When Soul finally regained steady consciousness once more, he wondered at his strange surroundings, and why they'd felt the need to move him into such a claustrophobic room. Once his vision sharpened, however, he realized that he was in the airy, spacious infirmary, and the only reason it felt so tiny and cramped was that it was packed full of people.
"He's awake," Jackie said quietly, setting the whole room to attention.
"Thank god," someone murmured amid a chorus of relieved sighs.
"The hell's going on?" Soul groaned. He tried to prop himself up on one elbow to get a better look at everyone, but his ribs shrieked in protest. A hand caught his back and lowered his down to bed. "The fuck happened?" He remembered a dimly lit basement, water dripping from rotting wood rafters, white hot pain embracing his ribcage, and the smoke and chaos of the door blowing in to reveal Maka in all her furious glory.
"Motherfucking Barton, that's what goddamned happened." Blake was leaning against the foot of the bed opposite him, and had it been any other day, Soul might have said he was only relaxing with his friends. But upon closer But upon closer inspection, his mouth was pulled tight at the corners, his arms flexed as though itching to explode into action, and his eyes sparked with barely contained rage.
"What?" Soul didn't remember seeing Barton there. "I don't understand."
"The kidnapping was staged." Maka was sitting to his right, her hand clenching a handful of his sheets in a grip so tight her knuckles were white. Her voice was a shaky calm. "When they pulled the bag off my head, I was in a van headed back here. Barton was in the lecture hall with a screen showing the room they kept you in. And there you were right in the middle, still unconscious."
"It was all a test," Liz said woodenly from the bed to his left. "Barton set it all up - kidnap you and smuggle you away to some abandoned safe house, then torture you for information while the rest of us watched."
"It was a test," Kilik picked up, "to see if you would break. To show us what would happen if we were ever caught."
Soul wasn't sure if his growing nausea was due to what they were telling him, or the pain. "Oh God." He slid his eyes shut, allowing their words to wash over him. Part of him wasn't surprised - Barton had always exuded a fanatical energy. But to go that far… "What happened to him? I mean, Spirit and Stein and the rest of them can't have approved that." Dread sunk like a stone in his stomach. "Tell me they didn't approve that."
Maka shook her head so fiercely her pigtails hit her face. "Absolutely not. My dad was furious, and Stein…" The others shuddered. "I've never seen him that mad."
Kim, who was sitting next to Liz, spoke up. "Barton's out." She pretended to examine her nails, but when Soul caught her eye, she smiled warmly at him. "Sid and Nygus helped him pack last night." The way she said it suggested that there wasn't much "helping" involved at all.
"But…" Soul rubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to stave away the headache he felt hovering nearby. "If you were all in the lecture hall, how did you find me?"
Blake sniggered. "Ask Batman over here." He jerked a thumb at Maka. "Stood up right in front of God and everyone and ripped Barton a new one. I thought her hair might actually catch on fire she was so mad." Soul looked over at her, but she studiously avoided his gaze. "Turned to the rest of us and said if we wanted to stay and watch that we could burn in hell with Barton."
Maka's cheeks flushed a faint pink. "You all agreed, didn't you?"
Blake rolled his eyes. "Well, duh, but none of us were gonna stand up and make a speech as pretty as that."
"We followed after her," Tsubaki said quietly from the bed next to Blake. "And a few others, actually, but we were the only ones who could actually do something about it."
"Do something?" Soul's brows drew together. "What do you mean?"
No one would look at him straight this time. Until Patti finally broke. "We may have broken several academy rules. Like, all of them."
"What did you do?" No one answered him. He tried to sit up once more, and this time he was successful. He waved off Maka's hovering hands. "Guys, what did you do?"
"Nothing much," Harvar said dryly. "Only accessed Shibusen's mainframe without permission, stole weapons from the storeroom, and hijacked an academy van."
"Among other things," Jackie added.
"You stole…" Soul almost wanted to lay back down. "You shouldn't have done that."
"Well, how else were we gonna come after you?" Patti asked, looking genuinely quizzical.
