It was cold and dark when he woke up, scrambling to his feet. A scream caught in Maleko's throat as he saw where he was, surrounded by cold metal. Slowly, though, he realized it was the underside of a bridge he was looking at and not the walls of the DWMA, that he had gone to sleep underneath a bridge on the edge of the city. It was the best place to hide from those who might still be pursuing him.

He relaxed with a sigh of relief and, from the corner of his eye, spotted Taka raising his head and then lowering it again as he nestled back into a brown lump. For a moment he feared he was still at the academy, that escaping and being on the run for those few days had been a dream. If he really had woken up back there, he would have lost it, he didn't want to have dreams that'd raise his hopes only to be crushed when he awoke.

Rubbing the last of the sleep from his eyes, Maleko yawn and made himself move, stalking out from beneath the bridge into the dim light of the city. It was night, the streets alight by the streetlights and passing cars.

His stomach grumbled and glancing at the bag only reminded him that he had run out of the food Crona had given him. Perhaps he could find a mouse or rabbit, or maybe even a bird that he could catch and eat. Well, maybe not a bird, that might upset Taka. There wasn't much in terms of berry trees and bushes, so he'd have to do with whatever small prey he came across.

He couldn't use his magic to help, but, back in the jungle, his magic had only been helpful to fight, not to hunt.

Taka didn't seem to move from his spot as Maleko walked away from the bridge in search of food, but he knew the bird would find him if trouble came.

As Maleko rounded a corner, a shrill scream pierced the silence and sent shivers down his spine. He turned his head in direction of the noise and found the smell of fresh blood soon reaching his nose as he started to slowly walk in its direction. He could smell two people, but one of them smelled… weird. Wrong. A putrid stench like an infected wound left to fester and rot.

"You shouldn't get involved," Taka spoke in his head and Maleko glanced around as if to see the bird, but couldn't. He was hiding and watching.

But, he had to, someone as hurt, and something wrong was happening here. Maleko knew, deep inside, he couldn't just ignore it. What would mama say if she found out something bad happened and he didn't stop to help? What would David say? He couldn't go home and face his friend if he ignored it.

Maleko still wanted to be a hero. Heroes helped people if they were in trouble. Like Superman.

The boy had made his decision and, despite complaints from the hawk, made his way after the scent of rot and blood. He hurried down sidewalks and wove between parked cars, and soon he'd found the source within an alley between two closed stored.

The rotten stench was coming from what could have only been a kishin egg. A bad person, a really bad person. But even after knowing what kind of terrible monsters they were, it hadn't been enough to prepare Maleko for the sight of such a twisted, deformed being. It was drooling and laughing as it hunched over, long, bloodstained knife-like fingers scraping the ground as it took a hunkering step forward.

He swallowed and decided that it didn't matter how frightening the monster looked, what mattered was that it had a woman cornered. She was a young looking woman, looked no older than mama and held a broken bottle up as a weapon with a shaking grip. Her arm was bleeding from where the kishin egg hit her and she was obviously scared, reeking so strongly of fear that Maleko was sure he would still smell it without his strong senses.

Maleko didn't allow himself time to have second thoughts as he rushed towards the monster, kicking up from the ground latching himself to the monsters back, digging his nails into its face and twisting hard. "Ruh-run!" Maleko growled to the woman as he slid off the kishin eggs back and took a few quick jumps away from it.

His claws were unsheathed and his teeth were bared. He didn't bother to watch and see if the woman ran away like he said, his attention drawn to the creature that turned to face him. Its face was bleeding from where Maleko dug its claws, and it was even more ugly on the front as it was from behind. It laughed as if the deep scratches didn't hurt as it lumbered towards him.

Fighting animals was one thing, but a kishin egg was different, and a sudden surge coursed through him. He hid his fear with an angry growl, arching his back and widening his stance, eyes narrowed as he let out a snarl at the kishin egg.

Quick as a tiger, the monster darted forward, bladed claws outstretched in a swipe that would have cleaved him in half had Maleko not dropped low to the ground. As Maleko hit the dirty pavement, he winced as his jaw hit the ground and his teeth rattled in his mouth. For a moment, he saw stars beneath his eyelids and let out a low whimper.

