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Maka's mouth was cottony and despite having brushed her teeth twice, a sour taste was still lingering on her tongue. She smelled like stale sweat because she hadn't had time to take a shower after she bolted out of Blair's place this morning, and her hair was a lost cause so she had resorted to tying it back in a ponytail. She knew for a fact that her eyes were still puffy and bloodshot from having cried bitter tears into Blair's sofa cushions after the magical cat had confiscated her phone. In short, she was hungover, exhausted, and dirty.

It was not, to be sure, the best start to her Monday.

She only just made it to her first class on time, and after a few opening remarks, she fell back on a time-honored teachers' cop-out that she had sworn when she took the job that she would never resort to: she assigned a worksheet. Once her NOT kids had been set to scribbling away on a series of dry questions about how the health of the soul affected the body and vice versa, Maka tottered over to her desk and dropped into her swivel chair with a thud. She cradled her forehead on her palms, elbows propped on the desktop, eyes slipping closed as she prayed for the aspirin she had dry-swallowed earlier to take effect soon.

The hangover, she thought dully, was not her true punishment for letting Blair get her wasted (which would have been a questionable decision even if she hadn't had to teach in the morning). No, it was the sheer humiliation that hurt worse than the throbbing in her head.

She had made a drunken phone call. Her first time drinking anything stronger than milk, and she had drunk dialed her ex-partner.

Despite knowing that she would currently feel physically worse, Maka wished that she had drunk a great deal more last night, because maybe she would have been able to just forget the whole incident in a boozy haze. Unfortunately, although there was a vague sense of unreality to the recollections, her memory was firmly intact and it was embarrassing.

Death, who even was she anymore? Maka Albarn did not make pathetic drunk phone calls. Maka Albarn did not call boys to cry about how much she missed them. Hell, Maka Albarn also didn't freak out and literally run away from lunch with her friends in order to avoid seeing or talking to or smelling or just generally having any contact whatsoever with anyone, let alone a boy, but that sure as hell hadn't stopped her even when she was sober.

Clearly, falling in love with Soul "Eater" Evans had been the absolute worst decision of her life.

Until recently she'd been doing such a good job of convincing herself that she was just fine. She was sad— and she had a right to be, dammit!— but she was handling it. Or so she'd thought. After breaking down in the shower over how wrong it had felt to wield any weapon but Soul and the complete fiasco that was yesterday, however, it was probably time to acknowledge that she was very much Not Okay.

How had this even happened? How had she gotten so… so… pathetic? Was this normal, or had they really become so co-dependent that she was having awful meltdowns like this months after they'd parted ways? Was that even how these things worked? She had no idea, because for the past four or five years, she hadn't even bothered to contemplate a scenario in which Soul wouldn't be by her side. She'd never paid attention to how other people coped when their partnerships ended.

Maybe she should ask Marie.

Clearly, though, she wasn't trying hard enough to move on. Maka doubted that she would ever really be able to stop loving him; they had been each others' rock for too long, and he was too bound up in who she had grown up to be for that to be a realistic option. But she needed to find a way to put it behind her, or she was always going to be stuck in this stupid limbo, unable to bring herself to just give in and consign her heart to the burn-pile, but unable to move forward with her life either.

The bell signaling the end of the period rang, startling her out of her thoughts and renewing the throbbing behind her eyes. She hadn't realized so much time had passed!

As her students filed out of the classroom and she removed the folder containing the skeleton of her lesson plans for next week from her bag, determined to actually make use of her planning period instead of passing it in a daze, she pondered her predicament. She needed to just suck it up and get on with it, not in the half-assed way she'd been trying to do for the last few months, but to start really moving on.

She reached into her bag once more and pulled out the phone Blair had returned to her this morning after extracting a promise that the next time she called Soul, it would be when she was sober. Since she had no intentions of ever calling Soul again, it was an easy promise to make.

Maka scrolled through her contacts list until she found the name she was looking for. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself, then made the call. She waited as it rang once, twice, three times... there!

"Hi, Tsugumi? It's Maka. I was wondering, are your meisters still out of commission…?"


Eyes were following him.

Soul had been called in for an Official Meeting With Lord Death, and it had finally gotten to the point that he couldn't ignore the summons anymore. He was pretty sure Kid would just turn up in his apartment if he didn't, and he'd already had two unwelcome invaders in the last week and a half. He wasn't up for another one.

But as he approached the building ahead, sweating in the broiling Death City sunshine, he could tell there was something… off. As he hauled himself up the steps and across the stone courtyard, he could feel the stares, and somehow the weight of them felt different than it had the last time he showed his sorry face around here.

He'd never much enjoyed being the center of attention. That was always his brother's thing, and despite his raging inferiority complex, he'd never actually wanted the spotlight for its own sake. If he was honest with himself, it was part of why he'd been so drawn to Black*Star back in the day; by spending time with someone who was the definition of a glory-hog, he could still feel included without having to be the one everyone was watching.

For awhile after Asura, when he was officially named The Last Death Scythe, it had been fine. He was finally starting to feel comfortable in his own skin, and the sudden flood of attention he was receiving had been a positive thing. It had been time in the limelight for an accomplishment he was damn proud of, and that was fine. It was a little unsettling, but he could deal with it, even enjoy it to some extent.

This staring and whispering, though, felt much more like he was nine years old again and enduring the snickering of his classmates after he panicked and ran offstage at the Boston Symphony Hall. It made him want to crawl right out of his skin. He tried to ignore it, but then his sensitive ears caught the words "-n't that the death scythe she forged? Soul Eater?" from some skinny thirteen-year-old and suddenly he wasn't just uncomfortable, he was downright uneasy.

But he was going to grit his teeth and ignore it, dammit, because this meeting with Kid was going to be hard enough to get through without anything else on his mind. As he slunk through the front doors of the Academy, he was painfully aware of the fact that he still hadn't come to a decision about taking one of the vacant death weapon posts.

It wasn't that he didn't care about his career, exactly. Except that it kind of was. What he'd told Spirit was true: he wasn't a self-wielding weapon. He could hold his own for a few minutes, provided he wasn't wildly outclassed by his opponent, but he wasn't a warrior by nature. He actively needed a meister. And the idea of taking on a new meister…

No. Nope. Not gonna happen.

Maybe it was stupid, maybe it was irrational, because it had been months now, and if she was going to come back, wouldn't she have done so already? But even though he felt like her abandonment had been inevitable, something he should have seen coming even while he was deluding himself that she loved him too, he hadn't been able to let go of the hope that maybe, just maybe, her ambitions as a meister would outweigh the awkwardness of their situation. After all, she'd always wanted to be meister to a death scythe, right?

And her phone call on Monday morning had only fed the little sparks of hope he'd been keeping alive. Maybe it was foolish— no, he knew it was foolish— but some of the things she'd said had been a reminder that even if she couldn't love him the way he wanted her to, she had still cared about him. And if all she was ever able to give him was friendship and meisterhood, then he'd take that, because life with her in any capacity was better than life without her, as the past three months had brutally underscored.

So the idea of taking up a position where he would need to take anyone else as his meister just... no. Fuck no.

And yet, unless he was the sudden recipient of a miracle and Maka came back, it was that or unemployment.

And then the sound of her name, spoken in an unfamiliar voice echoing from somewhere further up the stairwell he was currently climbing, yanked him out of his thoughts. He froze, listening hard.

"Maka Albarn? You're serious?"

"Dead serious."

"No way. I thought she was invincible or something."

"Clearly not."

"What the hell kind of mission was she on that even she couldn't handle?" The voice was incredulous. Soul was inclined to agree. Maka could handle damn near anything.

"Dunno. I didn't hear the details. Harudori looked pretty shaken up, though."

"Oh man, she took Harudori out in the field? Damn, what is it with that girl… she has all the luck, it's like pretty meisters just flock to her or something…"

"What, I'm not good enough for you now?"

"Shut up, you know what I mean. But seriously, is Albarn okay?"

"I didn't hear. It must've been pretty bad, though, because Mike said she was unconscious when they brought her in."

Ice flooded his stomach. He'd thought, up until that moment, that he was simply overhearing gossip about a teacher who'd missed their objective. But if Maka was hurt...

He changed directions abruptly, heading in the direction of the infirmary. Kid could wait.


Tsugumi, Maka conceded, had more moxie than she had anticipated. The demon halberd had always seemed so meek that Maka had assumed that most of the drive in her partnerships came from her meisters.

Maka didn't think she'd ever been so relieved to be proven wrong.

Of course, that didn't change the fact that she was stuck in the infirmary, but she'd take alive and sore over six feet under any day.