"I didn't ask you to do that."
Maka answered for all of them. "You didn't have to."
He met her gaze, and the connection that passed between them left him shaken and wishing for a moment that the others weren't there. "You'll get kicked out," he said, still looking at Maka but addressing them all.
"If they condemn what we did," Maka replied, "than I want no part in it."
Soul looked to the others, shocked to see them nodding along. When he'd first arrived, if someone had told him that he would find a group of people like this, willing to break each and every rule to drag him out of that rotting basement, he wouldn't have believed it. His entire life, he'd been a bit of a loner, and now here was a team that he trusted more than anything, a team he would likely do the same thing for. A lump formed in his throat, making it hard to swallow.
"Thank you," he said, voice hoarse.
"Oh, don't get all mushy," Blake said, sweeping the emotion under the rug in one swift moment. "I didn't feel like finding another punching bag." But he grinned widely, one that Soul didn't hesitate to return.
Maka opened her mouth to say something, but never got the chance. One of the nurses pushed open the door, then froze as she took in the crowd around Soul. Her face grew stormy. "I told you two visitors!" she cried, looking not too dissimilar to a rampaging swan. "Two! And you bring half the class with you! Out, out!"
A few of them squawked under the assault, and they all cleared out quickly. Maka was the last to leave, taking his hand and squeezing it once before she followed them. Soul's palm tingled long after she'd disappeared through the door. He'd hoped to replay their conversation back, to dwell a little longer on what he'd learned, but his body still ached from the abuse Barton's minions had inflicted on him. Before he knew it, he was slipping into a deep, healing rest.
Soul slept on and off for the next day, finally leaving the infirmary with a relatively clean bill of health and a strict warning to take it easy as his bruised ribs continued healing. He went back to his room, surprised to find Harvar absent, but simultaneously glad for the solitude. He sat down on his bed and bent over, scrubbing his face with his hands. Despite the days that had passed, he hadn't completely processed what he'd gone through in that basement. The only reason he'd slept so well was due to the drugs they'd given him for the pain, and now that they'd taken him off them, he wasn't looking forward to sleeping on his own.
The door creaked open, and he saw Maka standing in the doorway. She looked hesitant, which was a strange look on her. "Can I come in?"
Soul beckoned her inside, scooting over so she could sit next to him. She came a little closer than he was anticipating; he could feel the line of her shoulder and hip pressed against his.
They were quiet for a long moment. "I - you really scared me there," she said finally, staring down at the floor.
"I will do my best not to get kidnapped by sadistic spy school teachers," Soul said solemnly. From the look on her face, humor had been the wrong way to go.
"I'm being serious. Watching you on the screen, while Barton had them-" She broke off, unable to continue. "The things they told you, about me…"
Oh god, this is what she wanted to talk about? "I thought Justin had hurt you," he said gruffly. "I heard screams."
Maka shook her head. "It was a recording. I don't know how they got it."
"Well, yeah, I know that now."
"I can't watch something like that again," Maka said abruptly. "I can't watch while you get hurt. I can't do it."
Soul recognized the weight of the admission. Maka kept herself so closely guarded, only revealing what she wanted to when she wanted to. The fact she was telling him this… "I'm sorry," he said softly. He reached out and took one of her hands before he could second-guess himself. "But I'm alright." He gave her a small smile. "You rescued me, remember?"
She took a shaky breath, eyes on their joined hands. "Yeah. Yeah, we did."
He wasn't sure if the timing was appropriate to ask, but he was intensely curious. "Um, can I ask how you guys pulled that off, exactly? Because no one has yet explained it to me."
Maka smiled and gave a low laugh. "Yeah, I guess you would be wondering." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder how we even managed it."