Deranged laughter brought him back to reality and he opened his eyes to see the kishin egg raising its claws and then bringing them down in a rushed downward swipe. Maleko didn't have enough time to get back up and out of the way. He couldn't fight it, not with his soul locked up in the chest, not with his magic repressed. He had to open the box, let his soul out. It'd be okay if it was just for a few minutes, right? Quickly, Maleko focused on his soul and—

"Get away from him!"

Glass shattered and Maleko stared in mute surprise as the woman chucked the broken bottle at the monsters head, at how it shattered into a splendid shower of glistening shards right above him. The monster was stunned, and in that brief moment, Maleko scrambled to his feet. Why was she still here, he told her to run!

He dived to the side just as the monster regained itself and lunged at him with another slash. The claws caught him on the back, tearing through his clothes and cutting into his skin. Maleko bit back a scream and turned it into a snarl as he fell forward. Catching himself with his hand, he propelled himself away, rushing forward blindly and finding himself crashing into the woman's legs. She caught him before he hit the ground again, breathing heavily and terrified as her hands shook, trying to keep him from falling.

"Oh my god, oh no, oh shit," she repeated over and over again as Maleko found his footing. "Are you okay? Oh god, it hit you, oh no, no, no." her fear intensified and the strength of the smell was making his head spin.

His back was damp as blood ran down the skin. "Fuh-fine," Maleko forced out. His head hurt, his back was torn, his face was bleeding as well from faceplanting the pavement, the hard surface having torn into his chin. And… he was angry.

"Maleko, you need to get out of there," Taka warned. He could spy the bird perched on the roof of one of the buildings they were sandwiched between, his eyes glowing in the night. "You can't win this fight."

For some reason, that just made him want to fight this monster even more.

"I c-can beat it," he said to the bird, eyes focused on the kishin egg as it began stalking towards them once more. There was no way to escape, the brick wall of buildings was behind them and the kishin egg was between them and the alley entrance. He'd have to fight it, and he certainly wasn't going to leave someone to die just so he could escape.

He growled and flexed his fingers, it hurt to arch his back but he did so anyway. "I cuh-can kill you," he snarled lowly at the kishin egg. He wasn't afraid, not of this thing, not of anything. He wasn't going to let this monster beat him when he knew he was stronger.

Maleko let his soul out of the box and relished the rush of heat coursing through his body.

"K-kid, what are you—don't go towards it!" the woman whimpered, reaching for him as Maleko began stalking towards the lumbering monster. He wasn't afraid, he wasn't weak, and he'd prove it by killing this thing. He was getting sick of looking at its ugly face anyways.

The heat was rising, his blood coming to a boil. He could taste the smoke on his tongue as he took in a deep breath. He'd tear this monster apart, over and over and then burn it's body until there was nothing left of it. He'd fill the alley with its blood, turn that horrid laughter into screams as it convulsed under him, like a scared little rabbit, until it was—

There was fire.

It engulfed the kishin egg, turning the laughter into screams as its form writhed into the flames, dark plumes of smoke rising into the sky. When the fire faded, a red soul was left in place of a body. The woman behind him gave a deep, shaky breath and dropped to her knees, letting out soft sobs and whimpers.

The soul bounced, suspended in air, surrounded by it's own firey red aura. Maleko glared at it, his body tense, his claws aching as he kept them. Then, he let his gaze shift from the soul to the other end of the alley.

The fire hadn't been his.

At the mouth of the alley was a pair of girls that he recognized as soon as his eyes caught sight of their cream colored uniforms. Through the smoke and blood, he found their scent. His lips curled back into a snarl as he hunched over, blood still boiling, claws itching for a fight as Kim approached, Jackie in hands. There was a glow and soon the weapon was walking beside the witch in her own human form. Their eyes glanced to the woman sobbing at the back and then landed on Maleko, worry and surprise in their gaze.

