led her into the pantry -- it was the size of his entire trailer, he was pretty sure -- so he could open up the trapdoor to the wine cellar. "It's just -- I think Medusa calls it honest. Virile. No use pretending to be better than what we really are."

"Hedonists?" Maka wondered, but Soul didn't have a chance to reply.

"Justin's on his way back," Kid said as they were descending the elaborate spiral staircase to Medusa's wine cellars.

"Great," Maka muttered. "Now we've got even less time -- "

Soul, who'd never been in Medusa's cellars before and had been peering at shelf after shelf of dusty wine as he descended, stopped dead as sudden cacophony erupted from a few steps in front of him.

What he saw, in the instant before Maka hissed, "Turn that light the fuck off and do not make a sound," was -- well.

Not making a sound was quite difficult, he found, when one was trying not to laugh hysterically at the image of one of the world's top assassins running facefirst into a windchime decorated with tiny winged dicks.

Still, he didn't protest or make an undue amount of noise when she grabbed him and pulled him the rest of the way down the stairs and into a corner.

"Glad you know where we're going," he said in as low a whisper as he could manage, nerves alight with pitch blackness and imminent danger from a completely unknown source and very uncomfortably aware that Maka Albarn had shoved him into a corner and was now leaning against him, her back to his chest and the sound of the safety on her gun clicking off thunderous.

For a minute or more neither of them moved, ears straining, Maka's breathing as controlled and even as Soul's most definitely was not -- and then she shifted, took one hand off her gun so she could turn sideways and press it to Soul's chest, and said "Breathe," in the barest whisper.

He tried. Soul did his level fucking best not to breathe so loudly that someone could probably nail a headshot from across the room, even in pitch darkness, and willed his heart to stop attempting to escape his ribcage.

Eventually, after maybe thirty seconds or ten years depending on where one was sitting on the issue, the lights came up, dim and golden against the tasteful stone walls and ceiling, the dark wood of the wine racks, gleaming seductively on a thousand bottles of wine more expensive than Soul's car.

Maka pushed away from him, leaving a cold spot against his chest that Soul resolved to ignore, because his life was in danger.

The wine cellar was a bit of a sinuous room; the staircase descended into an area wide enough for wine racks and a massive wooden table, but there was a curving passage off the far end that Soul assumed led to older bottles and other things. In this instance, 'other things' seemed to also include Red Star, who had stood to gain a great deal from Black Star's departure since it offered her a shot at favored heir. Soul wasn't familiar with all of Star Clan but he was familiar with her, because she'd always been overtly terrifying, and not in the way Maka was; more in a way that had always given him the impression that she'd like to sell his organs on the black market for money.

So: the lights came up, Maka moved, and Red Star darted around the corner, knives in her hands, ready for who knew what --

 

And Maka, who had, as far as Soul could tell, teleported across the room, cracked her in the back of the head with the stock of a sawed-off shotgun Soul hadn't even known she was carrying as Red Star passed by, caught sight of Soul, and pulled up in surprise. She hit the floor in a boneless slump, and by the time she'd recovered -- some fifteen seconds or so -- Maka had shrugged out of her jacket and used it to bind her wrists while she fished around in her pockets for the zip ties Soul knew she was carrying.

"That was anticlimactic," Maka said, tying off Red's ankles. "Thought you guys were more badass than this. Guess Black Star really is the best of you, after all."

"How sad," Black Star intoned, deciding that this was an opportune moment to add commentary. "Alexa, play 'Despacito'."

"You guys okay?" Kid asked, electing to ignore Black Star entirely.

Maka tied off Red Star's wrists and retrieved her jacket, leaving one of Star Clan's brightest young stars trussed up on her belly on the floor. "Yep. Took her down without breaking any of the wine bottles, even."

"Good," Kid said. "Keep moving."

"Affirmative," Maka said, reholstering the shotgun where it'd been settled against the small of her back. "Hadn't been planning to use that thing like a bat, but." A shrug, and a glance at Red Star, who was glaring furiously despite the head trauma. "You do what you must. Let's go, Soul."

"I didn't even know you had that thing," Soul said, crossing the room on the opposite side of the table from Red Star. "And what the hell is that tank top?"

"Lost a bet with Star," Maka said, declining to look at him as she led the way down the hall and, eventually, to a keypad set next to a heavy wooden door.

"What kind of bet ends with you wearing a 'Nakatomi Tower Christmas Party 1988' tank top," Soul asked, waiting for her to key in whatever code Kilik had given them and eyeing the racks of wine on either side of the door.

"The kind we don't talk about," Maka said, as the door swung open and Black Star said, "We'll tell you when you're older, dear."

"Fine," Soul said, and started leafing through the contents of Medusa's office while Maka poked around her desk, a mahogany monstrosity that Soul honestly wouldn't have thought it possible to squeeze into its current location if it hadn't been sitting there in front of him.