Dr. Emily Freeman, the physician the DWMA had hired to relieve Nygus of her interim post as de facto school nurse, had poked and prodded Maka everywhere, checking for signs of any sneaky internal injury. It was a treatment Maka was used to, but hadn't had to endure for almost a year and a half. She was more than slightly put out to be going through it now, because while injuries happened in their line of work, she was a skilled enough meister that she was usually able to evade the kind of beating that required this kind of checkover. Of course, that was when she was wielding her own weapon…

Her expression must have changed, because Dr. Freeman stilled her hand in the process of examining Maka's ribs. "That a tender spot?" she asked.

Maka shook her head.

"You sure? You wouldn't be lying to try to get out of spending the night here, would you?" the doctor asked suspiciously.

"Why would I do that?" Maka asked, unable to keep from sounding petulant. "I already know I'm stuck here for awhile."

"You're damn right you are," she said. "You've got a concussion, missy, and with your father out of town—"

"I told you, Liz and Patti can—!"

"I said no. The Thompsons are neither family nor your partners, and even if they were…" She sighed. "Well, they're sweet girls, and obviously Lord Death chose them for a reason, but I wouldn't trust them to look after you properly. You need constant monitoring, at least for the first night, and aside from that there's absolutely no way I would let a concussion patient ride that scooter Elizabeth Thompson drives—"

But Maka was no longer listening, because the infirmary door had burst open to reveal Soul, who strode hastily into the room, glancing wildly around until he spotted her. Despite everything, the expression of concern in his eyes as he spotted her warmed her to her toes. Even as messed up as things had gotten between them… at least he cared.

Not that she'd ever doubted that. She'd always known that Soul cared about her deeply, as weapons tended to, even if it wasn't in the way she would have liked. In a way, that just made his betrayal that much worse.

He strode forward, heading for the bed where she sat propped upright, but froze a few feet from the foot of the bed.

"Maka?" It was a query.

"Hi, Soul," she said quietly.

The doctor glanced between them and bowed out, more or less unnoticed.

"You're… okay?" He sounded a bit confused.

"Yeah."

His brow furrowed. "They said… I heard you got hurt."

"Yeah…"

"What happened?"

Maka abruptly felt a sinking feeling in her gut. Despite their schism, admitting that she'd gone on a mission with another weapon felt like a base betrayal. She hadn't thought of it that way at the time, she'd only thought of how much she needed to get back out there and actually do something with her life, but…

She was despicable and she knew it.

"I… um… I was… I went on a- a mission—"

"With Harudori, I know. You've been partnering with her for a couple weeks now."

She couldn't hold his gaze. "Only… only twice," she whispered.

"And the second attempt didn't go so well?"

She shook her head slightly. "Not really, no. The… uh, the kishin egg had a partner in crime the DWMA didn't know about. We took the target out alright, but then her friend got the jump on us and… well…"

"And you got hurt."

"It's not Tsugumi's fault. I wasn't paying attention… honestly, it was her quick thinking that saved us, I'd never have thought she was strong enough to go up against a pre-kishin by herself, but I guess people can surprise you—" She was babbling, trying helplessly to justify her actions, using Tsugumi's unlooked-for bravery as a crutch, but it was no good. No matter what she said, she could still feel the bitter churn of guilt deep in her gut.

"But… you're okay," he stated, once she finally trailed feebly into silence.

She shrugged, then winced as the motion jostled her sore shoulder. "Just stiff, mostly. And dizzy. I've taken way worse beatings than this without even going to the nurse's office, but I have a concussion this time, so I'm stuck here for the night…"

"They're making you stay? Why?" he asked sharply.

"Papa's in the witches' realm dealing with stuff for Kid, and apparently Liz and Patti aren't adequate caretakers…" She rolled her eyes.

Soul frowned. "If you don't wanna be stuck here overnight… I mean, you could come home with me. If you want."

She wanted. Oh she wanted. There was nothing better when she was sick or hurt than being fussed over by Soul. He was a little bit of a mother hen, though she had taken a long time to realize that, because Soul did his caretaking the same way he did everything else: obliquely, and in his own highly individual way.

If she went with him, she would be able to sleep in her own bed for the first time in months. She would take a shower, and use Soul's shampoo since she knew hers would not still be there (and even if hers was there, she'd still probably use his). When she finished in the bathroom she would find hot soup waiting on a tray on her bedside table, along with a couple of acetaminophen tablets and a glass of apple juice to wash them down, and neither of them would mention it directly, but in the morning she would make his favorite breakfast as a thank-you, and…

And she couldn't do it.

If she went home, if she let herself get sucked back in, even just for a night, there was no way she'd be able to walk away. Leaving a second time was more than she'd be able to bear, and she was just so damn tired of being emotionally wrung out that it just wasn't an option.

"I don't… think that's a very good idea," she murmured, and she couldn't even look at him when she said it.

"Okay." His voice was so flat that even with her gaze fixed on her hands clenched in the starched hospital sheets, she could see the granite wall descending behind his eyes. No, not granite. Concrete. Rebarred concrete.

Maka felt like she should say something, but what was there left to say? She settled for a jerky little nod, just to acknowledge him.

"Well… I gotta go. Feel better."

"Thanks," she whispered hoarsely.

She listened to his retreating footsteps, and found herself wondering when he had started shuffling his feet along the floor again.


Tsugumi sat in the waiting room, clutching the change of clothes she had gone to retrieve for Maka, legs bouncing nervously.

Not long after he had taken his father's place as Shinigami-sama, Death the Kid had commissioned an expansion of the school's medical facilities. It was a much-needed improvement, largely because when the infirmary was full, any additional student or staff member who was too injured to recuperate at home was forced to spend their recovery in Professor Stein's laboratory, and that was a fate no one wanted to suffer through.

The addition of a waiting room, equipped with comfortable seating, was one of the more inspired aspects of this renovation. Meisters or, more frequently, weapons whose partners had been injured in the field rarely wanted to stray far until they knew for sure that their partner would be okay.

Outside, Tsugumi heard the slam of the infirmary door and leapt to her feet, thinking it was Dr. Freeman coming to let her know that she'd finished Maka's examination, but when she poked her head into the hallway, she found herself face to face with Soul Eater, The Last Death Scythe himself. Or was it Soul Evans? She'd never been exactly clear about how she was supposed to think of him. Either way, she felt horribly unworthy to stand before him.

He had stopped dead when she emerged from the waiting room, and she couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes.

"I-I'm sorry," she said to her shoes. "I shouldn't have let her get hurt. I swear, I tried to protect her the way I would protect my meisters— no, wait, that's not… I mean, I tried to protect her the way you would, but I let her down. I couldn't stop her from getting hurt, Soul-senpai, and I'm sorry."

At last she chanced a glance up at him, and was taken aback by the wild sort of desperation in his intimidating red eyes.

"What are you apologizing to me for?" he asked roughly. "It's not like she's my meister anymore."

He brushed past her, hurrying off into the corridor beyond the medical wing. Tsugumi was left staring after him, clutching a pair of Maka's sweatpants to her chest.

"She is though," she said quietly.


Soul was half an hour late for their scheduled meeting, but that wasn't what surprised Kid.

What surprised him was that Soul turned up at all.

Kid was sitting behind a desk he had conjured for himself, keeping himself busy with some paperwork he had been putting off and which he fully expected to be able to complete during the time he had scheduled for this meeting. The odds of Soul appearing were slim, so really it was just an uninterrupted hour of work, right?

As a result, when the death scythe finally slumped into the room, shoulders sagging even worse than usual and with dejection hovering around him like a palpable cloud, Kid was so taken aback that he couldn't stifle his astonished expression.

"Soul, I wasn't expecting you," he said.

Soul raised an eyebrow. "Really? You scheduled the meeting."

Kid smiled tightly. Even when he was plainly miserable, Soul still managed to dredge up sarcasm from somewhere. It would almost have been impressive if it wasn't so sad. Kid couldn't help but wonder how Soul had acquired this particular talent.

"It doesn't follow that I actually expected you to be here for it," he said.

He didn't miss Soul's wince.

"But since you're here, we may as well get down to business. Now, as I'm sure Spirit came to inform you—"

"You want me to make a decision about filling one of the vacant death weapon posts, I know," he interrupted, plopping down in the chair on the other side of Kid's desk. "I've made my choice."

Kid had a bad feeling about this. "Soul, we haven't had a chance to go ov—"

"I've made my choice."

A very bad feeling indeed. He sighed. "Alright then, if you're sure…"

"I am," Soul said.

"So you'll be taking one of the postings overseas, then?"

"Yeah, I need to get outta Death City."

Kid shook his head resignedly. "I thought you might say something like that. So will you be taking Pushka's post, Tezca's post, or—"

"Marie's," Soul interrupted. "Give me Oceania."

"May I ask why?"

He shrugged. "Process of elimination, mostly. No way in hell am I being stationed in Siberia, and I hear Peru's nice and all, but I can't speak Spanish for shit. And Oceania… it's not a big responsibility. Just Australia, New Zealand, and a bunch of little islands, and not a whole lot of pre-kishin activity most of the time. Isn't that why Marie took it in the first place? I'm not… Kid, I can't wield myself, I can't fight right now. I need someplace quiet."

