Spirit Albarn walked through the streets of Death City, hands in his pockets. The red-haired Death Scythe didn't have much in the way of a destination in mind, he just wandered through the winding streets and alleyways lost in restless thought. There were conflicting emotions running through the very atmosphere of the town; it seemed as though not much had happened since the revival of the kishin Ashura, and yet at the same time it seemed as though too much had happened all at once. It bothered Spirit quite a bit.
Of course, some of that was due to worry about his daughter. Maka and her partner Soul had already seen combat against Ashura and those who had helped him, and Spirit knew they and their friends would see more before all was said and done. Maka was his one and only little girl, though, and he couldn't help but worry about her. Soul, he knew, was strong and more than capable and willing to look after her – the boy had taken a hit from the demonsword Ragnarok trying to defend her – but Maka took after her mother...she was constantly trying to do more than she really had to.
And he couldn't even talk to her about it, that was the worst part! Spirit ran a hand through his hair, sighing. If he even so much as mentioned his worry around Maka she'd just dismiss it – and that was the best-case scenario. The worst case...well, Spirit didn't even want to think about that. She hated him, despite all his best efforts, and while he knew deep down that he probably deserved it that didn't stop it from hurting. He could even hear her voice in his head: I don't need you to worry about me, Papa. Spirit winced; even the imagined scorn in that echo of a voice hurt. "Maka..."
He continued walking, paying no mind whatsoever to his surroundings until he noticed there were fewer buildings and more trees. Blinking, he looked up and paused in vague surprise. Arrow trees...He was close to the Patchwork Lab. When had that happened? Straightening up, he continued forward, now with a destination. The change in atmosphere had come as a welcome distraction, as well as given him a purpose in his wanderings. Stein was one of the few people Spirit could talk to seriously about quite a few things, his daughter being one of them, and Spirit knew the scientist could do with the company anyway.
Since the kishin's revival, the delicate balance of Stein's sanity had begun to slip, and it was only through sheer stubbornness and willpower on Stein's part, and company on Spirit's and his fellow Death Scythe Marie's, that kept the scientist anywhere close to what could pass for normal. But Marie was busy with her other duties this evening, which left Stein on his own. Spirit had originally been partnered with Stein in order to try and keep him in check, and he still felt that pull at times...particularly now.
Arriving at the lab, Spirit paused again and eyed the door. Something felt wrong...or maybe wrong wasn't the right word. Different? Missing? That was it. Frowning slightly he reached for the door. Spirit hadn't bothered knocking since he and Stein had renewed their friendship; there hadn't really been a need, since Stein always knew who was at his door anyway. Taking hold of the knob, Spirit cautiously tried to open the door. It worked. Unlocked. Well, no real surprise, but still, something was off.
"Stein?" He stepped into the lab, blue-grey eyes scanning the shadows. Nothing unexpected so far, except the complete silence. Usually there was at least the whirr of a fan or clacking of Stein at his keyboard. Not today. The only sounds in the lab were Spirit's footsteps as he walked through the living room into Stein's office. His computer was on, the monitor glowing dimly through the screensaver, but there was no sign of Stein. Even his favorite chair was still there, though it had been rolled to one side as though he'd pushed it out of the way for some reason.
Frowning, Spirit called out again. "Stein! Oi, Stein!" His voice echoed eerily through the silence of the empty building. This wasn't good. Stein was generally predictable. He didn't go out much, preferring to stay home on his computer most of the time. When he did go out, he didn't usually leave the computer on unless he was coming right back. Shopping trip, maybe? Spirit headed into the kitchen to check the fridge. Everything looked well-stocked. The jar in the pantry was full of peppermints, too, and a quick inspection of the top drawer of Stein's desk revealed an unopened box of his favorite cigarettes. Which meant that a shopping trip was out of the question.
Spirit turned quickly and strode out of the lab, scanning the ground outside. The ground surrounding the lab was about as easy to read as the concrete porch; the earth was so hard that footprints barely showed, if they showed at all. Still, there was only one way into the courtyard, though which way Stein might have gone after that was anyone's guess. Maybe the looser earth outside would give better clues. What am I, a detective? Spirit shook his head. Tracking people was hardly one of his best skills; truth be told, it wasn't one of his skills at all really. Still, there was no one else around and he didn't want to waste time trying to find someone. He'd just have to rely on what he knew of Stein already.