Soul kept quiet, giving her the time and space to gather her thoughts. Her voice was subdued as she began. "When they brought me back, I kept demanding they tell me what was going on. But I couldn't find any of the other instructors - they'd all be called away to Langley for a briefing or something like that. So when Barton assembled everyone in the lecture hall, I planned on asking him. But then I saw that screen, and you sitting unconscious in that chair, and everything sort of clicked into place. It was a goddamn test, and Barton had arranged everything. He'd waited until all the instructors that might oppose him were off campus, and he set up that stupid little outing in order to set it all off."
Her hand tightened against his. "When those mercenaries came in, and they started questioning you…" Her mouth was set in a thin line, her eyes as hard as granite. "I don't know what came over me. I just got up, and I was yelling, and Barton was just watching me with this awful look on his face, like I was right but couldn't do anything about it. So I decided I would. Even if the others didn't follow me."
"But they did." She shot him a sideways look. "You know, for someone who got such a bad start, you sure are popular."
Soul elbowed her in the side. Without thinking, she nudged him back, unfortunately nailing him right on his sore ribs. He yelped involuntarily; Maka's face was stricken. "Oh my god, I am so sorry, I didn't realize-" Her hands fluttered around his waist, wanting to do something to help, but not sure how.
"Kick a man while he's down, huh?" His side still smarted, but he swallowed down the discomfort for Maka's sake. "Keep your pointy elbows to yourself, woman."
She gave him a look. "Did you want to hear how we saved you or not?"
He gestured her to continue. "Please, do go on. Enlighten me as to how you swooped in to save the spy in distress."
Her mouth quirked, but she ignored his remark. "We knew you weren't anywhere at Shibusen, so you had to be off-campus somewhere. Ox, Harvar, Jackie, and Kim were assigned with finding you. They broke into the computer lab and Ox hacked into the Shibusen mainframe to try and find you location. Since they were streaming video, he was able to find you in an abandoned safe house about forty-five minutes away."
"Yeah, but Barton wasn't about to let you just leave campus."
"No, we planned for that." Maka's tone sounded strange.
Soul looked at her carefully. "...You did something else besides what you told me, didn't you?"
"We might have."
He tugged at her hand. "Maka."
She deflated a bit. "Alright, so Blake, Patti, and Tsubaki might have blown up a classroom in the east wing. Just a little bit."
Soul could only blink. "I wish I could say I was surprised. Wait, Tsubaki?"
Maka shrugged defensively. "I wasn't about to let Blake and Patti loose with explosives without supervision!"
Soul threw his head back and laughed. Maka watched him with a smile on her face. When he finally subsided, he looked at her with a wide grin. "You really could move heaven and earth if you wanted to, couldn't you?"
She tossed a pigtail over her shoulder. "Did you ever doubt it?"
Soul caught her gaze, suddenly serious. "No. Not for one second."
Maka seemed taken aback at his directness. She ducked her head down, but couldn't hide the small smile on her face. Soul pretended not to notice as she looked back up and cleared her throat. "Anyway, they went off to create a distraction while me, Kilik, and Liz went off to steal a few guns from the storeroom and hijack one of the vans."
"I understand the van, but why did you take the guns?"
"We didn't know how intense Barton's thugs were going to be when we got there. Don't worry," she said, seeing his slightly concerned look, "we only used the rubber bullets from training."
Soul winced. Real ammunition or not, Barton's men would definitely still be sore, especially if Maka and Liz had come after them.
"We kept in contact with Ox as we made our way there. He kept us updated on the situation inside. We breached like Sid taught us and, well, I guess you know the rest."
Soul certainly did. Along with how their little search and rescue had ended. His face darkened. "Have you heard anything from Spirit and Stein yet?"
Maka shook her head. "Dad only told me that Barton wasn't ever going to see the inside of a CIA building in his lifetime. But other than that…" She shrugged. "After you passed out, they only brought us back here and said that they'd talk with us later. I don't know how long later is supposed to be, though."
"That would be now." Soul and Maka looked up to see Spirit standing in the doorway, not looking entirely pleased. Soul's stomach sank. They were gonna wash out for sure. Then he followed Spirit's gaze and saw him looking at their joined hands. Reluctantly, Soul pulled his hand from Maka's. When she realized what he was doing, and more importantly why he was doing it, however, she captured his hand again, gripping it tightly as she glared at her father.