It was perhaps the most honest look at his feelings that Soul had ever allowed Kid to see, perhaps the most he'd allowed anyone to see, as far as Kid knew. And Kid didn't know much about romantic love, but heartbreak… heartbreak was something he knew much, much too well.

"Soul, if this is what you really want, then we can start making the arrangements right away, of course. But I must ask: are you doing this because this is really the direction you want to take your career with the DWMA, or are you running away?"

It was almost fascinating to watch as Soul's entire body went rigid. "Don't ask me that," he said tersely.

"Why not?"

"Because you're not gonna like the answer."

Kid sighed. "Soul, we need to discuss it. Before you make your final decision, it would be a good idea for you to talk to Maka, try to—"

"I fucking have!" Soul burst out. "I just fucking talked to her and she's made it perfectly clear that she doesn't want anything more to do with me anymore!"

"Soul…"

The death scythe sighed, running his both hands through his hair in a gesture of helpless frustration. "Kid, I can't keep waiting around in limbo and hoping maybe things are gonna get better, because it's not gonna happen."

Kid sighed softly. He knew a losing battle when he saw it. "Alright then. I'll have the arrangements made. Get your belongings together so they're ready to be shipped ahead within a few days. I'll call you on the mirror and let you know your departure time as soon as the details have been sorted out."

Soul nodded. "Anything else we need to talk about?" he asked.

"Not immediately. We'll need to meet again before you go, of course, because I'll need to brief you on the responsibilities of your new post and the current affairs of the region, but unless you have any specific concerns, the travel arrangements can be addressed without your input."

Soul gave a jerky little nod. "Yeah, I don't care. S'long as the plane doesn't crash, I'm good."

Kid gathered up his paperwork and placed it tidily in the exact center of his desk, then got to his feet. "Oceania will be lucky to have you, Soul."

"Yeah, yeah," Soul said with a roll of his eyes, getting to his feet. "Save the mushy crap for the airport, man."

He was almost to the first of the guillotines that lined the pathway out of the Death Room when he paused. Without turning around, he said, "Oh, by the way, there's still five months left on the lease. Could you tell Maka that the place is hers if she wants it?"

Kid had no reply other than, "Of course."

Once Soul was out of sight, Kid turned to the mirror on its dais and tapped lightly on the surface. The glass rippled like water, a note like a tuning fork reverberating through the Death Room, and then the inside of Black*Star and Tsubaki's bathroom appeared in the mirror. A few calls of his name had the bushin poking his head into the bathroom curiously.

"What's up, fellow godling?" Black*Star asked.

Kid sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Black*Star, I know we had agreed to keep out of Soul and Maka's personal lives, but I believe we need to reevaluate that position. I've just had a meeting with Soul…"


Getting changed out of the much too breezy hospital gown and into the sweatpants and the soft cotton t-shirt Tsugumi had dropped off for her the night before took Maka the better part of five minutes. She was still a little dizzy, her body felt bruised all over, and it had her moving stiff and slow.

Once she was dressed, with the hospital gown folded up at the end of her neatly-made bed, she left the infirmary proper with a wave to Dr. Freeman. Out in the hallway, she sank down onto a bench and waited for her ride.

It was funny how quiet the school was on a Saturday. Without the flood of teenage meisters and weapons, the halls echoed in a distinctly unsettling fashion. There were surely other staff members in the building, but it was so silent that if she hadn't literally just seen Dr. Freeman, she would have felt herself the only person in the whole DWMA.

"Yo, nerdbrain!"

Maka's head jerked up as she stared down the hall, where a very familiar mop of bright blue hair was bounding toward her. "Black*Star?" she asked in numb surprise. "What are you doing here? I thought Tsubaki was going to come pick me up."

"Change of plans," he said. "Tsubaki got a call from her folks, and those international calls ain't cheap, so she asked if I could come get you."

She tilted her head to one side in confusion. "But… why would you agree to that? Don't you hate the sight of me now or something?"

He crossed his arms, tapping his foot impatiently. "Tsubaki asked me to help, so I'm helping."

Which, admittedly, did make sense. Black*Star was always willing to give more ground where Tsubaki was concerned than he would for anyone else. "Alright," she said tiredly. "Let's go, then."

He led her outside and down the grand staircase which, for once, Maka was infinitely more glad to be descending than climbing. Black*Star's SUV, a huge gas-guzzling monstrosity in an eye-searing shade of neon blue, was parked at the bottom.

"I don't think that's actually supposed to be a parking space," she pointed out.

"Tch. Whatever. Gods aren't bound by the same parking restrictions as mere mortals. Now get in, pleb."

Eager to be back at the Gallows, where she would be able to curl up under her blankets with some painkillers and a book and escape the painfully awkward atmosphere hanging between herself and the boy she had considered almost family since they were toddlers, Maka climbed into the passenger seat. Once she had strapped herself in— always a necessity when Black*Star was driving— he gunned the engine and they took off down the cobblestone streets.

Maka gazed out the window, numbly watching the buildings of Death City fly past and not paying overmuch attention. As such, it took her awhile to realize that they had missed the turn that would take them to the Gallows. She had been staring at the bank of dark clouds rolling in over the mountains from California for several minutes before she noticed that they were on the highway headed out of the city.

"Hey, wait, where are you going?" Maka demanded. "The Gallows is the other way!"

"Yeah, I know," Black*Star said grimly, "but I've got a bone to pick with ya and I know you'd rather rip my teeth out than talk about this shit, so I figure if you're stuck in a moving car, you can't run away, and you won't try to murder me either. Probably," he added, after shooting an evaluative glance at Maka.

She knew what this was about. How could she not? Maka wasn't naive, she knew their friends had been talking and wondering and worrying. She hadn't been able to bring herself to tell them anything, though. She wasn't ready, wasn't prepared to see the distress on their faces or hear them protest that she must have somehow misunderstood, even though they didn't know anything about it.

And yet… if she was going to finally confess it all to someone, who better than Black*Star? Her first friend, her brother in all but blood. What did it matter that he was on Soul's side? He wouldn't fuss and coo over her, nor would he offer empty platitudes. Black*Star always shot straight. He wouldn't try to make her believe in a bright side that didn't exist.

"You want to know what happened with Soul and me, right?" she said wearily. "Why we fought?"

Black*Star nodded, knuckles tightening on the wheel.

She closed her eyes, letting out her breath slowly. "Okay. Okay." Breathe in, breathe out. "After graduation, Soul and I went out to dinner. He had reservations at the Evil Olive. I remember thinking how nice it was for just the two of us to spend time together. We'd been so busy for months, and—"

"Is this important?" Black*Star interrupted. "Because if it's not, feel free to skip to the parts that are."

Maka tried to glare at him, but it fell rather flat, so she settled for a mildly stern look, and then went on: "Anyway, we had a nice evening, and then we went home…"


Three months ago…

"...and so there Ox is, hiding behind a trashcan, begging me to go talk to Kim so he can get away without her—" Maka's flow of words halted abruptly as she stepped into the apartment and took in the sight before her.

At least two hundred candles of varying sizes, all in shades of green and gold, covered nearly every flat surface in the living room, from the end tables to the floor to the top of the television set. The multitude of tiny flames cast a warm, flickering light across the walls. Scattered here and there amidst the candles were a handful of vases filled with bunches of half-blown red roses.

Maka looked around in astonishment as she took a few tentative steps through the field of glowing wicks. "What on earth has Blair been doing?" she asked, more or less rhetorically.

"Actually, I asked her to set this up," Soul said. "Though the roses are a nice touch— I wouldn't have thought of that."

Her eyes snapped to him, all dressed up in his best suit— plain black, not the pinstriped one he wore in the Black Room within his soul, but he still wore a scarlet dress shirt beneath. Earlier, in the light of day, she had thought the shirt matched his eyes; under the shivering candlelight, however, she knew she had been foolish to think so. His shirt was dimmed down to a dull burgundy in the shifting light, but his eyes were bright and vivid blood-red, watching her intently.

A chill ran down her spine. This was odd. Soul threw her for a loop every other week, being perennially full of surprises, but this was something more than just the discovery of his rock collection. This was something like… like…

"Maka, we've been partners for awhile, right?" he asked, in a deep voice that sent another shiver through her in a very different way.

She chuckled nervously. "Nine years in August. Soul what is thi—?"

But he held up a hand to silence her. "I've been thinking a lot lately. We graduated today and… you know what can happen to partnerships after school. Mostly it's NOT kids who split up, because they're not fighting together, but it can happen to EAT partners, too."