"Maleko," Kim said softly as Jackie went to the woman, talking to her in a hushed voice to make sure she was fine. Maleko didn't respond, only growling as the witch drew closer, distrust and suspicion singing in his ears. Kim got closer and then kneeled in front of him. "Are you okay? You're bleeding—here, I got something I can stop the bleeding with and I can heal it later," her eyes glanced to the woman with Jackie. Right, she didn't want people knowing she was a witch, so she wouldn't be using her magic in front of strangers.

She dug into her pockets and pulled out a plain handkerchief, reaching out to wipe the blood off Maleko's face, but he reeled back when she reached for him, letting out a growl and swatting her hand away.

"Maleko," Kim furrowed her brows and held her hand close to herself. "Maleko, what happened? Why are you out here, don't you know how worried everyone is?"

Worried? Yeah, right. Maleko took a step back, on edge, ready for an attack, for anything. Kim was with the academy, she hunted witches—she was an enemy, a traitor. How could he have even trusted her in the beginning, ah she must have thought him the biggest fool there was. He bared his teeth at her. "Not going bah-back."

"Not going back? You have to! It's too dangerous to be out here on your own," Kim tried to reason. "You're hurt, come with me and I can patch you up, and you can tell me what happened, why you ran away."

"Don't trust her," Taka warned. "She'll just take you back to the academy, you'll never be able to find Kai if you're trapped there."

Maleko growled and then snapped forward with a warning swipe that sent Kim reeling back even if he didn't manage to hit her. "Nah-not going!" he repeated forcefully. There was so much he wanted to say to her, reasons why he would never step foot in that city again, but it was too many words, far too much for his brain to comprehensibly translate for him to say. So, instead Maleko snapped his jaws in a warning bite, "Gonna find mama."

That was all he needed to say for Kim to understand. "Maleko, you, you can't," she said and he snarled at her, so she tried again. "I know you really want to see her, I can completely understand, but you can't. there's a lot going on, and it's not entirely safe to be with her, not right now."

"Cuh-cause you're hunting her," he shot back and the startled look was confirmation for what he already knew. "I won't let a-anyone hurt her."

Something crossed her face, an expression with emotions he didn't understand. She tried to reach for him once more. "Maleko, you're hurt and scared, I understand that," she said speaking softly, and he saw her glance towards Jackie behind him. "Come with me and I can heal you, and we can talk. About your mother, about what's going on."

He shook his head. "No," he snapped.

"You need to leave."

Maleko bared his teeth and took a hasty step away from her. Takas voice rang in his head, an urgent echo as the hawk watched above, it's anxiety coursing into the boy. As Kim made to reach out and grab him, Maleko shot forward, ducking under her arm and rushing past her towards the open entrance to the alley.

"Maleko!" Jackie yelled and Kim took off after him.

It hurt to run, but he kept, ducking between cars and leaping over trashcans while the witch stayed hot on his trails. Why wouldn't she just stop chasing him? He bared his teeth, feet slamming against the paved ground, the pebbles and rocks dug into his bare feet digging into the skin, leaving cuts and scrapes. It was harder to use Soul Protect as he ran, he was already hurt and tired and scared, but he managed to stuff his terrified and anxious soul back into the chest.

Leaping onto a wire fence, wincing as the razor wire cut into his hand and sliced across it,, he clambered over and stumbled down to the ground on the other side and darting off once more. Taka flew above, following him and Kim stayed behind, but slowly growing farther behind.

Even as his feet and hand were bleeding, and the pain from the cuts on his back began to sear, he kept running, leaving blood with each step. How was he supposed to loose her when he was leaving a trail of blood behind him?!

Maleko darted through a narrow alley, diving between the small space between a wall and a dumpster as he went through and kept running as he broke through to the other side, knowing the small spaces would slow her down just a little. Taka was nowhere in sight but he had to trust that they'd meet up again soon.

He swallowed back the pain and ran onto the street only to falter as a sudden burst of lights stunned him, letting out a scream as tires screeched against the pavement. He fell backwards onto the ground as the car came to a halt in front of him. Heart beating loudly in his ears, Maleko sucked in a sharp intake of breath, staring at the dark car and flickering headlights as the driver threw the door open and rushed out.