"Wanna explain that fucking dick windchime to me now," Maka said, thumbing through a folder and seemingly immune to the fact that Medusa's office chair seemed to be upholstered in alligator leather.

"Uh," Soul said, and carefully set down the book he'd been examining, one of an entire bookcase full of what appeared to be first editions of Victorian pornography. "So they're winged dicks -- they're called fascinum. The Romans believed they warded off evil and bad luck. They're all over the place in Pompeii. Just be glad that the Priapus statues aren't down here. Medusa's always been very fond of them, and of selling fake ones."

"Charming," Maka said, then tried to open a drawer and was thwarted by a lock. "Hey, help me out."

The drawer was easy enough to get open, and then --

"What the fuck," Maka said, pulling out the notepad with an expression of absolute disbelief.

"Wow," Soul said, watching as she skimmed over the text on the first page and proceeded to unlock Medusa's computer with it.

"Kid," Maka said, sitting back in the chair, "you're not going to believe this, but I'm pretty sure we just found a notepad with all of Medusa's account names and passwords written in it. Just -- sitting in a locked drawer in her desk."

"What," Kid said, sounding as though all the air had been knocked out of him. "Seriously? I spent -- I spent years working on this, it took me months to get Kilik working with me, I've spent all this time and energy trying to crack their security and she just -- just leaves it out, just writes it down on paper and -- "

"We can go out for drinks when this is all over, it'll be lit," Black Star said, simultaneously kind and creepy and perfectly on-brand. "Just so y'all know, I'm about done here, so I'll be signing off to help Azusa fake my death or whatever it is she's doing to get me off the hook and out of the park."

"Maka," Kid said, sounding downright plaintive. "Did she really just write it all down? Just like that?"

"Yeah, she did," Maka said, and snapped a picture of the pad with her phone. "Sending it to you now. Do we need to do anything else?"

"No, just -- you can go now, and you probably should," Kid said, sounding defeated.

"He sounds like someone kicked his puppy," Soul said, as Maka got out from behind Medusa's desk.

"I think he's understandably very let down that all his work was so easily circumvented," Maka said, leaning on the outside edge of the desk and frowning down at the paper Kilik had given her. "Let's go back into the wine cellar, I want to try something."

"Fine by me, being near this ridiculous collection of first edition pornography is getting old," Soul said, and together they went back out into the hallway, Maka pulling the door closed behind them.

"The passwords work," Kid said, still sounding like he was in mourning. "You two can get out of there."

"Got it," Maka said, and gave Soul an expectant look. "Got anything you need to do down here, or are you ready to go?"

"I'm good," he said, unable to suppress his grin, and they headed for the staircase.

/

They spent the remainder of the evening in the back seat of Tsubaki's truck, on account of not wanting to risk being identified more than they already had, and listened to Kid talk his way through grabbing every last scrap of data he could with Medusa's accounts. After the constant tightrope stress of the evening -- even if nothing had really gone wrong, Soul had spent every minute waiting for the worst -- it was almost relaxing, especially once Kid declared that he had more than enough useful evidence to get Disney on lockdown post haste.

And, of course, Spirit had assured them that Wes would be taken care of, that he and Azusa had things planned out so that once all the wheels were in motion he, Wes, Marie, and Black Star could all leave the park without being stopped or seen.

"What about Giriko," Soul asked, and motioned for Maka to deal him another card in their ongoing attempt to teach him how to effectively win at poker.

"I have to find him first, but yes, Giriko has a ticket out, too," Spirit said. "Justin knows he needs to get clear of the neighborhood?"

"He knows, he has an earpiece," Maka said, and suppressed a laugh when Soul failed to keep his expression under control over how bad his hand was. "Unlike some of you, he just hasn't been cluttering up the airspace with unimportant nonsense."

"Hey, this lunatic fiesta deserves running commentary," Black Star said, having long since grown bored of sitting quietly and resumed filling the silence with gems like do you guys think there's such a thing as too much Smash Mouth?

They got tired and bored of poker before Tsubaki finished rounding up gators and one extremely ornery python, and the police were waiting for Olympus Heights to leave Disney World before arresting them per Azusa's very frighteningly well-heeded request. Soul was drowsing in the back seat in spite of himself -- in spite of the fact that he had at some point yawned and stretched, which Maka had taken as an invitation to scoot in under his arm and declare him her new backrest so she could catch a nap, which had set his nerves right the fuck on fire, thanks. At least she'd divested herself of most of her guns.

Soul snapped out of his doze when the door on Maka's side of the cabin opened to reveal Justin, whose eyebrows nearly went into low earth orbit at the sight of Maka Albarn snoozing on his chest.