"Soul, we're not gonna split up," she interjected, rushing to reassure him. She thought she'd nipped this fear in the bud days ago! "That doesn't happen to people with a really—"

"Just… let me get this out, okay?" he pleaded, and the trepidation in his eyes was not at all comforting. "Maka, I've never had a friend like you. I've never been as close to anybody as I am to you. And… you know me, I always end up overthinking things and putting off decisions until the last second because I don't wanna mess it up, never taking action until my hand is forced. But… I don't wanna leave us to chance. I don't wanna risk losing you because I kept my mouth shut and played my cards close to my chest like I always do. So maybe this is crazy, but crazy's always kinda been our thing and it always worked out okay before, right?"

Somehow, without her realizing it was happening, he had crossed the distance between them and he was standing intoxicatingly close.

"So I'm gonna take a leap here and just… just do it." He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, holding her gaze intently. "Maka, will you marry me?"

The silence that followed was absolute. Maka's brain seemed to have come to a screeching halt, and the only thing she was capable of processing was the throb in her ears from her suddenly racing heart and the way her legs seemed to have turned to jelly. Was this really happening? It felt like a nauseating combination of dream and nightmare, and if Soul had made even one mention of the word "love" she would have known she was dreaming.

But he hadn't, and she wasn't, and now he was standing there with a ring-box in his palm— where had that come from?— waiting for an answer to an impossible question…


"Wait, he did what?!"

Black*Star slammed on the brakes, causing the truck behind them to lay on the horn as she swerved into the other lane to avoid a rear-end collision. He muscled his vehicle over to the shoulder of the road, then killed the engine and turned to stare at Maka. Jolted out of her recollections, she was hyperaware of her surroundings with dizzying suddenness, noting that they had left the city limits and currently sitting in a yellowish dust cloud on the side of the desert highway.

"So you're telling me Soul… asked you to marry him?"

Maka nodded miserably.

Black*Star's brow furrowed in confusion. "But… you hate marriage."

"I don't… hate it, necessarily," she said. "I just never saw myself as being the kind of person to get married. It can get way too ugly, never seemed worth it."

"Tomato, tomahto," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "So seriously, that's what this whole thing has been about? You said no and he… what? Didn't want to take no for an answer?" He frowned. "But… that doesn't sound like Soul. Pretty sure you could kick him in the balls and he'd say thank you."

"No he wouldn't," Maka mumbled. "He'd get all snarly and complain about weapon abuse."

Black*Star snorted. "Yeah, you're prolly right. But then if he didn't get all pissy about you turning him down, then… what happened?"

Maka shook her head helplessly. "We had a fight."

"Obviously," Black*Star said.

She glared him back into silence. "It was awful. I hardly remember it, honestly. I was just so angry, and I—"

"Hang on, angry?" he interrupted. "Why?"

Maka opened her mouth, but stopped, brought up short in surprise. How did he not get it? "What do you mean 'why'? Isn't it obvious?"

He huffed. "No. I mean, all the guy did was propose! I get that you've got a man-hating complex the size of Texas, but even if you don't wanna get hitched— which I totally support, by the way, what's the point of tying yourself down before you're even in your twenties?— why would you blow up at him for popping the question?"

She gave him a look.

"Okay, yeah, you're right, dumb question," he said with a roll of his eyes. "But seriously, I'm having a hard time understanding this, because yeah, you've got issues and I get that the whole marriage thing is kind of a sensitive thing for you, but that's not a reason for you guys to just completely split up."

What more did he want from her? She'd already told him what happened, did she have to spill her heart's blood on top of her guts? "Since when are you into heart-to-hearts, anyway?" she asked peevishly. "I already told you what happened, so let's just leave it alone."

He shook his head. "Nope, no can do. Soul's my bro, and he's real messed up over this, and Kid said you're not doing so hot either. I've 'left it alone' for like three months now and I thought that was the right thing to do, but this shit isn't getting better, so you're gonna talk about this if we have to sit here all day."

Maka heaved a sigh. "Black*Star…"

"I'm not kidding, Maka. Start talking. Why'd you run like a fucking coward?"

And maybe it was the sneer in his tone on the word "coward" or maybe it was the pressure of holding in all her feelings for so long— something she'd never been good at even with the little stuff— but something snapped. "It's because he was proposing for all the wrong reasons!" she burst out. "If he'd been asking me to marry him because he— because he actually loved me and stuff, that would be one thing, it really would be! I still wouldn't have said yes, but I wouldn't have been mad at him just for that! But that wasn't what he was doing, don't you get it?"

Black*Star was looking increasingly confused. "Um… no?"

"Why am I not surprised? Alright, let me explain in small words: Soul had been freaking out for weeks that our partnership might change or drift apart after graduation, okay? I have no idea why he thought getting married was the solution to that, but I've never really understood how Soul thinks so I guess this just proves that. It's just—" She let out a somewhat hysterical snort of bitter laughter. "It's just that I never thought he would do something like this to me! It was like— like the fight with Blair all over again! I always knew he could be manipulative and wear masks if he wanted to, but I never, ever thought he would try to do that with me, I thought we were past that, and then he turns around and—"

"Wait wait wait wait one goddamn second," Black*Star interrupted loudly. "What the ever-living fuck are you talking about?"

Maka looked at him and found him staring at her with an expression that seemed to be equal parts flabbergasted, confused, and horrified. It was an unusual level of emotional complexity for Black*Star, and she couldn't have said why, but it put the tiniest of cracks in the conviction she'd been clinging to: that she'd made the right choice.

"I'm talking about Soul taking advantage of my, um, romantic feelings for him," she said, but even she could hear the question in her tone. "Because he didn't… um, he didn't want our partnership to split up?"

He gaped at her. "So this is all because… you think Soul was trying to manipulate you or some shit like that?"

"I wouldn't have thought he was capable of it, but—"

"He's not," Black*Star snapped. With a furious growl, he flung open his door so hard the hinges groaned ominously, then jumped out onto the hard-packed dirt on the shoulder of the road and hurled it shut behind him with a bang. He began to stalk up and down through the low desert brush, arms swinging beside him in a frenetic, jerky motion.

As Maka followed him out, she observed that the bank of clouds she had seen earlier were rolling closer across the plains.

Black*Star whirled on her. "Seriously, what the fuck, Maka?" he bit out. "You're supposed to know Soul better than anyone! I'd think you, of all people, would know he's not the kind of asshole who would do something like that! You know, all this time I thought this whole stupid we're-not-partners separation bull was because you, I dunno, didn't feel the same way and for some reason decided to be a huge bitch and rip out Soul's heart instead of trying to deal with it like a fucking adult, and you know what? That never made sense to me because you've never been the kind of loser who runs away when things get hard, but this? This makes even less sense, dammit! You know Soul, you get him, you should know better than to think he'd play with anybody's feelings like that, let alone yours!"

"I know!" Maka shrieked, cutting through his tirade by virtue of sheer volume. And that was the rub, wasn't it? Because she did know that Soul was better than that, and it had been eating her up inside for months to be forced to believe such a thing about him, but what else could she do when all the evidence was pointing her to that conclusion? "Don't you think I know that Soul would never deliberately hurt me? You're damn right I know him better than anybody! I know things about him nobody else does, I know how selfish he is about the people he cares about! He doesn't get close to people easily, and once he is close to somebody, he wants to hang onto them! I know he didn't mean to hurt me, okay? He just… wanted to make sure he could keep me close, but he tried to take advantage of my feelings to do that and I just… I couldn't stay after that, don't you get it? I fell for him, I knew it was stupid and a bad idea, but I did anyway, and it was fine, you know, because we had this comfortable routine! We were just fine the way we were, we came first for each other and that was enough for me, and he knew that, I know he did, only then he hit me right in my weak spot, and even— even if he didn't mean to... there was no way I could leave myself open to that again."

Her shoulders slumped as her voice faded away into silence, her fury spent, her soul raw and her heart laid bare.

Black*Star was staring at her with pity in his eyes and she couldn't stand it, but she met his eyes squarely anyway.

"Is that really what you think?" he asked.

She nodded.

"You really can't think of any other reason a guy might pop the question?" he asked, a sarcastic edge sneaking into his tone. "None at all? Like maybe the fact that he's ridiculously in love with you?"

Maka scoffed. "I wish."

Black*Star was suddenly right in front of her, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her. "Maka, you idiot, I did not spend the last four years listening to Soul whine about his feelings just for you to fuck it all up because you don't wanna see what's right in front of your stupid face!"

She shoved his hands off of her and took several quick steps back, shaking her head hard. "No, I don't— I mean, he doesn't— he can't! He's never said anything, and I gave him every opportunity! I must've dropped a thousand hints, but he never—"

Black*Star snorted loudly and rolled his eyes. "Okay, first of all, Maka? I get that Soul's all emotional and marshmallow-y underneath the resting bitchface, but he's still a guy. We don't get hints. We can't translate weird girl-speak, okay? Second of all, you know why Soul didn't say anything? It's because he thought you guys were on the same page!"

Maka blinked. "What?"