Outside the lab's courtyard, Spirit glanced out toward Hook Cemetery and the city limits. It was doubtful Stein would go that way. He was a shut-in most of the time, but when he did go out he tended to gravitate toward people. That meant back toward town. Spirit headed that way, walking faster now than he had when he'd arrived. It would be harder to find Stein in town, but he'd manage somehow. He hadn't been partnered with the man for years and not learned something about his habits.
Observation and curiosity, those had always been the core of Stein's personality even as a child. With that in mind, Spirit turned his steps toward Death City's club district. At this time of night, that was where the most action would be. More things to observe. Stein might not be much of a people-person, but he was definitely a people-watcher. He was bound to be somewhere around there. As an added bonus, there would probably be people who had seen him around if he'd already left; after all, there weren't too many men who walked around in lab coats with screws stuck through their heads. Stein was kind of memorable.
As he drew closer to the club district, Spirit could see the lights getting brighter ahead. He could hear the low rumble of people, their footsteps and voices all mingling together to form the sound of that creature known as the crowd. It seemed the district was busy tonight. That was a good sign, it meant that Stein likely hadn't gotten bored yet and might still be around. Then again, it could be a bad sign. With that many people, even Stein might go mostly unnoticed. Still, there was nothing for it but to try. Spirit pressed forward towards the lights and sound.
And then he saw it. That tiny flash of light, reflecting off something near his feet, might have gone unnoticed if he'd been looking even just a degree in the wrong direction. Looking down to see what had given off the gleam Spirit froze, then slowly reached down to pick them up. Round wire frames, simple and functional in their design, lying as if discarded casually on the pavement. The glass within the frames was unbroken, unmarred in any way, save for the blood spattered across one lens, the blood that had to match the small smear they'd been lying beside.
Lying in blood.
Near a crowd of people.
Spirit broke into a run.
For the first time in his life, Spirit found himself cursing the crowded streets in the club district. On a normal night he'd be taking his time ambling along, admiring the lovely ladies he happened to see along the way and having himself a grand old time. Tonight, though...his hand tightened on the glasses he'd picked up. Something was wrong, horribly wrong, and Stein was out there somewhere...had he lost his grip on reality? It was something many at Shibusen had feared would happened, but Spirit hadn't wanted to think about it. He'd wanted to trust in his old partner, that Stein was strong enough to stand against the madness even with the rebirth of Ashura. Maybe it had been naïve of him, over-confident. Just because he'd thought he knew Stein better than anyone at Shibusen, or in Death City, he'd relaxed and let down his guard, and now...
"Stein...where are you..."
Spirit finally broke free of the crowd, having covered the entirety of the club district's main street. No one seemed concerned or worried; there hadn't been the slightest hint of fear aside from his own. Had Stein not come this way, then? A small blessing, but it left a larger problem. He still didn't know where Stein was. The longer it took to find him, the more chance someone else would get hurt, perhaps seriously. Spirit clenched his jaw, punching a nearby wall with his empty hand. "Come on, think!" he muttered to himself. "He has to be somewhere close, the blood was still sticky..." Spirit tried to will his brain into thinking faster, to come up with something useful.
He'd found those glasses in the darker area, about a block before the main street. So perhaps Stein would be in a side street or alley. But there were dozens of those in this part of Death City, there would be no way Spirit could check them all fast enough to avoid more bloodshed. "No other choice," he half-growled, frustrated. "I've got to find him." Turning on his heel, he dashed back to the first side-street he'd passed and rushed in, running down it and looking down every alley he passed as far and fast as he could. At least Stein's grey hair and pale skin wouldn't blend into the shadows here away from the lights.
A thought struck him then; if Stein had snapped, then there was no way anything he did would be completely silent. The crowd in the club district might be loud, but a scream or that eerily high-pitched laugh would definitely have gotten someone's attention if it had been within two blocks of the main street. Which meant farther away. The outer areas of the district. The seedier areas. Spirit ran faster, coat whipping out behind him. "Come on, where are you..." he muttered. "Even that laugh of yours would be welcome at this point."
Even as he said that, an echo caught his ears. It was faint, but even that small sound sent chills down his spine. He knew it, all too well, and it didn't matter how many times he heard it; its eerie effect never lessened. Spirit rounded a corner and the chill down his spine redoubled. A white lab coat, the seams covered in mildly uneven black stitches, lay discarded on the street. He'd recognize that coat anywhere, and ordinarily seeing it would have been a relief. This time, however, its usually pristine white was marred by darker splashes of color. More blood. "Stein!" Spirit pushed himself faster. He had to be close by now.