Soul would have rather sunk through the floor than get in the middle of this battle of wills, so he kept quiet and carefully avoided looking at Spirit directly.
The instructor sighed. "Both of you are needed in the control room in five minutes. Maka knows the way." He made as if to leave, but stopped himself, one hand still on the doorframe. He stared at Soul critically, leaving him no choice but to meet the instructor's gaze. "I'm sorry about what happened," he said gravely. "It should never have happened."
Soul nodded. What else was he supposed to say to something like that? "Yep, totally agree with you there, what on earth were you thinking in hiring a psychopath?" Somehow, he didn't think that would go over well. So he kept his mouth shut.
"Stein and I looked at the tape."
Soul stiffened, clenching Maka's hand tightly. He thought he might be sick. Spirit and Stein had watched him scream and cry and beg for Maka - he couldn't think of anything more humiliating.
"You did what?" Maka seemed to swell with anger, though she kept her grip on his hand and her place by his side. "Dad, you had no right-"
Spirit held a hand up and Maka fell silent. "We needed to make sure Soul would get the treatment he needed, so we had to see what was done. Soul-" Spirit tried to meet Soul's gaze, but Soul wouldn't look up. He focused instead of Maka's fingers intertwined with his own, an anchor to keep him rooted in the present. "Soul," Spirit said again, his voice gentle. "You have nothing to be ashamed of. I know agents who've been in the field for years who wouldn't have held up as well as you did."
Soul snorted in disbelief.
"I'm being completely serious. You didn't even break, didn't give them a single name. That's not worth nothing, no matter what happened."
Soul still wouldn't look at him, but he heard Spirit sigh. "That's all I wanted you to know."
"We'll be there soon," Maka said, and though her tone wasn't as harsh as it had been before, it wasn't necessarily gentle either. Spirit eventually left, his footsteps fading down the hall.
Soul finally looked up to find Maka watching him. "He is right, you know. You went through hell, and you came through it. That's something to be proud of."
"I almost didn't." He could barely get the words out.
"I wanted to. I almost told Justin everything he wanted to know… so many times. I really don't know how much longer I would have lasted there. I should have been stronger."
Maka slid off the bed and crouched in front of him, both her hands clasping his. "No," she said fiercely. "Don't you dare think that. You got through it, and it doesn't matter how it happened. It wouldn't have mattered if you did tell Justin everything, because contrary to what Barton thinks, everyone has a breaking point. Including you. And if you'd reached it, no one here would think any less of you for it, okay?"
Soul didn't say anything, but Maka wouldn't let it drop. She clenched his hands tighter, ducking down until he was forced to meet her gaze. "Okay?"
He didn't know how she did it. How she could see right through him and know what words he needed to hear. He huffed out a breath and said, "Okay."
"I'm being serious. I know it won't be easy, processing this, but I'm here if you need me. We all are."
"I know." And he did. It might take some working through, but with the others by his side, he could see that it might be possible. "Thank you."
She smiled. "Good. Now we really do have to get to that meeting." She pulled him up to standing, not realizing it would bring the two of them into very close proximity. Maka froze as he brushed against her, and Soul could see her throat bob as she swallowed. But she didn't move back.
He looked down at her, this tiny fireball of a woman, and smiled. As if she could read his thoughts, the corner of her mouth pulled up. They stood like that for one long, frozen moment, just appreciating the chance to be in each other's company. If it were any other day and any other moment, Soul might have considered leaning down just a fraction, might have wondered what she would do if his eyelids fluttered shut.
But he needed time. It was enough to have her here, by his side, giving him the encouragement and support he needed to work through the events of the past few days. This was enough.
She seemed to read that in his eyes, because he could have sworn that she nodded in reply. For now, she seemed to say. This is enough. I'm right here. Then she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him quickly on the cheek, her face flushing the lightest pink.