"Holy shit, why the hell did you run out onto the street?" the driver yelled, but the anger in his voice dissolved as he took in the terrified sight of the boy, bloodied and dirty, shaking as he sat on the street. "Fuck, kid, are you okay?"

"I…. I…." Maleko's voice trembled and caught in his throat, instead he let out a low whimper and instinctively pulled back when the man reached for him. "Ch-chase…"

Footsteps echoed through the air, coming off from the alley he'd cut through onto the main road was Kim, having caught up to him once more. She caught his gaze and starting towards him in a jog, breathing heavily from running after him. "Maleko!" she yelled.

He scrambled back, struggling to get back on his feet and tumbling back down before he fully stood up; it felt like his legs had been replaced by Jell-O for the moment. Whimpering loudly, he backed away on the ground, "St-stay 'way!" he snarled, blinking back the tears as his chest continued to heave from the exhaustion. She was going to catch him, she was going to take him back to the academy—she was going to keep him from finding Kai, from going home. No, no, no, no! "Get ah-ah-away!"

Kim ignored him, coming closer, "Maleko, stop running, we need—"

The man who had been so close to running Maleko over had inserted himself between her and the kid, arms crossed over a broad chest. "I don't think the kid wants you near him," he said curtly, and though Maleko couldn't see his expression, he could smell it, the scent of an alpha. The man was telling her to back off, to leave. He was… standing up for Maleko, keeping Kim from taking him away.

He continued backing away, to get away from Kim and the man, grabbing hold of the car and trying to stand once more with its help.

"Look, sir, I know what this looks like," Kim was saying, trying to maneuver around him, only for the man to sidestep in front of her every time.

Maleko grimaced as his cut hand smeared blood on the warm hood of the car, stinging and burning. He took a wobbling step, then another, slowly, with each one he regained his strength and stability until he was able to start running without falling over. He had to take this opportunity while he could, while Kim was being held back by the man.

He sucked in another breath of air as he began running, stumbling forward but able to keep moving.

"Maleko!" Kim yelled and rushed after him, but the man grabbed her by the arm and yanked her back. "No you don't," he said and looked out towards Maleko. "Kid, wait!"

But Maleko ignored them. He kept running, darting down another narrow space, leaping off the sidewalk into the grass and through the bushes, hoping the darkness and foliage would hide the blood he was trailing. The scent of it was overwhelming his nose, until it was all he could smell, and his heart beating within his own chest was all that he could hear.

He kept running, blinking back tears that blinded him, listening as a few people looked out their windows and yelled at him when he ran through their yards, a few more cars screeched to a stop when he rushed onto the street once more. Running blindly through the city, he refused to stop no matter what, every time he tripped and stumbled, scraping his knees and palms into bloody messes, he pushed himself back up kept running.

Eventually he felt the soothing presence of Taka's voice in his mind, urgent calls to keep moving and encouragements as he shadowed him in the sky above. He offered no guidance or directions, only urging Maleko to keep running, to stop for nothing. Kim and Jackie were here, who knew who else was here from the academy, he had to run. Keep running until he was safe.

He was tired and exhausted, but he kept running, fueled by fear and anger.

He kept running, dropping to all fours and ran like his life depended on it, for all he knew, it actually did. Was Kim still after him? Had she slipped the man's grasp? Would Jackie be there waiting for him when he turned the corner? Were there others waiting for him? He'd thought them friends, Kim was a witch and Jackie was her friend, he thought he could trust them, thought they'd be a friend. But, no, he'd been a fool to think that. Of course he'd been a fool.

"Calm yourself, little sun," Taka soothed, "Breathe."

It was hard to, but he took in a deep breath as he ran, trying to calm his nerves, banish the fear from his mind. "You'll be okay, little sun, you're doing wonderful," the hawk continued to assure him as they moved.

He closed his eyes for a moment and took in another shaky breath. Opening his eyes, he ran. Don't think, just run. The world had become a blur of colors streaking by, he had no idea where he was anymore, nor did he care where he was going, so long as he got far from the girls.