Another alley flashed by, then another, and a third before Spirit skidded to a halt. He stared down the alley, stunned by what he saw. A shock of silver hair, pale skin darkened in several placed by something that could only be blood, and a collection of bodies scattered on the ground; Spirit could make out one that was still moving, two that weren't. His eyes widened. No...surely not...they weren't...unconscious, they had to be, that was it. Even as Spirit stood there, the tall, pale man, the only one of the group still standing, turned towards him. His head tilted to the right just slightly, that same hand raising and pulling back slowly in an almost absent readying motion. The fingers of that hand were covered in blood, the palm and the arm smeared with it as well. It was the same blood, Spirit knew, that was now leaking out of the men on the ground. The red liquid had even splashed up onto the pale, scarred face that now turned to look at him, smeared and drying almost up to the trademark stitched line around the left eye. Spirit shook his head, the motion faint and unconscious.
At his name, Stein's face became more animated. Where before it had been expressionless save for a faint look of surprise at being discovered, now it gained life. His eyes widened, a smile began to spread across his face and slowly turned into a grin. A light grew in those grey-green eyes that Spirit hadn't seen for quite some time, a light that said the man behind those eyes was lost to all reason, immersed in his own desires. Somehow, the lack of glasses made that look all the more powerful, as if the glasses had helped in part to keep that frenetic energy in check. Stein straightened slowly to his full height, head tilting back, and he laughed. It began as a low chuckle, then shifted into the high, harsh, crazed laugh that had made Spirit's blood run cold just hearing its echo. That made it official.
Stein had snapped.
Spirit took a step forward, his eyes narrowing. "Stein! What the hell do you think you're doing!" His mind flashed through all the fights he had been in with his former partner. Stein was one of the most dangerous men Spirit knew, and in a state like this he was almost impossible to predict. Faced with Stein like this, Spirit had to be ready for anything. He continued forward, prepared to bring his blades out if necessary, but had to leap back when Stein thrust his arm out, palm crackling with energy. "Stein! It's me!"
Stein didn't answer, he merely advanced, bringing a leg up in a crescent kick that would have driven Spirit into the nearby wall had he not blocked it. Spirit cursed. This was precisely why Stein was dangerous; he didn't need a weapon to be an effective fighter, and he was just as deadly without one if his opponent wasn't careful. The only small blessing was that without a weapon to help him, Stein's Konshi Hougou was next to useless. Especially if Spirit could avoid getting hit with Stein's signature Kon'i attack.
But he couldn't just keep dodging forever. Spirit knew he'd have to go on the attack at some point. The intelligent thing to do would be manifest his blades and incapacitate Stein somehow; he'd heal, and it would get him off the streets. Spirit was reluctant to do that, though. It wasn't Stein's fault he was susceptible to the kishin's madness, and there had to be a way to bring him back down without hurting him. Not to mention the fact that unless Spirit managed a one-hit victory, injuring Stein was just as likely to make his madness worse as it was to snap him out of it.
He didn't have time to think more about it, though, as Stein came at him again. Spirit sidestepped and brought his own arm around, flattening the hand in a chop to the back of Stein's neck. There was a point there that, if hit correctly, would knock the victim out. It didn't work. Stein ducked, spinning into a leg-sweep that sent Spirit to the ground. Even as Spirit tried to get his breath back, Stein's hand drew back then flashed forward again.
The force was incredible, and made worse by the fact that Spirit had nowhere to go to lessen the blow; the pavement had no give to it at all. He let out a strangled yelp and gasped for breath, coughing. "S-stein...! Stop!" Spirit looked up at his former partner, feeling another chill at the lack of friendly recognition in those cold, moss-toned eyes, and quickly rolled away before another blow could fall. He tried to hurry to his feet, but Stein proved quicker. Spirit barely had time to realize Stein had moved before he felt himself thrown backward.
"Nishou Kon'i, Sousou!"
"Dammit..." Spirit managed, coughing and leaning against the wall he'd been slammed on. "Stein, listen to me...!" He didn't know how bad the damage was – broken ribs at the very least – but he didn't want to try standing on his own just yet. He knew how powerful Stein was, had seen the man in action, had fought alongside him more times than could be remembered...but he had never felt that power himself before. It was truly frightening. He should fight back, use the blades that had already manifested out of pure survival instinct, and end this. But some stubborn impulse kept him from doing so. Spirit pushed himself off the wall toward the approaching Stein, steel-blue eyes meeting pale jade. "My voice has to reach you..." he said quietly, "because if it can't...if you can't hear me now..."