Soul's heart swooped low in his chest, but before he could react, Spirit's voice floated down the hall. "Two minutes, now."
Maka stepped back, the spell broken. "We'll be there, Dad!" she yelled, huffing in annoyance.
"I guess we should probably go," Soul said.
Maka nodded. "I'll show you."
And even if they were about to receive the news that they'd been kicked out, Soul couldn't find it in him to care.
Maka led him through an unfamiliar part of the facility until they reached a plain white door. She pushed it open without looking back, and after taking a deep breath, Soul followed her inside.
The control room looked exactly how it sounded - a scattered assortment of screens filled the front wall, while two rows of computers sat in facing them. Stein and Spirit stood at the front, and the rest of the space was filled with the recruits who had aided Maka in Soul's rescue. They all looked anxious at some level, though some less than others. A buzz of anticipation filled the air. Was this is then - had they all been called here to be expelled?
"Now that we have you all here," Stein said, completely disregarding the nervous atmosphere, "we can begin."
"Now, I know you think we've asked you here to expel you from the program," Spirit said, stepping in. "But I'd like to assure you that that's not the case at all."
No one spoke, but the confusion was clear. What was he talking about?
"Several of the exercises you've participated in during the last few weeks were originally designed to highlight the value of independence and working alone. However, Stein and I have been questioning the strength of that outlook."
"And you all decided to prove us right," Stein added.
"I'm sorry sir, but what does that mean?" Kilik asked.
"It means, you all performed better when you worked together," Spirit said, and Soul could have sworn there was a smile on his face. "Instead of isolating yourselves and competing, you became a team. And you beat out everyone else because of it."
Soul's heart skipped a beat. That almost sounded like - but it couldn't be.
"We've decided to change things up a little, not in small part due to your recent stunt." Stein looked directly at Blake as he spoke, and while anyone else might have cowered, Blake only puffed his chest out with pride. "So we've divided you into two teams, an A team and a B team. Together, you'll make up an elite squadron within the Shibusen program called Spartoi."
"In other words," Spirit said, spreading his arms wide, "welcome to the NOCs."
Soul's brain might have short-circuited. He'd gone into the program not even sure if he would make it long enough to find his brother, and now he'd made it into the NOC program? They all had? He turned to Maka, just to get confirmation that he'd heard right. She was beaming, practically glowing with glee. She grabbed his arm and squeezed it. "We did it," she said quietly. "We're going to find them."
His knees went weak. They had done it. Together, as a team.
"Settle down," Stein said, but there was a satisfied air about him. "Now, you won't get much time to celebrate your achievement. Your first briefing starts now."
Soul wasn't entirely sure he'd be able to recall anything if they began a briefing right this instant, but he wasn't about to complain.
"As of 2200 last night, we lost contact with an agency asset that's been working an assignment with one of the more dangerous arms dealers in Europe." Stein clicked a remote, and a picture popped up on one of the screen. A lean, dangerous-looking woman stared back at them. She was dressed in a slinky evening gown, and geometric snake tattoos wound their way up her arms. MEDUSA, the caption read. "At 0600 this morning, we intercepted this phone call."
Stein clicked another button, and an audio recording appeared on another screen. Sound waves danced in a jerky pattern as a voice filled the room. "Let her sister know that everything's in place," the voice said. "She won't have any trouble, and that's a promise. They won't know what hit them."
The gentlest breeze might have knocked Soul over. His hands trembled, and for a moment, he wondered if he would even be able to remain standing.
"Soul?" Maka had noticed his distress. "What's wrong? Do you know that voice?"
The others were watching him now, but Soul could barely feel the weight of their eyes on him. Something else pressed against his ribcage with much greater pressure. "You could say that."
"What do you mean?"
Soul couldn't take his eyes off the audio player, and though the message had finished, he couldn't stop replaying the voice in his head, savoring the pitch and tone the way a man dying of thirst savors his first sip of water. He hadn't heard that voice in over five years, but here it was again.
After years of searching, he'd finally found it. Found him.
"That's Wes. That's my brother."