"Yeah, he thought you guys were just… how did he put it? Oh yeah— waiting for the perfect time to take things to the next level, of all the sappy shit…" He shook his head disgustedly.

Maka felt dizzy again, and it wasn't because of the concussion this time. Her entire worldview was violently reorienting itself and her mind was racing to catch up, even as the implications of this sudden revelation were putting knots in her stomach. The last few years were playing back at high speed in her memory as she combed through all those cherished moments she had tucked away to carry her through lonely nights, and as she reexamined them…

Suddenly a landslide of little details that she had determinedly told herself at the time not to read too much into because he didn't, couldn't mean it like that were coming back to her. Things she had dismissed as the words of a best friend, the actions of a devoted weapon, wave upon wave of affection she had insistently chalked up to their purely platonic bond... they all seemed so different when viewed under another slant of light.

Black*Star was wrong, she thought. It wasn't just guys who didn't get hints.

"Soul… loves me?" she asked.

"No doi, dweebface," Black*Star said, sounding wholly exasperated. "You're the absolute last person to know; the rest of us figured that shit out years ago."

She didn't really need the confirmation. Black*Star was many things, but a liar was not one of them. She was pretty sure he was fundamentally incapable of willful deception, and he definitely wouldn't lie about something this important. But somehow it was still good to hear it.

Except…

Oh no.

Oh no.

Maka's heart twisted as she pictured a room full of candles and roses and her weapon standing there offering her his heart in a little black velvet box. At the time, she hadn't really registered the way he'd flinched when she had jerked away and asked if he had finally completely lost his mind? but now that she thought about it…

Oh Death, what had she done?

It had been one thing to provoke a fight and then bolt for sanctuary at the Gallows after he stormed out when it was just Soul being stupid and insensitive and trying to control her. Not necessarily the most mature thing, but she had felt perfectly justified in her reaction, even if it was killing her inside to be so abruptly severed from him. But when it was Soul genuinely trying to express love and finally make the shift in their partnership from platonic to romantic, it just seemed cruel.

All this time, people— and by people she meant mostly Black*Star— had been telling her that Soul was having a hard time coping with their separation. She hadn't exactly dismissed the idea, necessarily, but she'd assumed they were exaggerating. Of course he was hurting, she'd thought. They'd been partners and close friends, and ending that kind of a relationship was bound to be painful in its own right, and it was what he'd been so afraid of in the first place. But Soul had other friends, and there were always meisters clamoring to partner with him. She'd figured he would be fine eventually.

If he was in love with her, though, how much must these past few months have been killing him?

"No wonder you hate me," she said softly.

"I don't hate you. I was righteously pissed at you for awhile there but, uh, you're..." Black*Star coughed, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "You're like my, um, sister or something? So I think I'm supposed to forgive you for being a dumbass or whatever."

Despite the guilt that was threatening to choke her, Maka couldn't help but spit out a laugh as she socked him in the shoulder. "Yeah, love ya too, jerk."

Then she heaved a sigh. "How is he, really?"

Black*Star shook his head. "Not good. He's hardly left the apartment. Oh, and he stopped eating for awhile once he ran out of cup noodles. Guess he just didn't feel like making the effort or something. So Tsubaki's been making extra and bringing him leftovers."

Maka cringed at the thought of her partner, with his bottomless black hole of a stomach, just… not bothering to eat. But then Black*Star opened his mouth again and said something even worse.

"And he hasn't been sleeping."

Maka closed her eyes and bit down hard on her lip. Soul, the reigning king of being able to fall asleep anywhere at any time, only forewent sleep if something was terribly wrong. The last time he had gone sleepless was during Asura's reign of terror, when the black blood had been tormenting him, keeping him up at night.

"Dammit," she hissed. "I really fucked up, didn't I?" She opened her eyes and looked to Black*Star for confirmation.

His grimace gave her all the answer she needed. Before he could say anything to confirm it, however, her phone began vibrating in her pocket. She pulled it out and glanced at the screen.

"It's Patti," she said. "She's probably freaking out because Tsubaki was supposed to drop me off an hour ago, hold on— Hi, Patti."

"Maka, you answered!"

She frowned in confusion. "I tend to do that when the phone rings. Patti, what—"

"Maka Maka Maka, you gotta go home now!"

"What? Is everything alright? Has something happened to Liz?"

"No, stupid! Because of Soul!"

She clutched the receiver tightly, the fingers of her free hand knotting themselves in the hem of her t-shirt. "Soul? Is he okay?"

"Yes, he's fine, but he's gonna be Crocodile Dundee!"

"Huh?"

"Hugh Jackman! Steve Irwin! Nicole Kidman! Kangaroo Jack!"

"Why are you shouting Australian pop-culture icons at me?"

"Because Soul's going to Australia, dummy! He took Miss Marie's old job!"

Maka felt a little light-headed suddenly. "What? When?"

"I dunno when he's leaving, but Kiddo said probably soon. He came to talk to him yesterday."

Oh. So that was what Soul had been doing at the school in the first place. Yesterday she hadn't thought to wonder about it. "Oh."

"Maka, you can't just let him go. You have to go talk to him and fix things!"

"Yeah," she said, "yeah I know. I will."

She hung up on the sound of Patti cheering loudly. She stared for a minute at her darkened phone screen, then raised her eyes to glare at Black*Star. "Did you know Soul's leaving the country?"

"How hard are you gonna chop me if I say yes?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Depends on why you hadn't told me yet."

Black*Star shrugged. "Wanted to make sure whatever had gone all screwy with you guys was actually fixable first. If it was just that you didn't love him back and then decided to break his heart and ditch him instead of dealing with it, I figured it was better to just let him make a clean break without having to deal with any more drama."

"Has anybody ever told you it's absolutely terrifying when you start being mature and rational?"

He gave her a cheeky grin. "Yeah. Kid said the same thing last week."

Maka shook her head.


Black*Star dropped her off in front of their apartment as the clouds began to roll in over Death City. She glanced up at the greying sky and sucked in a deep breath, bracing herself for what was to come… whatever that might be.

Five flights of stairs later, she was staring at the shiny brass number 506 with trembling fingers.

Soul didn't answer Maka's first knock, or her second, so she took matters into her own hands. She was in no mood to wait in the hallway for him to come back from wherever he was, let alone leave and come back later.

For some reason there was a large splintery hole in the door just beneath the lock that looked suspiciously like it had come from a scythe blade. She couldn't fathom why it would be there, because the doors in their building didn't automatically lock, so it wasn't as if Soul could have simply forgotten his keys and needed to force entry. She decided not to question it, however, because it was highly convenient for her purposes. When she had left the Gallows yesterday to meet Tsugumi, she had had no notion of coming back here, so her house key was still tucked carefully into the drawer of her bedside table in Kid's mansion.

She shoved her hand through the gap in the wood and reached inside to twist back the deadbolt. She extracted her hand and pushed the door open, stepping into their apartment for the first time in just under three months.

It still smelled the same. The air was a little bit more stale than she remembered, as if the place hadn't really received a thorough cleaning in awhile, but it was home and she nearly burst out laughing— or maybe crying— at how good it felt to be back.

A little collection of cardboard boxes, all labeled in Soul's spiky handwriting, sat on and around the coffee table, and Maka realized with a jolt that he was packing. The sight drove home the fact that he was really leaving in a way Patti and Black*Star's words hadn't managed to do.

At that exact moment, Soul emerged from his bedroom wearing only a white muscle tank and a pair of horrifically ugly Duck Dynasty boxers Patti had given him as a gag gift a few Christmases ago. He had earbuds in, which explained why he hadn't answered her knock, and he was carrying a duffel bag in one hand and a stack of folded sheets in the other.

The moment he saw her standing in the doorway, both of these things slipped from his hands and hit the floor with a pair of muffled thumps as he stopped dead in his tracks, staring at her.

He pulled out his earbuds. "Maka," he said and it wasn't a question, not a what-are-you-doing-here-did-you-forget-you-don't-live-here-anymore. He just sounded so… surprised.

"Uh… hi," she said, feeling as dumbstruck as he sounded. She had forgotten how very Soul he was.

"They let you out of the hospital, then?"

Maka nodded. "It wasn't really that bad anyway. I've had worse."

"Yeah."

Soul didn't seem to have anything else to say, and the silence stretched out as Maka's concussed brain fried its circuits trying to figure out what she was even supposed to say in this situation. Oh Death, she suddenly wished she'd taken a few minutes to plan out some kind of speech, or at the very least an apology that didn't sound completely inadequate in the face of the last few months, or—

"There are a lot of spiders in Australia," she blurted out.

Soul, who had started to gather up his dropped linens, straightened up. "...yes?" he prompted tentatively, his expression confirming that he was wondering whether she'd flipped her lid.