"You can make her move, I don't want to die," he grumbled, and Justin actually gave him a crooked kind of grin and wedged himself into the back with them, pushing Maka over a bit with his hip until she rearranged herself into a less horizontal position to make room.

"Can I fuckin' help you, asshole," she said, scowling, and he held up his hands in mock surrender. "I took down one of Star Clan's higher ups tonight, I can sleep wherever the hell I want."

"You certainly can," Justin said. "Don't let me stop you."

"Fuckin' won't," Maka said, but didn't seem inclined to go back to sleep with Olympus Heights's head of security sitting next to her.

"So how's it feel to be free," Soul asked, leaning back to look at Justin over the back of the seat.

Justin shrugged, pale eyes gleaming in the light of the truck's overhead lamp. "Don't believe it, yet," he said. "Won't till they march Medusa and Arachne and the rest of the HOA to jail for good. Till then, I just want to make sure that -- "

"Hey dude, you okay," said a gruff voice over their comms, and Justin cut off abruptly.

"What gives you the impression that I'm not," said Spirit, sounding like he'd rather die than have this conversation.

"Uh," said Giriko, sounding hesitant for the first time Soul could remember in practically a lifetime of being around the man. "Call it a hunch, but the fact that you're stealing people's wallets and watches and shit and throwing it all into random fountains is kind of a warning sign."

"Yeah, well, got nothing to do till Azusa tells me to collect Wes Evans and get the fuck out of here," Spirit said, and Maka rolled her head sideways to give Soul an apprehensive look. "He doesn't know I exist aside from the fact that I'm helping him run away, so. Just gotta stay busy till I can be of use."

"Oh, god," Soul said, rubbing a hand across his face.

"How about we go somewhere chill and talk about this," Giriko said, and Soul was at least glad to see that Justin looked as confused about this turn of events as he felt.

"Sure, why not," Spirit said, sounding painfully bitter. "I've lifted about ten flasks, anyway, and I'm pretty sure they all have alcohol in them that's worth more than everything I own."

"I would really love to have a flask on hand right now," Maka said, rubbing her temples. "And here I thought he just had a passing crush on your brother."

"Your father is a disaster," Soul said with feeling, "but so is my brother. I wonder if they ever actually spoke to each other about something that wasn't the job or passing bullshit at the bar."

Justin gave him a strange look out of the corner of his eye, but stayed quiet.

"Papa's an idiot," Maka said, and struggled her way out of her jacket, apparently overheated now that she was stuck between two warm bodies. "So probably not." She gave Justin a look. "Don't suppose Giriko has a habit of dispensing useful relationship advice."

That provoked the saddest laughter Soul had ever heard, and neither of them pressed him for details.

"Gimme Medusa's flask," Giriko said, then: "So what's the deal, man? You got something going on with Wes?"

"I wish," Spirit said. "But no. Bought him a drink at the bar the other night, and I'm in charge of making sure he gets out of here safe, but -- no. We haven't talked about anything more important than the weather."

There was a pause in which Soul assumed Giriko drank some of whatever alcohol Spirit had given him, then: "Well, have you tried to?"

"I haven't really had a lot of time," Spirit said, sounding deeply aggrieved. "And he's a target. I couldn't exactly take him out for dinner."

"Okay wait, this is Wes Evans we're talking about, right?" Giriko didn't really wait for confirmation, though Spirit did seem to make a noise in the affirmative. "Look, that guy doesn't talk to people he's not interested in. If he let you buy him a drink, that means he's -- ugh, not down to fuck, but it means he likes you a hell of a lot more than pretty much everyone else. His brother's about the only person I've ever really seen him spend time with, even as a famous musician out in public with a bunch of people ready to buy him whatever he wants if he'll smile at them."

There was a long silence, in which Maka sighed heavily and Justin looked like he kind of wanted to die and Soul wished he'd been born into basically any other family.

"I don't exactly have a good history with this sort of thing," Spirit said at length, sounding very nearly as defeated as Kid had when he found out about Medusa's notepad of passwords.

"Okay, firstly that isn't how probability works," Giriko said in an annoyed growl. "Don't pout at me, old man, you know I'm right. That's a terrible ass excuse. You sound like me."

Justin kind of -- twitched, and Tsubaki chose that moment to climb into the driver's seat. She twisted around, looked at Justin's pained expression, and mouthed 'what the fuck' at Soul, who shrugged.

"Mifune's gonna ride back with Free," she said after a minute, and cranked the engine. "Please, all of you, try not to die on me."

"No promises," Justin said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.

"What do you mean," Spirit asked, and Soul actually, physically, reached around and made sure his seatbelt was fastened.

"Gimme another flask," Giriko said, which probably meant he'd already gone through one. "You've met Justin."

There was a faint sound that was probably Black Star choking before he managed to mute his mic, and Soul leaned back again and looked at the man in question, who really did look like he'd decided death would be preferable to whatever this was.