He didn't want to go back, he didn't want to go anywhere near the city nor its meisters and weapons.

"Little sun!"

Maleko didn't recognize the warning until it was too late. He'd dived into a yard and ran, no longer looking where he was going and suffering for it when his leg caught on something and he skidded across the ground, rolling and sliding and becoming tangled up into thin metal wiring as he came to a stop in the dirt.

Breathing heavily, Maleko squirmed, only for the tangled mess he was in to get worse, and the metal wire to dig into his skin, leaving new scratches and aggravating his cuts. Whimpering, Maleko tried to pull an arm free to no avail. "Taka," he whispered when the hawk landed on the ground beside him. He couldn't stop running, they'd catch up, they'd find him. He had to get out of this, keep running, find someplace safe.

"It's okay, little sun, I'm here," Taka answered, grabbing hold of one of the coiled wires and giving it a tug, though it was useless.

Taka wouldn't be able to pry any of it back, he was trapped, they'd find him. They'd find him and drag him back. Maleko's body shuddered and he buried his face into the dirt, giving out a muffled sob. What was he going to do? Relenting, Taka ducked down and buried himself into the space beside his neck, as if to present some comfort.

"Damn raccoons!" a voice yelled through the air as a door was kicked open. "I told ya that if I caught your sorry hides in my cabbage patch again, I'd make hats out of you!" he weakly lifted his head to see a woman aiming a gun at him as he laid trapped in her garden. But as soon as she saw that it was not a raccoon ransacking her garden but a child tangled up, she lowered the gun, looking as if she was trying to process just what she was seeing.

"Well, I sure as heck aren't shooting a kid," she said, flicking the safety on her gun and leaving it to lean against the house wall. Moving towards him she stepped over the rows of vegetables and crouched beside Maleko who was fighting back his tears. "It's okay, hun, let me get you out of there."

Maleko winced and shivered as she carefully and slowly pulled the mesh fence off of him. Whimpering, Maleko closed his eyes and metal and nails brushed against bruises and cuts and heard her click her tongue as she worked. To his despair, Taka took off from where he'd cuddled underneath the boy, taking to hide in a tree. She piled the wire fence beside him after getting the last of it off of him and then ran her fingers through the bloody skin of his back, taking in the sight of the wounds the kishin egg left, left dirty from his run through the city, and then looking at the other injuries littering his body as Maleko curled up.

"Hey, there, string bean, I'm not gonna hurt ya, okay?" she assured him and carefully scooped Maleko up into her arms. He only halfheartedly fought her off, too tired and sore, falling weakly against her chest, a scared, trembling mess. "It's okay, it's okay. Can you tell me your name?"

He choked in a breath and hissed at the pain that rushed through him. "Ma…" he began, faltering and trying again. "Asahi."

"Asahi?" the woman repeated and gave a nod. "Alright, Asahi, look, let's get inside, get you cleaned up and patched up, does that sound good?"

Not trusting his voice, he just nodded weakly and let the woman carry him back inside. If he was inside, then Kim and Jackie wouldn't find him and—she wasn't bad, was she? She didn't smell of anyone from the school, that was good, right? He didn't know. But a wave of anxiety washed over him when he realized Taka wouldn't be going with him.

"It's okay, little sun," Taka assured, "I'll be outside."

The inside of the house was warm, full of family photos and various new smells. It was small and cozy and reminded him of his home with Kai, before it was destroyed. It felt safe inside.

She took him to a bathroom and left him on the bathtubs edge as she grabbed things from the cupboard. Turning on the tubs faucet, the tub filled a little with water. He winced as his tattered feet began to soak and the woman ran a washcloth under the running water.

"Look at you, you're filthy. Go ahead and strip down so we can clean you up," she ordered and he obeyed, saying nothing.. Tossing his torn clothes onto the ground, he sank down into the tub as it continued to slowly fill with warm water. She was gentle as she began washing him, running the washcloth across his cuts and occasionally refilling the water when it started to dirty. He hadn't realized just how dirty he had become until he saw the water a mixture of red and brown from his blood and grime.