"You hate spiders. Which I guess is pretty ironic when you think about it, considering Arachne, and how we made you a death scythe with the spider-queen's… whatever. Not the point. But, I mean, you really hate spiders. You always get me to kill them when you find them in your bedroom. And that one time one crawled on you in the shower, I thought you were being murdered, it wasn't pretty. And that time that 'Star thought it would be funny to put a tarantula in your locker, I mean…"

He was definitely looking at her like he thought maybe she should still be in the hospital, possibly in a straight jacket, and Maka cursed her stupid rambling mouth because this was not how she'd envisioned this going at all. But! She had a point! She really did!

"Um, Maka…?"

"Seriously, Soul, do you know how big the spiders in Australia are?" she rushed on, not willing to let him actually ask her if she'd lost her marbles because she was pretty sure the answer was possibly. "'Cause if you don't, you should probably know that they're huge. And there are lots of them. And I'm pretty sure most of them are poisonous. I'd have to look that up, though. But the point is, you can't go to Australia without me because somebody has to kill the spiders for you!"

Well, she thought miserably, as opening lines go, it probably could have gone worse. Somehow.

And then, of course, it got worse.

"I'm a grown man, Maka, I think I can kill my own spiders," Soul said, finally scooping up the sheets and duffel bag.

She still felt a little bit as though her brain were swimming through jelly, which was probably why, instead of getting to the point, she said instead: "You don't even turn twenty until November!"

Or, possibly, she was just putting off talking about the hard stuff.

"'Know when my birthday is, thanks," he grunted, depositing his bag on the sofa. He took a few moments to tuck his folded sheets into one of the open boxes with much more care than was usual for him.

Then he turned back to face her, wearing that blank look that used to infuriate her before she realized that he only wore it when he didn't want his heart showing in his eyes. "Look, obviously you know I'm leaving, and I've got to get my stuff ready to be shipped ahead by tomorrow night. I've got a lot to do, so if you just came here to mess with my head some more, could you maybe just… not?"

By the end of this speech, his face wasn't really blank anymore. He looked utterly defeated and his voice was so, so tired that she almost couldn't stand it. Before she could say a single word, he dropped his gaze and walked back in the direction of his bedroom; the dismissal was clear.

Maka stood there staring at his retreating back, momentarily stunned. Then she blinked, breathed deeply, squared her shoulders, and followed him.


Soul opened his closet door with shaking hands. He had been caught so off-guard it would almost have been funny if it didn't hurt so damn much.

He'd been in a depressive, sleepless limbo for months, and he'd thought that was agony, but he'd been wrong. That had been a walk in the goddamn park— this was agony.

He hadn't wanted to admit it to himself, but all this time he'd been clinging to the idea that this was just… temporary. Subconsciously, he'd managed to convince himself that Maka was just having another freakout like the breakdown she'd suffered in the Book of Eibon. Short-term. Fleeting. Eventually, she would calm down and come home and they could work things out, right?

Wrong.

Their conversation in the infirmary had confirmed that much, at least. He'd tried to do like Tsubaki had said, tried to extend the olive branch, and he'd been shot down hard. Again. There was no reviving their partnership, let alone the big, beautiful More he had hung every one of his dreams on. Now he was left scrambling to pick up the pieces, and the biggest axis of the support structure he'd built for himself was just gone, and once again his only option left was to run away.

He had really, really thought he was done running.

He felt fractured and unstable, like he'd been infected by the Black Blood all over again, but a thousand times more acute. It was a shock to his system, acidic and churning in his gut and burning behind his eyes.

What the hell did she think she was doing, anyway? Hadn't she made it perfectly fucking clear yesterday that they were over permanently? Whatever last embers of hope he'd been trying to keep burning, she'd casually smothered them not even twenty-four hours ago. What fucking right did she have to show up now and basically… what? Ask to come along, like everything was peachy-fucking-keen between them? Was that what she'd been getting at?

The very idea made his chest physically hurt, like his heart was literally breaking. His fingers slipped on the box of vintage vinyl he was lifting down from the top shelf and it began to topple…

And then a familiar pair of small hands reached up and caught the falling box before it could crash to the floor. Maka ducked under his arm to set his records gently on the carpet and turned to face him and god, she was way too close.

He backed away. "Figured you'd be long gone," he said jerkily. "Isn't that what you do when I leave the room?"

She flinched, and dammit, now he wished he could take it back. "I deserve that," she said quietly. "But I'm not running away now."

He wanted to walk out. He wanted to shout and rage at her. He wanted to grab her close and never let her go. Mostly he just wanted not to lose his shit because he had spilled his guts and humiliated himself enough for her, but with every second she stood in front of him, the possibility of getting out of this with even a shred of his dignity left was looking slimmer and slimmer.

"Yeah, and how much good does that do us now, Maka?" he snapped, turning away again in an effort to keep her from looking at him with those eyes, because he couldn't handle the look she was giving him, a look that, three months ago, he would have sworn meant she loved him. But he knew better now, knew he'd just been deluding himself all these years, and if he got his hopes again one more time, he didn't know how he'd survive the inevitable crash at the end of the rollercoaster.

"It might do all the good we need," she said, her voice faint, but the certainty in her tone was smashing against the paper-thin walls he'd constructed to keep her out like a damn battering ram. "I was wrong to run, Soul. I panicked, and I hurt you, and I'm so sorry for that, but—"

He couldn't listen to this. "Maka, why are you here?" he demanded, trying to pretend his voice wasn't cracking in the middle. "If this is just about you clearing your conscience and tying up loose ends before I leave, then you can—"

"I want to fix it!" she interrupted him, desperately. "I want to be your— your—" She faltered, and finished in a weak voice: "...y-your partner."

He couldn't look at her, but he couldn't look away either, he felt dizzy and his heart was going so fast the tips of his fingers had gone numb. He wondered vaguely if he was actually having a heart attack because it sure as fuck felt like it.

"You know," he said, feeling a little hysterical, and entirely horrified to realize that the lump in his throat had cracked wide open and taken his voice with it, "yesterday I would have been so fucking happy to hear you say that. I'd've been willing to take anything you were willing to give me, whether it was partnership or just being friends or— or whatever, but you know what?" And oh shit, his eyes were stinging now and he was gonna lose it right here in front of her and he didn't want to, dammit; he just wanted her to go so that he wouldn't have to embarrass himself all over again, but there was no stopping it now and he'd said this much so he wasn't backing down, even if his voice was shaking and he was about three seconds from a breakdown. "I just… I can't do it, Maka, I can't. I can't take constantly being held at a distance, and if we partner up again that's what's gonna happen and I'm never gonna be able to stop wanting more from you, and I—"

His voice broke, the lump in his throat finally swollen too large to speak around, and the room went blurry as the tears he'd been trying to hold back finally spilled over. He took a shaky step backwards and sank down onto the foot of his bed, elbows on his knees as he buried his face in his hands to hide from her all-seeing eyes. He tried and failed to stifle a sob.

"Soul…" she breathed, sounding horrified, which only made him feel worse, and he couldn't swallow down another pathetic whimper.

God, he just couldn't keep it together when it actually counted, could he? He hadn't cried since he was… actually, he couldn't remember the last time he'd cried. It had to have been two or three years at least. Smothering your feelings and putting on a good show was a long-ingrained habit that had been impressed on him pretty much from infancy, because after all, an Evans doesn't make a scene.

Well, here he was, making a fucking scene, and for once he thought his folks might actually have been right about something, because this was humiliating.

He felt her hand rest on his shoulder, feather-light, as if he were breakable, and he shivered and jerked away from her touch. "Don't touch me," he choked out, and his voice shook in a way that made him press his hands against his eyes as if he could hold the tears in by sheer pressure.

He heard the rustle of fabric as she knelt down in front of him, felt her hands on his wrists, pulling gently with far less strength than he knew she possessed, and when she spoke, her voice was shaking, too. "Please, Soul, please look at me…"

And he tried not to. He tried so fucking hard to resist, but she wasn't forcing his hands away from his face like she could have, she was leaving it up to him, and she sounded… she sounded like…

He looked up, and her eyes were damp, too.

"Maka…" He wasn't sure what he was planning on saying, so he didn't say anything. He wasn't sure he could say anything without sobbing like a child, and he wasn't ready to sacrifice what little was left of his dignity.

"I didn't know," she said, sounding miserable and pleading. "Soul, I'm so, so sorry. I swear I didn't know you loved me."

It was such a ridiculous statement that it took him a minute to even process what she even meant. "W-what?" he asked blankly.

"You just—" Her lower lip was quivering and she bit down on it hard and took several deep breaths through her nose to steady herself, even as her eyes were still shining too bright with unshed tears. "You just proposed out of the blue, Soul! I had no idea you felt that way about me, too, and you never— and you'd been freaking out for weeks about what was gonna happen with us after graduation, I know you were, so I thought you were just trying to take advantage of my feelings for you to, I don't know, make sure I wouldn't—"

"What?!" he asked again, but this time he was pissed. It helped to shock him out of his helpless daze somewhat. He jerked upright, glaring at her even though he was still having to blink the moisture out of his eyes. "You thought I was asking you to marry me to manipulate you?"