"Sure," Spirit said.

"Well," Giriko said, then paused and swallowed hard enough that the mic picked it up. "We've worked together a long time, right? And a few years back we got real stressed out and went out drinking, and one thing led to another -- "

"No details," Spirit said, though the sympathy in his voice took the sting out of it.

"Yeah, that's fine. But anyway we -- do this occasionally, when we've had a few drinks, and then we never talk about it, and I'm so sick of working for the bad guys, but -- "

"But leaving them means leaving him?" Spirit asked, gentle, and Maka kind of looked like she was considering removing her earpiece and running off into the night, never to be seen again.

"Yeah," Giriko said, uncharacteristically subdued. "And it's almost impossible to leave Olympus Heights, anyway. I mean, we can now, probably, but he's -- not here, you feel me? Maybe it's better that way."

It was in this moment that Justin finally cracked, and Soul very studiously glued his eyes to the window and wasn't surprised when Maka leaned into him to do the same.

"Giriko," he said, mic unmuted, voice gravel-low, and Spirit and Giriko both made incoherent noises of surprise. "It's not better that way."

"This is beautiful," Black Star said, and for once sounded completely sincere and maybe a bit choked up, honestly. "Hold on, let me just -- "

"Star, no," Soul and Maka said in unison, but he was so far past listening.

"Justin. Giriko. Yesterday was legs and glutes. Today is the rest of your life." A melodramatic sniffle that Soul was pretty sure was actually genuine. "Today is heart and soul."

"I'm going to jump out the window," Maka said.

"Please don't," Tsubaki said, though it sounded like a struggle both to speak coherently and to keep the truck moving in a straight line.

"Tsubaki, where are you taking us," Justin said, in the very distinct tones of a man who had no fucks left to give.

"I'm taking Soul and Maka home," Tsubaki said, sounding cautious.

"Giriko," Justin said, and Maka leaned into Soul even harder at the intensity in his voice.

"Justin," Giriko said, voice full of unbearable warmth. "See you there?"

"Yeah," Justin said, and if being willing to stare down Maka Albarn wasn't enough proof of one's love and dedication Soul just didn't know what was.

"Great," Soul said, "sure, let's just -- everyone who's definitely wanted by the police on like five hundred counts of who knows what, let's all just meet at my place, that's chill."

"It's fine," Kid said with admirable aplomb considering the circumstances. "They won't be looking anywhere that isn't Disney and Olympus Heights itself."

"I gotta go," Spirit said, his sudden reappearance making Soul jump a little. "I can't just -- I'm not just gonna let him be the one who got away because I was scared."

"Oh, no," Soul said, and Maka patted his knee.

"See y'all soon," Black Star said, the huge grin obvious in his voice, and Soul did his best to forget everything that had just happened for as long as possible.

/

"This is where I was when I got the job," Maka said, settling into a plush recliner and propping her feet up on the table in front of it, seemingly unimpressed by the majestic view offered by an entire wall of windows. "I was counting money from my last job, and I was pretty annoyed that somebody managed to bid high enough to get past my filters."

"You sure do know how to make a guy feel special," Soul said, tossing his jacket onto a chair and moving to stare out the windows at Las Vegas.

"Well, I didn't shoot you," she said, giving him a lazy smile as she tucked her hands behind her head. "Our buyer sounded about ready to wet his pants, by the way, so our startup money should be pretty much in the bag. Made a pretty good deal now that everyone knows that everything that came from Olympus is fake."

"I know," Soul said, and, when Maka gave him a questioning look, reached into his pocket and flashed her own phone at her. "You're a hardass when it comes to haggling, you know."

"Excuse you," Maka said, and it sounded like a question. "You stole my phone? Papa would be so proud."

"Gotta be good at something around here," Soul said, and shrugged. "Not like they'd let me play a Vegas circuit now."

"Actually," Maka said, and Soul felt his skin go up in goosebumps. "I did get an offer for you. Your family being a pack of jerks doesn't change your skill level, you know. They wanted to inquire as to whether you'd be willing to do some concerts with your brother, assuming we can pry him away from my father."

"I -- " Soul swallowed hard. "Yeah, I, I'd love to. Have you talked to Wes?"

"Not yet," Maka said, and her smile made his knees go a little funny. "But I know how to get in touch. For what it's worth, he and Papa seem -- very happy. Anyway, once we get the real set of Audubons sold -- and I still can't believe that Medusa was swapping her own sister's collection for fakes, it's lucky Kilik gave us the codes to get into Medusa's secret vault -- we'll need to look for some fresh work. Marie's getting restless, and if she is, then the others definitely are."

"I bet," Soul said, staring out over the desert. "What'd you have in mind?"

"Well," Maka said,"Star Clan's still at large, you know -- "