Her fingers gently massaged into his hair as she washed the dirt out with some fruity shampoo, were careful as she washed gravel and dirt from his cuts, even as they continued to bleed. She said something about needing them to keep bleeding, so that they washed out whatever got in the cuts.

As the water refilled for the third time, she filled a cup with water and poured it over his head, letting soap suds run down his skin as his hair began to regain is snow-white color. "My name's Maggie, I probably should introduced myself earlier, but I suppose names aren't all that important when you get down to it," she said as she ran fingers through his hair and poured another cup full of water over him.

The way she treated him, careful and gentle, it reminded him of Kai whenever she gave him baths. It was easy to relax, to slowly forget the terror he'd felt while running as Maggie massaged his scalp.

Maleko waited a few beats before speaking. "Maggie?" he repeated, testing the name, "Maggie… nice."

There was a pause as Maggie took in his way of speaking, but it was only for a half a second. "I'm glad you think I'm nice, string bean. Not many people do."

He didn't understand what she meant by that, why people wouldn't think she was nice, so far she had been kind, her and the man who had held Kim back. But he didn't have the energy to question it. He just sat there as she continued to get the dirt and grime off him and out of all his injuries.

It took a while but eventually she pulled back, "All clean, now, let's get those cuts all covered," she said, draining the tub and leaving him on the edge, patting him dry with a towel. He whimpered and when he saw the blood staining the fabric, screwed his face into a grimace. She was so nice and he was ruining her things. But Maggie must have seen his expression because she laughed and ruffled his damp hair, "It's okay, I was going to throw some towels out, anyway," she assured him.

Dried, thanks in part to the towel down and in part to his own hot skin, she rummaged around and began to apply antibacterial ointment onto each one. He hissed and winced at the way it stung, but Maggie kept giving him affirmations. "You're doing great, sweetie." "It'll be done soon." And so on and so forth, until it was over and he was covered in fresh bandages. The ones on his back were the hardest to wrap up due to the size of the cuts, but she managed, while the scrapes on his face and rest of him were rather easy. Even his older injuries that were aggravated got some treatment.

It was nothing like the infirmary at the academy, but, he wasn't treading blood everywhere, that's all he could ask for.

She left him in the bathroom for only a few minutes, telling him to stay, and when she did come back it was with some clothes. Her sons, she had said, they were a bit small for him, but when he put them on, they were much too big for him. The shirt alone almost went down to his knees. But it'd be better than running around naked, or from wearing the same clothes he'd been wearing since he left the academy. He could easily hear Kai, "It's filthy to wear the same thing without changing, you don't want to be filthy, now do you?" He'd never considered being dirty as a bad thing before, but then again, he hadn't known much before she came and found him.

Led into the kitchen and seated at a table, Maggie went to fix him up something to clean, slippers padding softly against the hard floor.

"So, Asahi, can you tell me your parents number?" she asked as she opened a fridge and the smell of eggs, milk, meat and so much more wafted into the air. "I'm sure they want to know where you are and we can get you home."

Home

Maleko withdrew into himself, wrapping his arms around himself and looking down. "Don' know," he mumbled and shook his head. "Mama… far 'way, trying ta'to find her."

Maggie hummed and brought over a plate with a sandwich on it, sliding it over to him as she took a seat next to him. "Lost, then?" she said, watching as he cautiously began eating. "I can bring you down to the police station, I'm sure they can help you find her."

The police? They'd… no, they were with the academy! They'd never help him find Kai. He swallowed his mouthful and quickly shook his head. "No!" he said a bit more forceful than he had intended, ducking his head in embarrassment and hiding his face as he ate.

Maggie didn't have a response to that, she just kept looking at him, as if he was some bug she was trying to study. It made him uncomfortable, made everything in him cry out that he had to run. Did she already figure out who he was, was she going to go find Kim and send him away? Was she—

"Tell me something, string bean," Maggie finally spoke up, still watching him as she rested her cheek on a hand, "do you like pudding?"