But she'd already said that, hadn't she? When she'd called him a few days ago, drunkenly crying that she missed him, accusing him of being the one to break them…

And that feeling crept over him again, just as it had during that phone call, that somewhere along the line there had been a horrible miscommunication, and he was starting to wonder if it was on his end after all. The brief burst of fury drained out of him, and his posture slumped down once more. Then something else she'd said suddenly registered… my feelings for you… did that mean…? But it couldn't. Could it?

"I'm sorry," she said softly, "I hated to think you would treat me— or anybody, really— like that, but… what else was I supposed to think? You'd been worrying, and I know how you get when you get stuck in your own head, and I had no idea you loved me!"

He scoffed, but it came out a little strangled because he was still crying, dammit, was that ever going to stop? "How could you not know?" he asked weakly.

"Because you never said anything!" she exclaimed, with a slightly hysterical, entirely humorless laugh underlying her words. "Soul, I tried to show you how I felt! I dropped every hint in the books— hell, a couple of times, I practically told you I wanted to be your girlfriend!" She jumped to her feet and began pacing back and forth in short, tight circles, apparently moving to dispel the tension he could feel radiating from her. "I did everything I could think of to let you know I loved you, but you never said a damn thing! What was I supposed to think? You're not an idiot, you can read people so well and you don't need soul perception to do it, so I just figured you were ignoring it so you wouldn't embarrass me… for the sake of our partnership!"

"You love me?" he breathed, dumbfounded. He didn't know what to think, and his heart was pounding at a thousand miles an hour again, but she'd actually said those words, and it was enough to make him start hoping again, no matter how stupid he knew it was.

"Yes!" she said, and oh, she was shouting now, that probably wasn't good. "Of course I do, Soul, how could I not?"

"Well then what the fuck has this whole disaster been about, then?" he demanded, getting to his feet as well now that it no longer felt like his legs were going to collapse under him at any second. "Because I'm really not getting it!"

"Oh, you're not?" she shot back. "Then let me spell it out for you! I spent years trying to get your attention, but no matter what I tried— and believe me, I tried a lot— you never ever reciprocated! Even when you were proposing marriage, you never once bothered to mention that you actually loved me! Until Black*Star told me an hour ago, I had no idea you felt the same way, Soul! I had resigned myself to the fact that you didn't love me the way I love you and I was okay with that because we were still partners, we still put each other first, and that was fine. But it sucked, Soul, do you have any idea how much trying to accept that my feelings weren't mutual hurt?"

"Of course I do!" he exploded, and fuck, it looked like he wasn't done crying yet. Well wasn't that just flipping fantastic? "What the hell do you think the last three months have been like for me? It's been hell, Maka, it's been absolute hell, and I don't—"

"Me too!" she interrupted, and her interjection was loud enough to cut right through what was working up to be a really good rant. When she continued, however, her voice was soft and her eyes were sad. "I know, I know this whole thing was awful. I've been hurting, too."

And they were left staring at each other, emotionally wrung out and lost for words. Or at least, Soul knew he was. He barely even knew what he was feeling, let alone what to say, and he still had acidic tears etching trails down his cheeks. He was exhausted, and confused, and so damn hurt, and still angry, although he wasn't sure if it was at Maka or at himself anymore. Maybe both, actually. Yeah, both, because she had hurt him more than he would have believed was possible, but clearly she'd had reasons for running, even if he didn't totally understand them yet, and he was pretty sure it was his fault.

"Why are we fighting?" Maka asked into the sudden stillness that had fallen over the apartment.

He sniffed pathetically, and attempted to surreptitiously wipe away some of the wetness on his cheeks, but it was hard to be subtle with her still gazing at him. "I don't know," he said with a sigh.

"I'm so tired of fighting with you," she said, and then she was stepping close and reaching up to cup his cheek in her palm, brushing away the tears with her thumb. Her hand was so warm, and there were calluses on her palms, and he couldn't have stopped himself from leaning into her touch if he'd wanted to.

"We always do this, you know," she continued in that same quiet tone, not meeting his eyes but speaking in the general direction of his Adam's apple instead. "Whenever things get emotional, instead of talking it out rationally, we just react— or at least I do. And then I rile you up and then we're just shouting at each other instead of solving anything. It sucks. We need to work on that." She sucked in a sharp breath and her eyes darted up to meet his. "If… I mean, if you even still want to."

He nodded, just a little. "'Course I do. But you need to be all in, Maka, because I can't do this if you're gonna change your mind in a week or six months or a year and decide you don't want me after all. I can't set myself up for that."

"Do you love me?" she asked.

"Completely."

She smiled ever so slightly, just the tiniest little upturn of her lips, and her eyes were so earnest as she looked at him that it struck him down to the foundations of his soul. "Then we'll make it work," she said, "because I've loved you since we were fifteen years old and I couldn't have stopped even if you didn't love me back."

That was… god, that was good to hear. He was still hurting and wary and very confused on more than a few fronts, but he did know that having her declare her love was a balm for at least some of the pain he'd been in. Believing it was scary after months of second-guessing himself and trying fruitlessly resign himself to the fact that he'd misjudged her feelings, but it was also Maka. Maka, who he knew better than he knew himself, Maka, who would never, ever lie about something that had the potential to hurt him this much. If she said she loved him, he had to believe it, and at this point, he didn't know if he had the strength of will left in him to doubt. Trusting her felt so much better.

"So we're going to work things out?" she ventured.

"Yeah. I… I really want that."

"Me too."

They simply stood in silence for another few moments, feeling some of the tension fade from the situation. The relief was incredible. He felt a little bit shell-shocked, because the reversal from agonized despair to nervous, elated hopefulness was an astonishing degree of emotional whiplash, but he was glad nonetheless. Or at least, he would be once the chaos in his head calmed down a little bit. Clearly they still had some things to sort out...

He shook his head, and when the motion dislodged her hand from his cheek, he immediately regretted it, but when her slim fingers came to rest on his shoulder instead, gripping on lightly like she couldn't bear to not be touching him, he figured that was alright, too. "I don't understand how you could not know how I feel about you."

"Well, you never said anything!" she protested, but there was no heat behind it.

He chuckled, and it was feeble-sounding, but genuine. "Maka, I've been telling you I love you every damn day for years. I… I thought I was letting my actions speak for me!"

She snorted. "I think your actions needed to speak up a little, because I didn't get the message. But even if I had known…" She glanced down for a moment and bit her lip before turning back up to meet his gaze. "Black*Star said that you… you thought we were on the same page about how we felt, right?"

He nodded.

"Well, even if you had been right about that, why would you just propose out of the blue? Even if I had somehow decoded all your mixed signals and knew how you felt, that's like… that's like going from zero to three thousand and sixty in under a minute."

Soul closed his eyes, struggling to find an answer. It would probably be difficult for anybody to put into words the mass of emotion and instinct that had led to his horrifically ill-fated proposal, and he'd never been any good with words. The right thing to say always seemed to escape him, and sometimes even when he thought he'd got it right, people still misunderstood what he was trying to say. He wondered if that was part of what had gone so wrong that night.

"It's… hard to explain, exactly," he said tentatively. "I guess part of it was that I wanted to, you know, make the big romantic gesture or whatever. But I also thought… I mean, why wait, you know? I knew I wanted to spend my life with you, I'd known that for awhile, and with everything else changing all of a sudden, I wanted to… really cement what we had, I guess?" He sighed heavily. "It was stupid."

She nodded. "Yeah, it was. It's not even that it was too much, too fast, exactly, because even without the… um… love thing, we were already in a pretty committed relationship, but… Soul, I don't know if I wanna get married, you know? If I ever did marry anybody, it would be you, but I just don't know if that's a thing that I want."

"Because of your folks?"

"Yeah."

"Oh."

"Exactly. So can we just… table the whole subject for awhile?"

He hesitated. This felt like a bad idea, like they were sweeping it under the rug, just putting it off until later when it could just be another colossal fight for them to deal with down the road…

Maka must have sensed his reluctance, because she added, "I'm not saying that it's not a possibility ever, if it's something that's really important to you, but we're obviously not ready to deal with it. We could maybe revisit the idea later?"

That seemed like a reasonable compromise. "Sounds good," he said, and then she smiled, and it made him light-headed because she hadn't smiled at him like that in what felt like a century. God, he had missed her smiles. He had just missed her in general. It struck him, suddenly, how very close they were standing, and that her hand was still on his shoulder; he didn't even think about it, he just leaned in and kissed her.