Stein paused in his advance, eyes visible in the darkness only due to the faint gleam from the moonlight around them. Spirit barely dared to hope. "You've got to stop, Stein," he said, trying to resist the impulse to cough again. One of his ribs had punctured a lung, hadn't it? "Look at what you're doing, come on. It's me, for crying out loud!" Spirit willed his blades away and reached out for Stein's shoulder.
That was the trigger.
Stein shot forward, knocking Spirit back into the wall. "Renshou Kon'i."
"Stein...!" Spirit managed. He knew this attack, had seen what it had done to Medusa. "Don't...!"
"Stei-!" Spirit found himself gasping for air as the first strike came. The next two, in quick succession, drove him back into the wall; he could swear he felt the brick crumble around him. The pain was intense. He couldn't breathe. Stein's hand, forcing him back against the wall, was the only thing holding him up. He stared up at Stein, eyes wide with pain and shock, speaking one word with what breath remained. His voice was just barely audible, rough with pain, and blood trickled from his mouth as he spoke. "...Stein..."
And then the hand fell away.
Spirit fell like a broken tower, unable to even make a sound at the pain as he hit the pavement. It hadn't worked. Stein hadn't heard him. He'd failed again...
A shadow fell over him as he coughed, blood flecking the ground in front of him. He looked up to see Stein standing over him, expression unreadable in the darkness. Was this it, then? Stein...why... he coughed again, eyes closing at the pain. Maka...I'm sorry...
The unusually quiet voice cut through Spirit's awareness. He opened one eye to see Stein staring down at him, paler than usual through the blood and his eyes...sane. Shocked and worried, but sane. He was back. Spirit managed a half-smile as Stein knelt beside him. "...'s what I...told you...from the beginning...dumbass..." He attempted to push himself up even as Stein began trying to help him into a sitting position, but the movement made the pain worse.
Spirit coughed, blood flying out, and struggled for breath as his lungs locked out of sheer agony. He slumped against the nearest sturdy object and tried to get his breath back, only realizing once the fit was over that his head was resting on Stein's shoulder, his blood starting to stain through the black and grey turtleneck his old partner always wore. He looked up at Stein, breathing shallow and ragged. Was that worry on his face? Spirit smiled faintly and, as Stein opened his mouth to speak, held up the glasses he'd picked up earlier. "...think you lost these," he said.
Stein blinked, then managed a half-smile of his own and took them. "I suppose I did," he said, his voice just as calm as always. Spirit wondered if it was just his own imagination that made Stein's eyes look just a touch softer than they usually did. There was a moment of silence, broken only by the occasional suppressed cough, before Stein spoke again. "Senpai...I..."
Spirit blinked; Stein sounded almost hesitant. And his eyes...Spirit smiled faintly. "Let's just...get you home, huh?" he said, interrupting.
It was Stein's turn to blink, then he just chuckled softly and nodded. "Brace yourself, Senpai," he said, then carefully picked Spirit up. The movement sparked another coughing fit that once again ended with Spirit panting desperately for breath, head against Stein's shoulder. Once Spirit had gotten his breath back, Stein set off back down the alley, pausing at the entrance and looking thoughtful. "...I think I lost my coat, too..."
"It's back that way," Spirit said, pointing back the way he'd come. "Right on the way home."
"Oh good." Stein started back up the street, pausing when they reached his coat. Spirit looked up at him wryly, then reached down for it. Stein, taking the hint, knelt a moment to let Spirit pick it up, then rose and continued walking.
Spirit tossed the coat over Stein's other shoulder, absently holding onto the collar with one hand. "...you're a mess..." he said softly, looking at the road ahead. "Don't pull something like this again, got it?"
"Well, even if I do, Senpai will just come find me again, won't he," Stein said, a lightly teasing tone in his apparently casual voice. There was a serious undertone, though, and Spirit caught it. He smiled faintly.
"Better believe it. Someone's got to keep you in line." He looked back up at Stein with a faint smirk. That look in Stein's eyes...no, that wasn't just imagination this time. Spirit's smirk softened slightly. "Senpai's duty to look after his kohai, remember?"
"I suppose so," Stein said, his tone light but the look in his eyes unchanging.
Spirit just shook his head and looked back ahead of them. Don't thank me, you idiot. I should be thanking you. You heard my voice after all. You came back.