Did he like… huh? Slowly, Maleko looked back up at her, searching her gentle, smiling face for any hint of malice, for anything. But he found nothing but peace. She reminded him so much of Kai it made his heart hurt. "I like pudding," he answered with a hesitant smile.

Mm-mm, well, then you're in for a treat! My son makes the best damn pistachio pudding in the world! It's sure to knock your socks right off your tiny feet," she ruffled his hair as she said that, and Maleko couldn't help but smile and giggle. She left the table only long enough to grab him a bowl and spoon.

As it turns out, pistachio pudding was good and now his favorite treat out there.

He ate his bowl and his stomach was content to have had a real meal aside from granola bars and water. Absently, he remembered he'd left his backpack under the bridge and made a note to reclaim it when he could—Crona gave him that and he'd feel awful to abandon it!

When it was done and Maggie wiped his face clean, the boy curled up on a couch. As she draped a blanket over him and a pillow under his head, Maggie said something about her son being asleep and her husband at work until morning, so no one should bother him. He saw Taka watching from outside the window and knew that his friend would alert him if someone did arrive.

For the first time in what must have been over a week, Maleko felt relaxed, he felt safe as he drifted into sleep.

The morning sun rose into the sky, a massive grin stretched across its face as it chortled on its ascend. Maleko stirred awake to the sun shining on his face and the smell of bacon wafting into the air. He blinked his eyes open and pushed himself up, the blanket falling off his shoulders and the couch sinking under his weight.

For a brief moment he thought he was home and hope blossomed in his heart that everything had been a dream. But then reality came crashing in and he realized the room he saw wasn't the same living room as his own home. The family photos weren't his own, the furniture not his own, the scents neither his nor his mothers. Right… Maggie. This was Maggie's home.

He winced as he pushed himself off the couch and onto the floor, his back still burned with pain from his fight. His arms and legs still throbbed from running and scraping them up. He could smell blood on himself and only had to glance down at his arms to see red staining through the bandages on his arms. His back was probably no better since that was where the worst of his injuries had been.

Ignore it, he told himself and glanced out a window. Taka was still out there, right? He couldn't tell, but he had to have faith that his friend was still there.

He yawned and stumbled away from the couch, his legs feeling unstable, but managed to make his way to the kitchen where the smell of food was coming through. Maggie was by the stove, cooking bacon and eggs and humming a small tune, and she wasn't alone. A teenage boy, older than the students he thought he had befriended at the academy, leaned back with a some comic in his hands.

The boy was tall, slim, dressed in ripped jeans and a band shirt. He had Maggie's eyes, but his hair was black—the faint smell of dye wafting from him. He noticed Maleko standing there and looked over to the boy, eyebrow raised.

"Well, good morning, kid," he nodded, he didn't seem surprised, Maggie had probably told him about Maleko.

Speaking of whom, Maggie turned from the stove and smiled widely at Maleko, "I'm glad to see you're up, little bean, did you sleep alright?" she asked as Maleko cautiously approached the table with a mumbled 'yes'. "This here is my son, Mickey, he was already asleep by the time you showed up so I hadn't been able to properly introduce you two at the time. If you stick around, I can introduce you to my husband when he gets home."

She was friendly, and acting like he was already part of the household. It was strange, and Maleko was trying hard not to trust he so easily. But it was hard.

Mickey smiled, "Name's Asahi, right?" he asked, "nice to meet you, kiddo. Sorry if my mom's been a bit overbearing at all, she means well."

Shaking his head, Maleko climbed into a chair, ducking his head to not look at anyone, "S'sfine," he mumbled, perking up when Maggie slid a plate full of eggs and bacon over to him. He moved to reach for a slice, stomach growling, but stopped himself to look at Maggie cautiously, afraid of getting in trouble. "Mine?"

She laughed and nodded, "Yeah, string bean, it's yours. Do you want some milk to go with it? We also have orange juice," Maggie offered as she pulled a glass from a cupboard and the opened the fridge. When Maleko responded with 'OJ', she poured him a glass and placed it beside the plate.