He had never kissed anybody before, had never wanted to kiss anybody but her since he'd been old enough to give any serious thought to kissing, and he wasn't entirely sure how to go about it, but he was Soul and she was Maka and they tended to pick things up pretty fast so he was hoping the same principle applied here. It was a little bit of a rough start, as he had apparently misjudged the distance between their lips and ended up smacking their mouths together harder than he had intended, and Maka let out a little squeak of surprise. And then he found himself in a dilemma about what to do with his hands, because he was pretty sure that he was supposed to touch her but he wasn't sure what was okay at this point and everything was still so delicate, he didn't want to ruin it just when they'd started to—

But then Maka's arms were around his neck and she was leaning into him, and his hands snapped to her hips like they were magnetized, and oh. Oh, yep, this was nice. He relaxed into it and took in just how soft her lips were, softer than he'd imagined, even, and god that taste…! And then Maka, take-charge kind of gal that she was, was suddenly running her tongue against the seam of his mouth and it flipped a switch in him because she was here. After everything they'd put themselves through, after thinking they'd blown it and lost their chance, she was here in his arms and she loved him and she was kissing him like there was no tomorrow.

He pulled her flush against him, opening his mouth obligingly as her tongue swept against his lips again, darted his own tongue out to meet hers eagerly, and the noise she made blew at least three fuses in his brain. One of her hands buried itself in his hair, tugging him down even closer, and somehow his fingers had slipped up under the soft fabric of her t-shirt and were tracing soft little circles on her skin, which was the softest thing of all. He couldn't help the moan that escaped him as she withdrew her tongue, only to take his lower lip between her teeth, nipping lightly at his mouth. And then she was peppering him with teasing little kisses, an effusive shower of affection that started at the corner of his mouth, then up along his jaw, to a little place beneath his ear that he hadn't known was that sensitive until her lips found it and made him shiver, then right down the column of his throat in a way that had his breathing going all funny.

When she reached the place where his neck and shoulder joined, though, she slowed down, placing a few more light kisses against his skin before she simply buried her face in his shoulder and wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace. This was just fine by him, because as much as he liked the kissing (and he did really like the kissing, they were going to have to do a lot more of that), they had only just started to get things back on track. As nice as it felt, he honestly wasn't sure he could handle much more stimulation today, physical or emotional. Or both, which kissing and touching Maka was inevitably going to be.

He hugged her back, rubbing his cheek in her hair and reveling in the fact that he was so close to her. Half an hour ago, he wouldn't have believed it possible, but here they were, and things were going to stay this way if he had anything to say about it. Speaking of which…

"Maka?"

"Mm?"

"You know things aren't fixed yet, right?"

She nodded, not even lifting her head from its hiding place against his neck. He could feel her breath puffing across his skin, and it was both comforting and faintly arousing. "I know," she mumbled. "We screwed up. We screwed up bad."

"But we'll figure it out?"

"Yeah. We will."

That was enough for now. There was still so much hurt and baggage to wade through, and he suspected some of that would get pretty ugly, but he loved her and she loved him— she loved him!— so it would be worth it. They would have time later to deal with all of that, though. Right now, he just wanted to hold her and bask in the relief that came from knowing that he hadn't let the most precious person in his life slip through his fingers.

She smelled good, he noticed. How she could smell good after having been in what apparently had been in a pretty nasty fight and then kept overnight in the hospital was beyond him. Must be her shampoo, he decided. And she was so little and warm pressed up against him, he almost couldn't stand it.

They stood like that for awhile, holding each other tight, but then Soul gave a jaw-cracking yawn and Maka stepped back to get a better look at him (though she reached down to grab onto his hand, which he appreciated).

"You look exhausted," she said, and then her eyes went all sad again. "Black*Star said you haven't been sleeping."

"Couldn't," he grunted. "Kept having dreams."

Her expression reminded him of a kicked puppy, and he regretted opening his mouth. "I'm so sor—"

He stopped her with a hand over her mouth. "Shh," he said. "Not now. Later." She nodded, and he took his hand away. "Sounds like you and Black*Star had quite the chat," he said with a wry look.

She smiled. "You could say that. He basically abducted me and talked some hard sense into me."

"I'm gonna send him a fruit basket."

And at that, she laughed. Really, truly, happily laughed, and it made stupid fluttery things happen in his belly.

"Seriously, Soul, you need to rest," she said, and she was still giving him that radiant grin, but there was worry in her eyes.

"But… I've gotta pack," he said blankly, not really at all inclined to do work at the moment, but also not willing to fall asleep when Maka was here and in love with him.

She rolled her eyes. "We'll call Kid later and tell him we're gonna need more time to pack up the apartment since we'll be boxing up all of our stuff instead of just yours."

Which was a stupidly great thought, but didn't solve the immediate problem of not wanting to miss one single second with her.

His reluctance was apparently obvious, because she said, "You're so stubborn." She smiled, making sure he knew she was teasing him. "If you won't take a nap for your own sake, at least come and lie down with me. I've got a concussion and I'm supposed to stay well-rested." She gave him a pointed look.

Oh.

Oh.

Well that idea sounded much better. And he really was exhausted. His eyes felt itchy and sore from crying, and as the emotional strain he'd been under for so long drained away, he could feel the months of sleeping only the bare minimum that was absolutely necessary to keep him alive catching up to him in a big way. The idea of curling up in his comfortable bed and taking a long nap with Maka in his arms was basically his idea of heaven right now.

"Okay," he said easily.

Without another word Maka reached over and pulled back his quilt and crawled into his bed like it was a totally normal thing for her to do (and it was ridiculous how much he wanted it to be), and settled down with her head on his pillow, waiting for him to join her with that soft little smile still playing around her mouth.

Soul wasted no time climbing in beside her and pulling the covers up over both of them. Maka immediately snuggled right up next to him, their faces inches apart on the same pillow, and took his hand, twining their fingers together.

"I'm really happy right now," she told him quietly.

He nodded. "Me too." And he was. He felt a little bit bruised all over, emotionally speaking, and there was still bitterness and confused anger lurking somewhere in the back of his mind, and he suspected she felt the same, but right now he didn't care. He didn't want to deal with that, didn't have the energy to deal with that right now. They had time. He smiled hugely as he realized that they had all the time in the world. All he wanted now was to lie here with her and sleep without fear of nightmares.

He felt Maka's soul, warm and shining and familiar, nudging gently against his own. It was a request for contact, for that low-hum resonance that had become a near constant in their day-to-day lives prior to their falling out. Not enough to really be in each others' heads or invade privacy, just enough to feel each other, occasionally catch a hint of emotions through their bond. It was a light, comfortable contact that he had missed more than he could say these last few months. She didn't push for it, demanded nothing from him, but she was letting him know that if he wanted to let her back into his own soul, she was there.

Did he want that? A part of him was hesitant, because things weren't really solved yet, and he almost wanted to wait until they were truly back in harmony before they tried to resonate again. But he had missed her so much, and not having their souls joined all this time had made him feel deprived of one of his senses.

Deciding that resonance, even just this bare whisper of it, could only help to strengthen them as they put the pieces back together, he nudged back, and opened his soul to hers. She rushed back into his head, perhaps a little more enthusiastically than either of them had really intended, but the eagerness made him smile. A rush of pure affection swept over him from her end of the bond, and feeling her love laid bare for him like this took his breath away. He could feel her bubbling happiness and contentment, and he caught echoes of the same bruised exhaustion he was feeling, the same incredible relief, and he knew he'd made the right choice. Even through this weak form of resonance, he could feel how much these last few months had hurt for her. He had needed to know that, he realized. As much as he disliked the idea of her in any kind of pain, he needed to know that the suffering hadn't been one-sided, that he hadn't been the only one going through hell. And maybe he should have known that already— in a way, he had, though he'd been too caught up in his own breaking heart to acknowledge it much— but catching the fading echoes of it through resonance reinforced that. Just knowing that, he thought, would probably make fixing them that much easier.

Maka was beaming, and she leaned forward to kiss his nose, which made him grin like a dope. She tugged lightly on his shoulder, pulling him towards her, and he rolled from his side onto his stomach, his head pillowed on her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around him possessively and nestled her cheek against his hair, sighing happily. He was pretty sure it was supposed to be the guy who held the girl in his arms, but he didn't care. He felt… safe. He was so sleepy, and Maka was so warm, and all he wanted was to lie just like this for about a week.

"Your hair tickles," she said quietly

He let out a near-silent little laugh. Now that he was lying down, his tiredness was hitting him like a freight train. "Love you," he said as his eyes slid closed.

"Love you, too," she replied, and damn if that wasn't the best thing he'd ever heard.

As the bone-deep exhaustion began to pull him under, he realized there was one more thing he needed to say to her, and he chuckled. "Can't believe your opening line was 'There are a lot of spiders in Australia'," he murmured.

She smacked him lightly on the ribs. "Shut up. I was freaking out."

He smiled with his eyes still closed, too sleepy to respond any other way. He felt her press another kiss to his shoulder and whisper her love once more against his skin.

And then they slept. Outside, the rain began to fall.