Soul had never seen Black*Star so still. The only sign that he was still alive was the forced rise and fall of his chest as the ventilator pumped air in his lungs. Lungs that had never needed help to breathe before, he thought darkly.
Maka had been there when he had gotten the call. She had seen how his face had darkened and what it meant. Grabbing his face, she had looked into his eyes and simply said, "It's not your fault."
He had nodded, knowing she was right, and then gone off to see Black*Star.
But looking at Black*Star's face, devoid of his animated spirit, had brought back the flood of guilt. He had been so preoccupied with his armor, with protecting what he loved that he had let the threat go unnoticed right under his nose. And now Black*Star was fighting for his life. Some protector he was.
Who was going to be next?
Soul clenched his fist, speaking out loud even though Black*Star couldn't hear him. "I'll find who did this to, I promise," he vowed.
He sat in the chair by Black*Star's bed for a few minutes before the nurse came in. Stepping in the small room, she apologetically said, "Visiting hours are over. I'm afraid you'll have to leave."
Getting heavily to his feet, Soul gave a final look to Black*Star. The nurse began to change the channel of the small TV sitting in the corner of the room. Soul stopped her. "Downton Abbey is his favorite. He doesn't like missing it." The nurse smiled. "Of course."
Slowly, he made his way to the elevator.
He was alone in the elevator. It was too quiet. He would have preferred another person to awkwardly not to talk to than this. It was too small. He should have taken the stairs.
Leaning against the wall of the elevator, he squeezed his eyes shut. Instead of seeing himself falling in space, he saw Black*Star's pallid face.
More nightmares to haunt him.
He forced his eyes open. The silence seemed to taunt him and he could almost hear the demon that liked to stalk his dreams. "It was your fault."
The elevator had barely opened when he rushed out of it, a bundle of nerves and anxiety. All he wanted to do was go home.
In hindsight, maybe that was why he did it. He groaned as he saw the reporters swarming around his car, like moths to a flame.
Soul was able to ignore most of them, a constant cry of "Blah, blah, Mandarin!" coming from their mouths like a magpie's calls. He almost made it safely to his car, when one extremely pushy, blond pretty boy shoved his phone in his face. "Are you too afraid to face the Mandarin?"
Soul paused, his hand falling from the car door's handle. He turned around slowly to face the reporter. Coldly, he addressed him. "You want an answer?" The reporter nodded eagerly.
"Here's my message to the Mandarin. My name is Soul Evans and I am not afraid of you. You're a coward to send others to do your dirty work. And you've just signed your death certifcate, pal. If you happen to be a man at all, come and face me. 10880 Malibu Point. I'll leave the door open so you don't have to send someone to break it down."
He lifted the eyes to the smug-looking pretty boy. "That's what you wanted, right?"
Plucking the phone from the reporter's still outstretched hand, he threw it against the hospital's wall, the phone smashing to bits. The smug look dropped from the reporter's face. Soul opened the car door. "Bill me."
Getting in the car, he closed the door and sped away.
Admittedly, the chop he had gotten from the head from Maka for being "a reckless and impulsive idiot" wasn't pleasant. But she had hugged him afterward and was working upstairs and that meant more to Soul than she knew.
Soul studied the virtual scene of the explosion JARVIS had acquired. He zoomed in on the aftermath of the explosion, Black*Star's unconscious body lay prone on the floor.
With a wave of his hand the scene moved to the floor, Soul blew up the scene. He walked to stand next to Black*Star. "Talk to me, buddy," Soul murmured.
Black*Star's arm seemed to be reaching out to something. His eyes followed the direction Black*Star pointed in. A virtual set of military tags, charred, lay just beyond the reach of Black*Star's fingers.
Another wave of his hands removed the tags from the floor and onto the steel workbench. "Whatcha got for me, JARVIS?"
"Private Giriko Donovan. Killed in an explosion a couple years ago, sir." Soul furrowed his brow in confusion. It was strange for a dead man's tags to be found at this scene but it didn't seem to explain anything.
He hopped onto the bench, rubbing the tiredness from his eyes. "What about the details of the explosion?"
"That was quite peculiar, sir. The temperature reached 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Quite an excessive heat for this explosion."
For a moment, Soul considered. "JARVIS, bring up a map of the explosions since the Mandarin started his spree." An orange virtual map of the United States popped into being, bars dotting the expanse of the map.
"Now take off the ones by the Mandarin." Some bars disappeared off the map. "Now which explosions match the temperature given off by this one." All but one bar vanished.
Soul eyed the bar. "And where was this?"
"Rosewood, Tennessee, sir. A small town near a military base."
Soul perked up. "And where was Donovan stationed?"
"In that very same base, sir."
Soul slid from the bench. "Make a flight plan for Tennessee, JARVIS."
"Right away, sir."
Running a hand through his hair, Soul wondered how he was going to break this to Maka. She certainly wouldn't like it. His ruminations of impending Maka chops was broken the piercing ring of the doorbell.
His heart leaping in his throat, he took the stairs by two's.
He reached the door before Maka. Opening the door, he wasn't greeted by a missile but by a pair of brown eyes. Somehow the missile might have been better.
He spun from the open door, Maya following him in. Not that he let her know he recognized her. "JARVIS, what happened to maximum security?"
Maya answered drily, "Weren't you the one who gave the Mandarin an open invitation?"
"Quite right, sir," JARVIS chimed in.
Soul restrained his eyes from rolling. "So how can I help you?"
Maya faltered for a moment. "You don't remember me?"
At that moment, Maka walked in from the depths of the house to stand next to Soul. "Who's this, Soul?"
"Maya Hansen, genius botanist. We met years ago." Maya closed her mouth to answer at Soul's sudden regained memory.
Maka laughed. "Ahh, another one of Soul's one-night flings." She waved a hand at Maya's stricken face. "Don't worry, you have to get used to it when Soul Evans is your boyfriend." She gave an affectionate but slightly forceful punch on the arm.
She turned from the two to get water from the kitchen. "So why are you here anyways? Not here to tell Soul about his long-lost son, are you?"
Soul laughed but muttered to Maya. "There really isn't an eleven year old kid waiting in the car, is there?"
Maya gave him a look. "He's twelve, actually." Soul paled and she laughed. "Just kidding."
"Haha," he said weakly.
Walking further into the living room, Maya caught sight of Maka's "gift." "Um, is that…"?
"It's quite something, isn't it?" Maka said as she returned from the kitchen.
Maya nodded faintly.
Resuming her spot next to Soul, Maka asked, "Not to be rude, but what is one of Soul's old girlfriends doing here?"
Maya's face grew serious. "I came to warn you about the Mandarin. He's com-,"
The shattering of the windows overlooking the oceans as the missile hit cut off whatever she was going to say.
It seemed to all happen in slow motion to Soul.
One. They were standing in the living room.
Two. They were thrown in the air. The only thing he could see was Maka, unprotected.
Three. "Not her." A wave of his hands, not to him. To her.