He should have been slower, should have taken his time, but instead Maleko scarfed down the food. Even though she fed him last night, he was still hungry and the food was delicious. Though it seemed to amuse the other two to watch him swallow his food without chewing and without a care. They watched him with grins for a few moments longer before returning to their own tasks without a care in the world. As if Maleko was just a normal part of this family.

It worried him about as much as it comforted him.

Finishing his plate, he peeked over at Mickey, who was engrossed in whatever it was he was reading. "Whas' that?" he asked carefully, waiting as Mickey looked up at him as if to make sure he was who Maleko was talking to.

Then he smiled, "I'm reading the latest Superman comic," he answered as if that was all.

At the mention of the hero, Maleko's eyes brightened and he leaned forward so that he was halfway in his seat and halfway across the table to try and look at the comic. Sure enough, he could just barely see his hero on one of the pages. "Superman?" he repeated, grinning wide. "Superman!"

"Ah? You like him?"

"Yeh! Superman the best! Watch on TV lots," Maleko threw a fist into the air. "Wanna b-be like 'im!"

It seemed to amuse Mickey enough that he closed his comic and to watch the boy. "He's pretty cool, though personally I prefer Moon Knight—even though he's Marvel. But I've got a lot of DC comics up in my room, I can lend you my Superman ones to read."

Maleko was already excited, and that only made him even more eager, but then just as quickly, the boy deflated and sank back into his chair with his lower lip caught between his teeth. "Ah… cah-can't read well," he admitted. As much as he wanted to read the comics, Maleko would be completely lost when he could barely read. Sure, seeing the images would be wonderful, just seeing Superman beat up the bad guys without any verbal context wouldn't be terrible, but it wouldn't be the same.

He wanted to know the story just as much as he wanted to see his favorite hero in action.

Picking up on Maleko's dejection, Mickey gave a contemplating look, looking down to his comic, glancing at the boy and then to the ceiling as if unable to keep his gaze on one thing for too long while he thought. A hand came to tap at his chin and he started humming as Maggie came to collect the dirty dishes and take them to the sink. It had only been a minute, maybe two, but eventually Mickey decided to speak up once more.

"Well, I can read them to you," he offered. Maleko raised his head to look at the teen, to see him grinning as if that solved everything, the way he smiled, so confident and sure of himself, it reminded Maleko of Blackstar. "I'm aspiring to be a voice actor, so I think reading these comics out loud, using different voices, it'd help me out and it'd let you read the comics as well. What do you say, Asahi?"

How could he possible refuse?

Save for when Maggie changed his bandages, Maleko spent most of the day in Mickey's room reading Superman comics with him. He'd been situated on the teenagers lap while they sat on the floor, comic held out in front of them, Mickey voicing everything with gusto and enthusiasm—and he wasn't half bad as a voice actor—they'd gone through a good chunk of the many comics that were boxed up in the room.

They went through various different adventures with Superman, splitting off into Justice League comics in general, and sometimes sliding away from DC to Marvel. Mickey even pulled out some of his Moon Knight comics to read to Maleko.

"Khonshu….nnngh," Mickey had winced and groaned, breathing heavily behind Maleko as Moon Knight, bleeding and struggling to move, stumbled into a wall for the support his legs couldn't manage. "Why… have you… forsaken me?"

Maleko decided that he liked Moon Knight. Sure, he wasn't Superman, he was much more violent and less stable… but he was fun.

For the short time he had actually been with Kai, he'd only ever been exposed to the cartoons and movies of these heroes, the comics were a new frontier and one that he had come to love as soon as Mickey opened up and read the first page. They took breaks to eat, to move, eventually they began to do other things. Play. Mickey was far more fun of a playmate than the other kids back home had been.

He felt safe here and a part of him hated it, a part of him cried traitor. He was supposed to find Kai, find his mother. But here he was, staying with this family, playing house. Just until I know for sure Kim is gone. I know for sure they're not still looking for me here, he tried to reason with himself. Until my cuts are healed. Until Taka says its safe to go.

He was still going to find her, but it was nice to have someplace to rest. She'd like Maggie and Mickey, knew his mama would.